Utilities Seek Permits for New Nuclear Reactors

Utility companies have announced plans to seek permits for more than a dozen nuclear power reactors around the U.S. It's been more than 20 years since the last commercial energy reactor was constructed in the U.S. But growing demand for electricity — and federal subsidies — have led to renewed interest in nuclear power.

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Utility companies hope the next decade will mark the rebirth of nuclear power. From Florida to New York to Illinois, utilities are preparing to seek federal approval to build a new generation of atomic reactors. They say they're needed to meet the growing demand for electricity.

As NPR's Adam Hochberg reports, the proposed nuclear renaissance is a key part of President Bush's energy policy.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

It's been more than 20 years since anybody started building a new nuclear power reactor in the United States. And this one, outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, was one of the last to be put in service.

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Unidentified Man #2: Doing all right there, sir.

Unidentified Man #1: Very good.

HOCHBERG: Beyond this guard station stands the Harris nuclear plant, which since 1987 has provided power for customers of Progress Energy. Once inside the gate, Site Operations Director Bob Duncan points out parts of the sprawling concrete complex, the dome-shaped reactor building, the tall cooling tower and the smaller structures where radioactive waste is stored. And along the roadside, not far from the existing reactor, he shows off the spot where the company wants to build another one.

Mr. BOB DUNCAN (Harris nuclear plant): Directly north of the plant to our left there, we plan on putting the reactor over there and basically a cooling tower will be sitting right here. A cooling tower very similar to the existing cooling tower.

HOCHBERG: The proposed second reactor would more than double the plant's capacity, allowing it to power an additional 800,000 homes. It's a project that could take 10 years and 2 billion dollars to design, license and build. But Duncan says it's essential to keep up with electrical demand in the fast growing southeast.

Mr. DUNCAN: We picked up 30,000 customers last year alone. And just multiplying times the next 10 years, that would 300,000 customers picked up if we had that same growth rate. So, our efforts are to make sure that we can reliably get power to our customers.

HOCHBERG: The new reactor here is one of more than a dozen proposed around the country. And that represents a big shift in the utility industry's attitude toward nuclear power. For years, most companies had no interest in new reactors, preferring instead to rely on coal or natural gas to generate electricity.

They were stung by cost overruns that plagued many earlier nuclear plants and by the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, which left the public and the government skeptical about atomic energy. But that's now begun to change.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again.

HOCHBERG: Last year George W. Bush became the first president since Jimmy Carter to visit a nuclear plant. He did it to promote an energy bill Congress eventually passed. The measure subsidizes utilities to build new reactors. And along with another set of incentives, approved in 2003, it made nuclear power more financially attractive, especially as the cost of other fuels has risen.

Meanwhile, concern about global warming may have reduced some of the public's opposition. Jacqueline Weaver teaches energy policy at the University of Houston.

Ms. JACQUELINE WEAVER (University of Houston): If you want to go to a fuel source for electricity that does not produce any CO2 emissions, that's nuclear.

HOCHBERG: But in most of the environmental community, atomic energy remains as unpopular as ever.

Mr. AVRAM FRIEDMAN (Canary Coalition): We want to see energy efficiency, we want to see green power, and we want to have all -

HOCHBERG: Throughout the Southeast, where most of the new reactors would be built, activists are trying to mobilize opposition. At this meeting in Raleigh, critics promoted conservation, which they say can eliminate the need for new power plants. Avram Friedman, of an environmental group called the Canary Coalition, is frightened by nuclear power and by what it leaves behind.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: We have a high level nuclear waste piling up wherever there's a nuclear power plant. We don't know what to do with it and yet we're irresponsibly talking about producing even more of it. And it's a health hazard. It's a threat to terrorism. I mean, why take that risk?

HOCHBERG: These environmentalists question the claim that atomic energy could be a solution to global warming. Mary Olsen, of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, says it takes so long to build new reactors that they do little to address urgent climate issues. And she says the money to build them could be better spent.

Ms. MARY OLSEN (Nuclear Information and Resource Service): Even if you take the industry suggestion that they could build them for two billion a piece, the last ones were actually built at 4.5 billion a piece. Either way, if you put those dollars into solar, it would become competitive. If you put it into wind, you would have to spend half as much. And if you put it into energy efficiency, you could do it with one-seventh the investment.

HOCHBERG: Like many observers of the nuclear industry, Olsen questions how many of the proposed new reactors actually will get built. Many of the federal subsidies are due to run out after the first few plants are finished. And while the Bush administration optimistically named its incentive program Nuclear Power 2010, it's now unlikely that any new plants could start operating before the middle of the next decade.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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