Joe F. Colvin
The nuclear energy industry has gained enormous credibility among policymakers and the public by virtue of dramatically improved performance - in efficiency and even more importantly in safety. In the United States, coverage by the media has been more positive than ever - even with the security concerns that have been raised since last year's terrorist attacks.
Nuclear energy's affordability and reliability alone would justify a role for the technology in the new century. But an even more important reason is the mounting concern over the environment - air quality, and in particular global warming.
Although there is ample support for the role of nuclear energy in our electricity system, we still face irrational opposition by some anti-nuclear groups. However, more and more public officials - and the general public - the world over are weighing the advantages of nuclear energy against the fear-mongering of nuclear opponents...and are choosing the advantages.
The designation of Yucca Mountain is an important component in a U.S. energy policy that is setting the stage for new nuclear plant construction. However, it is by no means the final step that assures the future of nuclear power. We have a long way to go, and as you would recognize, many challenges remain.
We need patience, commitment and a lot of hard work in the trenches to fulfill nuclear energy's potential in the U.S., and around the world.
First, the Yucca Mountain project is not complete, and will not be for at least another decade. Twenty years and $6 billion of scientific study have affirmed the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site, but much scientific work remains - and a tremendous amount of work in preparation of the DOE license application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. DOE expects to file the license application in 2004, and if things go smoothly could bring the repository into operation by 2010.
The U.S. nuclear industry's capacity factor has risen 20 percent over the past decade, to a record 91 percent. Nuclear electricity production has increased by one-third since 1990 - about 24,000 megawatts. That's like having 24 new reactors come on line, with no construction costs.
The performance of U.S. nuclear plants, coupled with deregulation and the drawbacks associated with other sources of generation, makes them valuable assets to their owners. Naturally, they want to keep them running as long as they can - beyond the arbitrary 40-year span of their licenses.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has streamlined its regulations for license renewal, and we now expect virtually all U.S. plants to seek 20-year renewals. Ten have already been renewed, owners of 16 more plants have applied, and owners of 25 more have notified the NRC of their intention to seek license renewal by 2005. That's nearly half of existing plants in the U.S., already in the process.
Affordable, reliable, stable in forward pricing, emission-free. With all those advantages, it's no wonder nuclear energy is gaining political support. As Secretary Abraham said recently, "Forcefully declaring that nuclear power should be part of the world's fuel mix took some people by surprise, but to us it was just common sense."
The Yucca Mountain site designation has been the most visible aspect of Administration support for nuclear power, but equally important is the Department of Energy's Nuclear Power 2010 program - with the goal of seeing new nuclear plants built in the U.S. by the end of the decade. The private sector must do most of the work to get new plants built, including the all-important issue of how to finance them. But the government has a key role to play.
DOE has begun the process, awarding study grants for the untested NRC early site permitting process to three U.S. companies - Exelon, Entergy and Dominion Resources. The early site permitting work will help to demonstrate new NRC licensing procedures that are theoretically more streamlined, but are unproven.
Of course, one topic that has been discussed in Washington for more than a year now is security. It remains a concern for most Americans, and that concern has been directed at nuclear plants.
Every nuclear plant in the U.S. has been on the highest alert for more than a year now. Prior to the 9-11 attacks, our security was the benchmark for the U.S. industrial sector, and we have significantly enhanced that security. In addition to the robust construction of the plants, they are patrolled by more than 6,000 highly trained and well armed officers, who are in constant contact with law enforcement and intelligence agencies at federal, state and local levels.
A particular concern for some in the public has been the potential impacts of aircraft attacks to nuclear plants. We commissioned an independent study, and based on preliminary results, we are confident that the reinforced concrete and steel containment can protect the reactor from large, fully fueled aircraft at high speeds. Fuel pools and steel container storage would also protect used fuel even from a direct hit by a commercial aircraft.
Our overall strategic objective for nuclear plant security in the U.S. must be to create a seamless defense against terrorist action.
We are not neglecting the future of the industry. Last year, we unveiled our own vision of nuclear energy's future in the U.S. Our Vision 2020 plan calls for 50,000 megawatts of new nuclear capacity by 2020, and another 10,000 megawatts of expansion from existing capacity.
An additional 60,000 megawatts of new capacity might seem like an ambitious goal - the equivalent of three new 1,000-megawatt plants per year between now and 2020 - but it is in reality not excessive, when we consider America's energy needs and our clean air goals. Sixty-thousand megawatts by 2020 will only maintain, not expand, nuclear energy's market share. And it will only maintain our current 30 percent share of emission-free electricity, even with a doubling of renewables in the electricity sector.
Our goal of 10,000 megawatts of expansion is realistic. Uprates approved or under review by the NRC, or announced, will add about 3800 megawatts to U.S. capacity by 2007. About 1500 megawatts of that is attributable to the Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry Unit One, if it restarts as expected, in combination with uprates at the two other Browns Ferry reactors.
In the year since we announced Vision 2020, we have begun laying the groundwork to make it a reality. The early site permitting initiative is part of a system of new legislative and regulatory processes for building and licensing new nuclear plants that includes the Department of Energy's plans.