The Nuclear Power Bargain

The potential benefits are enormous if we can continue to make progress on safety, environmental, fuel supply, and proliferation concerns.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower electrified the United Nations (UN) General Assembly with his vision that “the fearful trend of atomic military buildup can be reversed, this greatest destructive force can be developed into a great boon for the benefit of all mankind . . . to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind . . . [in] electrical energy, agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities.” He further proposed to “allocate fissionable material [for peaceful uses] from a bank under international atomic energy agency control [and] . . . provide special safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure.” Although the “bank” never eventuated, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were instituted to apply the controls associated with a new “bargain”: Nations forgoing nuclear weapons development would be given the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology.

The initiatives stemming from Eisenhower’s 1953 address helped quite literally to electrify the world. Today, 441 nuclear power plants provide 16 percent of the world’s electricity. After years of intensive technical and institutional development to correct early problems, these plants are now operating safely and, on average, with high reliability and competitive costs. Many countries depend critically on nuclear power. Among the 10 countries that rely on it most heavily (Lithuania, France, Belgium, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Sweden, Slovenia, Armenia, and Switzerland), nuclear power provides some 40 to 80 percent of each nation’s electricity. Not far behind are the Republic of Korea (38 percent) and Japan (35 percent). The United States, at 20 percent, ranks 19th but generates more electricity from nuclear plants than any other country, and six of its states derive 50 percent or more of their electricity from nuclear power. As licenses of existing U.S. plants are being extended by 20 years, and as similar actions are taken overseas, continued usage at present levels through mid-century seems assured.

What is less clear is whether nuclear power capacity will actually expand during that period. Certainly the potential is there. Major growth in primary energy production will be needed to serve a global population that could reach 9 or 10 billion by 2100. Electricity demand is projected to grow by 480 percent in a high economic scenario and by up to 140 percent in an ecologically driven scenario governed by conservation and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Given those looming needs, it seems logical to predict a widening role for a source of economical combustion-free energy that does not generate greenhouse gas or air pollution emissions and that uses a fuel supply that is sustainable over the long haul.

But expansion of nuclear power has reached a virtual standstill. In the United States, no orders have been placed for nuclear power plants in more than two decades. Worldwide, only 32 nuclear power plants are under construction, most of them in India and China. From the mid-1980s until recently, R&D budgets for civilian power had been steadily declining in most of the industrialized countries, with the exception of Japan and France. The downturn is largely a result of slower growth in electricity demand and an abundance of natural gas at low prices. Under those conditions, gas-fired plants have grown more economical for expanding capacity. But history also plays a role. The legacy of earlier problems, including the high-profile accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, remains in the form of continued public skepticism about the safety of nuclear power and its radioactive wastes. Those concerns are amplified by a general fear of radiation and the specter of the atom bomb. In response, Sweden, Italy, and Germany have imposed moratoriums on nuclear power.

To contribute significantly to global energy demand, the nuclear power industry must earn public confidence by maintaining an excellent safety record. But success in the marketplace depends on economic factors: the capital cost of new plants and the operating and maintenance costs of existing and new plants. These costs are strongly influenced by safety, reliability, environmental considerations (global climate change, regional air pollution, and waste disposition), and the adequacy and stability of fuel supply. Research, development, and demonstration (RD&D), for both the near and long terms, are necessary to meet this total cost challenge, as well as to achieve advanced system performance. Nuclear plants’ resistance to proliferation must also be addressed. Revelations that some countries have developed weapons capabilities clandestinely, using nuclear power development as a cover, point up serious weaknesses in the international proliferation control system.

All of these issues are being dealt with to varying degrees, but considerably more progress will be needed before Eisenhower’s vision for peaceful uses of nuclear energy can be fully realized.

Growing pains

In its early decades, nuclear power became a victim of its own success. It grew as an energy source at about three times the rate of previous new sources of electricity generation. Partly because of that rapid expansion, a series of problems emerged. U.S. plant reliability deteriorated: The average capacity factor (the ratio of energy produced to the amount of energy that could have been generated at continuous full-power operation) fell to 60 percent versus the 80 percent expected. Because of a lack of timely and in-depth planning for the disposition of radioactive waste, efforts to develop a high-level waste repository were making little progress. The safety regulatory base was immature. As nuclear power developed, contractors faced major delays in gaining construction permits and were forced to undertake substantial retrofitting of plants under construction and already completed.

