Future of Nuclear Energy in the United States

Will Nuclear Power in the United States See a Revival This Decade?


Background resources on nuclear energy

WASHINGTON (February 8, 2012) – In the wake of the devastating meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, many Americans are now reevaluating the costs and benefits of nuclear energy. If anything, the accident underscores that constant vigilance is needed to ensure nuclear safety. Policymakers and the public need more guidance about where nuclear power in the United States appears to be headed in light of the economic hurdles confronting construction of nuclear power plants, aging reactors, and a graying workforce, according to a report made public today by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and Washington and Lee University.

The document, the “The Future of Nuclear Power in the United States,” was drafted by a distinguished group of experts who provided insights about the safety, security, building, financing, licensing, regulating, and fueling of nuclear power plants.

“It is still too soon to know the full implications of this [Fukushima] accident for the United States and the global nuclear industry,” Charles D. Ferguson and Frank A. Settle, the co-principal investigators, write, adding that the motivations for the report are still relevant regardless of the accident.

“Before the Fukushima accident, nuclear power was branded as a green form of energy. The United States currently has 104 nuclear power reactors that generate about 20 percent of America’s energy,” said Dr. Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. “Policymakers and the public need to be better informed of nuclear energy issues.”

The report serves as a useful tutorial for the general public and a guide for policymakers. The insights made by the authors will help further the necessary public debate as the United States wrestles with formidable energy challenges.

Will nuclear power in the United States experience a revival in this and the following decade? In the report, Albert V. Carr, Jr., professor at the Washington and Lee School of Law, provides a masterful explanation of the U.S. history of licensing and regulating nuclear plants and is cautiously optimistic that a nuclear revival is underway given the recent applications for new licenses.

Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, assessed that,  “U.S. nuclear energy growth can only be achieved with a combination of aggressive government support and a complete revamping of the U.S. nuclear industry to stress standardization and modularization in construction.”

If nuclear power is to have a viable future in the United States, the plants will also require adequate supplies of fuel. Presently, U.S. nuclear power plants are fueled with uranium-based fuels. But in the future, they could use recycled plutonium for fuel.

Ivan Oelrich, an independent defense analyst, addressed the reliability of uranium supplies and the possibility of a plutonium fuel economy. He concluded that “the long-term fuel situation will be constantly reevaluated but, for decades to come, uranium availability will most likely not be the factor limiting nuclear growth.”

FAS and Washington and Lee University also asked the experts to address the issues of managing spent nuclear fuel and associated wastes, comparing nuclear energy to other energy sources, and assessing the potential commercialization of technologies such as small, modular reactors and Generation IV reactors.

“This report does not advocate, but it does inform,” said Frank Settle, visiting professor of chemistry at Washington and Lee. “We have gathered together a very strong group of experts to write chapters on their areas of expertise — from the legal issues to safety to a comparison of nuclear power to other energy sources.”

Authors of the report’s articles:

  • John F. Ahearne, director of the ethics program at Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, a lecturer in public policy at Duke University and an adjunct scholar at Resources for the Future;
  • Albert V. Carr, Jr., professor of practice at the Washington and Lee School of Law and of counsel with the international law firm Duane Morris L.L.P., working with the firm’s energy and construction departments in developing a nuclear licensing practice;
  • Harold A. Feiveson, a senior research scientist and member of Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs;
  • Daniel Ingersoll, senior program manager for the Nuclear Technology Programs Office at Oak Ridge National Laboratory;
  • Andrew C. Klein, professor of nuclear engineering and radiation health physics at Oregon State University;
  • Stephen Maloney, a partner at Azuolas Risk Advisors and longtime energy risk analyst in oil, natural gas, liquefied natural gas and electric power;
  • Ivan Oelrich, an independent defense analyst and former vice president of the strategic security program at the Federation of American Scientists
  • Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Prior to joining CSIS, she was a senior associate in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and
  • Richard Wolfson, the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College, where he also teaches Climate Change in Middlebury’s Environmental Studies Program.

The report will be released at a luncheon on Capitol Hill at noon on Wednesday, February 8, 2012. Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Settle, Visiting Professor of Chemistry at Washington and Lee, will join several of the authors for a panel discussion on nuclear energy.

The report is funded in part by a grant from Washington and Lee alumnus H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest.

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 The Federation of American Scientists was formed in 1945 by atomic scientists from the Manhattan Project. FAS addresses a broad spectrum of security issues in carrying out its mission to promote humanitarian uses of science and technology. For more information, go to www.FAS.org.

Washington and Lee University, the nation’s ninth oldest institution of higher education, is among the nation’s premier liberal arts colleges and universities. Washington and Lee University provides a liberal arts education that develops students’ capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility. Graduates are prepared for life-long learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society. For more information, go to www.wlu.edu.


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