Nuclear energy hits the comeback trail

Nuclear power as an energy resource is making a comeback.

Earlier this year President Bush touted his Advanced Energy Initiative, which included a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, which seeks to develop worldwide consensus on nuclear energy — including “enabling expanded use of economical, carbon-free nuclear energy to meet growing electricity demand.”

In a recent speech in New Hampshire, U.S. Sen. John McCain, a likely presidential candidate, said that “the United States needs to overcome its fear of nuclear power and embrace the technology as a way to wean itself from fossil fuels.” Utilities in the Midwest and Southeast have tentative plans to build new nuclear power plants. According to a Washington Post article, the co-founder of Greenpeace said that nuclear power might avert catastrophic climate change, while a New York Times editorial said that it deserves a “fresh look.” And in Great Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has called for building a new generation of nuclear power stations.

With this renewed focus on nuclear energy, however, the United States is still grappling with what to do with high-level nuclear waste.

According to Congress Daily, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico, said recently that Congress might need to restructure the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project because there is no plan to recycle a growing number of spent fuel rods that would otherwise be stored there. This would mean further delay for a project that is already far behind schedule.

Although Congress approved Yucca Mountain as the site of the repository in 2002, there is growing interest in establishing a second national repository.

The Energy Department has not yet applied for an operating license for Yucca Mountain. Department officials say they will announce a schedule this summer for submitting that application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Energy Department recently sent Congress a plan to modify and expedite completion of the repository, including lifting the current statutory limit on the amount of waste that could be stored there, expediting federal licensing and environmental reviews and withdrawing land around the site from public use.

The Energy Department estimates more than 100,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel will be generated by existing reactors and is advocating that the 70,000 metric ton cap at Yucca be increased. Waste is currently stored at more than 120 temporary locations in 39 states. The House Energy and Water spending bill for fiscal year 2007 includes $30 million for interim storage, though the administration lacks the authorization to proceed with an interim storage plan. The Bush administration requested $250 million for the global partnership and $544.5 million for the Yucca project next year.

The Department of Energy Web site says that President Bush’s GNEP will “use a nuclear fuel cycle that enhances energy security, while promoting non-proliferation” and that it would achieve its goal by having nations with secure, advanced nuclear capabilities provide fuel services — fresh fuel and recovery of used fuel — to other nations who agree to employ nuclear energy for power generation purposes only.

The closed fuel cycle model envisioned by this partnership requires development and deployment of technologies that enable recycling and consumption of long-lived radioactive waste.

The benefits touted by GNEP include providing abundant energy without generating carbon emissions or greenhouse gases, recycling used nuclear fuel to minimize waste and reduce proliferation concerns, safely and securely allowing developing nations to deploy nuclear power to meet energy needs, assuring maximum energy recovery from still-valuable used nuclear fuel, and reducing the number of required U.S. geologic waste repositories to one for the remainder of this century.

Doug Patch of the Concord law firm of Orr and Reno is former chairman of both the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission and the Nuclear Decommissioning Financing Committee. As an attorney, he has represented the owners of the Seabrook nuclear plant in certain matters.

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