Signs of a comeback for nuclear power

The last time an American electric utility won a license to operate a nuclear power plant, Earl Weaver was managing the Orioles, cellular telephones were in the prototype phase and a Web site was a place a spider caught insects.

The year was 1978, one year before the near-disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania spooked the American public out of its fascination with atomic energy and eight years before the catastrophe at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl plant reinforced opposition to nuclear projects.


Two decades after Chernobyl, despite lingering concerns about what to do with the deadly waste nuclear reactors generate, there are signs that the U.S. nuclear industry's winter might be closer to a spring thaw.

Under the pressures of rising energy costs, dependence on foreign oil and worries about global warming, some Americans are taking a new look at nuclear power and recalculating the risks.


An energy bill passed by Congress last year dangles the carrot of billions of dollars in incentives to utilities interested in building reactors. And the industry has the vocal backing of President Bush.

"It's time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again," the president said during a visit last year to Constellation Energy's Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Southern Maryland.

The prospect of monetary and political support has encouraged electric utilities to propose about a dozen sites for nuclear reactors, including an additional reactor at Calvert Cliffs in Lusby.

Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the agency has beefed up its staff to handle the anticipated licensing process.

"We are acting under the assumption that there are going to be multiple new applications for reactors coming in," he said.

One of them might be from Constellation Energy, which is studying whether Calvert Cliffs can accommodate a third reactor.

"We haven't done anything in this country for decades, while the rest of the world has been moving forward aggressively with nuclear power," said George Vanderheyden, a senior vice president of Constellation and president of its UniStar Nuclear venture. "If this country is going to any form of energy independence, nuclear power is critical to the mix."

Vanderheyden said Constellation might apply for a construction permit as early as mid-2008. If everything went well, he said, the company could break ground by 2012 and have a new reactor operating by late 2015.


Given the length of the permitting process - even after it was streamlined by Congress - that is a notably optimistic prediction. More cautious forecasters, including those who support nuclear power, doubt that any new nuclear plants will be generating electricity in the next decade.

"I'll bet it will be more like 2020," said nuclear power proponent S. David Alley, president of ANNA Inc., an Annapolis-based energy industry consultant.

Nevertheless, Alley said, with fossil-fuel costs rising and concern about global warming growing, the nuclear power industry could make a comeback.

"The public perception of nuclear power is going to go through some magic changes based on the financial pain we're all going to be feeling in a few years from the price of electricity," he said. "What I think should really sway public opinion is the environmental issue."

But for every argument in favor of increased nuclear power, there appears to be an equally compelling reason to be wary:

The problem of how to dispose of the highly radioactive waste that is a byproduct of nuclear power generation. The federal government's effort to open a repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain has been stalled for years because of significant legal and regulatory challenges.


The enormous capital costs of a nuclear power plant make traditional fossil-fuel plants more attractive financially.

Concerns that human error or terrorism could lead to a significant release of radioactivity. Even minor nuclear incidents could deter investors.

"Wall Street doesn't like nuclear power," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park. "Basically, it's regarded as too risky by the people who put up the money."

Makhijani said the growth of the domestic nuclear power industry had stalled by the time of Three Mile Island and suffered from the high interest rates of the early 1980s and excess capacity.

He said the coup de grace was the failure of the Washington Public Power System in 1982 in what was then the largest U.S. municipal bond default in history.

"By the time of Chernobyl, the gravestone of the U.S. nuclear power industry had already been prepared," he said.


Last year, in an effort to resurrect the industry, Congress passed an energy bill that includes billions of dollars in loan guarantees and tax incentives for the utilities that build the next six reactors in the United States. But none of the money has been appropriated.

Makhijani said that for the cost of building a nuclear plant, a utility could construct a clean coal-fired plant. Coal, he said, remains relatively cheap and bountiful.

Vanderheyden disagrees, saying clean-coal technologies would be more expensive. The price of coal has not soared, he said, but the cost of transporting it has.

Also affecting the debate is the question of disposal of spent nuclear fuel, which remains dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. For now, the spent fuel rods are stored in cooling ponds at the nuclear power plants.

The U.S. government's long-term plan for disposing of nuclear waste involves transporting it to Yucca Mountain. Last week, the Bush administration proposed legislation that would almost double the amount of waste that could be stored there.

Reactor owners, eager to move the accumulated waste off their properties, support the program.


"Yucca Mountain, from my perspective, from the industry's perspective, is a very good solution," Vanderheyden said.

But the government plan, which is vehemently opposed by Nevada and anti-nuclear activists, has been stalled for years as the Department of Energy has struggled to build a case that could win regulatory approval and survive court challenges.

Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, questions whether the Yucca Mountain storage facility will be built. He said the site was chosen more because of politics - lightly populated Nevada has a small congressional delegation - than its inherent suitability.

"It can't meet the regulations," he said. "It's a seismically active area."

Makhijani said the nuclear industry is also facing growing credibility problems as a result of recent reports of leaks of tritium - a radioactive form of hydrogen - into groundwater at about a half-dozen U.S. nuclear plants. He said the NRC is unsure of the extent of the problem.

"Until there's actual concrete being laid, I'm quite skeptical that there will be any new reactors," Mariotte said.