- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2005

Nuclear power is on the rise here and abroad after decades of dormancy, driven by the need for a cleaner environment and steady, secure sources of power in the Internet age.

In the United States, plans are on the drawing board to build as many as six new power plants — the first since 1973 — while hundreds more are under consideration in China, India, Russia and other countries.

“Nuclear power is experiencing a budding renaissance,” said Steven Taub, director of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. “High fossil-fuel prices, low interest rates, and concerns about the environment and energy security have all combined to increase momentum in the construction of new nuclear plants around the globe.”

With worries about terrorism now paramount in the minds of the public and political leaders, concerns about safety that haunted nuclear utilities for decades appear to have receded, replaced by increasing confidence that after a half-century of operating without causing a major public health hazard in the United States, nuclear plants have by and large proven to be safe.

A new generation of power plants on the drawing board, some with automatic methods of shutting down in emergencies, promises to be safer than before.

But analysts say that in light of lingering worries caused by the Three Mile Island crisis in the U.S. and the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, the industry will have to continue giving top priority to ensuring public safety if it is to succeed, especially in Western countries.

Feeding the growing public acceptance, some prominent environmentalists who formerly were vocal opponents of nuclear power have turned into advocates, saying it is one of the only ways to satisfy demands for power around the world without increasing emissions that pollute the air and contribute to global warming.

Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace co-founder who gained fame in the 1960s leading opposition to nuclear testing, now says nuclear power is a better choice than coal, oil or natural gas for meeting the world’s power needs.

“Nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse gas emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy global demand,” Mr. Moore told the House Government Reform subcommittee on energy and resources in April. “There is now a great deal of scientific evidence showing nuclear power to be an environmentally sound and safe choice.”

In an age in which the threat of terrorism helped send the price of oil soaring to a record $67 per barrel last week, nuclear power has earned a reputation as a reliable power source that would help the United States reduce its dependency on fuel imported from hostile states.

Asia leads the way

The growing power needs of rapidly developing countries such as China, India and Russia also have acted as a catalyst for change. China’s electricity demands have doubled during the past decade, and although it has become the second-largest power producer after the U.S., China suffers chronic power shortages.

Few other power sources can deliver the large loads of electricity the country’s 1.3 billion potential customers need without causing widespread ecological damage.

China’s Three Gorges Dam, for example, will produce more power than any other hydroelectric plant in the world when it goes on line in 2007, but at the cost of displacing more than a million people, inundating a scenic national treasure and endangering rare species of fish.

China, like the United States, has plenty of coal. But its coal-fired power plants have blanketed the countryside with haze and choking emissions that contribute to an estimated 400,000 premature deaths each year, according to the International Energy Agency.

Thus, the emerging Asian giant is laying plans to build as many as 100 nuclear power plants in the next 20 years, and has started construction on two of them, in what is by far the most ambitious nuclear program in the world, nuclear industry officials said.

India, too, has come to see nuclear power as essential to satisfy growing power needs. It is building eight nuclear plants.

Last month, India secured an agreement to get technical assistance from the United States in what officials say could be a breakthrough on the diplomatic front.

“The revival can be seen most clearly in Asia,” Mr. Taub said. “Asian nations have been the most aggressive in their pursuit of nuclear power over the past decade and have become the center of growth for the global nuclear industry.”

Most of the 47 nuclear plants that have come on line since 2000 or are under construction are in Asia, he said. “But North America and Europe are beginning to show interest in building new nuclear reactors as well.”

In the West, nuclear power is gaining an image as a clean energy source. Nuclear plants emit none of the pollutants or greenhouse gases that are byproducts of the most common sources of power: coal, oil and natural gas.

Global warming concerns

Finland decided in 2003 to build a nuclear plant — its fifth — using safer technology developed by a French-led consortium, with an eye toward reducing greenhouse gases as required by the Kyoto global-warming treaty.

The drastic reductions in carbon dioxide needed to comply with the Kyoto treaty also have spurred increasing, if grudging, acceptance of nuclear power in the rest of Europe, where the hottest opposition traditionally resides.