Then in 1979, the Three Mile Island accident occurred, partially melting that plant’s fuel and causing multibillion dollar losses in the plant investment and in the cost of cleanup and decommissioning. Because the plant was enclosed in a reinforced concrete “containment” to keep radiation from escaping, neither the public nor the plant operators were harmed. But many design, operational, and maintenance deficiencies were revealed that required years of technical and management remediation and significantly increased safety regulatory requirements.

The development of more rigorous operational standards since the Three Mile Island accident has had a salutary effect on the nuclear power industry. The Institute for Nuclear Power Operations was formed in the United States to establish standards of operational excellence and to monitor compliance with those standards by all U.S. commercial nuclear power plants. Later, in the wake of the lethal accident of the uncontained Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, this concept was expanded internationally with the formation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators.

These reforms have led to excellent safety and reliability records. U.S. plants posted average capacity factors of 91.5 percent in 2001, 91.7 percent in 2002, and 89.4 percent in 2003. The increased average capacity factor since 1992 is roughly equivalent to 13 new 1,000-megawatt (MW) plants. Parallel improvements were achieved worldwide, though with less difficulty than in the United States. In Western Europe and Asia, rapid expansion was made possible primarily by technology transfer of light water reactor (LWR) technology from the United States. Those plants proved more reliable initially than the older technology that produces the bulk of U.S. nuclear power, in part because they were deployed somewhat later and benefited from the early U.S. experience. Worldwide, nuclear plants in 2003 achieved an average capacity factor of 80 percent and 87.3 percent average availability (that is, ready to provide power but not called on by the grid).

Near-term prospects

Thanks to improvements derived from operational experience and innovative reactor technologies, prospects have recently been enhanced for deploying new nuclear plants in the near term in the United States, Europe, and Asia that will be even safer and more reliable. Advanced light water reactors (ALWRs) have been developed in a program managed by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and cost-shared by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), U.S. reactor manufacturers, and utilities in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

The market does not currently reward nuclear power’s environmental benefits.

ALWRs in the power range of 1,000 to 1,200 MW have been developed that derive their improved design and operational features from extensive worldwide licensing and operating experience with LWR systems. A 600-MW ALWR incorporating innovative passive (gravity and pressurized gas) emergency core and containment cooling systems has also been developed. These passive systems replace the electrically or steam-powered pumping systems used in the conventional plants, resulting in a simpler and less costly design.

Four 1,350-MW ALWRs of the boiling water type (ABWRs), designed jointly by General Electric (GE) and Hitachi/Toshiba, have already been built in Japan. Two more are under construction in Taiwan. South Korea is also building four Westinghouse 1000-MW ALWR plants of the pressurized water type (APWR).

All of these designs have been certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC has also certified a 600-MW passively cooled APWR, the Westinghouse AP-600, after extensive tests of its passive cooling features. China has continued to expand its nuclear power capacity, and is presently building two more 1,000-MW APWRs under French contracts. Finland has awarded a contract to Framatome/ Siemens to build a 1,600-MW APWR. France is nearing a decision on whether to authorize a 1,600-MW plant of the same design.

Because of their relatively high capital cost, these plants do not yet compete economically with fossil power, at least in the United States. Consequently, efforts are under way to further reduce their capital cost. Westinghouse has developed the AP-1000, a 1,000-MW version of its AP-600 that could reach economic competitiveness through economy of scale. It is now being reviewed for an NRC design certification. GE is developing a 1,350-MW passively cooled ABWR, the ESBWR, with similar economic promise, and has applied for NRC design certification.

A significant increase in the price of natural gas could make new nuclear plants economically competitive even without further reductions in their capital costs. The competitive position of the combined-cycle gas-fired turbine (CCGT) power plant, the type most favored for new generation capacity over the past two decades, is highly sensitive to the price of gas. For most of this period, gas prices have been in the range of $3 to $4 per million British thermal units (MMBTU). At those rates, the overnight capital cost (the cost excluding interest on capital) of a new nuclear plant would need to be in the range of $1,000 per kilowatt (kW) to be competitive, which is the cost goal of the AP-1000 and the ESBWR. But if gas remains at its current price of $5 to $6 per MMBTU, a competitive nuclear plant overnight capital cost could be as high as $1,300 to $1,400 per kW, the present estimate for the conventionally cooled ABWR.

These cost comparisons focus on gas-fired plants because the CCGT has been the technology of choice for new capacity. If gas prices remain high, coal-fired plants could become the prime competitor with nuclear plants. In that case, nuclear power might prevail, partly because the present cost gap is smaller and partly because of another important part of the energy equation: environmental costs.

