1

Introduction

From its beginnings in the early 1950s, the nuclear power industry 1 and the government institutions that support and regulate it have brought nuclear generation to a position second only to coal as a source of electricity in the United States. By the end of 1990, the United States had 111 commercial nuclear power plants licensed to operate2, with a combined capacity of about 99,000 megawatts electric.[NRC, 1991] In 1989 nuclear plants produced about 19 percent of the nation 's electric power: 529 billion kilowatt hours, much more energy than nuclear power provided in France and Japan combined.[IAEA, 1990] Three more U.S. plants are now under construction.3[NRC, 1991] U.S. nuclear power technology has provided the basis for nuclear power plants worldwide.[Gavrilas et al., 1990] In 1989, nuclear plants produced 77 percent of France's electricity, 26 percent of Japan's electricity, and 33 percent of West Germany's electricity.[DOE, 1991]

However, expansion of commercial nuclear energy has virtually halted in the United States. No new nuclear plant has been ordered since 1978, scores of plants ordered earlier have been canceled, and construction of at least seven partially completed plants has been deferred. In other countries, too, growth of nuclear generation has slowed or stopped.

1  

Terms such as “the nuclear power industry,” “the nuclear industry,” and “the industry” are used throughout this report. In the broadest sense, these terms include the utilities that operate nuclear plants; the architect-engineers, nuclear steam supply system vendors, and other suppliers that help the utilities design and construct nuclear plants or develop and manufacture the nuclear and non-nuclear components that are installed in nuclear plants to generate electricity; and the various organizations that support these entities (e.g, “industry”-sponsored organizations that perform research or interface with regulatory agencies on nuclear matters).

2  

This number excludes the Rancho Seco plant in California that was shut down as a result of a referendum vote in mid 1989 (see Chapter 2). It also excludes the Shoreham plant in New York that was shut down before receiving a full power license.

3  

Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 in Tennessee, and Comanche Peak Unit 2 in Texas.



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NUCLEAR POWER: TECHNICAL AND INSTITUTIONAL OPTIONS FOR THE FUTURE 1 Introduction From its beginnings in the early 1950s, the nuclear power industry 1 and the government institutions that support and regulate it have brought nuclear generation to a position second only to coal as a source of electricity in the United States. By the end of 1990, the United States had 111 commercial nuclear power plants licensed to operate2, with a combined capacity of about 99,000 megawatts electric.[NRC, 1991] In 1989 nuclear plants produced about 19 percent of the nation 's electric power: 529 billion kilowatt hours, much more energy than nuclear power provided in France and Japan combined.[IAEA, 1990] Three more U.S. plants are now under construction.3[NRC, 1991] U.S. nuclear power technology has provided the basis for nuclear power plants worldwide.[Gavrilas et al., 1990] In 1989, nuclear plants produced 77 percent of France's electricity, 26 percent of Japan's electricity, and 33 percent of West Germany's electricity.[DOE, 1991] However, expansion of commercial nuclear energy has virtually halted in the United States. No new nuclear plant has been ordered since 1978, scores of plants ordered earlier have been canceled, and construction of at least seven partially completed plants has been deferred. In other countries, too, growth of nuclear generation has slowed or stopped. 1   Terms such as “the nuclear power industry,” “the nuclear industry,” and “the industry” are used throughout this report. In the broadest sense, these terms include the utilities that operate nuclear plants; the architect-engineers, nuclear steam supply system vendors, and other suppliers that help the utilities design and construct nuclear plants or develop and manufacture the nuclear and non-nuclear components that are installed in nuclear plants to generate electricity; and the various organizations that support these entities (e.g, “industry”-sponsored organizations that perform research or interface with regulatory agencies on nuclear matters). 2   This number excludes the Rancho Seco plant in California that was shut down as a result of a referendum vote in mid 1989 (see Chapter 2). It also excludes the Shoreham plant in New York that was shut down before receiving a full power license. 3   Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 in Tennessee, and Comanche Peak Unit 2 in Texas.

