In New England and elsewhere, nuclear power is crucial in the battle to stem global warming, while providing safe, affordable and reliable electricity. Today, 103 nuclear plants provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity; five reactors provide 30 percent of New England's electricity.
Interest in nuclear power is growing for several reasons, not only because it's the primary source of clean energy. Nuclear avoids almost 700 million tons of carbon dioxide per year and is responsible for 73 percent of all "green" non-emitting sources. The safety record of U.S. nuclear power plants is excellent. For comparison, studies show that 15,000 Americans die prematurely each year from coal-fired power plant emissions. Regrettably, coal still provides 52 percent of the nation's electricity and 25 percent in Massachusetts.
The good news is that 17 utilities are gearing up to build as many as 33 new nuclear plants in the United States. Worldwide, 28 plants are under construction in 13 countries. Although no utilities in New England have announced plans to add more nuclear-generating capacity, that could change. Clean power generation is seen as the best choice to meet the growing demand for electricity.
Nuclear power's increasingly favorable economics is a key factor in its comeback. The cost of producing nuclear-generated electricity is 25 percent cheaper than coal and less than one-quarter of natural gas. Utilities recognize that they no longer can rely heavily on natural gas for electricity production because of its high and volatile prices. Nor is solar or wind power viable. Although politically popular, in most instances, they are far too costly and cannot provide power reliably at industrial strength.
The next nuclear power plants will be built to standardized designs, four of which are certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Now, for the first time, utilities will apply for a combined construction and operating license, so that a nuclear plant can begin commercial operation when complete, within four years of the first pouring of concrete. France, which obtains nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, has shown this can be done. Now is a good time to launch a new generation of nuclear power plants. Our future depends on it.
Gilbert J. Brown, Ph.D., is a professor and coordinator of the Nuclear Engineering Program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
U.S. electricity production costs
Cost, in cents, to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity from the following sources:
Oil - 8.09
Gas - 7.51
Coal - 2.21
Nuclear - 1.72
Source: Nuclear Energy Institute