The University of New Mexico’s 42-year-old nuclear engineering program reached a key milestone last July, but few outside UNM noticed.
The program, which offers undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering, became the School of Engineering’s new Nuclear Engineering Department, ending its status as a joint program with chemical engineering for the first time since 1972, said Anil Prinja, interim department chair.
“We decided it made sense to become independent, rebrand ourselves and grow to take advantage of new opportunities,” Prinja said.
UNM already provided the only full degree-granting nuclear program in the Southwest region, except for Texas. But it’s new stand-alone status adds prestige and improves its ability to attract new faculty, more students and possibly research grants.
“We have the potential to broaden our footprint with two major national laboratories here that we can take advantage of to build new programs,” Prinja said. “And although the nuclear industry isn’t exactly roaring back, it still has a big role to play in the U.S. and internationally, and we need an educated workforce.”
The UNM program’s quiet growth and its preparations to accommodate future workforce needs reflect, to a large extent, the state of the nuclear industry today. Nuclear power plants continue to supply a large percentage of the electric generation in the U.S. and elsewhere, with potential for a lot more growth in coming years. Yet its fundamental role in global efforts to transition to a new, carbon-free energy economy is getting very little public attention.
Many energy and climate experts say that can and should change as the push to combat global warming gains force.
“Nuclear has kind of been ignored without being given credit for being a non-carbon energy source,” said Robert Busch, UNM’s nuclear engineering lab director. “Until it gets put into the mix with renewables, it will be hard to justify building new plants. But utilities will be trying to reduce their carbon footprint going forward and probably the most reliable way to do that will be nuclear.”
Indeed, the 100 plants now operating in the U.S. – which supply 19 percent of all domestic electricity consumption – account for more than 60 percent of the nation’s zero-emissions generation, according to a 2014 report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Virginia. And while wind and solar are growing exponentially, without the nuclear plants, U.S. carbon emissions would have been 289 to 439 million tons higher in 2014, and 4 to 6 billion metric tons higher over the period from 2012 to 2025, the report said.
New Mexico is greatly benefitting, thanks to Public Service Company of New Mexico’s participation in the Arizona-based Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, which now provides 268 megawatts of electricity to New Mexico consumers, or about 21 percent of the total kilowatt-hours generated on the PNM grid. And, under PNM’s proposal to shut down half of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station – which will cut carbon emissions from that plant by 50 percent – the utility wants to add another 134 MW of Palo Verde electricity to the grid.
Despite the benefits, environmental and clean energy organizations remain severely divided over the use of nuclear power as an alternative non-carbon source of generation. The Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy, for example – which includes 11 local organizations – hasn’t taken a stand on the Palo Verde generation per se because its members remain divided over its value as a renewable energy source.
“Some feel strongly that because nuclear energy is zero carbon emission, it’s better than others and should be allowed at least for the time being,” said CCAE attorney Chuck Noble. “Others are opposed. So, as a group that tries to work by consensus, we’re not taking a position on Palo Verde, only that when and if it comes that it be at the lowest reasonable price for ratepayers.”
Nationally, mainstream environmental organizations remain opposed to relying on nuclear generation to reduce carbon emissions, favoring instead energy efficiency to lower electric consumption, plus aggressive wind and solar development backed by natural gas as needed.
“Nuclear has a host of significant and sizeable challenges that come with it that make it a less viable option as a generation source in the long term and as a carbon reduction tool in the short term,” said Geoff Settus, senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council’s energy program in Washington, D.C. “It’s extremely expensive – that’s the first thing – and it has a host of environmental, safety and security impacts that are extraordinary. … We think there are better options.”
Such opposition grew in the U.S. and internationally following the 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, where an earthquake-induced tsunami wiped out cooling systems and caused partial meltdowns in reactor cores. Since then, Japan has temporarily shut down its 50 nuclear power plants and Germany plans to phase out its facilities by 2022.
Environmentalists are concerned about more accidents and also about the long-term storage of radioactive waste from power plants.
However, the biggest hurdle to building new plants is poor economics. It takes between $7 and $10 billion and eight to 10 years from planning to construction to build the massive plants. And, with natural gas prices at historic lows, utilities today prefer to build gas-fueled generators to replace aging, carbon-heavy coal plants, although that could change in a few years if gas prices rise again.
Meanwhile, the nuclear industry is developing a new generation of small modular reactors – tiny nuclear plants that could provide power for cities or local communities at a fraction of the cost for building today’s mammoth generating stations. And significant plant safety enhancements, such as passive cooling features that don’t rely on generators to keep water flowing to reactor cores, make future accidents like Fukushima extremely unlikely.
Such improvements have encouraged many countries in Asia, the Middle East and other places to pursue new nuclear programs, with 70 plants now under construction in places like China and India, and 160 more planned, according to the World Nuclear Association, a trade group.
“China is just going crazy with reactors right now and a lot more are being built in other Asian countries to take care of growing energy needs while reducing reliance on coal-fired facilities,” UNM’s Busch said.
In the U.S., however, only five new reactors are currently under development and no more are expected in the next 10 to 15 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Rather, the industry is likely to seek 20-year life extensions to existing power plants.
Climate scientists warn that the lack of plans for new nuclear development is a dangerous path forward because utilities will instead increase their reliance on natural gas as carbon regulations cause more coal plants to shut down. That’s a problem because, while natural gas burns cleaner than coal, methane is about 80 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas during the first 20 years after it’s emitted into the atmosphere. In addition, if methane leakage and venting, or “flaring,” in the mining and production process is included, use of natural gas for electric generation may be as carbon-heavy as coal generation.
Given the concerns about natural gas, plus the limits of wind and solar to meet rising global energy demand on their own, many of the world’s top climate change experts are now pushing environmental groups and policy makers to include nuclear energy in all anti-carbon power plans. That includes James Hansen, the internationally renowned climatologist who inspired the 350.org climate campaign. Hansen warned in an email to the Journal in May that environmentalists and clean energy advocates urgently need to re-evaluate their stance on nuclear energy and begin promoting rather than opposing it.
“History is not going to be kind to the environmental groups,” Hansen told the Journal . “There is real danger, fast becoming unavoidable, that will leave young people with a situation and consequences out of their control. We scientists will deserve blame for not making the story clearer than we have, but so too will the environmental groups – how ironic that they cling to the adjective ‘environmental’ and pretend to deserve it.”