Nuclear revival a mix of hope and fear

For a decade, Dorthe Matowitz worked as a piping inspector at nuclear power plants, but tired of all the travel and switched occupations three years ago.

She is now in demand by a revitalized nuclear power industry scrambling for skilled help.

"They've called to tell me that many of their inspectors are nearing retirement or are still trainees," she said. "Good inspectors are needed because business is booming."

Baltimore's Constellation Energy Group is among those leading the industry's revival with plans to build the nation's first new nuclear reactor adjacent to its existing Calvert Cliffs plant.

A handful of other large companies have proposed dozens of new reactors nationwide, though some question how many will actually be built.

Many investors are divided over the future of the industry. For older Americans, the word "nuclear" conjures up memories of grade-school drills to prepare for a Soviet attack.

Later, the Three Mile Island situation, Chernobyl radiation and The China Syndrome movie underscored why nuclear reactors were shuttered or moratoriums declared in the 1970s and 1980s. Construction cost overruns and delays made matters worse.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, plant security and the trustworthiness of some nations to handle nuclear material are big issues. So is nuclear waste disposal.

The ever-hopeful side of the equation is that nuclear plants account for 20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply, and nearly three-fourths of all the electricity generation that emits no air pollutants or greenhouse gases.

Coal-fired plants are major global-warming suspects, while wind turbines and solar panels have a way to go to become major sources of clean power.

The move to new energy sources and away from fossil fuels revived nuclear power. A streamlined Nuclear Regulatory Commission permit process, government subsidies and advanced construction methods helped.

And businesses see money in nuclear power:

International Business Machines Corp. established a Global Center of Excellence for Nuclear Power in France to support "safe, reliable and efficient electricity generation."

GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy signed an agreement with Entergy Nuclear to develop and provide components for nuclear plants for Mississippi and Louisiana.

Westinghouse Electric Co. and a partner received multibillion-dollar contracts with China for four nuclear power plants there.

Russia is building a fleet of ships equipped with nuclear reactors and has a $60 billion land-based nuclear program. Vietnam and Thailand recently announced plans to build plants.

Twenty countries are considering initiation or expansion of nuclear power generation. In the U.S., the NRC expects a dozen applications for reactors this year. Earlier this year, Constellation submitted the first partial application the agency has seen in 30 years. More than 440 nuclear reactors exist in 38 countries.

Stocks of companies such as Constellation Energy, General Electric Co., Entergy Corp., Exelon Corp. and Dominion Resources Inc. that aggressively embrace nuclear power receive the most attention, but this growing industry will encompass many firms.

For investors, the balancing act between hopes and fears will begin in earnest.

Andrew Leckey writes for Tribune Media Services.

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