Up for Debate: Nuclear Energy

Dr. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute and Ms. Ellen Vancko of the Union of Concerned Scientists debate below about the potential for nuclear power to lead to energy independence in the United States.

Debate: Will Nuclear Energy Lead to Energy Independence in the United States?

The need for a new U.S. energy policy is clear. The United States nuclear power industry currently generates about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, more than that from oil, natural gas, and hydropower, and behind only coal, which accounts for more than half of U.S. electricity generation. And while nuclear plants generate more than half the electricity in six states, the nuclear power industry’s challenges include high nuclear power plant construction costs, public concern about nuclear safety and waste disposal, and regulatory compliance costs.

Dr. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Ms. Ellen Vancko of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) debate  about the future of nuclear energy in the United States.


Dr. Mark Perry,   American Enerterpise Institute (AEI)

Nuclear Power is the Key to U.S. Energy Independence

It’s elementary but it is true: nuclear power can produce an enormous amount of clean energy from a small amount of fuel.  Even environmentalists should welcome nuclear power.

Yet, for the last several years, natural gas has dominated the energy picture.  Thanks to an abundance of unconventional gas from shale deposits, natural gas has accounted for more than 80 percent of new electric generating capacity in the United States.  Gas now provides 32 percent of total generation, up from 25 percent just two years ago, and it surely would be higher if not for the impressive performance and excellent safety record of the U.S. fleet of 104 nuclear plants.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, America’s nuclear plants produce electricity 90 percent of the time, compared to 70 percent for natural gas plants.  After a long hiatus, nuclear power has gained respect again, with the renewal of licenses approved at more than two-thirds of the operating plants, five new reactors are under construction, and applications to build another dozen or so reactors are pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The United States needs more energy to replace aging coal plants and meet growing demand for electricity.   Even with slower economic growth and vigorous conservation, it will be an immense challenge to meet the demand for energy without building a new generation of “base-load” power reactors.

Some say: Why bother building new nuclear plants at a time when energy experts both in government and industry estimate the United States has more than 100 years’ worth of natural gas?  And natural gas plants can be built for a fraction of the cost of nuclear plants?

Simply put, nuclear power is essential for energy security.  To become overly dependent on a single energy source for something as vital as electricity supply would be irrational.

Natural gas is needed for much more than electricity production. U.S. manufacturers are making increased use of cheap natural gas, and truck fleets are beginning to switch to natural gas.  The Department of Energy is considering applications from a dozen companies to export as much as 20 percent of domestic gas in the form of liquefied natural gas to markets in Europe and Asia.

All of this is likely to result in a significant jump in natural gas prices, which are already beginning to climb after bottoming out at $2 per thousand cubic feet.  The Energy Information Administration cautioned in a study published earlier this year that exports of 12 billion cubic feet of gas per day would bump up electricity prices by up to 3%, a significant price increase.  But the price of gas doesn’t have to reach $15, as it did a few years ago, for utilities to opt for more nuclear power instead.  By the time gas prices reach $7 or $8, nuclear power will be back in the mix.

Although the capital cost of building a nuclear plant is high, the average price of nuclear-generated electricity over the lifetime of a nuclear plant is competitive with natural gas. Many nuclear plants are expected to remain in commercial service for 60 years or more.

What’s more, nuclear power doesn’t pollute the air or emit greenhouse gases.  It accounts for 70% of the nation’s carbon-free energy, and polls show that a strong majority of Americans favor the construction of new nuclear plants.

Without the addition of more nuclear plants, efforts to curtail greenhouse emissions 80 percent by 2050 will languish.  Natural gas plants, though cleaner than coal, release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the air.  And no practical technology is available yet for capturing carbon.  Solar and wind energy cannot supply large amounts of clean base-load electricity reliably, whereas nuclear plants do.

But for nuclear power to continue playing a decisive role in reducing greenhouse emissions, ground will need to be broken for new reactors now.  With the help of new reactor designs for plants that are even safer than those in operation, nuclear power will continue to make a substantial impact in meeting our need for clean and affordable energy.

