Saturday, May 17, 2008

Nuclear power revival - real or just talk?

The nation's quiescent nuclear power industry should adopt the polar bear as its mascot.

Nothing has done more to boost the chances of a nuclear plant revival in the U.S. than the ubiquitous photos of helpless polar bears struggling to maintain balance on ever-shrinking floes as global warming eats away at their once boundless icy real estate.

The companies that design and build nuclear reactors and the energy utilities that would buy and operate them have seized on global-warming fears to offer nuclear power as the non-carbon-polluting alternative to fossil fuel generation.

And...shhhh (they whisper), as an added bonus, we won't have to spend billions invading other countries (OK, maybe Canada) to keep the raw material for that energy coming.

Putting aside the still pesky problem of what to do with spent uranium rods and some lingering concerns about widespread human death and environmental destruction should the midnight to eight shift fall asleep while the plants' innards burp, the industry could have a winner on their hands.

Some pluses:

* Safety Since the Three-Mile Island scare near Harrisburg in 1979 that sent the industry into a polar bear freeze, nuclear power plants have demonstrated a near flawless safety record here and internationally.

* Others are doing it France gets 77 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors. Japan gets 30 percent. Residents of the Garden State may be surprised to learn that New Jersey relies on home-grown nuclear power for 40 percent of its energy needs.

* The competition are environmental bad boys To keep pace with growing energy demand, the nation needs to build more power plants. Conventional energy plants are powered either by coal or natural gas--both contributors to greenhouse gases. Coal has a special place in the pantheon of environmental villains. Read: The dark side of energy independence or watch the current Comcast On Demand viewing of Burning the Future: Coal in America

* The competition gets costlier The rising cost of both coal and natural gas is eroding their historic standing as the nation's preferred sources of ample and cheap power fuel.

So, there really is something to all this talk in the media about a nuclear revival, right?

The industry is doing its best to convince you and political leaders (who control the levers of federal subsidies and state environmental controls) that this is the case.

It has cranked up a public relations effort in Washington and state capitols and has had great success in getting ink and electrons for its side of the energy debate.

[In New Jersey, the nuclear lobby got to practice is arguments over the past year in supporting a 20-year renewal of the federal operating license for the Oyster Creek nuclear plant--the nation's oldest--in Forked River, NJ. See: NJ nuke's relicensing looks like a done deal and More on New Jersey nuclear advocacy ]

There also are signs of interest in building new plants from more than a few utilities.

In New Jersey energy giant PSEG has made no secret of the fact that it is exploring the possibility of adding a new reactor in South Jersey, where it already has three nuclear stations.

And just this past week in Pennsylvania, PPL announced that it has informed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it might apply for a license for a third reactor at the Susquehanna nuclear power plant about 75 miles northwest of the Lehigh Valley.

But most of the announcements about energy company interest in testing the nuclear waters are couched in lots of "maybes."

That's due to a host of hard-to-quantify variables, including questions about: projected construction costs, financial market support, government financing, tax breaks or outright subsidies (remember there are new upstarts in solar and wind vying for their slice of the federal financial pie), hints of the softening of opposition among some national environmental organizations, but offsetting prospects for continuing opposition from regional enviro-groups and other NIBYites.

One of the big challenges receiving recent media attention is the soaring construction price tag.

The Wall Street Journal reported on May 12 that the industry has received new sticker-shock projections of between $5 billion to $12 billion per plant--double to quadruple earlier rough estimates.

"The latest projections follow months of tough negotiations between utility companies and key suppliers, and suggest efforts to control costs are proving elusive. Estimates released in recent weeks by experienced nuclear operators - NRG Energy Inc., Progress Energy Inc., Exelon Corp., Southern Co. and FPL Group Inc. - "have blown by our highest estimate" of costs computed just eight months ago, said Jim Hempstead, a senior credit officer at Moody's Investors Service credit-rating agency in New York."

The Journal ended its piece by noting that PSEG's CEO Ralph Izzo concedes that, due to rising construction costs, his company may not be big enough alone to build a nuclear plant, even though it is a nuclear operator.

That could mean simply that joint ventures may be the wave of the future. Or it could be a signal to government that it needs to pony up even more than before.

In any case, the nuclear 'revival' may have to be postponed for a least until the polar bears are up to their necks in water.


A full copy of the Wall Street Journal's (paid-subscription) story is available at the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility website here.

In Chicago Boyz : Nuclear Power Cost Over-runs

In Science Daily: Questioning Nuclear Power's Ability To Forestall Global Warming

In Politico: Environmentalists see fission on nuclear power

In Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Southern's Ala. nuclear reactors raise new doubts

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