By DAVID R. BAKER
San Francisco Chronicle
February 15, 2006
Credit a strange mix of politics and environmental desperation.
President Bush wants nuclear power to feed America's growing hunger for energy. He has promised tax incentives to companies that build atomic plants, promoted the technology abroad and pushed research into recycling nuclear fuel. His State of the Union address cited nuclear energy in the same breath as wind farms and solar arrays - saying all three will change the way the country powers its homes and offices.
At the same time, the nuclear industry has found allies among its most determined former foes - environmentalists.
Increasingly alarmed by global warming, some environmentalists have embraced the technology they once fought, seeing it as a way to provide large amounts of energy without spewing greenhouse gases into the air.
"There's no way that solar panels or windmills can do it themselves," said Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace who now runs an energy consulting firm and works with nuclear industry groups.
For the companies that build and operate nuclear plants, the change could hardly be more dramatic.
The partial meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979 hardened American public opinion against nuclear power. After the 1986 explosion at Ukraine's Chernobyl plant, the industry's future looked bleak.
Now, prompted by renewed government interest, energy companies are planning new reactors and plants for the first time in three decades. Three companies have submitted applications with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and eight other projects are under development.
But a nuclear renaissance is far from certain.
Without federal subsidies, skeptics contend, nuclear plants will remain more expensive than conventional plants burning coal and natural gas. The threat of a terrorist attack - not a factor during the industry's last building boom - now makes atomic plants look like targets.
Finally, despite years of wrangling, the nation has yet to open its long-planned, long-term nuclear waste storage site at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.
In other words, one of the main issues that killed the country's enthusiasm for nuclear power decades ago - the question of what to do with radioactive waste - is still unsolved. Existing plants, store their spent fuel on the premises, to the dismay of neighbors.
"We have to accept that there's a permanent repository 16 miles from my house," said Morgan Rafferty of Arroyo Grande, Calif., and a member of the Mothers for Peace activist group. Then again, Rafferty doesn't much like the idea of transporting nuclear waste, either.
"Can you imaging trains going through the San Fernando Valley or L.A.?" she said. "There's nobody we dislike enough to send it through their neighborhood."
Despite decades out of the public eye, nuclear power never disappeared. America's 103 operating reactors provide roughly 20 percent of our electricity. The proportion in other countries is even higher. In France, it tops 78 percent.
The industry's supporters cite two big advantages nuclear power holds over other sources of energy. Unlike electrical plants running on coal, natural gas or oil, nuclear facilities don't churn out carbon dioxide, considered the main culprit behind global warming. And unlike solar arrays or wind farms, they can run at any time, in any weather.
With global energy demand expected to double in the next 50 years, supporters say, the world needs nuclear plants.
"Anyone that fairly looks at this question, whether you're from the energy side of the debate or the environmental side of the debate, concludes that nuclear power must play a significant role in meeting this dramatic growth in energy demand," said Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell, in a news conference last week.
The administration has initiated an effort to create a new generation of nuclear plants here and abroad. Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, announced last week, would research ways to recycle nuclear fuel and cut waste. It also would provide fuel to other countries that agree not to build their own uranium enrichment facilities.
In addition, last year's federal energy legislation included tax credits and loan guarantees designed to kick-start nuclear plant construction. Each owner of the next five or six plants built, for example, can receive up to $125 million per year in tax credits.
Some companies are already in line.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing applications from three companies - Dominion, Exelon and Entergy - to build new reactors. All three projects would be built next to existing plants, one in Clinton, Ill., one in Grand Gulf, Miss., and one in North Anna, Va.
Dominion's project in Virginia could win approval later this year, while decisions on the other two proposals are expected next year.
Other businesses are mulling sites scattered throughout the South and the East, from Louisiana to New York. No projects have been proposed west of the Rocky Mountains, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute trade group.
Critics, however, doubt any construction boom will last.
Without government incentives, they say, nuclear power remains too expensive. A 2003 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, estimated that electricity from a new nuclear plant would cost roughly 60 percent more than power from a coal plant and 20 percent more than energy from a natural gas plant. The study, which argued in favor of nuclear power, cited cost as one of the technology's biggest obstacles.
"It's largely been because of economics that there haven't been any successful orders in the last 30 years," said Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Companies will take advantage of the new tax incentives, he said, but will probably balk at building once those incentives disappear.
"Instead of 103 (reactors), we may have 109," Cochran said. "These decisions are made in boardrooms, and they're based on the bottom line."
Most analysts, however, expect the companies that own the nation's existing reactors to keep them running as long as possible.
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