Expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. : opportunities, issues, and future planning
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With growing concerns about energy resource availability and about greenhouse gases, alternatives are increasingly becoming essential elements in the strategic development for electricity production in the U.S. and the world. Nuclear power for electricity is expected to increase substantially over the next 30 years. In order to sustain nuclear expansion in the U.S., nuclear capacity must be increased and uranium resources secured. With this expansion comes the need for more efficient safety regulation, technology, licensing processes, and waste disposal strategies. The U.S. continues to stay up with the newest technological improvements in nuclear reactors as well as safety maintenance and safe plant designs. Even with safety improvements, the public perception of the ability of the nuclear power industry to meet safety standards is basically unchanged since the Three Mile Island accident. In addition, the licensing process in the U.S. for new nuclear power plants has yet to be streamlined in order to open new plants in a timely manner. In relation to waste disposal issues, the DOE has been faced with re-occurring quality assurance issues associated with the licensing of the long term disposal site at Yucca Mountain. There is a possibility that the disposal site will be unable to get a license to operate due to the management issues in relation to quality assurance and the safety concerns associated with its operation. The option to reprocess spent fuel is becoming more feasible; however, its commercial viability is partly dependent on the price of uranium, which is recently on the rise. Re-introducing reprocessing may prove to be too costly and not very effective. The reprocessing of spent fuel will not eliminate the need for a waste disposal site. In addition, there are too many costs and safety issues that the U.S. cannot currently deal with sufficiently, considering the political issues involved with the production of nuclear weapons. In order to sustain nuclear expansion in the U.S., it is necessary to expand nuclear capacity and to ensure that uranium resources are secured. The U.S. only has around 5% of the world's reasonably assured resources (RAR). Uranium production in the U.S. hit its lowest level in 2001 with 1,000tU, declining 60 percent from the 1999 levels of production. Decreased production is attributable to several factors. 1) The price of uranium effects U.S. exploration due to the high exploration and extraction costs of the resource. The recent uranium price increase has led to a slow increase in production since 2003; however, the U.S. has not seen a significant impact on the uranium market from this gradual increase in production. 2) The availability of only high cost, deeper ores has increased the costs of mining uranium in the U.S. Since 2002, in-situ leach (ISL) extraction is the only method used in the U.S. ISL offers the benefit of reducing costs of extraction and minimizing environmental impacts. 3) Despite lower costs from ISL, production has still decreased because of the depletion of low-cost resources that can compete with foreign sources. The U.S. imports most of its uranium resources for this reason. In addition, secondary uranium resources, such as excess commercial inventories, are essential to meet world demand; however, this source is finite and can only be relied on for the short-term. In order to sustain growth in the nuclear power industry in the U.S., uranium resources for the long-term must be secured, and movement from secondary to primary uranium sources is essential. Undoubtedly nuclear power will play a huge role in future electricity production in the U.S. It will take effective solutions to the issues and concerns at hand in order to make the nuclear power industry prosper and grow to meet future energy demands.