And what about nuclear power’s role in achieving energy independence?  The reality is that a goal of total independence is probably unachievable.  It’s both too costly and unnecessary.  However, nuclear power will continue to play an important economic role in providing domestically-produced energy that’s clean, reliable and affordable.  As its use increases in the future, America will become more energy self-sufficient.

Ms. Ellen Vancko,  Union of Concerned Scientists

Nuclear Power Will Not Lead the Way to U.S. Energy Independence

No single form of electricity generation will lead to U.S. energy independence, especially since the vast majority of the oil we import fuels our transportation sector – not electricity generation –and will for the foreseeable future. Electric cars are coming, but we likely will be driving mostly gas-powered vehicles for another decade or more, although new federal fuel-efficiency requirements will go far to reduce demand for imported oil in the interim.

That said, recent proclamations that the United States is the “Saudi Arabia” of natural gas and wind suggest that these two abundant domestic energy sources, along with solar, geothermal and biomass, have a good shot at significantly decreasing our nation’s dependence on foreign energy supplies over the longer term and also reducing our carbon emissions.

At the same time, one must look with great skepticism at claims that nuclear power will lead this country to anything resembling energy independence. Several months ago, the operators of three nuclear reactor projects – Tennessee Valley Authority (Watts Bar 2 in Tennessee), Southern Company (Vogtle 3 and 4 in Georgia) and Progress Energy (Levy 1 and 2 in Florida)  – announced that they are all over budget and behind schedule. This suggests that the nuclear industry is repeating its past mistakes, when reactor construction resulted in hundreds of billions in cost overruns, abandonments, bankruptcies, defaults and the cancellation of more than half of the reactors proposed to be built across the country.

TVA Watts Bar 2 is one of two reactors that TVA began building in 1973. It completed Unit 1 in 1996, but halted construction on Unit 2 in 1988 after completing about 80 percent of it and spending $1.7 billion. In 2007, TVA decided to complete the unit, expecting that it would come on line in 2012 and cost another $2.5 billion. In April, TVA released a revised construction schedule and cost estimate. Now the agency says it will start generating electricity in December 2015 and cost an additional $1.5 billion to $2 billion, putting the total estimated cost of completing the reactor at $4 billion to $4.5 billion. If TVA’s new schedule holds, Watts Bar 2 will have taken 42 years and at least $6 billion to complete.

Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power and several regional partners are building Vogtle 3 and 4 at an existing reactor site. Georgia Power et al. originally planned to start one unit up in 2016 and the other in 2017 at a cost of $14 billion, but they announced in April that the project will cost at least $900 million more and they may have to push back the start dates.

Progress Energy Florida is proposing to build Levy 1 and 2 at a new site in Levy County, Florida. Progress first announced Levy in 2008 as a one-reactor, $3.5 billion project that would come on line in 2016. In April, the utility announced that the first of what is now planned to be a two-reactor project would not come on line until 2024 because of low customer demand, the ongoing recession, low natural gas prices, and the lack of a federal carbon pollution policy. Project cost estimates for the two reactors have ballooned to $24 billion.

This latest news from the front should provide yet another cautionary tale to anyone who believes that a “nuclear renaissance” is imminent or that new nuclear reactors are key to our nation’s energy security. Most regulated utilities are taking a wait and see approach to building new reactors: They will wait and see how Watts Bar, Vogtle and Levy turn out. Early indications are not encouraging. Independent power developers and Wall Street analysts have already rendered their verdicts: New nuclear power is too risky to compete in competitive electricity markets.

Meanwhile, the cost of upgrading our rapidly aging reactor fleet, particularly in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and new safety requirements, also is creating challenges for the industry. This is especially the case for competitive electricity markets, where the cost of expensive upgrades must be recovered in the face of dramatically lower natural gas prices driving down wholesale power prices. Thus, while nuclear power presently comprises 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation, there is no guarantee that it will remain at that level  given the deteriorating economics of both new and existing reactors.

