Now that the anniversary of the Three Mile Island incident is upon us, let’s take a few minutes to examine the status of our nation’s nuclear energy prospects.
The U.S. has not broken ground on a nuclear power plant since the 1970′s, though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently green-lighted the building of two new nuclear complexes — the twin Vogtle reactors near Augusta, Georgia, and a pair of reactors in South Carolina. With a price tag of $30 billion dollars for the two locations, and several other companies laying out hundreds of millions of dollars for the planning of other reactors that may or may not get to the groundbreaking stage, we may be witnessing the onset of a nuclear renaissance in North America.
The U.S. nuclear industry has had three substantial hurdles to get past in recent years: the unimaginably low price of natural gas, the ongoing economic recession, and last year’s Fukushima disaster.
The industry does, however, have two things going for it: the increasing demand for electricity and the worries (founded, or not) of global warming. In the recently published book "The Doomsday Machine," authors Cohen and McKillop state “Even if global warming science was not explicitly invented by the nuclear lobby, the science could hardly suit the lobby better.” Along those lines, the industry has recently begun an ad campaign aimed at improving its image by stressing the fact that nuclear power is by far the largest zero-carbon energy source in the United States.
In fact, even the Japanese incident is being pointed to as a reason to move forward with building new reactors. The nuclear power plants being built in Georgia and South Carolina will be utilizing the AP1000 model, where the letters stand for "advanced passive," because the emergency cooling will rely on readily occurring forces like gravity and evaporation, as opposed to the Fukushima model that used pumps and valves that required electricity to operate.
Westinghouse Electric, the maker of the AP1000 line, argues “If an AP1000 had been there, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today; that plant would be back on line.” Even General Electric, which designed the Fukushima reactors, claims the same for its new “passively safe” design.
The jury is still out as to whether or not these two nuclear plants are the beginning of a new trend in meeting America’s energy needs. The headwinds facing nuclear power are still present, and will need to be overcome before our nation’s nuclear power industry can assert the renaissance has begun in earnest.