Report on Challenges and Opportunities Facing Nuclear Energy

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Publication date: 
14 September 2012

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Nuclear Initiative  issued a white paper in July entitled “Maintaining US Leadership in Global Nuclear  Energy Markets.”  The 30-page report  defines nuclear industry strengths and challenges in addition to outlining  strategic goals for maintaining US leadership in global nuclear energy  markets.  The BPC Nuclear Initiative is  led by BPC Senior Fellow and former Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete V.  Domenici (R-NM) and Warren “Pete” Miller, former Department of Energy Assistant  Secretary for Nuclear Energy. 

The Nuclear  Initiative is part of the BPC Energy and Infrastructure Program’s Energy Project.  The Nuclear Initiative recently convened a  series of events addressing a variety of challenges facing nuclear power in the  US including topics such as lessons learned from Fukushima, effective  approaches for US participation in a more secure global nuclear market,  preparing for deployment of small modular reactors, and implementing waste  management recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission.  The Nuclear Initiative is focused on “finding insights into comprehensive  approaches to improve federal energy policy” to address challenges facing  the industry while also preserving nuclear energy as a reliable domestic source  of energy as well as supporting the US nuclear industry’s technological and  diplomatic leadership on an international level. 

The report explains that 104 existing nuclear reactors  currently account for close to 20 percent of overall US electricity  production.  Since the passage of the  Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT05), the nuclear energy markets have been “profoundly affected by slowing demand  growth… and by a significant decline in natural gas prices resulting from the  cost-effective development of newly accessible shale gas resources,” the  report explains. “In the current fiscal  and political climate, efforts to further increase financial incentives for  nuclear energy likely must overcome significant hurdles.”

The report describes the business opportunities for the  US due to international interest in developing new nuclear generating  capacity.  Commercial nuclear exports “also help the United States retain a major  role in the evolution and maintenance of international nuclear safety and  nonproliferation regimes.”   Poor economics, increased safety and security  requirements, and uncertainty about the issue of nuclear waste management pose  significant challenges to the US nuclear industry.

The report provides an overview of the EPACT05, which  includes a loan guarantee program, licensing assistance, and production tax  incentives for new nuclear generators.  “The current federal loan guarantee program  for new nuclear plants was included in EPACT05 with overwhelming bipartisan  support.  Congress intended for this  program to spur clean-energy investments by leveraging public and private  resources to overcome the cost hurdles associated with first-time deployment of  advanced technologies, including Generation III+ reactors.” 

While international outlook on nuclear investments has  diminished due to the Fukushima accident, “there  still seems to be substantial international interest in the further deployment  of nuclear power,” the report notes.   Several countries “have reaffirmed  their intentions to continue expanding or developing a nuclear energy program  after Fukushima.  These countries include  China, India, South Korea, and Russia.   Today, they are expected to account for 80 percent of new nuclear plant  construction globally over the next decade or longer.”

The recommended strategic goals that emerged from the  Nuclear Initiative’s activities include:

  • “Ensuring a strong U.S. nuclear energy sector should  be a high priority for federal energy and national security policy”
  • “In order to maintain U.S. leadership in nuclear  safety and security, the industry and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission  should continue efforts to strengthen nuclear plant safety and security,  particularly in light of lessons learned from Fukushima.”
  • “The administration and Congress should act quickly  to implement the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s  Nuclear Future and launch an effective, long-term strategy for managing and  disposing of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and highlevel  radioactive waste.”
  • “U.S. leadership in nuclear technology and  operations can strengthen U.S. influence with respect to other countries’  nuclear programs and the evolution of the international nonproliferation  regime, while also supporting U.S. competitiveness in a major export market.”
  • “The United States must continue to support research  and development efforts within the nuclear industry, the national labs, and  U.S. universities.”