Uptick in nuclear plant construction will pave way for nuclear energy to play a vital role in the nation’s carbon-constrained energy portfolio.
Electricity is an essential form of energy that manufacturers and all Americans depend on. It powers our economy, factories, technology, schools and homes. It is essential for our health, safety and security.
Americans consume more energy than any other nation. In 2006, electric power generation totaled more than four trillion kilowatt hours, an increase of more than 20 percent from 1995, according to the Energy Information Administration. Population growth and a high-tech economy are pushing electricity needs to even greater levels.
In 2006, computer servers and data centers in the United States used approximately 61 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, an amount that could power Wisconsin for a year. Data center electricity use has more than doubled since 2000 and amounts to about $4.1 billion in electricity costs.
The U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that America’s demand for electricity will grow 25 percent by 2030 – the equivalent of 260 large power plants. Having sufficient and reliable supplies of electricity has a direct impact on our quality of life. But today, our nation faces a serious challenge regarding electricity: We’re already running short of supply.
Greatly increasing conservation and endues efficiency of electricity will help, as will the expansion of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and other forms of alternative energy supplies. Even if we aggressively pursue all of these options, we will still need the output of more than 200 new largescale power plants. To accomplish this huge increase in electrical production, we must build new nuclear power plants.
Nuclear energy is the only available source of carbon-free electricity technology that is ready for development on a large scale. More than 100 reactors already produce 20 percent of our nation’s electricity, including more than 45 percent of all electricity production in states like Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina. Last year, U.S. nuclear plants also prevented 681 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the same as taking some 95 percent of all passenger cars off our highways.
Support for a resurgence of nuclear energy has been steadily increasing. According to an April 2008 national public opinion survey by Bisconti Research Inc./GfK, nearly 80 percent of Americans endorse the use of limited financial incentives, such as federally backed loan guarantees, to help promote development of carbon-free energy technologies, including new nuclear power plants.
Eighty-two percent believe that nuclear energy will be important in meeting the nation’s electricity needs in the years ahead. Some of the most important drivers of this increased favorability are: safe, efficient nuclear plant operation, greenhouse gas reduction, energy security and energy diversity.
Those are the same factors driving U.S. energy companies to plan the construction of advanced nuclear power plants that are expected to begin producing electricity in 2016-17. The need for new baseload generating capacity is overwhelmingly clear. In fact, regions such as Texas, New York, Virginia and the Carolinas already are dangerously below accepted reserve margins for electric capacity. Moreover, the U.S. electric sector’s dependence on natural gas exposes customers to unnecessary price volatility, and uncertainty over future controls on carbon emissions casts a cloud over coal-fired power generation.
Construction permit applications for 15 reactors are being considered by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and another seven to 11 are expected to be submitted by the industry this year. The number of new plants constructed will depend on many factors, including forward prices in electricity markets, capital costs of all baseload electric technologies, commodity costs, environmental compliance costs for fossil-fueled generating capacity and natural gas prices.
If the first wave of four to eight reactors is built on schedule, within budget estimates and without federal licensing delays, a second wave could be under construction as the first wave reaches commercial operation.
Depending on the building technique selected, NEI anticipates new reactors planned will require tens of thousands of workers for construction, engineering and project management – as many as 4,000 per project at peak periods, according to some estimates that assume a shortened schedule without the use of modularized construction techniques.
Once new reactors are built, additional workers will enter the industry to operate and maintain the new power plants. Depending on the design, numbers of reactors that are co-located and staffing strategy, 400 to 700 new workers would be needed for each new reactor. Using the projected total of 30 newly constructed reactors, 12,000 to 21,000 new jobs would be added to the U.S. market.
The NRC has established an efficient new process for licensing nuclear power plants. The process ensures that all major issues – design, safety, siting and public concerns – are resolved before a company starts building a nuclear plant and puts billions of dollars at risk. However, the first new reactor license applications are just now starting to move through this untested process, and regulatory certainty will be a key to sustaining the development of nuclear energy over the next two decades.
To solve our nation’s growing electricity needs, scores of new power plants must complement our quest to derive greater efficiency in our system, to conserve energy and to expand renewable energy sources. Diversity of fuels to produce electricity is essential for a 21st Century electricity grid that meets the demands of a digital economy and future generations. Our success will hinge on a new generation of diverse energy sources, including advanced nuclear power plants.
Scott Peterson is Vice President of the Nuclear Energy Institute.