The environmental costs of nuclear power are internalized; that is, they are largely included in the cost of construction, operation, and insurance and are added to the price of electricity. That is not the case with fossil fuel plants. The market does not currently reward nuclear power’s environmental benefits nor have the environmental costs from fossil fuel plants been fully internalized. And yet nuclear power has a clear environmental edge, helping to lower average emissions from the power industry overall. Between 1973 and 2001, U.S. power plants emitted 70.3 million fewer tons of sulfur dioxide, 35.6 million fewer tons of nitrogen oxides, and 2.97 billion fewer tons of carbon dioxide than if nuclear power had not been part of the energy mix. Without major deployment of nuclear energy and noncombustible renewables, the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions from power generation are expected to grow from 23 billion tons in 1990 to 40 billion tons in 2020. For the time being, the avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions through nuclear power has not been recognized in the Clean Development Mechanism of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as one of the methods allowed for achieving the required reduction. Nor are nuclear plants eligible for emissions trading to gain financial credit for their contribution to reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

But that could change. If the costs of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel plants are internalized (say, if the plants are required to build carbon separation and sequestration systems or to pay a carbon tax) or if emissions trading is granted to nuclear plants, the economic tables would be turned. Add to that the financial risk arising from the greater fuel supply and cost instabilities of fossil fuel plants, and it becomes apparent that nuclear power might be on the threshold of achieving economic competitiveness.

Another issue that must be cleared up to allow a sustained expansion of nuclear power is the disposition of spent fuel, virtually all of which is currently stored at the nuclear power plant sites. Progress is being made, albeit slowly, toward the implementation of permanent repositories. In the United States, Congress has authorized DOE to proceed with the licensing of a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The site is proposed for the disposition of some 70,000 tons of used fuel, which is sufficient for the 40,000-plus tons produced to date and for some 20 years to come. The authorization was based on more than 10 years of intensive R&D and engineering studies. If a construction license is granted, DOE will begin construction in early 2008. Before completion, DOE will update its application for a license to receive and possess waste, as required by NRC regulations. If that license is granted, waste could begin arriving as early as 2010.

Other countries are also making progress in radioactive waste management. Sweden has put into operation an efficient repository of adequate capacity for its low-level nuclear plant wastes and has begun the design and licensing of an intermediate-level waste repository. Finland has adequate storage capacity for its low-level wastes, and a spent-fuel repository is being designed and licensed. France has decided to build two underground laboratories for research on spent-fuel disposition, one in clay and one in granite. Most other countries are at an earlier stage.

The security of nuclear facilities against attack has been addressed urgently ever since 9/11. Initial evaluations suggest that nuclear power plants with containment (all except some in Russia), fuel storage facilities, and transport casks are robust against such attack. Nevertheless, plant security has been substantially bolstered. The NRC is expanding safety regulations to include the possibility of attacks on nuclear plants, both by increasing security requirements and by defining a “design basis threat” on which every nuclear plant must be evaluated. Other nations are making similar evaluations.

One obstacle to expanded nuclear power is licensing uncertainty. In the United States, changes in licensing requirements after the start of construction and delays in getting the operating permit after completion have in the past greatly increased capital costs and construction time. To cope with this problem, the NRC established a licensing standardization policy that allows a reactor manufacturer to seek a site-independent design certification and a prospective plant owner/operator to obtain a separate early site permit. With a certified design and an early site permit, a combined construction and operating permit can be obtained before any money is invested in plant equipment and construction.

In light of all these developments, the prospects for recommencing new construction in the United States are fairly strong. Congress has authorized a joint cost-shared DOE/industry program called the Nuclear Power 2010 Initiative, which aims to begin building new nuclear plants in the United States around 2010. The planning framework is contained in DOE’s Near Term Deployment Roadmap. First priority is being given to resolving critical issues such as competitive costs and to defining the private-sector financing mechanisms.

New uses

Near-term deployment of new nuclear plants will strengthen the resource and skill base in the nuclear industry, providing a foundation on which more advanced designs and a broader scope of power applications can be developed. Nuclear energy is presented with four major future opportunities, each requiring major long-term RD&D:

  • Expanding the end uses of nuclear electricity for tasks such as powering electrical vehicles and providing high-temperature heat for industrial processes.
  • Developing economical hydrogen fuel production and desalination using nuclear energy to provide inexpensive bulk power.
  • Building nuclear plants that run on reprocessed spent fuel, which will ensure that the fuel supply will be adequate for centuries.
  • Developing economical small-output nuclear plants that could provide the benefits of nuclear power to smaller and less developed countries.
Nuclear plants should incorporate improved design features that render them inherently more resistant to proliferation.

