Is nuclear really an option?
By Jim Ferland
UNLIKE MANY OTHER SECTORS OF THE U.S. economy, the nuclear energy industry is growing. In fact, it's beginning to boom, with the potential to help the United States reduce its carbon footprint while also making a major and positive impact on the U.S. economy over both the near and long term.
In spite of the recent economic downturn, energy demand has risen fairly steadily over the past several decades, while investments in new electric generating capacity have lagged. To keep pace with the rising demand for energy and to remain competitive in the global economy, the country will need to add significant new electric generating capacity.
America's fossil fuel-based generating capacity is aging. Replacing the existing infrastructure and adding new capacity to meet growing demand will also have to meet the demand for green energy, helping to reduce greenhouse gases and the use of carbon-based fuels. But sources such as solar and wind account for less than 10 percent of our electricity supply, and for these sources to meet future demand would not be feasible in many parts of the country.
The growth in overall U.S. electricity demand is expected to increase by as much as 30 percent over the next 25 years. To meet that demand and replace those aging fossil fuel plants, the electric utility industry may need to invest as much as $2 trillion in new generation and transmission during that time period. What's more, it must add this new capacity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Today, there are 104 nuclear power stations in the country, which supply 20 percent of our electricity needs while producing zero emissions of any harmful greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides. Together, nuclear and renewables represent the 27 percent of America's total electricity supply that comes from clean energy sources, and nuclear power produces three-quarters of it, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Clearly, the best way forward is to expand the role of nuclear energy in our domestic energy supply. Although renewable sources clearly have an important role to play in America's energy future, the cost and physical limitations of solar and wind are currently both prohibitive and impractical. Still, America requires new sources of clean and carbon-free sources of baseload energy to fuel economic growth.
From an economic perspective, these operating nuclear plants are already making a major contribution to the U.S. economy through direct spending in local communities and in tax payments to federal, state and local governments. Building new nuclear plants will only increase this already significant economic stimulus.
For example, construction of each single unit nuclear power plant will create 1,400 to 1,800 on-site construction jobs and hundreds of additional support jobs during the construction period. Once a plant is operational, an additional 400 to 700 permanent operational jobs will be created at salaries that are typically 36 percent higher than the average in communities and towns that are home to nuclear plants.
As with existing plants, every new nuclear plant will also produce approximately $430 million annually in sales of goods and services in the local community, creating or sustaining hundreds of long-term, peripheral support jobs while also providing annual state and local tax revenue of, on average, more than $20 million to benefit schools, roads and other state and local infrastructure projects. And the Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that federal tax payments from each plant amount to approximately $75 million annually.
New nuclear plants will also provide a large economic stimulus to the U.S. supply chain through purchases of commodities such as steel, concrete and thousands of electrical components. For example, construction of each new Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear power plant in the United States will require procuring approximately 30,000 cubic yards of concrete, 22,500 tons of rebar, 15,000 metric tons of steel and 300 modules and assemblies.
Presently, 22 new nuclear power plants have been announced for the United States, with six under contract and four in the early stages of construction.
The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that private investment in new nuclear power plants has already created an estimated 14,000 to 15,000 American jobs and many of these are at Westinghouse. This recent job creation is just the beginning as the number of new jobs created will likely increase dramatically after 2013 when the first wave of new nuclear plant construction begins in earnest.
The local benefits of a nuclear energy plant are significant, particularly when weighed against the overwhelming safety record of the current U.S. fleet of plants and the reliability of the current generation of plant design. Over the past 30 years, more than 100 existing commercial reactors in the United States have continued to operate safely and efficiently without a single incident. As a result, Americans now support the use of nuclear power for electricity generation more than at any point in history. According to a study commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute, 70 percent of Americans favor the use of nuclear power, whereas the country was evenly divided on this question just 20 years ago.
A nuclear renaissance has arrived and it presents an extraordinary opportunity to help the U.S. economy rebound. We should embrace this historic chance to achieve energy independence and, at the same time, provide the United States with the clean electricity it needs to support robust economic growth well into the future.