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A Path for Nuclear Power

A novel but tested technology, the pebble-bed reactor, can make fission energy safe.

Lee S. Langston

2014-03TechnoLangstonF1p91.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageElectric power is like good health: When you have it, you don’t think about it. When you don’t have it, that’s all you think about. Certainly modern civilization isn’t going anywhere without power.

Nuclear energy supplies a larger share of that power than many people realize. At present, about 20 percent of the electricity in the United States is generated by 104 nuclear power plants across the country, making it the leading nation in total installed nuclear capacity. There are now 440 reactors in operation around the world, providing about 14 percent of the overall electricity supply. France leads in nuclear use, which provides about 80 percent of the country’s electrical power. China, presently at 2 percent, has 30 or more new plants under construction.

In recent years, political opposition and high costs have halted or even reversed the use of nuclear power, however. The first plant in the United States—the Shippingport Atomic Station, located on the Ohio River 25 miles from Pittsburgh—went online in 1957. Many more started up in the next two decades, but until a few years ago, no new nuclear plants had been licensed here since the 1970s. The commercial nuclear power plants now in operation were generally designed to have a 40-year life span. With new construction largely at a standstill, many plants are being granted 20-year license extensions by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Now the risks of climate change are prompting utilities and federal officials to take another look at nuclear. According to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, 37 percent of the electricity in the United States was produced by coal-fired plants, which release high levels of carbon dioxide. Natural gas, which yields about half as much carbon dioxide as coal per unit of energy generated, accounted for another 30 percent. There are only two major zero-carbon components in the United States energy mix. Nuclear supplies 19 percent. And all renewables—including hydroelectric, wind, and solar—collectively account for 16 percent.

The Southern Company has begun construction of two new nuclear units at the Vogtle site, where another two are already operating, on the Savannah River near Augusta, Georgia. They are the first new domestic fission-power plants in more than three decades. But a broader turnaround is unlikely unless nuclear engineers can address two major issues: safety fears (which were compounded by the Fukushima nuclear accident) and high construction and licensing costs. A tested technology, known as the pebble bed nuclear reactor, has the potential to solve both problems—and to make nuclear power a growing part of the carbon-free energy mix worldwide.

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