DOE has launched a pair of efforts–the Generation IV Program and the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI)–to carry out the RD&D to realize those four opportunities while achieving economic competitiveness, high standards of safety and proliferation resistance, and effective waste management. The Generation IV Program has chosen for initial study six different reactor concepts for development: gas-cooled, sodium-cooled, lead-cooled, molten salt-cooled, supercritical water-cooled, and very-high-temperature gas-cooled. All would operate at high temperatures to achieve greater efficiency. The very-high-temperature gas-cooled reactor has the potential to be an efficient hydrogen producer to provide fuel for the transportation sector so as to reduce dependence on offshore oil.

International cooperation is being fostered though the Generation IV International Forum, which includes representatives from 10 countries (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, the Republic of South Africa, the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States), and through the IAEA’s advanced reactor development program (INPRO).

An expanded long-term reliance on nuclear power is possible only if uranium supplies are adequate. Assuming a modest growth rate for nuclear power of 2 percent per year until 2050, and assuming continued operation without fuel recycling, annual uranium requirements would grow by a factor of about three, to roughly 200,000 tons. The cumulative uranium requirement from now to 2050 would exceed 5 million tons. The IAEA and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development estimate that some 4 million tons of uranium would be available at costs of up to $130 per kilogram (about twice current prices), resulting in a deficit of roughly 1 million tons of natural uranium by 2050. A major goal of the AFCI is to close this gap by developing proliferation-resistant fuel recycling for one or more of the Generation IV concepts. Success in these technologies could expand nuclear fuel resources a hundredfold.

A variety of fuel cycles are under consideration, including plutonium and thorium recycling in conventional LWRs and in advanced fast-spectrum reactors. Advanced aqueous and innovative pyrometallurgical reprocessing options are being pursued. Increased nuclear fuel resources are achieved by producing more plutonium during operation and thus creating more fuel than is burned. Alternatively, thorium fuels can be used to produce fissionable uranium-233. The goal for all variants is to retain the actinides in the reprocessed fuel so as to eliminate the potential for diversion of fissionable material from the waste stream and to minimize its long-lived radioactivity content.

A nuclear power electric generator of small nominal output can extend the benefits of nuclear technology to small developing nations. To achieve cost competitiveness through economy of scale, present nuclear plants are in the range of 1,000 to 1,500 MW. But the grid capacity of many of the developing countries is too small to justify such a large single block of power. The Generation IV Program is pursuing the concept of small, integrated, transportable lead alloy­cooled power packages in the 100-MW range that do not require refueling and could provide power over a 10-year period. A key goal is to ensure that these plants are highly resistant to proliferation.

Both the Generation IV Program and the Nuclear Power 2010 Initiative are receiving an infusion of ideas from DOE’s Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI), which fosters innovative R&D on advanced nuclear energy concepts and technologies. NERI recently completed the first round of 46 research projects initiated in fiscal year 1999. The effort marshals the talents of more than 250 U.S. university students and includes collaborations with more than 25 international organizations.

Proliferation resistance

Although there has been no known diversion of weapons-usable nuclear material from safeguarded civilian facilities since the inception of the IAEA, among the problems still facing nuclear power is the need to boost resistance to proliferation. In fact, nuclear power plants are now being used to reduce proliferation risk: The potential for diversion of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium declared excess under the U.S.-Russian START nuclear arms reduction agreements. These excess weapons materials are being disposed of by converting them to fuel for electricity generation in U.S. nuclear plants. About one-third of the Russian HEU stockpile has already been processed, permanently disposing of the weapons material from 6,000 nuclear warheads.

Yet the fact that nuclear power development has been used as a cover for nuclear weapons development is cause for concern. NPT signatories need to be prevented from engaging in any such deceptions. The most critical need is to put teeth into NPT enforcement through the UN Security Council or through a separate entity such as the one evolving under the multilateral Proliferation Security Initiative. Other urgent needs are to upgrade export controls and materials inventory and to strengthen IAEA inspection and monitoring of NPT compliance. Such high-priority institutional reforms, which also apply to activities outside the scope of nuclear power, are discussed in the accompanying articles in this issue.

