Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman says it's essential that the United States license new nuclear plants.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman says it's essential that the United States license new nuclear plants. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush makes a June 21 visit to the control room at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala. When it opened in 1974 it was the largest in the world.
President Bush makes a June 21 visit to the control room at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala. When it opened in 1974 it was the largest in the world. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Nuclear power is getting another look in the United States because of growing concerns about global warming and the plumes of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere by coal-fired plants.
But with so much cheap coal around, many experts are skeptical that nuclear power can make a comeback — unless some environmental laws change in Washington.
The United States has 104 nuclear reactors generating electricity — the most of any country in the world — but they are aging. After an accident at Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl disaster, the country lost its stomach for nuclear power. Utilities canceled 96 new nuclear projects, and a new reactor hasn't been built in the U.S. since.
However, the Bush administration would like to see a wave of new reactors.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told the American Nuclear Society at a recent conference in Boston that the United States has reached a critical point for nuclear power.
"At present, nuclear power is the only mature technology that can supply large amounts of emissions-free base load power to help us meet the expected growth in demand," Bodman said. "...We have not licensed a new nuclear power plant in this country in over 30 years. That simply must change."
And things are changing, according to some in the industry. Ted Quinn, a consultant and past president of the American Nuclear Society — made up of scientists, businesspeople, construction experts and power companies — says 31 new nuclear power plants are planned.
However, companies have started the ball rolling on permits because they are jockeying for position to qualify for federal subsidies if they do build a plant. The power companies may decide the new plants don't make sense — and not just because of controversy over where to put nuclear waste or safety concerns.
The biggest obstacle to nuclear power right now is basic economics: building a coal-burning plant is cheaper. Because of that, despite Bodman's enthusiasm, the Energy Department's own experts are skeptical that nuclear power will play a larger role in the near future.
"Absent some change in policy, the economics favor coal in most regions of the country over nuclear," says Alan Beamon, a director with the federal Energy Information Administration. Its analysts predict that nuclear power's share of electricity generation in the United States will fall in coming years.
But something could change that: tougher greenhouse gas regulations.
The agency recently analyzed some current proposals for a so-called "cap-and-trade" system to limit emissions.
"In the most stringent case, the additions of nuclear capacity are so large that they essentially double current nuclear capacity in the country," Beamon says.
That's because greenhouse gas caps would make burning coal more expensive — and nuclear energy more attractive. And there's enough concern about global warming in Washington right now that such caps are considered likely.
"I see environmental regulations on air quality becoming stricter and stricter," says Ken Hughey, a business development executive with Entergy, which runs 11 nuclear power plants and is seeking permits to build two new ones. Both would be located next to existing nuclear reactors.
Like other companies, Entergy is struggling to figure out how much a new plant would cost, Hughey says.
"The problem that we're having right now is getting those numbers refined enough that we can really price it out," he says. "And it is because we haven't built one in 30 years."
Tougher emissions laws also would mean more power from renewable sources: solar, wind and biomass. But experts say those can't match nuclear output.
So, while it might not be what some environmentalists were hoping for while pushing for tougher global warming laws, more nuclear power plants could be on the horizon.