Of course, technologies such as wind turbines and hybrid cars also make a good case for government subsidies. The nuclear industry is promoting itself as a pathway to the hydrogen economy. The electricity produced by a nuclear power plant can split water into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis, without creating air pollution. And hydrogen can also be produced directly: the extremely high temperatures inside nuclear reactors can be used to split water molecules.
None of the utilities applying for NRC permits has ordered a new reactor. But if one or more actually goes ahead, it could open the door to investments in a new generation of more efficient plants. “If they are successful in getting new plant construction started in the United States during the next three to five years, that will open the door for other nuclear technologies,” says Regis Matzie, chief technology officer and senior vice president at Westinghouse, who is also a director of the South African consortium seeking to build a pebble bed plant in that country. “Further, restarting nuclear build in the United States will have a profound impact on new nuclear build around the world.”
In a pebble bed reactor, the uranium fuel is encased in billiard ball-sized graphite spheres. The reactor is cooled by helium gas, so it can operate at much higher temperatures than water-cooled plants do, greatly increasing its efficiency. In addition, the technology’s advocates argue, pebble bed plants are ideal for hydrogen production because their operating temperatures make it easier to split water into oxygen and hydrogen without electrolysis. “The success of NuStart should be of great value to [the South African consortium] for the future,” says Matzie.
But there is an inescapable problem with any nuclear-energy strategy: waste. In the past two decades, the U.S. government has spent some $6 billion to develop an underground storage repository at Yucca Mountain, about 140 kilometers from Las Vegas. But there are serious questions about whether the mountain is dry enough to prevent waste containers from eroding for many thousands of years (see “A New Vision for Nuclear Waste,” December 2004).
“The industry should be trying to solve the waste problem. If they want more nuclear power plants, there’s not going to be enough space at Yucca. They are going to have to keep visiting this issue over and over again. If they don’t, it will come back to haunt them,” says Allison Macfarlane, a geologist at MIT and editor of a forthcoming book on Yucca Mountain (Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste).
While the waste problem remains unsolved, current trends favor a nuclear renaissance. Energy needs are growing. Conventional energy sources will eventually dry up. The atmosphere is getting dirtier. But resurrecting the industry will prove to be a delicate task. Neither Entergy nor any other U.S. company has committed to actually building a nuclear power plant. Entergy says that it will wait to see whether Congress approves subsidies before making its next move.