WASHINGTON—Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Yucca Mountain. For the past 25 years, a nuclear industry already saddled with prohibitive costs and radioactive waste struggled in the face of the worst fears about nuclear power.
But the atom is rebounding.
The Senate this week is debating energy legislation that includes tax incentives, loan guarantees and federal liability protection for new reactors. The Senate bill also would authorize $1.3 billion for cutting-edge nuclear-hydrogen projects.
An industry saddled with high reactor-construction costs and expensive disposal of nuclear waste now is inching toward competitiveness as a cleaner, though still distrusted, alternative to coal as the electric-power source of the future.
No less a skeptic than Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., this week touted the pro-nuke provisions before Congress. "You're going to see a movement toward nuclear power," he said. "If it's done right, we believe it will protect the environment."
Even a handful of environmentalists—a group that long viewed fission with suspicion—say they could tolerate new nuclear power because it doesn't cause global warming, the top environmental problem to many.
"Climate change is such a serious issue ... that we have to examine all low-carbon and especially zero-carbon solutions," said Judi Greenwald of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, an environmentalist think tank.
Yes, after almost 30 years of cooling interest, nuclear is getting hot. But it may never reach critical mass.
Wall Street, which has to finance new multibillion-dollar reactors, hasn't joined the nuclear chorus. Bankers and investors want to see something built first, creating a chicken-and-an-egg scenario, says one top economist who studies nuclear-power finance.
"There's a lot of focus on Congress and what Congress wants to do and the subsidies," said Geoff Rothwell, an economist at Stanford University who's advised the Department of Energy on nuclear-power economics. "But it all depends on Wall Street and whether or not Wall Street wants to be involved in financing nuclear power. At this point they're not interested."
Or, as Jason Grumet, the executive director of the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, said: "The interest in nuclear power is necessary, but not sufficient to rejuvenate the industry."
Still, "the momentum gained in the past six or eight months is palpable," said Mike Wallace, the president of Constellation Generation, which has 34 power plants, including five nuclear ones. The industry's spending in new nuclear planning "is at a level we haven't seen in 25 years."
Wallace acknowledged that Wall Street isn't willing to risk financing nuclear projects that could be caught up in regulatory delays. That's why federal aid is needed to build the first three or four plants to demonstrate nuclear's new feasibility, he said.
Nuclear is climbing out of a deep hole.
The partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 resulted in tighter government regulations but transformed the public's abstract apprehension into real fear. The 1986 accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine, which killed 30 people, forced massive evacuations and left a legacy of thyroid cancer among its survivors, turned fear of nuclear-plant disasters into horror.
Over the past two decades, however, reactor technology has improved, global warming has emerged as the most profound environmental worry and the energy industry has realized that coal, which accounts for 52 percent of electricity production in this country, would require expensive technology to reduce pollution.
"It really doesn't make a lot of sense to be building just conventional coal plants if that commits us to 30, 40 years of high emissions or, alternatively, to very high costs of fixing that," said M. Granger Morgan, head of the Engineering and Public Policy Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
That's not to say Congress is backing away from coal. The House of Representatives' version of energy legislation, which already passed, would authorize $200 million annually over five years to develop "clean coal" technologies. The Senate bill has a similar provision.
The House bill provides $8.1 billion over 11 years in energy-related tax cuts for producers and consumers. The Senate bill would double that amount and sets a goal of reducing U.S. demand for oil by 1 million barrels a day. Overall, the Senate bill would cost nearly $36 billion over the next five years. Final legislation will face its toughest test when the House and Senate reconcile their bills.
Next week, senators will vote on a key amendment by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. They aim to reduce greenhouse gases by placing strict limits on carbon-dioxide emissions. A similar amendment failed in 2003, but McCain and Lieberman have sweetened the pot by adding a series of subsidies for clean fuels, especially for nuclear power.
"Nuclear has to be part of any equation that would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions," McCain said. "I'm all for wind, solar, tide, biomass, all those things, but they don't have—at least in this stage of development—that significant an impact on our energy needs."
Reid, once an ardent foe of nuclear power, now says it's time to consider the benefits of nuclear power. Reid's opposition was based on the government's desire to store nuclear waste beneath Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Reid, like most Nevadans, had no desire to make his state a burial ground for spent but still radioactive nuclear fuel.
But the Yucca Mountain proposal has been set back by the discovery of U.S. Geological Survey e-mails that suggest some documents related to the site were falsified. And a federal appeals court rejected anti-radiation plans for the storage facility, delaying its completion until at least 2012.
"Yucca Mountain certainly isn't dead, but it's on a breathing machine," Reid said. He thinks each nuclear plant will have to develop the capability to store waste on site indefinitely.
Still, not everyone is jumping on the nuclear bandwagon.
Many environmentalists and some members of Congress believe the no-fault insurance coverage the federal government provides to the nuclear industry amounts to an unfair and expensive subsidy. Others aren't as satisfied about the fate of nuclear waste.
"Why aren't we putting more money into research, into safety processing?" asked Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democratic leader in the Senate. "That is the most hopeful way to deal with nuclear waste. If there is a way to reprocess that waste without leading to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, that's the answer to our prayers."
No electrical utility has built a nuclear plant in the United States since the 1970s. Right now, 104 plants operate at near full capacity. Experts predict that more plants will be required if nuclear is to sustain its 20 percent share of U.S. electricity production. The Department of Energy predicts that, with increasing demand for electricity, nuclear power will account for only 14 percent of electrical power production by 2025.
"Just to continue to provide 20 percent of our U.S. electrical supply, we will need to build 50 new 1,000-megawatt nuclear plants between today and 2030," said Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and head of a business coalition monitoring energy legislation. "We're not talking about increasing nuclear, we're just looking at projected demand."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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