Without Clear Regulatory Pathway, Investors Will Avoid the New, Small, Safe, Modular Nuclear Reactors
(p. D1) To its advocates, nuclear power is a potent force for fighting climate change, combining the near-zero emissions of wind and solar energy with the reliability of coal and gas. And nuclear power, which provides about 19 percent of all electricity in the United States and 11 percent worldwide, could be a greater source.
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In a report she prepared in 2009, Ms. Squassoni wrote that in light of steep construction costs, only a handful of new reactors would come on line by 2015, even in the best of circumstances.
"If you really wanted to reduce carbon emissions through nuclear, it was going to be incredibly expensive," she said. "You'd have to build an incredible number of power plants."
Now plants are even more expensive, in part because of new safety requirements in the wake of Fukushima. So-called small modular reactors have been proposed as a lower-cost alternative. There are many different designs -- at least one is meant to run on waste fuel -- but the federal Department of Energy has provided significant development money only for two designs that are smaller variations of the most common kind of reactor.
Ashley Finan, an analyst with the Clean Air Task Force, which focuses on technologies to fight climate change, said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had not made it easy for alternative designs to win backing from private investors.
"There's a lack of a clear and predictable regulatory pathway," Dr. Finan said. "You're really not able to attract funding without a clear regulatory process."
As a result, small modular reactors are many years from reality in the United States. Overseas, there are only a few isolated small-reactor projects underway, including one under construction in China.
Most modular designs have features that are intended to make them safer than existing reactors. Safety, as always, looms large in the debate about nuclear power. Although some watchdog groups point to incidents like leaks of radioactive water from some plants, the industry in the United States promotes its safety record, noting that events like unplanned reactor shutdowns are at historical lows. And the American industry's one major accident, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, pales in comparison with Fukushima or the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union.
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(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 22, 2014.)