The jury is still out on the implications of a large scale transition to natural gas and its associated fracking and climate change risks. And we still have not put all of the policies in place to build and pay for the modern and more flexible transmission system that is needed to integrate our abundant wind and other renewable resources. But for better or for worse, increased utilization of home-grown renewables and natural gas would bring us much closer to reducing our dependence of foreign energy supplies than increasing our dependence on increasingly unaffordable and risky nuclear power.

About the Debaters: 

Dr. Mark J. Perry  is a professor of economics and finance in the School of Management at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan. Dr. Perry holds two graduate degrees in economics (M.A. and Ph.D.) from George Mason University near Washington, D.C. In addition, he holds an MBA degree in finance from the Curtis L. Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. In addition to a faculty appointment at the University of Michigan-Flint, Perry is also a visiting scholar at The American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He is best known as the creator and editor of the popular economics blog Carpe Diem. While at AEI, Dr. Perry writes about economic and financial issues for The American and the AEIdeas blog.


Ellen Vancko manages the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) research and analysis of nuclear power’s viability as a potential climate solution. She also is UCS’s senior adviser on federal and state policies governing electricity markets, reliability, transmission systems, energy conservation, demand management, smart grid, and the integration of renewable energy into the electrical system. Vancko, a highly regarded energy policy expert, has more than 25 years of experience in the electric utility industry. Before joining UCS, she was director of communications and government affairs for the North American Electric Reliability Council, regulatory policy director for Allegheny Energy and the Edison Electric Institute, and served as an energy consultant on a range of issues. She holds a master of science degree in energy management and policy from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the George Washington University. Vancko has authored and edited major UCS reports and analyses, including “Nuclear Power: A Resurgence We Can’t Afford,” “Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable Without Subsidies,” and “Nuclear Loan Guarantees: Another Taxpayer Bailout Ahead?” She speaks regularly at energy conferences and has been cited by dozens of media outlets, including the Boston Globe,Christian Science MonitorNational JournalNew York TimesWall Street Journal and Washington Post. She has also appeared on news programs on Bloomberg TV, MSNBC, National Public Radio and Public Radio International.


About Up for Debate:

In Up For Debate, FAS invites knowledgeable outside contributors to discuss science policy and security issues. This debate among experts is conducted via email and posted on FAS.org. FAS invites a demographically and ideologically diverse group to comment – a unique FAS feature that allows readers to reach conclusions based on both sides of an argument rather than just one point of view.


Please read the guidelines for the official debate and rebuttal policy for participants of FAS’s ‘Up For Debate.’ All participants are required to follow these rules. Each opinion must stay on topic and feature relevant content, or be a rebuttal. No ad hominem and personal attacks, name calling, libel, or defamation is allowed, and proper citations must be given.

Whistleblower Protections Under Federal Law, and More from CRS

New reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made available to the public include the following.

Whistleblower Protections Under Federal Law: An Overview, September 13, 2012

Post-Employment, “Revolving Door,” Laws for Federal Personnel, September 13, 2012

The Corporate Income Tax System: Overview and Options for Reform, September 13, 2012

Iran Sanctions, updated September 13, 2012

Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations, updated September 13, 2012

An Army Introduction to Open Source Intelligence

A new U.S. Army publication provides an introduction to open source intelligence, as understood and practiced by the Army.

“Open-source intelligence is the intelligence discipline that pertains to intelligence produced from publicly available information that is collected, exploited, and disseminated in a timely manner to an appropriate audience for the purpose of addressing a specific intelligence and information requirement,” the document says.

“The world is being reinvented by open sources. Publicly available information can be used by a variety of individuals to [achieve] a broad spectrum of objectives. The significance and relevance of open-source intelligence (OSINT) serve as an economy of force, provide an additional leverage capability, and cue technical or classified assets to refine and validate both information and intelligence.”

See “Open-Source Intelligence,” Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 2-22.9, July 2012.

The new manual is evidently intended for soldiers in the field rather than professional analysts, and it takes nothing for granted.  At some points, the guidance that it offers is remedial rather than state of the art.