France, which alone among European countries relies on nuclear plants to meet most of its power needs, began laying plans two years ago to build a reactor, that officials say will be able to deliver power to Italy and Germany.

In the U.S., which has 104 nuclear plants completed in the 1970s, plans for new reactors are moving forward in slow motion, coaxed along by several encouraging developments.

Legislatures in six towns in Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi and New York have approved resolutions supporting construction, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The U.S. industry got a critical boost from President Bush’s 2002 designation of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository for nuclear waste after years of White House inaction, said Skip Bowman, president of the Washington-based institute.

Worries about storage of radioactive wastes that can pose a hazard for thousands of years continues to be the principal public worry surrounding nuclear power, however. A lawsuit is forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade its plan stipulating the protective measures required for such long-term disposal.

Low interest rates are another key development that helps alleviate the high start-up costs for nuclear plants, which can take a decade to license, site and build, analysts said.

Today’s low long-term interest rates have made it possible to issue the large amounts of debt necessary to fund construction of power plants. But investors still must be convinced that the plants won’t be plagued by the regulatory delays and vehement community opposition of the 1970s that forced power companies to abandon some nuclear plants before they went on line.

To prevent that kind of financial debacle, which halted construction of nuclear power plants in the United States for a generation, incentives were included in the energy bill Mr. Bush signed into law this month to protect power companies against regulatory delays for the next six nuclear plants built in the U.S., Mr. Bowman said.

The indemnification measure is designed to spur construction of a new generation of power plants that the industry says will be safer and more efficient than the plants built in the 1970s.

The new plants are being designed, among other things, to shut down automatically in an emergency, with the goal of dispelling lingering fears of a nuclear meltdown.

Changing environment

Changing economic conditions also have given a boost to nuclear power, analysts say. The high cost of natural gas — which costs more than three times as much as it did during the 1990s — has made nuclear power competitive again.

Natural gas is nuclear’s chief rival, as it fuels about 90 percent of the new power plants coming on line in the U.S. The cost of building a nuclear power plant is large compared with that of gas-fired plants, but once a nuclear plant is built it can steadily churn out enormous amounts of power without being subject to volatile market prices that have plagued gas customers in recent years.

In another advantage over gas, analysts say nuclear power and coal are the only fuels that can produce the large amounts of “baseload” power needed to satisfy day-to-day electricity demands in the U.S.

But nuclear power does not produce the harmful emissions produced by the nation’s aging collection of coal-burning plants, which are a major contributor to air pollution in the U.S. and have caused cities such as Washington to regularly fall out of compliance with the Clean Air Act.

The need for new power plants is growing in the United States as a result of steady increase in energy demand as well as the aging of existing nuclear and coal-fired plants.

Many of the nation’s coal-fired power plants will have to be replaced or upgraded in the next decade, and that is driving utilities to consider going nuclear, said Ray Ganthner, senior vice president at Areva, a Bethesda consulting group that fields several inquiries a week from U.S. utilities looking into nuclear power.

“Nuclear is not a pariah anymore,” he said.

Mr. Bowman said the industry’s goal, at least initially, is to retain nuclear’s 20 percent share of power generation — which would mean building about 60 plants in the next 10 years.

A lingering obstacle to nuclear power has been fear about use of the technology to develop nuclear weapons, although the fuel used in power plants cannot be used to make weapons unless it is enriched or reprocessed. Those sophisticated technologies, until recently, were available mainly to the small club of developed nations.

Industry officials think the recent technical assistance agreement between the U.S. and India represents a possible breakthrough in lowering obstacles raised by proliferation fears.

The United States previously had led efforts to punish India and Pakistan for not signing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the agreement with India shows the White House now is willing to take a more pragmatic approach that recognizes nuclear technology is already in widespread use after a half-century.

Furthermore, with plans afoot to build dozens of power plants around the world, U.S. efforts to obstruct the development of nuclear power could serve only to penalize U.S. companies in the competition for lucrative construction contracts.

U.S. companies such as Westinghouse Electric and General Electric are on the shortlist of global titans that have the technology to build power plants, and the more flexible White House approach ensures they will have the opportunity to participate in the global revival of nuclear power, industry officials said.

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