The U.S. Energy Crisis and the Role of New Nuclear Plants

author: Thomas A. Christopher
published: Aug. 7, 2012,   recorded: November 2007,   views: 3535

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“This machine of ours is running out of control” is Thomas A. Christopher’s sobering assessment of the consequences we face as a result of our insatiable appetite for energy. Christopher provides lucid and detailed descriptions of energy markets, nuclear and power plant design and operations, and a blunt message about our energy future.

As goes the cost of fuel, so goes the price of electricity, Christopher warns. And the cost of fuel, whether coal, which produces 60-70% of our electricity, or natural gas, is spiking upward. Christopher sees resource shortages today unlike any he’s ever known, and electricity markets are consequently extremely volatile. Consumers are buffered – for the moment – by legislation many states impose on utilities. But fuel prices continue their rise, because China and India import U.S. coal; the U.S. increasingly imports natural gas; and utilities expensively retrofit plants to reduce emissions. Domestic demand increases 3% per year, so electricity costs will follow. Depending on where you live in the U.S., Christopher says to expect rate increases of 15% to 50% a year.

And this is where nuclear power comes in; the economics make it inevitable, Christopher says. A combination of slimmed-down reactor construction designs and a less cumbersome federal permitting process will make possible a new generation of nuclear plants - the first to come online in decades. Christopher describes 17,000- page permitting documents detailing such safety features as how a plant will withstand the crash of a fully loaded jumbo jet into its reactor containment building or spent fuel pit. With the growing demand for renewable energy, the U.S. government is attempting to encourage the first handful of these $4- to $6-billion projects by backing up bank loans. After Seabrook and Shoreham led to protracted licensing processes and escalating construction costs, few banks want to be first to jump into the financing game, notes Christopher.

While the new plants have larger capacities (1650 megawatts) than the 104 older plants running in the U.S., and even if several should come online by 2015 (the earliest projections), Christopher points out that U.S. demand is growing by 20 to 30 thousand megawatts per year, and energy conservation won't cut into this demand sufficiently to keep prices down. Because of spiraling costs, "The country needs nuclear power as one part of the electricity generation mix." Nevertheless, he concludes, "given that nuclear is only 20% of the content, the truth is our society is going to have to get adjusted to high electricity prices."

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