For example, “if looking for information about Russian and Chinese tank sales to Iraq, do not use ‘tank’ as the only keyword in the search. Instead, use additional defining words such as ‘Russian Chinese tank sales Iraq’.”

But the manual reflects the ongoing maturation of open source intelligence (OSINT), and it contains several observations of interest.

“The reliance on classified databases has often left Soldiers uninformed and ill-prepared to capitalize on the huge reservoir of unclassified information from publicly available information and open sources,” the manual states.

Classification can also be a problem in open source intelligence, however, and “concern for OPSEC [operations security] can undermine the ability to disseminate inherently unclassified information.”

“Examples of unclassified information being over-classified [include] reported information found in a foreign newspaper [and a] message from a foreign official attending an international conference.”

Therefore, pursuant to Army regulations, “Army personnel will not apply classification or other security markings to an article or portion of an article that has appeared in a newspaper, magazine, or other public medium,” although the resulting OSINT analysis might be deemed “controlled unclassified information.”

Curiously, the new manual itself is blocked from access by the general public on Army websites (such as this one). But an unrestricted copy was released by the Army on request.

Somewhat relatedly, the Department of Defense this week published a new Instruction on DoD Internet Services and Internet-Based Capabilities, DODI 8550.01, September 11, 2012.

House Votes to Reauthorize FISA Amendments Act

The House of Representatives voted yesterday to renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act for five years.

The Act generally authorizes electronic surveillance of non-U.S. persons and U.S. persons who are believed to be outside the United States, while prohibiting the “intentional” targeting of persons in the U.S. without an individualized warrant, seemingly leaving a wide opening for unintentional or incidental collection.  This and other features of the Act prompted concerns about the expansion of surveillance authority and the erosion of constitutional protections.

But such concerns, however eloquently expressed by a few dissenting Members, gained little traction.  The House rebuffed efforts to increase reporting on implementation of the law or to shorten the duration of its renewal, and approved the measure by a vote of 300-118.

In the Senate, Sen. Ron Wyden has placed a hold on the bill in an attempt to compel disclosure of the current scale of government interception of U.S. communications, which the Administration says it cannot provide.

The Congressional Research Service has produced a new report on Reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act, dated September 12, 2012.

The ACLU is challenging the constitutionality of the Act in a case that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on October 29.

Court Lifts Gag Order on Former Secrecy Czar

A federal judge this week granted permission to J. William Leonard, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, to discuss three documents that were at issue in the trial of former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake.

Mr. Leonard, an expert witness for the Drake defense, had sought permission to publicly challenge the legitimacy of the classification of one of the documents cited in the indictment against Mr. Drake, which was ultimately dismissed.

The government had opposed the motion to lift the non-disclosure obligations in the protective order that bound Mr. Leonard.  Government attorneys argued that Mr. Leonard had no standing to make such a request, which was filed by Mr. Drake’s public defenders James Wyda and Deborah L. Boardman.  The government also said the request should be denied in order “to prevent a flood of similar claims by non-parties in other completed cases.”  Instead, prosecutors suggested, Mr. Leonard could file a Freedom of Information Act request for the records in question.

But Judge Richard D. Bennett said that “the government’s arguments in this case are inapposite.” Even if the documents were made available to Mr. Leonard under FOIA, “he would not have been permitted to discuss them as he would remain bound by this Court’s Protective Order.”

Judge Bennett therefore formally lifted the Protective Order and granted Mr. Leonard permission to publicly discuss his concerns.

The documents themselves, and the complaint that Mr. Leonard submitted to the Information Security Oversight Office, were released by the National Security Agency under FOIA in July.  (“Defense, Critique of NSA Classification Action Released,” Secrecy News, July 30.)

The complaint itself is still pending, and is awaiting a formal response from the Department of Justice, said the current ISOO director, John P. Fitzpatrick.

