The United States’ nuclear energy industry has been in dire straits for years now. Despite the fact that nuclear has a huge advantage in the field of clean energy, with a well-established industry and infrastructure, zero carbon emissions, and an urgent need to curb greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, U.S. nuclear just can’t catch a break.
Nuclear energy plants in the United States have been shutting down as other countries, most notably China and Russia, are ramping up their nuclear energy sectors. Even though the United States is responsible for a whopping third of all nuclear energy production worldwide, the country is quickly losing ground as nuclear plants struggle to turn a profit. Hit hard by the influx of cheap oil and natural gas from the domestic shale revolution, the nuclear energy industry in the U.S. is now being pummeled once again by COVID-19, and this time, many experts are wondering whether the industry can weather the storm.
Now, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is mobilizing to combat the failure of the domestic nuclear energy sector. “Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, the top brass of DOE and what loosely might be described as the nuclear energy establishment took to a webinar May 29 to explain and endorse the plan,” Forbes reported this week. “The industry was represented by Maria Korsnick, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the dominant nuclear power trade association, and by Clarence ‘Bud’ Albright, CEO of the smaller U.S. Nuclear Industry Council.” Related: China Set To Ramp Up Natural Gas Imports This Decade The ambitious plan to revitalize U.S. nuclear energy centers around “the creation of a $1.5-billion uranium stockpile along with associated nuclear processing facilities,” said Forbes. “Collectively, these are known as the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle.” This feasibility of this plan has a strong foundation, considering that the United States is sitting on enough uranium to power the country for hundreds of years.
Last summer, the United States’ Uranium Committee of the Energy Minerals Division, an organization tasked with monitoring the nation's uranium and nuclear power industries, released their 2019 Annual Report at the yearly meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in San Antonio. “The report assessed that the U.S. has more uranium than we would need to fuel hundreds of years of nuclear power generation, even if nuclear power was being relied on as a much more significant source of energy in the U.S.,” Oilprice reported at the time. “This is great news for nuclear supporters in the United States, though historically the country has not mined its own uranium but imported the radioactive metal from other countries.”
The DOE’s idea of creating a uranium stockpile is appealing to the nuclear energy industry because mining and processing uranium into the “yellowcake” which is actually useful to the industry as fuel takes years. So this DOE project would allow the sector easier and more efficient access to fuel, to be sure, but will this really save the nuclear industry? Not really, since uranium has never been the issue.
According to Energy Secretary Brouillette, this plan for the new “front end of the nuclear fuel cycle” is “both to revive the domestic industry and to protect the nuclear navy,” as paraphrased by Forbes. “But the DOE has undermined its own nuclear navy argument by stating that the nuclear navy is well-supplied with fuel until 2050, and more uranium in storage would do nothing for the nuclear industry which is in decline. It is the equivalent of getting a haircut to cure a stomachache.”
According to Forbes’ reporting, this new plan lacks teeth because it does nothing to address what it identifies as the “two real problems of the [nuclear energy] industry,” which are the absence of a domestic market for new nuclear reactors and the difficulty in maintaining operations at the country’s existing plants. In fact, the U.S. has built next to zero new reactors in the last three decades, and those reactors that are managing to stay above water are largely doing so thanks to hefty government subsidies. And then there is the crushing cost of maintaining nuclear waste, which is falling on the shoulders of U.S. taxpayers. Forbes calls the shuttering of functioning nuclear power plants “a tragedy” and “environmental vandalism.”
So does the nuclear industry need help? Yes. Does it need innovation? Most certainly. Will a uranium stockpile provide help or innovation? Not in any significant way.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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