Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Funding US Nuclear Power Plants - Physics Today February 2006

Funding US Nuclear Power Plants - Physics Today February 2006

The US has substantial precedence and rationale for governmental support of the next generation of nuclear power plants (see "Nuclear Power Needs Government Incentives, Says Task Force," PHYSICS TODAY, May 2005, page 28). The early commercial nuclear plants were built with direct federal subsidies and loan guarantees; an example is the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant built in 1960 under the Atomic Energy Commission's power-demonstration reactor program. The aim of those early demonstration plants was to prove to a fledgling industry that such facilities could be built and operated economically.
A significant era for US nuclear funding was the 1970s and 1980s, when nuclear units came in at costs often many times the original estimates. Some plants with billions of dollars invested were never completed. The overspending and stalled projects stemmed from government actions often in response to activists or legal maneuvering. Organizations and individuals with specific agendas took advantage of the Three Mile Island accident to exploit unrelated issues.1 Plants already under construction were stymied by new requirements that caused tremendous uncertainty both in building and in the actual start-up of power production. The Long Island Lighting Co's Shoreham nuclear plant, for example, was completed at a cost of $5.6 billion, brought briefly to criticality, and then decommissioned, all because of activism and political demagoguery.2
Today, the reasons for government loan guarantees and other support programs are somewhat different. Vendors having gained experience with overseas projects know how to build advanced nuclear plants, although some of their advanced designs have yet to be implemented. Not surprisingly, any vendor or electric utility, before investing huge amounts, would want some assurance that it would be allowed to complete the plant at a reasonable cost and then operate it. Particularly important is that safety rules and systems requirements not change drastically during construction without very compelling reasons. Given the way governmental entities contributed to the problems of past nuclear power plant construction, it is only fitting that the federal government share substantially in the investment risk. Building nuclear plants is in the nation's interest.
1. See, for example, R. Duffy, Nuclear Politics in America, U. Press of Kansas, Lawrence (1997).
2. For a discussion of the Shoreham plant's difficulties, see S. McCracken, [LINK].
Edwin A. Karlow
La Sierra University
Riverside, California


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