The challenge presented by Mr. Leonard extends well beyond the Drake case or the secrecy practices of the National Security Agency.  Essentially, the question posed by the former ISOO director’s complaint is whether there is any threshold beyond which classification of information is so completely unjustified as to trigger third-party intervention to correct the problem.  As of today, such corrective mechanisms are weak or nonexistent.

Kim Leak Prosecution Hits a Bump in the Road

Prosecutors in the pending leak case of former State Department contractor Stephen Kim said they had discovered that the classified information Mr. Kim is accused of disclosing to a reporter without authorization had been circulated within the government more broadly than they had realized.

That discovery requires further investigation and disclosure to the defense, prosecutors said in a recent status report to the court.

“In short, the undersigned prosecutors have learned that the intelligence report identified in the Indictment had been used for purposes of drafting a separate intelligence product, which product was never finalized prior to the unauthorized disclosure at issue,” the status report said. “Some of the drafting occurred within the time period deemed relevant by the Parties.”

“The undersigned prosecutors are investigating this drafting process to determine its scope and what discoverable material may arise from it. The undersigned prosecutors have advised that their review of this additional information could take two additional months to complete before any materials related thereto are produced to the defense. While counsel for the defendant have not been informed of the content of this new information, counsel reasonably expect that it could have a material impact on their understanding of the government’s case, and likely will prompt additional discovery requests.”

Limited Data Make Secrecy Harder to Measure, Manage

A new annual report on government secrecy discusses the quantitative and qualitative obscurity of government secrecy policy which makes secrecy hard to evaluate and to control.

The report was published by OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of some 80 organizations concerned with government transparency.

“Measuring what it is we actually know about the openness of the American government is not a straightforward endeavor,” the report says. “Information available to the public provides inconsistent and partial indicators about whether our government is becoming more, or less, open. In some areas, the information needed to know what the Executive Branch is doing and to hold it accountable to the public is not available at all.”

Even where quantitative data are available, as in the case of the number of classification decisions published annually by the Information Security Oversight Office, their qualitative significance is unclear, the report said.

“Having information about the quantity of secrets kept by the federal government tells us nothing about their quality.”

The OpenTheGovernment.org report assembled the quantitative indicators of government secrecy and disclosure that could be obtained, and also discussed several categories that should be available but are not.

“Good information is essential for the public to know what interests are influencing government policies, and more,” said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org. “Partial and mis- information, however, erodes accountability and prevents the public from having an informed debate about critical national issues.”

Drones in the National Airspace System, and More from CRS

New reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made available to the public include the following.

Pilotless Drones: Background and Considerations for Congress Regarding Unmanned Aircraft Operations in the National Airspace System, September 10, 2012

Global Access to Clean Drinking Water and Sanitation: U.S. and International Programs, September 10, 2012

Automobile and Truck Fuel Economy (CAFE) and Greenhouse Gas Standards, September 11, 2012

Overview of the Federal Procurement Process and Resources, September 11, 2012

Presidential Review of Independent Regulatory Commission Rulemaking: Legal Issues, September 10, 2012

Terrorism Risk Insurance: Issue Analysis and Overview of Current Program, September 10, 2012

Arizona v. United States: A Limited Role for States in Immigration Enforcement, September 10, 2012

Authority of State and Local Police to Enforce Federal Immigration Law, updated September 10, 2012

Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Acquisition: Issues for Congress, updated September 10, 2012

The latter report on ISR acquisition was co-authored by veteran CRS specialist Richard F. Grimmett.  On Monday, Sen. Richard Lugar paid tribute on the Senate floor to Mr. Grimmett, who is retiring at the end of the month.

FAS Roundup: September 10, 2012

Thorium reactors, new CRS reports, DoD security policy and much more.

