Nuclear summit urges wider use of atomic power

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 7, 2010 

WASHINGTON — In the absence of any government action to cap carbon emissions, new nuclear plants in this country will need loan guarantees and a promise of stable future prices and customers if America is to move forward as a leader in the worldwide nuclear renaissance, panelists at a nuclear power conference said Tuesday.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu called for nuclear power to be part of the mix as the nation moves toward mandating that power companies use more clean and renewable energy. As much as 25 percent of the country's power could be from clean energy by 2025, Chu said at the meeting, which was sponsored by the Idaho National Laboratory and the center-left research center Third Way. By 2050, it could be 50 percent.

"As a nation, in a bipartisan way, I think we should and can get together and decide what would be the best interest economically for this country" that will push it into being a dominant player in nuclear energy, Chu said

Democrats in Congress have been trying to pass renewable electricity standards that would set mandates for the use of solar energy, wind power and other renewable sources such as geothermal. By including nuclear energy, they're more likely to gain the support of Republicans. The mix also could include clean coal technologies, Chu said.

The conference avoided one of the thorniest questions about nuclear power: where to put nuclear waste. Instead, its panelists focused on the other barriers to designing, building and paying for nuclear power plants.

Without a cap on carbon, which would have forced power plants to pay to emit carbon dioxide, nuclear energy is at a disadvantage, panelists said.

"When you have a world like this, where nothing is known, it is impossible to make business decisions. The uncertainty is too high," said John Dyson, who sits on the board of trustees of Third Way and was the chairman of the New York Power Authority when it developed nuclear plants.

One of the concerns of people who decide how to allocate money to energy research and to such programs as loan guarantees is how serious the government will be about nuclear energy going forward, said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who's in line to lead a House Appropriations subcommittee that will decide on some of that spending.

"I still have no vision of where we're headed," he said. "I don't know where we're going to be. As an appropriator, what I need to know is where are we now? Where are we headed? And how do we sustain a long-term effort to get there through changing administrations and changing secretaries?"

Energy companies that might have considered building nuclear plants have little financial certainty. For instance, natural gas prices are relatively low, meaning that it's much cheaper to build gas-fired plants. Nuclear plants, which often are paid for over 70 years, are too expensive. But an energy standard that forces energy companies to have a mix of fuels suddenly makes nuclear more attractive, Chu said.

The conversation must happen, said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, though he said it hadn't been "politically correct" to talk about nuclear energy. But nuclear will be the base-load for American energy moving forward, he said. It's currently one-fifth of the fuel mix used to generate electricity in this country. Coal is 45 percent.

Without $2 billion in federal loan guarantees, French energy giant Areva couldn't have moved ahead with its $3.5 billion Eagle Rock enrichment plant in Idaho, said Mike Rencheck, a top executive with the company. The plant, set to open in 2014, will process uranium for nuclear plants in the United States that could begin coming on line as early as 2015.

Tom Fanning, the CEO of Southern Company, said it, too, wouldn't have been able to proceed with a $14 billion plan to build two reactors in Georgia without the support of the Obama administration and loan guarantees. Now, Fanning said, Southern has to prove itself.

"The key is to get the next plant built, and the plant after that and the plant after that," Fanning said. "We all have to be focused on making these next few plants successful."

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