Outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Promotes Nuclear Power

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, January 18, 2005 (ENS) – Nuclear power offers the world the best means to meet the rising demand for energy without increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, according to outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

The expansion of nuclear power can bring nations greater energy independence, said Abraham, and help deal with some of the world’s “most pressing environmental challenges.”

Abraham, speaking Friday to an international nuclear energy forum, said the global demand for energy will rise by some 60 percent by 2030.

Without nuclear energy, this demand will largely be met through by coal, oil and natural gas, Abraham said, because other renewable energy sources are insufficient to meet the world’s needs.

“This makes the prospect of rising energy prices and greater price volatility a major concern in the years ahead,” Abraham said. “And, as we know, fossil fuels – the way we use them now – cause pollution.”

There is little doubt that jumpstarting the U.S. nuclear industry is a priority for the Bush administration.

Although the nation’s 103 nuclear power plants produce 20 percent of U.S. electricity, it has been three decades since the last nuclear power plant was commissioned.


U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (Photo courtesy Eureka County )
“This is both astonishing and alarming,” Abraham said, “given the unique benefits that nuclear energy offers – benefits that no other major energy source available today can provide.”

“Foremost among these benefits is the fact that nuclear power emits none of the pollutants associated with the burning of fossil fuels,” said Abraham, who added that nuclear power can supply electricity “with no greenhouse gas emissions.”

Abraham said the primary reasons the industry’s growth has stalled are “cost considerations and political opposition.”

The industry is wary of pressing forward because of regulatory uncertainty that “ stems from the belief that political opposition to nuclear energy could bring about costly rule changes and/or actions which significantly delay projects in such a fashion as to make project costs unacceptable,” according to the Energy Secretary.

Abraham said three potential sites for new plants are currently under federal review and two industry groups are proceeding with the regulatory steps needed to move ahead with new plant designs.

The administration is also working with Republicans in Congress and through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to streamline licensing for new nuclear power plants.

Critics contend the administration is misleading the public by presenting nuclear power as an environmentally friendly power source - given safety and security concerns along with the overriding problem of waste disposal.

"Switching from dirty coal plants to dangerous nuclear power is like giving up smoking cigarettes and taking up crack,” said Dan Becker of the Sierra Club.


Workers at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center, home to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory's spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste programs. The facility specializes in spent nuclear fuel consolidation, special nuclear material repackaging, and treatment and disposal of high-level waste. (Photo courtesy INTEC)
Abraham said the problems that have plagued the nuclear industry in the past - safety failures, ineffective regulation and poor management – have been addressed.

“U.S. nuclear plants are safer today than they have ever been, and their safety performance continues to improve,” he said.

Key to reenergizing the nuclear industry, Abraham said, is the administration’s progress on the construction of a repository for nuclear waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

“Even the most ardent supporter of nuclear power understands that we must move forward in dealing with spent nuclear fuel,” he said. “Doing so will remove what has been a major impediment to the construction of new nuclear plants in this country.”

The administration’s support of the Yucca Mountain repository has put the nation on “a clear plan to deal with high-level nuclear waste,” Abraham said.

But he acknowledged that litigation has put Yucca Mountain’s timetable “in doubt” and many do not share his optimism for the project.

The repository, some 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been hit with budget and litigation woes and is unlikely to be ready by 2010 as originally scheduled.

Federal officials have raised an array of concerns about the project, including a finding that the manufactured storage containers in which the government plans to store nuclear waste at the facility will probably leak.

Last July the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled the federal government’s 10,000 year federal safety requirement for the highly radioactive waste illegal and the state of Nevada has challenged the Energy Department’s transportation plan for nuclear waste shipments to the facility.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), a Washington, DC organization critical of nuclear energy, warns that the January 6 train derailment in South Carolina that caused a mass evacuation and nine deaths "is a sober reminder of the perils of transporting toxic materials."

power plant

The Hatch Nuclear Power Plant is located 11 miles north of Baxley, Georgia. (Photo courtesy NRC)
"It also sends a clear warning to the U.S. Department of Energy, whose ill-advised plan would send high-level radioactive waste casks by rail and truck across the country from the nearby Savannah River nuclear site," said NIRS. Current plans call for the shipment of spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive material from 39 states to Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The waste remains a key environmental, public health and security concern for critics of the nuclear power, who note that the problem is one growing in scope and expense.

As of 2003, nuclear reactors in the United States had generated some 54,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel - a figure predicted to double by 2035.

"Putting high-level waste casks on our rails and roads is effectively a Mobile Chernobyl and exposes millions to the potentially catastrophic risks of severe transport accidents and even terrorist attacks on shipments," said Mary Olson, director of NIRS Southeast in Asheville, North Carolina.

Abraham has said in the past that spent fuel in secure transit to a permanent repository is less susceptible to terrorist acts than spent fuel stranded at the temporary, stationary sites - many very close to major cities and waterways - where it now resides.

Opponents say the nuclear industry would not exist – and will not grow – in the United States without massive subsidies.

A key part of the equation is the Price Anderson Act, a 1957 amendment to the Atomic Energy Act that caps the cost of liability insurance coverage for any nuclear power plant accident.

Critics say it skews the real cost of nuclear power and potentially leaves taxpayers liable for damages from a severe accident.

It is still in effect for existing plants, but must be reauthorized for new plants – such reauthorization is included in the stalled energy bill, along with a slew of other incentives intended to revive the nuclear industry.

Energy Secretary Abraham has resigned his position and will not serve in the second administration of President George W. Bush that begins on January 20. President Bush has nominated Deputy Secretary of Treasury Dr. Samuel Bodman to take his place.

Bodman must be confirmed by the Senate before he can take over as energy secretary. A nomination hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled for January 19.