Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An observation on US nuclear power

A week ago, the New York Times reported the results of a new poll that showed public acceptance for new nuclear power plant construction in the US had declined to 43% from 57% two years earlier.  Yesterday, sources reported that a mass of fuel and cladding appears to have melted through the Fukushima unit #2 reactor vessel.  As the severity of the incident at Fukushima increases, it will undoubtedly affect public opinion in the US.  Obtaining approval for new reactor construction, and extending the licenses of existing aging reactors, will no doubt be much more difficult than before.

I have long maintained that the United States is too large and too geographically diverse to adopt a single energy policy.  Regional differences require regional approaches to the problems.  This is at least one of the reasons that nuclear power in the US is very much an "Eastern" thing.  If the Great Plains is regarded as the separator between East and West -- and there are good reasons for using that separator -- then only eight of the 104 operating reactors are in the West, and seven of those are clustered in the southern half of California and southwest Arizona.  The difference shows up clearly in this map from the NRC:
The most commonly cited figure for the share of "US" electricity generated from nuclear sources is 20%.  However, in (very) round numbers, approximately 25% of Eastern electricity is nuclear while only 6% of Western electricity is.  There are individual anomolies -- about 25% of generated power in Arizona is nuclear in the West, and Kentucky has no reactors in the East -- but the overall picture is clear.  If no new nukes are built, and existing licenses are allowed to expire, the East faces the situation of losing the generators of about one-quarter of its current power usage over the next twenty years.  In the West, the amount is less than one-fifteenth.

The West can almost certainly make up the losses from renewable sources.  There will be difficulties, of course, particularly in maintaining the balance between base load and peaking power, and accounting for seasonal variations.  The West is relatively rich (compared to its population base) in renewable resources.  Plans have been made, even though final commitments have not, for transmission facilities such as the High Plains Express that would make it possible to deliver power from Great Plains wind farms in Montana and Wyoming to urban centers as far away as Phoenix.  The East faces, at least in my opinion, a much more difficult challenge in replacing its nuclear sources.

How the East tackles that problem could well be the source of regional frictions.  If they adopt stringent conservation standards, and attempt to impose those in the West as well (and at a national level the non-western states certainly have the votes to do so), the West would likely see itself as being punished for Eastern choices.  If the East adopts a strategy of exploiting Western renewable resources, very large transmission systems will have to be built.  The West would likely see itself being punished again if the costs of those systems were levied against both East and West.

1 comment:

  1. Just days after the anniversary of Three Mile Island, we find ourselves wondering: could we survive a repeat of that horrible tragedy? Are we prepared?
    Japan is working around the clock to clean up after their nuclear crisis; could the US be next? What can we do to prevent and prepare?
    WPSU discusses the situation on Nuclear Energy: Lessons From Japan: