Monday, February 06, 2006

The case for nuclear power

The case for nuclear power The case for nuclear power / Economists, environmentalists and energy consumers find incentives to start building new plants

A quarter-century ago, I spent many months shuttling back and forth to a small town near San Luis Obispo, joining thousands of protesters opposed to a nuclear power plant named Diablo Canyon that was being built on an earthquake fault on a picturesque stretch of Central California's coastline.
Although far more expensive than anticipated, the plant was put into service by its owner, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., in 1985. Repeated shakers, including a large quake last year, never interfered with the plant's electricity output, which has steadily improved through the years. Diablo, once dismissed by critics as superfluous, is now an essential part of the state's energy mix. The only other nuclear plant in the state is San Onofre in San Diego County, near San Clemente.
I don't regret my youthful opposition to Diablo. Back then, nuclear plants were badly run and uneconomical, and the near-disaster at Three Mile Island exposed nuclear regulations as a sham. But much has changed in the past 25 years, and for a variety of reasons I think nuclear power deserves another chance.
So does President Bush, who on Tuesday night in his State of the Union address highlighted the nation's need to boost nuclear power generation.
I know I've lost a lot of readers already, so let me immediately introduce an important qualification: We can only push an expansion of nuclear power, which today supplies 20 percent of America's electricity, as part of a comprehensive program to limit the production of greenhouse gases, promote renewable energy sources, and dramatically raise the cost of burning fossil fuels in automobiles. Expanding nuclear power is only one piece of the energy puzzle. But it is a piece we cannot afford to dismiss.
The reason is clear. Electricity demand is rising -- some say by as much as 50 percent during the next 30 to 50 years. Demand might even increase more with the spread of electric cars. Without a crash program to expand nuclear power, America's new electricity needs will be satisfied chiefly by new coal-burning plants. Coal is a remarkably democratic resource, spread fairly evenly around the globe. Scores of new coal plants are planned for the United States, where they already generate about half of the nation's electricity. Many hundreds are likely to be constructed around the world before the end of the decade.
Coal does burn cleaner in new power plants than in older ones, but the goal of "clean coal" remains many years off and relies on unproven technologies. For the moment, burning coal to create electricity is sure to accelerate climate change. And coal isn't as cheap as it once was. Prices are soaring, narrowing coal's cost advantages over nuclear.
The safety of new nuclear plants, in which computers run virtually all complex machinery, has vastly improved in the quarter-century since the partial meltdown of the reactor core at Three Mile Island. Still, plant safety is a concern, as are waste storage and possible terrorist threats.
But these issues should not stop nuclear power from helping the United States reduce reliance on coal and other fossil fuels. There are good reasons to support a sharp expansion in new plants, and many reasons to believe these plants would be operated well and safely.
Nuclear power has long been derided as too expensive, and new plants still carry multibillion-dollar budgets. The most optimistic estimates from reactor-makers Westinghouse and General Electric is that a single nuclear power plant, running one reactor, will cost from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion But with natural gas in short supply and increasingly expensive, and gas prices at the pump unlikely to fall significantly, the costs of nuclear power seem less daunting then before.
In recent years, several electric utilities have emerged as nuclear-power specialists, reaping economies of scale and building expertise that enables them to run safer, more secure operations.
The shift, which began 10 years ago, caught critics of nuclear power by surprise. Historically, the U.S. government never encouraged a small group of utilities to specialize in nuclear power but rather encouraged many utilities to dabble in the technology.
PG&E was typical, building only a single nuclear plant (with two reactors) at Diablo Canyon. This on-off tendency made it more difficult and costly for utilities to gain the expertise in nuclear power or to run plants properly. Vastly different in nature than coal-, gas- or oil-fired plants, nuclear power at first proved beyond the capacity of utility executives, a fact that became shockingly clear after Three Mile Island.
Utilities only mastered the technology in the 1990s, when a few of them -- notably New Orleans-based Entergy and Chicago-based Exelon -- started buying "orphan" plants and assembling them into "fleets," seeking the benefits of economies of scale. Exelon, a Chicago-based utility, today owns 20 commercial reactors, one-fifth of the nation's total of 104.
With a concentration of owners came a concentration of expertise, better nuclear plant performance across the United States, fewer safety hazards and higher profits. The unlikely result is that nuclear plants have become among the most sought-after industrial properties in the country. The most recent plant to change hands, the Ginna facility in New York, sold for $800 million, or 50 times what Entergy paid for the first reactor it bought. Says Michael Wallace, a top executive of Constellation, which bought the Ginna plant, "Nuclear plants are becoming incredibly valuable."
So valuable are nuclear plants that none is for sale today. Indeed, scores of nuclear plants, once thought to be candidates for closure, are pursuing and receiving licenses to operate for at least an additional 20 years. So far, the NRC has extended the life of about 30 plants. Because these plants are fully bought and paid for (and even the money required to de-commission them sits safely in bank accounts), utilities are leaning on them, because they only incur operating expenses, guaranteeing that nuclear-generated electricity is by far the cheapest part of their energy mix.
So far, electric utilities, while happy to harvest existing plants, are reluctant to build new ones.
"I'm the biggest nuke operator in the country, but I have to get the timing exactly right if my company is ever going to build (another) one," says John Rowe, chief executive officer of Exelon. Other utilities are also biding their time, waiting until they get a clearer signal that new projects won't be delayed into oblivion by Bleak House-style lawsuits.
And even when they resume building nuclear plants, "we will exhaust other opportunities" to generate electricity through wind and solar, Rowe says.
Entergy, Exelon and a few other nuclear specialists are pressing the federal government for more guarantees against the many risks faced in building a plant, not the least of which are the inevitable legal challenges. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the chief regulator, has responded by imposing a one-stop approval process, but the process has never been tested in court.
Arguably the biggest economic hurdle for nuclear power is short-term: who will bear the risk of being the first mover?
To get past the economic penalties for being first, a consortium of utilities including Exelon and Entergy, has formed a clever joint venture. The group, called NuStart Energy Development LLC, is filing a single application for a combined operating and construction license, in effect testing the regulatory and legal environment as a group so that no one utility gets stuck holding the bag if the process goes awry.
NuStart has yet to choose a site, though it hopes to do so by September. If all goes to plan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will approve the plant (using either a Westinghouse or a General Electric reactor) by 2007, allowing for construction and operation by about 2015.
Utilities are holding out hope that Uncle Sam will give more help, and Bush's State of the Union speech on Tuesday provided encouragement. They want more money for development of reactor designs, especially those cooled with gas. Such designs are considered inherently safer than today's light-water reactors and figure to be smaller, too, reducing costs and allowing more flexibility in deployment. What's more, they may be able to produce hydrogen as well as electricity -- hydrogen for a new generation of cars powered by fuel cells.
A new generation of nuclear reactors -- especially the so-called "pebble bed" technology that promises far smaller, cheaper and safer reactors -- could help ease what will only be growing pressure on energy supplies, and rising costs of electricity. The trouble is, without a major push by the public and the U.S. government, improved reactors won't ever get built. Or by the time they are ready, America will have so gone so heavily into burning coal for electricity that the environmental damage may be irreversible.
We need to encourage the few utilities that are pacesetters in nuclear power, notably Entergy and Exelon, to build new plants fast. We need to use tax dollars to make it happen. We need to stop using citizen activism and the legal system to stymie nuclear power and rob the country of one clear path toward energy independence.
At the same time we need to push wind, solar and other renewable technologies. We need to promote mass transit and curtail automobile use by sharply raising taxes on gasoline and restricting cars altogether from some areas. We need to campaign more vigorously for conservation. And, yes, we need nuclear power. The coming energy crises are likely to be too painful and costly for Americans not to embrace nuclear.


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