- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

With the price of oil hovering near $70 per barrel and the price of natural gas setting a record in December, there have been several highly favorable developments recently on the nuclear power front.

Last week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued its first license in 30 years for a major commercial nuclear plant. As early as August, Louisiana Energy Services, an international consortium of nuclear power companies, could begin construction of the National Enrichment Facility, a $1.5 billion project in New Mexico that will produce and sell enriched uranium to nuclear power plants. Those deliveries could begin by early 2009, and the plant is expected to be fully operational by 2013. In a welcome gesture of bipartisanship, New Mexico’s Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, who serve, respectively, as chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, jointly embraced the development. Calling the NRC decision “a very significant and positive step,” Mr. Domenici said the nuclear-enrichment facility symbolizes “the renaissance of nuclear energy in this country.”

The NRC action on the uranium-enrichment plant closely followed the announcement last Wednesday by NRG Energy Inc. that it will soon submit an application to the NRC to construct two advanced boiling water reactors (ABWR) in Texas. Noting that four ABWR nuclear reactors are already generating electricity in Japan, NRG calls the ABWR technology “the most advanced nuclear technology in operation in the world today with a history of on-time, on-budget construction in Japan.” Hitachi, which built the four Japanese plants, will share the $5.2 billion contract with General Electric, whose ABWR design has already been certified by the NRC. Two months earlier, Florida Power & Light, which already operates two nuclear power plants in Florida, announced that it intended to submit a license application to the NRC that could lead to a third nuclear plant in the state.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 offered a package of incentives designed to re-invigorate the nuclear-power industry. These incentives included production tax credits, loan guarantees and federal risk insurance. The latter is available to the first six new nuclear plants to help offset the financial impact of delays beyond the industry’s control. The energy bill also extended the Price-Anderson Act, which expired in 2003. First passed in 1957 and extended last year for 20 years, the Price-Anderson Act establishes an insurance framework providing the public with no-fault coverage in the event of a reactor accident. So far, the incentives appear to be working. In a speech last month at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant, President Bush optimistically reported that “16 companies have expressed an interest in new construction, and they’re considering as many as 25 new plants.” A future editorial will explain why significantly increasing nuclear power is absolutely necessary if the growth prospects of the U.S. economy are to remain favorable.

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