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NUCLEAR POWER: TECHNICAL AND INSTITUTIONAL OPTIONS FOR THE FUTURE The reasons for this interruption in growth are varied. In the United States, growth in demand for electricity has slowed from about 7 percent annually in the early 1970s to about 2 percent today. In addition, extended construction schedules and high costs of building nuclear power plants have been of great concern, and the costs of operating and maintaining nuclear power plants have risen more rapidly than those of a principal competitor--coal plants.[DOE, 1988] The cost of base load generated electricity is strongly affected by capital costs, and therefore it is relatively sensitive to factors such as inflation, high interest rates, delays, and backfit requirements that increase the cost of construction. This is particularly so for nuclear plants, compared to electricity from fosssil plants that are more sensitive to inflation in fuel costs. Also, state public utility commissions have disallowed billions of dollars of construction costs from inclusion in rate bases (and thus from recovery from utility customers). These disallowances have made utility executives and the financial community leery of further investments in nuclear power. Public concerns about reactor safety, fed by the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, have led to organized local and statewide opposition to new nuclear power plants. Finally, the federal government's failure to meet schedules in assuring the safe disposition of spent reactor fuel has further tarnished nuclear energy in public opinion. In the 1980s, reactor vendors in the United States and other countries initiated development of new reactor technologies with features intended to provide lower cost construction and operation, improved reactor safety, and in some cases greater flexibility in adding capacity. This report assesses these designs and outlines several alternative research and development programs that would ready new nuclear power technology for use in the future. It also addresses issues of future electricity demand, cost, utility management, public opinion, safety, and licensing and regulation that bear on the future of nuclear power. THE COMMITTEE'S CHARGE In requesting this study, Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to analyze the technological and institutional alternatives that would preserve the nuclear fission option in the United States. The Senate Appropriations Committee report accompanying the 1989 Energy and Water Development Appropriation bill said: [The Senate Committee on Appropriations] believes that nuclear fission remains an important option for meeting our electric energy requirements and maintaining a balanced national energy policy. The Committee continues to strongly support the need for a responsive nuclear fission program, but finds the current civilian nuclear power reactor program to be a deficient aggregate of numerous reactor

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NUCLEAR POWER: TECHNICAL AND INSTITUTIONAL OPTIONS FOR THE FUTURE types and conceptual variations being developed without the guidance of well-defined strategic objectives. The Committee finds further that the future development and institutionalization of nuclear power development should be rethought, newly defined, and directed to be responsive to current and projected conditions. Therefore, the Committee specifically provides for a critical comparative analysis by the National Academy of Sciences of the practical technological and institutional options for future nuclear power development and for the formulation of coherent policy alternatives to guide the Nation 's nuclear power development.[U.S. Congress, 1988] The Committee on Future Nuclear Power Development was formed to conduct this study. The Committee consisted of members with widely ranging views on the desirability of nuclear power. Nevertheless, all members approached the Committee's charge from the perspective of what would be necessary if we are to retain nuclear power as an option for meeting U.S. electric energy requirements, without attempting to achieve consensus on whether or not it should be retained. The Committee's conclusions and recommendations should be read in this context.

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NUCLEAR POWER: TECHNICAL AND INSTITUTIONAL OPTIONS FOR THE FUTURE REFERENCES DOE, Energy Information Administration. 1991. International Energy Annual. DOE/EIA-0219(89). February. DOE, Energy Information Administration. 1988. An Analysis of Nuclear Power Plant Operating Costs. DOE/EIA-0511. Released for printing March 16, 1988. Gavrilas, M., P. Hejzlar, Y. Shatilla, and N. Todreas. 1990. Report on Safety Characteristics of Light Water Reactors of Western Design. Department of Nuclear Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, MA. Preliminary (in publication). December 12, 1990. IAEA. 1990. Nuclear Power Reactors in the World. Reference Data Series Number 2. Vienna, Austria. April. NRC. 1991. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Information Digest, 1991 Edition. NUREG-1350. 3(March). U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Appropriations. 1988. Calendar No.726. Sen. Rep. 100-381, Energy and Water Development Appropriation Bill, 1989. Report to accompany H.R. 4567. Ordered to be printed June 9, 1988.