From the Blogs

  • Greater Autonomy for Unmanned Military Systems Urged: The Department of Defense should focus on increasing the autonomy of drones and other unmanned military systems, a new report from the Defense Science Board said. “Autonomy” in this context does not mean “computers making independent decisions and taking uncontrolled action.”  The Board is not calling for the immediate development of Skynet at this time.  Rather, autonomy refers to the automation of a particular function within programmed limits.
  • DoD Security Policy is Incoherent and Unmanageable, IG Says: “DoD security policy is fragmented, redundant, and inconsistent,” according to a new report from the Department of Defense Inspector General.  This is not a new development, the report noted, but one that has persisted despite decades of criticism. The report said that the solution to this fragmentation and incoherence is the development of a comprehensive and integrated security policy.
  • Thorium Reactors and Radioactive Waste: What are the advantages to using thorium-cycle reactors? In a new post on the ScienceWonk Blog, Dr. Y investigates the reactor design, economics and waste produced by these reactors.

Continue reading

Legality of Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists Reviewed by CRS

The legality of targeted killing of suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens, was examined in a memorandum prepared for members of Congress by the Congressional Research Service.

The U.S. practice of targeted killing raises complex legal issues because it cuts across several overlapping legal domains.  To the extent that the U.S. is actually at war with the targeted persons, the “law of armed conflict” would provide the appropriate legal framework, though the relevance of this framework far from a “hot battlefield” is disputed.  Outside of armed conflict, the U.S. could be acting under the related but distinct laws of “self-defense.”  The use of lethal force in law enforcement operations offers another way of conceiving of and evaluating anti-terrorist strikes.  In all cases, the sovereignty of the nation where the strike occurs adds a further layer of legal complexity.  With respect to targets who are U.S. citizens, the applicability of the U.S. Constitution is yet another urgent issue.

Obama Administration officials have discussed targeted killing in several public speeches since 2010, but have evaded detailed public questioning on the subject.  The Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel has prepared a memorandum on the targeting of suspected terrorists who are U.S. citizens, as reported by the New York Times, but it has refused to release the OLC memorandum or even to publicly acknowledge that it exists.  Meanwhile, Congress has been largely silent and acquiescent.

The CRS memorandum, entitled “Legal Issues Related to the Lethal Targeting of U.S. Citizens Suspected of Terrorist Activities,” was prepared in May 2012 by legislative attorney Jennifer K. Elsea.  It presents an overview of the pertinent legal context, and then carefully parses official Administration statements in an attempt to infer a detailed legal rationale for lethal targeting.  A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

“This memorandum is an effort to clarify the debate by providing legal background, setting forth what is known about the Administration’s position and identifying possible points of contention among legal experts and other observers,” the memo states.

In the end, CRS concludes that none of the established legal frameworks is a perfect fit for the Administration’s lethal targeting operations because the current U.S. practice of lethal targeting involves features that are improvised, inconsistent or otherwise questionable.

For example, CRS says the Administration appears to have redefined the meaning of “imminence,” one of the required elements for justifying the use of force in self-defense on the territory of another country.  The standard definition of imminence refers to an overwhelming threat that allows “no moment for deliberation.”  But the Administration uses imminence idiosyncratically “to refer to the window of opportunity for striking rather than the perceived immediacy of the threat of an armed attack.”  This novel usage “may pose some challenge to the international law regarding the use of force,” CRS said.

The CRS memo notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled — in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld — that when a U.S. citizen is detained as a suspected enemy combatant he must be given notice of the factual basis for his detention and an opportunity to rebut it.  Yet, in contrast, when a citizen-suspect is to be killed rather than detained the Administration’s position is that no such notice or opportunity is required.

This embrace of unchecked executive authority may prove difficult to reconcile with the majority holding in Hamdi, the memo suggests.

In fact, CRS says, the Administration’s position “seems to conform more with Justice Thomas’s dissenting opinion in Hamdi, in which Justice Thomas argued that in the context of wartime detention for non-punitive purposes, ‘due process requires nothing more than a good-faith executive determination’.”

By withholding its own Office of Legal Counsel opinion on the legality of lethal targeting of suspected terrorists who are U.S. citizens, the Obama Administration seems intent not on protecting sensitive operational details but on suppressing public awareness and debate.  The CRS memo is not a substitute for the OLC opinion, but it nonetheless can serve to advance public understanding of the underlying issues.