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Despite Economic Challenges, U.S. Should Keep Nuclear In the Mix

Michael Corradini

April 13, 2012

In his February 27 post, Dale Klein paints a persuasive picture of the economic challenges nuclear energy faces in the U.S. thanks to the low price of natural gas, which is projected to be a less costly alternative for electricity production in the next few years. Despite this fact, however, as Klein himself suggests, it would be dangerous for the U.S. to put all of its energy eggs in one basket. We need a diverse and less carbon-intensive energy matrix. These are important reasons for energy policy makers to keep nuclear as a viable option within the total mix.

The U.S. needs to prepare for its economic future, and that means assuring we can supply electricity for both an increasing population and dynamic industry while protecting the environment.  No one knows for sure what, for example, the next ten years will bring in growth. Reflecting that is a growth in electricity demand that is projected at a low of 1% per year, but if history is any guide it too will rise with increasing economic growth.  We need to be planning for that future which is just around the corner.

Nationwide nuclear power generation has been a tremendous success.  The average capacity factor for nuclear has held at near 90% in recent years, the capacity factor being the percentage of time a plant operates at full power.  By contrast the intermittency of wind energy averages around 30%.  That means a 1,000 kilowatt wind generator only delivers on average about 300 kilowatts.  This is not to imply we should abandon wind, or any of the renewable alternatives, but it does mean we need to be realistic about how we should deliver baseload electricity.

Nuclear accounts for about 75% of our emissions-free power as it generates neither air pollution or greenhouse gases.  These are critical issues in urban areas that currently fail to meet the EPA’s standards for particulates and ozone.  Those types of pollutants are directly responsible for health problems such as asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Nuclear energy in the world will grow over the next decades, with very large construction plans in countries like China, India,Korea as well as South America, since they attempting to keep pace with demand driven by their strong economies.  There are new plants starting construction in the U.S. in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, with others in the planning stages.  The technology will continue to grow, with newerplants being more efficient and even safer.  Nuclear, while not risk free, is safe, reliable and can be cost competitive as we enter the uncertain future.

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  • Download PDF of some nuclear power statistics from the Wisconsin Institute of Nuclear Systems

MICHAEL CORRADINI is a professor of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and president-elect of the American Nuclear Society. He co-chaired the ANS Special Committee on Fukushima, which released “Fukushima Daiichi: ANS Committee Report” on March 8, 2012.


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