Nuclear power industry sees renewed support for its plants


VERNON, Vt. - To understand how the fortunes of the nuclear power industry have turned around lately, consider the case of Vermont Yankee, a small, rather old nuclear plant beside the broad Connecticut River.

When it was put up for sale in 1999, only one buyer showed interest, offering $23.5 million for the plant. But just before the sale closed, another company said it would pay more.

The first company countered with an offer of more than $93 million. The state board that oversees Vermont Yankee has ordered that the plant be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The premium prices that once-shunned nuclear plants are fetching testify to nuclear power's remarkable turnaround, a revival that can be attributed in part to problems with other forms of energy - mainly the high price of natural gas - and in part to improvements in running nuclear plants more efficiently, resulting in lower costs.

Important obstacles, such as dealing with radioactive waste, remain to be solved before nuclear power achieves the kind of full-blown revival that seems to be envisioned by Vice President Dick Cheney, who gave nuclear energy its strongest public endorsement in decades in a speech last week outlining the Bush administration's probable energy strategy.

But in the euphoria sweeping through the nation's 103 nuclear plants, those hurdles look like mere speed bumps.

Industry executives are starting to talk about building plants.

Cheney, who is putting together a national energy plan for President Bush that could be released as early as this month, noted the environmental benefits of nuclear energy in his speech to newspaper publishers in Toronto.

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