The Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,202nd Meeting

President William Saalbach called the 2,202nd meeting to order at 8:16 pm February 24, 2006. The minutes of the 2,201st meeting were read and approved.

Mr. Saalbach then introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Richard Meserve, president of the Carnegie Institution. Mr. Meserve spoke on “The Future Role of Nuclear Power.”

Mr. Meserve began by saying that a talk like that one would have been inconceivable five years ago. The climate for nuclear power has changed that much.

By way of background, he showed a chart showing the kinds of fuel used to generate electricity in the United States. Fifty one per cent of it comes from coal; nuclear fuel produces 20%; gas 16%; hydro 7%; and 3% of it comes from oil. A mere 2.5% is supplied from all other sources including wind and solar.

Demand for electricity is expected to increase by 50% between 2003 and 2025. In that same period, nuclear plants are scheduled to have their licenses end. License renewal could push the beginning of the demise of the existing plants out to about 2030. In either case, once the licenses begin to lapse, nuclear production will be cut in half in about 15 years and approach zero in about 25 to 30 years.

Prospects seem good for license renewal. Nuclear plants are running around 90% of capacity now, up from about 60% 30 years ago. Ninety per cent is near the theoretical maximum, as they do need to be taken down for refueling. Nuclear electricity is the cheapest power on the grid today, except perhaps hydro.

He sees two factors encouraging new nuclear construction – environmental protection and energy security.

Natural gas, once a home-grown commodity, has turned into an international one. It is bottled in far places in the world, including Russia, and is imported here at increasing rates. This leads to the possibility of supply interruptions and we should expect a cartel similar to OPEC to develop in the natural gas economy.

Essential preconditions for development of new nuclear plants are adequate protection of public health and safety and a continued focus on and assurance of security. Plant operations have gotten better. Plants are on-line much more of the time. They are also better in safety. More than $1 billion has been spent on retrofit security since September 11, 2001. They are not invulnerable, but there are much softer targets than nuclear plants.

Perhaps first among the substantial barriers to building new nuclear plants is finance. It costs three to five million dollars just to get from the application to permission to start building. This process has a history of long delays and expensive retrofits. No new plants have been started since the Three-mile-island accident in 1978. There is a new system of application and approval. The first few companies will bear the cost of developing a new template. Wall Street will look at this history and demand a risk premium. No company wants to be first in that line.

Although there has been a good deal of nuclear generation development around the world, there has been none here. As a result, there is a shortage of the human talent needed. Mr. Meserve believes that this is just a pipeline issue, and the situation will resolve itself. The engineers, craftsmen, and tradesmen will appear when the need develops.

There is the still-unresolved spent fuel problem. The existing policy is that the spent fuel will be placed in Yucca Mountain. It is clear that Yucca Mountain will be very much delayed. An interim solution is needed. This is a problem that needs to be resolved in any event, as we have fuel now that needs to be put into storage.

There are concerns about proliferation. This actually has nothing to do with reactors. The concerns are more related to other phases of the fuel cycle. There is something to be said for the United States being involved in this fuel cycle. Now, over half the fuel comes from Russian weapon-grade, downgraded material.

Nuclear generation has an international dimension. The need for safety goes around the globe, and coordination could improve security. We need harmonization of licensing requirements. Safety could be better served by combining the skills of regulators.

Mr. Meserve closed saying he believes were are on the edge of a nuclear renaissance in the United States. Four companies are beginning to research the prospects of nuclear plants, three are beginning the license process, and ten indicate that they plan to apply by 2008. These companies' current plans anticipate spending a total of about $50 million, and perhaps in those efforts, barriers to new construction can be overcome.

He offered to answer questions.

In response to questions, he mentioned the absence of carbon dioxide emission as another advantage of nuclear generation.

One questioner suggested that the biggest barrier of all is the resistance of neighborhoods and communities to nuclear plants being located there. Mr. Meserve responded that plants will be placed where the energy is going to be used. He noted that, in communities where the plants are now, there is support for nuclear plants, and there is room for additional plants on existing sites. There is a sea change, he said. People are starting to see the need. Even some environmental groups are moving toward nuclear power.

One questioner suggested Mr. Meserve had not been balanced enough, that he had not dealt sufficiently with the security issue, particularly the possibility of an air attack. Mr. Meserve said he thought he had fairly characterized the problems related to the fuel. He observed that, on many of the questions, one could speak for several hours. He said that the public perception has been that an accident is too horrible to think about, and the industry has taken the position that we can make that sufficiently improbable to relieve that concern. It is a hard judgment, he said, how to approach that question.

He also touched on the problems of decommissioning plants, disposing of the waste heat, and a new design featuring smaller reactors and passive cooling. Asked about the impediment to commercial fusion, he recalled a story wherein God was asked a question about some potential eventuality, and God replied, “Not in my lifetime.”

After the discussion, Mr. Saalbach announced the next meeting. He invited guests to join the society. He invited everyone to stay and enjoy the social hour. He made the parking announcement. Finally, at 9:43 pm, he adjourned the 2,202nd meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 52
The weather: Slightly hazy
The temperature: -1°C

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary

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