Going Green, Going Nuclear

Recently, I joined my fellow seniors for a nostalgic rendezvous at Annenberg, courtesy of the Senior Swap dinner. As I was helping myself to water, I noticed a little sign above the coffee maker that read something to the effect of, “Our coffee grounds are an essential component of Harvard’s new, all-natural fertilizer.” In any case, it was one more proof of how Harvard’s new slogan “Green is the new Crimson” has permeated campus life.

Over the course of the past decade, green culture and investments in green technology have skyrocketed in the U.S. From 2004 to 2005, sales of the hybrid Toyota Prius nearly doubled, as they did again from 2006 to 2007. Green construction, unknown just 10 years earlier, had by 2007 blossomed into a $12 billion industry. Shoppers everywhere have started toting around little reusable sacks as an eco-friendly alternative to the disposable paper and plastic bags of yore.

But this interest in going green has been accompanied by a growing demand for energy—a demand that is expected, according to the Energy Information Administration, to rise nearly 26 percent by 2030. In my class on thermodynamics last semester, fuel-cell technology received a lot of attention, and I’ve been flagged down countless times by insistent, blue-shirted activists who solicit signatures for the proposed wind farm on Nantucket Sound. However, there is another technology being embraced by the proponents of green technology and by evolving government policy, that is making headlines. It generates no carbon dioxide, its marginal cost of production is extremely low, and it has proven reliable. It’s nuclear.

A detailed report by IBISWorld stated, “Although concerns over the safety of nuclear power plants, especially relating to waste disposal, are likely to persist, rising concern over climate change is expected to improve the image of nuclear power.” This is indeed proving to be the case, with two-thirds of self-described environmentalists now declaring in favor of nuclear energy. All told, 67 percent of all Americans are now positively disposed toward constructing new nuclear power plants, with 46 percent emphatically so.

Already 19.6 percent of all the United States’ energy comes from nuclear sources, and although the most recent plant to come online did so in 1977, the green proponents are pushing for a wave of new construction. According to the Department of Energy website, the Nuclear Power 2010 program unveiled in 2002 “has succeeded in building momentum toward a ‘nuclear renaissance’ in which nuclear plants are effective options for zero-carbon electricity production.” Together with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, this program put in place a set of initiatives that provide for some degree of cost sharing between the DOE and industry and expedite “approval for construction and new plant designs.”

For example, the process of obtaining government approval for building new nuclear reactors will be streamlined by developing standard certification procedures for certain generic types of reactors. Also, the “early site permit” component allows firms to receive government approval for their proposed site prior to making their final go-ahead decision. The program sets up a mechanism for firms to simultaneously obtain construction and operating licenses, with the latter conditional on the plant being built to specification. Furthermore, specific provisions in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 offer tax breaks, cost-over run aid (up to $2 billion for the first six new nuclear power plants), and various types of loan guarantees.

Once up and running, nuclear power plants can be very economically efficient: According to the World Nuclear Organization, “The operational cost of nuclear power—1.87 cents/kWh in 2008—is 68 percent of electricity cost from coal and a quarter of that of gas.”

Furthermore, nuclear power plants have the advantage of being proven technology: France, a technology leader, has used nuclear energy for nearly 50 years and since the 1970s has gone from being an electricity importer to the largest exporter in the world. France itself obtains 78.8 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources, and with its pressurized water reactors, France has yet to experience any major accidents.

In response to the Nuclear Power 2010 program and Energy Policy Act, the DOE has already received 17 new applications to build 26 new nuclear reactors. With the growing demand for clean technologies, energy companies have banded together to form three separate consortiums, each of which has been granted early site permits. These consortia carry the technical expertise and solid credibility of established U.S. and international organizations, including players such as General Electric, Constellation Energy, Westinghouse Electric, EDF Energy, AREVA, Bechtel Corporation, and Duke Energy.

According to Cold War era satirist Fred Lehrer, “when the earth becomes uranious, we will all go simultaneous…oh, we’ll all fry together when we fry.” However, with nuclear power rising to the forefront as the new green, it seems he may have gotten it backward. It actually looks like nuclear may prove a valuable ally in the fight against global warming.

Karin M. Jentoft ’10 is an engineering sciences concentrator in Dunster House.