- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001


One surprising result of the past year's energy crisis is a revival of interest in nuclear power an industry that was declared dead only a few years ago.
Perhaps the most visible sign that nuclear power is back came last month when Silicon Valley executives declared that it would be the best solution to the chronic electricity shortage facing California, though it still faces formidable political obstacles.
"Nuclear power is the answer," said Craig Barrett, chief executive of Intel Corp., "but it's not politically correct."
The computer-chip executive said his company risks losing millions of dollars each time power fluctuates during one of California's rolling blackouts, disrupting the manufacture of microchips.
Nuclear, which provides about one-fifth of America's power, is one of the most reliable and plentiful sources of electricity since nuclear plants can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week and are not affected by drought or frigid weather like hydroelectric and conventional power sources.
But Mr. Barrett acknowledged that resistance to nuclear power remains strong, particularly in Northern California, where the Green Party and other environmental groups are major political forces. He said local officials have consistently blocked efforts to build new power facilities in the valley, and the company would not expand there for that reason.
Scott McNealy, chief executive of Sun Microsystems Inc., agreed in a speech at the National Press Club last month that nuclear is the best alternative for California.
"In terms of environmental and cost and competitiveness and all of the rest of it, I just don't see any other solution," the software executive said, alluding to another nuclear selling point: It is largely pollutant-free and requires no disruptive drilling in sensitive environmental areas, unlike oil and gas.

The hard facts

The statements from high-tech executives may appear mostly symbolic. But hard statistics show that nuclear no longer is the dying industry that only a few years ago was biding time waiting for aging power plants built during the 1970s to crumble toward their inevitable burial.
Today, with the cost of natural gas and oil soaring, old nuclear plants that had been mothballed because they were too expensive to maintain and operate suddenly can be brought back on line and made profitable once again.
A brisk business in buying and selling closed plants has developed, and 80 percent to 90 percent of the nation's 103 nuclear plants are expected to seek 20-year extensions of their operating licenses.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s Calvert Cliffs plant in March 2000 was the first to win relicensing.
With demand for electricity at record highs, existing nuclear power plants have been producing a record amount of power up 3.7 percent to 755 billion kilowatt hours last year, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Improvements in maintenance procedures that mean, among other things, less down time for refueling also enabled the plants to operate at a record 89.6 percent of capacity in 2000, the institute said. Also for the first time in more than a decade, nuclear production has become less expensive than any other source of electricity generation.
"It's the best year ever in performance," said Alfred C. Tollison, executive vice president of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. "The foundation is being put in place for a renaissance in nuclear power," though he added, "that depends on the industry remaining accident-free."

Safety questions persist

All sides agree that public perceptions about the safety of nuclear power and the question of how to permanently dispose of nuclear wastes remain significant obstacles. Because of that, no new nuclear plants have been built in the United States in the last two decades, and none are on the drawing board.
But there are signs that the political opposition may not be as potent as in past years. The interest shown by many technology professionals suggests that younger generations are not as worried by the scare surrounding the Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl nuclear accidents that made the power source untouchable to older generations.
Observers say nuclear's clean record on safety after decades of operating power plants in the United States, France, Japan and other industrialized nations also is vindicating the reputation of the industry.
Meanwhile, a new generation of technology is being developed that could virtually guarantee safety through automatic shutdown mechanisms designed to prevent even the remote possibility of a meltdown.
Exelon Corp. wants to start building a new plant using this new technology in South Africa by 2002 and then export the technology to the United States. The South African plant is expected to be smaller, quicker and cheaper to build than the older U.S. plants.
"Nuclear power is much safer than fossil-fuel systems in terms of industrial accidents, environmental damage, health effects and long-term risk," Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author on energy issues, said in testimony last year before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"The U.S. nuclear power industry has an extraordinary record of safe operation across the past 40 years, and I would submit to you that disposal of civilian nuclear waste is a political, not a technical, problem," he said.
The Energy Department could designate a permanent disposal site most likely Yucca Mountain in Nevada as early as this year under procedures Congress established in 1987 that require extensive scientific review for safety.

Congress intrigued

Despite the still-emotional debate surrounding waste disposal and safety, interest in nuclear is quietly picking up in Congress. Republicans and some centrist Democrats are saying nuclear should play a significant role in solving the country's energy crisis.
Further chronic power shortages are expected in California this summer and could crop up in the West, New York and other Northeast cities in coming months as well. During the 1990s, most utilities expanded power generation by building small, inexpensive units fired by natural gas, which became the power source of choice for environmental as well as economic reasons.
Now, with the quadrupling of natural gas prices in the last year, those gas-fired plants have become expensive to run and are a major reason that wholesale electricity rates skyrocketed in California, bankrupting the state's utilities.
The woes faced by gas-fired plants, many of which are just coming on line, will continue, energy analysts say. They predict that robust demand for gas from both power plants and homeowners will keep prices elevated at around $5 per million British thermal units double what they were at the end of 1999.
Gas prices at those levels make nuclear plants, which are more expensive to build but cheaper to operate, competitive economically for the first time in years, industry officials say.
Marvin Fertel, a vice president at the nuclear institute, said they would make new nuclear plants feasible within five years.
With most of the political opposition to nuclear coming from the left wing, perhaps the most potent testament that nuclear's time may have arrived is the interest centrist Democrats are showing in it as an effective way to curb the carbon-dioxide emissions thought to cause global warming.

