U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., makes a good case that nuclear power "must be in the mix" in the discussion of future sources of energy. But it also should be noted that nuclear power is one of the costliest alternatives in that mix.
Clyburn, participating in a recent conference attended by utility executives, regulators and educators, stated that using nuclear power to generate electricity is a crucial option that must be considered along with other alternative sources such as solar and wind power. Clyburn, the House majority whip and third most powerful Democrat in Congress, has some clout to wield on the subject.
He also hails from a state that already is a national leader in the use of nuclear power. About half of the electricity consumed in South Carolina comes from the state's four nuclear plants.
Furthermore, the state's energy companies are ready to invest in more reactors. Duke Power, which operates the Catawba Nuclear Station near Clover, plans to build two new reactors near Blacksburg in Cherokee County, while SCE&G and Santee Cooper want to add two reactors to the VC Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County.
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But building new reactors takes years and costs billions of dollars. While the cost of coal to fuel generators may be rising, it still remains far more economical than nuclear power once the cost of building reactors is figured in. And, with ample domestic coal supplies, it will remain cheaper for the forseeable future.
Nuclear advocates have failed to find a viable solution to the long-term storage of radioactive waste. Residents of Nevada still oppose shipping nuclear waste to the designated national storage site at the state's Yucca Mountain.
Meanwhile, tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste are stored on-site at power stations across the nation. Nearly 6,000 huge containers of nuclear waste and hundreds of tons of commercial spent fuel already reside at South Carolina's Savannah River Site. Those arrangements were supposed to have been temporary, but plans to move the high-level waste to Nevada now are on hold.
But despite questions about waste disposal, nuclear power has one big factor in its favor: Compared to coal-generated plants, it's clean. Despite lingering safety concerns, nuclear power has a good track record.
As the consensus grows that the world must confront the threat of global warming, the environmentally friendly nature of nuclear power must be factored into the discussion along with cost.
The nation now gets about 20 percent of its electricity from 104 nuclear power plants. And contrary to what most assume, those plants generate about 25 percent more nuclear power today than they did 10 years ago.
So, it is hard to deny Clyburn's contention that nuclear should be a player in future energy production. The deciding factor might be how much Americans are willing to spend for clean power.