Nuclear Power Ready for U.S. Comeback?

Americans may be ready to embrace the nuclear genie again. According to an insightful news analysis by the BBC Online today, as many as 30 applications to build new nuclear reactors in the U.S. are in the works. A generation after the sensational Three Mile Island accident at a nuclear facility in Pennsylvania, many Americans have evolved in their opinions of nuclear power sufficiently that these applications may result in a spate of new fission-based electrical generation plants.

The BBC article notes that concerns about dependence on fossil fuels from overseas suppliers and the impact of their use on the environment are leading many in the U.S. to reconsider the issue of nuclear power, which was hailed a half century ago as the key to a future of limitless energy production.

The article states that the first application to build a new nuclear reactor (actually two) in almost three decades was filed last month for a facility in southern Texas. Four more applications are expected in the next two months and a dozen more are anticipated in the next year, according to statements from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). If granted the first new nuclear operation could go online by 2015.

What's driving the renewed interest in the potential of Mr. Atom? The BBC identifies five key factors:

  • The introduction of a new fast-track combined construction and operation permit, making new reactors easier and cheaper to build;

  • A tax credit, introduced in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 6000 megawatts generated by nuclear plants;

  • Risk insurance adding up to US$2 billion for the first six plants to be built, protecting companies against the cost of delays in construction;

  • Multi-billion-dollar loan guarantees; and

  • A likelihood that the cost of emitting carbon dioxide will rise as the battle against climate change intensifies.

Yet, the sting of nuclear's failures in the past and the very real concerns over its safety in the future have its detractors up in arms again at the federal government's renewed passion for the resource -- especially in the form of lucrative subsidies.

"It is absolutely not a clean energy source," Tyson Slocum, director of energy policy for the public interest group Public Citizen told the BBC. "Does it produce less greenhouse gas emissions than coal or gas? Yes. But it produces waste potentially more problematic not only from the mining aspect but from the high-level radioactive waste that a commercial nuclear reactor is going to produce."

Slocum added, "If you had a program like this for wind and solar, wind and solar would be the biggest energy sources in the next 20 years."

For now, though, the rehabilitation of the nuclear genie is almost complete. We will all now have to witness, once again, whether its promises can ever be matched by its performance.

[Editor's Note: We discussed some of these issues in a blog item over a year ago, "Twenty Years After Chernobyl".]

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