Beyond institutional measures, the plants themselves should incorporate improved design features that render them inherently more resistant to proliferation. Improved analytical assessments should be conducted to identify the points at which nuclear power plants and related facilities are most vulnerable and to suggest design remedies. Possible approaches include making weapons-usable materials less accessible; erecting chemical, physical, and radiation barriers; limiting the ability of an enrichment facility to produce weapons-usable material; and increasing the time required to effect a diversion. If intrinsic design features were improved, the institutional tasks of surveillance, monitoring, inspection, accountability, and physical security would also become easier. Such analyses could determine the proper balance between intrinsic features and institutional control processes. An outline of the overall assessment process, the R&D necessary to develop it, and potential intrinsic proliferation-resistant features is contained in the DOE report, Technology Opportunities to Increase the Proliferation Resistance of Civilian Nuclear Power Systems.

Another defense against proliferation is the concept of regional fuel services. Although the Eisenhower proposal for an international bank of fissionable material never materialized, the idea has merit as a means of handling those portions of the nuclear fuel cycle that are of primary concern from a proliferation standpoint: uranium enrichment and plutonium separation. If countries interested in developing nuclear power were provided such services, there would be no reason for them to invest in fuel-processing facilities that could be used to divert weapons-usable materials.

Both government and private organizations could provide such services under strict regulation, with complete transparency, and with unconstrained access for compliance monitoring. They would need to meet high standards of accreditation and have a record of compliance with the NPT. Contractual arrangements for these services would have to ensure a steady fuel supply. Large commercial facilities now provide such fuel services globally, and they could continue to do so upon accreditation under the stricter international nonproliferation regime that will be needed for the future.

The regional/international services concept could also be extended to the storage and disposition of spent fuel and high-level waste. Presently, individual nations carry these responsibilities. Although the IAEA sets international standards, they are followed at the discretion of each country. For many countries, high cost, political opposition, and a limited number of qualified sites make the development of geological repositories very difficult. Another concern is that spent fuel repositories will become less resistant to proliferation once their radiation levels have decayed for a century or so. For these reasons, cooperative regional repositories will become appropriate to provide a broad base of support for protecting these facilities.

Recently, several proposals have been made to create international spent fuel storage facilities and repositories, as well as fuel-processing facilities. In each scheme, the IAEA would be the authority responsible for verifying adherence to stringent safeguards and ensuring the transparency and accountability of related activities. Bringing such a plan to fruition will not be easy, but it should be made a goal for a continued Atoms for Peace vision.

There are strong reasons to believe that Eisenhower’s vision of serving “the peaceful pursuits of mankind” through nuclear energy can be more fully realized in the years ahead. The enormous projected growth in electricity demand to serve a greatly expanded global population and to redress the economic imbalance among nations makes clear the need. Nuclear energy, which produces essentially no air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions, can help to meet that need and be put to other peaceful uses if economic competitiveness can be achieved.

Recent proliferation challenges by rogue states and terrorists make Eisenhower’s call “to reverse the atomic military buildup” as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. The NPT, the IAEA, and the cooperation of many nations have helped stem that buildup. With the support of the UN Security Council, they could go on to remedy the current inadequacies in the international nonproliferation regime.

These actions are needed to address the weaknesses on both sides of the nuclear “bargain.” They must be supplemented by greater public acceptance of nuclear power–acceptance that can be gained only through an excellent record of safety and reliability and through open communication with the public about the benefits and the risks of nuclear power. The tasks are not easy and the outcomes not certain. What is certain is the urgent need, in the words of Eisenhower, to turn “this greatest destructive force . . . into a great boon for the benefit of all mankind.”

Recommended reading

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Global Energy Perspectives (Laxenburg, Austria: IIASA, 1998).

Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of Energy, A Roadmap to Deploy New Nuclear Power Plants in the US by 2010 (Washington, D.C.: DOE, October 2001) ().

Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of Energy, Technology Opportunities to Increase the Proliferation Resistance of Civilian Nuclear Power Systems (Washington, D.C.: DOE, January 2001).

U.S. Department of Energy, The U.S. Generation IV Implementation Strategy, Preparing Today for Tomorrow’s Energy Needs (Washington, D.C.: DOE, September 2003).

U.S. Department of Energy, Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative Comparison Report, FY 2003 (Washington, D.C.: DOE, October 2003).

John J. Taylor ([email protected]), retired vice president for nuclear power at the Electric Power Research Institute, is a consultant to the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.

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Cite this Article

Taylor, John J. “The Nuclear Power Bargain.” Issues in Science and Technology 20, no. 3 (Spring 2004).

Vol. XX, No. 3, Spring 2004