By Jarret Adams
Amid the many benefits that America’s 104 nuclear power plants provide, increased energy security is rarely mentioned. It is perhaps obscured by the fact that nuclear energy is by far the nation’s largest source of low-carbon electricity. People often talk about the reliability of U.S. nuclear power plants with average capacity factor above 90 percent. And nuclear power produces low-cost electricity – building a new plant is a significant investment, but the cost of electricity from this plant over its 60-year lifespan is predictable and affordable.
But what often gets lost in the shuffle is how our investment in nuclear power makes our energy supply more secure. Nuclear plant fuel comes mostly from uranium, which is plentiful. Utilities sign long-term contracts for uranium supply. Most of the mined uranium in American reactors comes from Canada, perhaps our nation’s closest ally and trading partner. (However, it should be noted that about 50% of U.S. nuclear fuel comes from converted Soviet weapons material, but that is another story.)
Fuel costs are only a small portion of the cost of nuclear generation, whereas it is the largest portion of the cost of generating electricity from fossil fuel-fired power plants. With natural gas plants, fuel represents about 70% of generating costs. When the cost of natural gas fluctuates (as it often does) the cost of generation fluctuates too. Adding nuclear energy to the mix adds diversity in supply and provides a hedge against these fluctuations in prices.
Energy security has been a major factor in the decision for most countries that have developed a significant nuclear sector. It was the oil crisis of the early 1970s that caused France to commit to nuclear energy in a big way. Today nearly 80% of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power, and it has the lowest electricity prices in Europe and among the lowest emissions per capita.
Recycling nuclear fuel offers additional benefits in terms of energy security. When you recycle used fuel, you reduce the need for fresh uranium by 25% and create a domestic energy source consisting of recycled uranium and mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. The recycled fuel can be used again in standard nuclear plants. If the United States were to recycle the used fuel now stored at plant sites, it would power our 104 reactors for more than six years.
Today America’s nuclear plants produce about 20% of our electricity and also promote our energy security. However, we will need to invest in new plants to replace the reactors nearing the end of their operational lives. It is estimated we will need to build dozens of new plants over the next decades to maintain nuclear energy’s contribution.
In closing, here is a very interesting op-ed by Steve Kidd, deputy director of the World Nuclear Association, in Nuclear Engineering International that discusses how nuclear power supports a nation’s energy security.
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