Policy Analysis | April 2011

Nuclear Safety in a Post-Fukushima World

Jeremy Williams

In light of the recent disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in northern Japan, the conversation regarding the immediate future of nuclear power in the United States and the world is at the forefront of recent energy discussions.  In addition to ongoing concerns regarding the lack of any long-term, permanent storage for spent nuclear fuel, more scrutiny from all sectors regarding safety is now being focused on reactors and plants.  Germany has shut down all reactors built before 1980.  Singapore and Switzerland have halted approval for future plants.  China, perhaps the world's most ambitious nuclear energy producer, recently announced that it will suspend nuclear power plant development until a comprehensive review of its current plants and those under construction can be carried out.  Ban Ki-moon, the current Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently called on world governments to strengthen nuclear safety standards, including protections against terrorist attacks. 

According to information compiled by U.S. Energy Information Administration, Japan relies more on nuclear power than any other energy source in order to meet its electricity demands.  In fact, 27 percent of electricity generation in the country comes from nuclear power.  This is the case for many countries in Asia, where nuclear energy is a viable source of electricity for meeting increased energy demands associated with rising populations and thriving economies.  However, Asia is the world's most seismically volatile region.  Some experts worry that other Asian nuclear plants may be in danger as well, particularly four in southern China and one in southern Taiwan, all of which lie close enough to a major fault that is known to be responsible for some of the strongest earthquakes in history.  Researchers are attempting to assess where seismic pressure is building throughout the world, including areas in the United States, and what repercussions can be expected.  Physicist Tom Cochran, a senior scientist in the nuclear program at the National Resources Defense Council, has called for an independent review of U.S. nuclear safety.  He has pointed out that approximately 30 percent of the nation's core containment units are similar to those at Fukushima, and may be susceptible to similar disasters.  In addition, some nuclear power plants (e.g., Diablo Canyon Power Plant, in California) may be at risk of analogous natural disasters.  Also, comparable evacuation concerns exist for some plants (e.g., Indian Point Energy Center, in New York, which has approximately 17 million people living within a 50 mile radius) as in Japan, in the event of an unforeseen catastrophe.  Even plants that are not in imminent danger from earthquakes may be susceptible to other threats associated with tsunamis, especially since most nuclear power plants are located near seashores, rivers or lakes, in order to access their waters for cooling.  This was the case in Fukushima, where water from the tsunami impaired backup generators needed for cooling. 

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), there currently are 104 reactors at 65 nuclear power plants operating in 31 states, and according to the March edition of Monthly Energy Review, nuclear power still accounts for approximately 20 percent of all U.S. electricity generation, an increase from less than 5 percent 30 years ago.  Largely in response to incentives provided by the Energy Policy of Act of 2005, the EIA anticipates nuclear output to continue to increase, but at a slightly lower rate than total U.S. electricity generation.  By 2035, the percentage of power generated from nuclear power is expected to decrease to about 17 percent, down from the current 20 percent today.  The EIA points out that this is due partly to greater reliance on renewable energy, as well as the likelihood of expanding natural gas-fired power plants, which are cheaper to build than nuclear power plants, and are even becoming competitive with the cost of operating coal-fired power plants (which gradually are becoming more expensive to operate, due to greater emissions regulations).  However, according to the same report, overall electricity generating capacity for nuclear power plants is projected to increase by 10 percent, from approximately 79 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) today, to about 879 billion kWh in 2035. 

The first nuclear power plant was built in the 1950s in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.  After twenty-something years of operation, the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 did a great deal to diminish public confidence in nuclear power.  Following the events, construction proceeded on reactors that had already been approved (the last of which came online in 1996), but since that time, industry has relied on alternative means to increasing nuclear power output. This increase is at least partly attributable to practices like "uprating," whereby a plant uses more potent fuel rods or highly enriched uranium in the reactor core to generate more heat, thereby creating more steam, which turns the turbines that create electricity.  The exercise has become increasingly popular since 1998, when it was first approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which has expressed some concern over the practice.  Uprating can yield up to 20 percent greater electricity output, and has led to additional electricity output that is the equivalent of five average-sized reactors since the last nuclear power plant came online in 1996.  Additionally, regulators say that they expect extra electricity from uprating that totals the equivalent of three-and-half more reactors in the next four years.  However, since more neutrons are bombarding the nuclear core during uprating, more stress is placed on its steel shell, therefore creating higher temperatures in the core, which makes it more volatile.  It also requires a longer time to cool down, which can be problematic in the event of a shutdown like the one at Fukushima.  Additionally, since water and steam are flowing at higher temperatures, corrosion in valves and pipes can be more common.  Industries often must replace turbines and other major equipment on a more frequent basis, which ostensibly negates any additional risks.  As long as these and other supplementary, mandatory safeguards are in place, such as various plant modifications and more frequent inspections, many groups such as the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, which advises the NRC on these matters, have endorsed the practice.  The Committee has stated that properly upgraded reactors are at no greater risk than ones operating at normal capacity.  In fact, the upgrading processes a plant must undergo in order to begin uprating are quite arduous.  Currently, a plant in Alabama, which has plans to boost power by more than 14 percent, is awaiting approval by the NRC. 

These potentially riskier generating practices will most certainly be the primary focus of this renewed interest in nuclear safety, and many states are pulling back from efforts to expand nuclear power.  In North Carolina, Robert Gruber, the executive director of public staff at the state Utilities Commission, expressed his concern regarding the nuclear crisis, stating that his recommendation for the state is to wait for federal regulators to establish new safety rules based on what is learned from the crippled reactors at Fukushima.  There was much anticipation that legislation would be introduced in North Carolina this year to ease the process for utilities that wished to charge customers for the expansion of nuclear power (currently, utilities have this ability, but only after a rate hearing; this bill would have eliminated that requirement).  However, as in many other states, this legislation has been tabled for the time being.  Several other states have pulled back from the idea of allowing utilities to charge ratepayers for future power generated from nuclear power, in order to expand existing facilities or build new ones, a move several Southern states (e.g., Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina) have made in the last few sessions.  Legislation (SB48) in Missouri, a state that currently gets 80 percent of its energy from coal, would allow utilities to do just that, although customers would not be charged until an early site permit had been received and reviewed by state utility regulators.  Both this measure and a companion bill in the state House of Representatives currently are stalled.  A bill (SB200) filed in the Florida Legislature would actually repeal a provision for utilities to charge customers for advanced cost of siting, designing, licensing and building new nuclear power plants, or upgrading existing power plants, which went into effect in 2006.  It is being considered during the current legislative session.  The Arkansas General Assembly did not act this year on a bill (SB932) to create a task force on recruiting and hosting additional nuclear facilities in the state.  A bill (HB1573) in Oklahoma, one of three SLC states without a nuclear power plant, would allow for the development of nuclear power facilities in the state.  It is being considered during the current legislative session.   Kentucky, another state without a nuclear reactor, considered a bill (SB34) this year, which passed the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives, that would have given the state Public Service Commission the authority to implement plans for nuclear waste storage.

Although the percentage of power from nuclear plants may slightly decline in the next few decades, nuclear power will continue to play an important role in America's energy future.  There likely will be greater rigidity with which states and the federal government assess the safety of nuclear power plants, and a continued interest in expanding nuclear power potential within most SLC states.  Just this week, both the NRC and the Army Corps of Engineers issued an environmental impact statement regarding a proposed expansion at a nuclear plant in South Carolina, concluding that the environmental impacts of the plant were negligible and affirming the continuance of the project, which could see a final license issued by the NRC as early as next year.