Environmental assets

Unlike coal, natural gas and oil-fired power plants, nuclear plants are free not only of carbon emissions but also of other noxious gases like sulfur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxide that have made fossil-fuel-burning plants the biggest sources of air pollution in the United States.
In 1999, nuclear plants provided about half of the total carbon reductions achieved by U.S. industry under a federal voluntary reporting program.
The Clinton administration gave nuclear a little-noticed boost as it sought to find economical and relatively pain-free ways to comply with the steep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions called for under the global-warming treaty.
In negotiations over the treaty at The Hague in November, the Clinton administration waged a monumental fight with environmentalists and the 15-nation European Union over whether to allow the use of nuclear power to curb carbon emissions in developing countries. Major Third World nations like China and India insisted that they should play a major role in averting climate change.
"Nuclear power, designed well, regulated properly, cared for meticulously, has a place in the world's energy supply," former Vice President Al Gore said at the Chernobyl museum in Kiev in 1998.
Mr. Gore's running mate for president last year, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, also endorsed nuclear as "part of the solution to solving the world's energy, environment and global-warming problems."
Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who is concerned about potentially catastrophic floods caused by global warming in his state, said nuclear's potential to reduce the one-third of U.S. carbon emissions generated by power plants has piqued his interest.
France, Japan and several other industrialized countries rely heavily on nuclear power to reduce their carbon emissions.
Mr. Graham was startled by the conclusion of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission study that found that if the United States used nuclear power to the extent that France does 80 percent it could in one fell swoop achieve the goals of the environmental treaty, which calls for a 10 percent reduction of U.S. emissions below 1990 levels.
Also, nuclear power does not require the destructive drilling off-shore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that would be required to produce significantly more oil and gas in the United States. Mr. Graham, like many other Democrats, opposes drilling in the Alaskan refuge as well as in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida.
"Nuclear power is not a magic bullet, but it should also not be a poison pill," the senator said. "The technology exists to make nuclear power already one of our cleanest energy sources also one of our safest, most reliable and least expensive."
Mr. Graham is the co-sponsor of a bill to expand the use of nuclear energy and support advanced research into technologies to minimize nuclear wastes, introduced this month by Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican.
Two other Southern Democrats have signed onto that legislation, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, with a raft of Republicans.
Mr. Domenici said new technologies promise to make nuclear "totally safe" and are prompting new interest in Congress.
"We'll be talking about this in 18 months," he predicted. "The U.S. can't just sit by and say we don't need this. We need it."

National strategy

The Senate's energy development bill, introduced this month by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican, also offers incentives for nuclear production, including liability protection in case of nuclear accidents.
Nuclear is also expected to get support from the Bush administration, which views nuclear as "an integral part of U.S. energy security," though it has not offered any detailed proposals. Recommendations from a White House energy task force headed by Vice President Richard B. Cheney are expected within weeks.
In a sign that the administration will take a strong pro-nuclear stance, U.S. representatives at environmental negotiations on sustainable development last month insisted that nuclear power be considered a "sustainable" and safe energy source prompting an outcry from environmentalists.
"We do not understand how a technology whose radioactive waste could be used to build a weapon of unthinkable destruction could be considered sustainable under any definition," said a group of 65 environmental, consumer and health organizations in a letter last week to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
While the environmental groups raise questions about nuclear proliferation, House Republican leaders see nuclear as a key component of a national energy strategy aimed at enhancing national security through energy independence. They too are promising incentives for nuclear power in the House's energy bill later this year.
"The nuclear industry has been stagnant for years, yet it offers the capacity for clean and emissions-free power," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Environmental groups dispute the nuclear industry's claim to be emissions-free and question whether it will remain competitive for long. Kit Kennedy of the Natural Resources Defense Council says extensive drilling will force natural gas prices down again within a few years and nuclear will become less attractive.
"We think natural gas will continue to be a lot more tempting than taking on the huge task of building new nuclear plants," which face stringent opposition from local activists, she said.
The environmental group has challenged advertisements by the Nuclear Energy Institute that portray nuclear as "clean and green," asking both the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau to investigate the claims, she said. Neither agency has taken enforcement action.
Ms. Kennedy said nuclear is not emissions-free because huge amounts of electricity from "dirty coal-burning plants" must be used to enrich uranium fuel.
In addition, the cooling systems in nuclear power plants suck up water from nearby rivers and bays, heat and then discharge it, killing billions of fish eggs and fish larvae, she said.
And while the possibility of major life-threatening accidents at nuclear plants is "remote," she said, any meltdown would have "tremendous public health implications."

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