RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And the battle to avert a nuclear disaster in Japan is scary to watch. It might shift the nuclear debate in the U.S. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to promote the growth of nuclear power in America. At a hearing today in Congress, that support is likely to be questioned.
As NPR's Chris Arnold reports, it's not just fear that's keeping nuclear power in check in the U.S., it's also economics.
CHRIS ARNOLD: The biggest recent obstacle to building new nuclear power plants is that it just costs way too much money to build a modern super-safe nuclear reactor. That is, when you can build much cheaper power-plants that burn natural gas.
Robert Eynon is a team leader with the federal Energy Information Administration.
Mr. ROBERT EYNON (Energy Information Administration): The bulk of all the new capacity that we're projecting between now and 2035 is gas-fired technology.
ARNOLD: The EIA projects the growth of different types of power plants -natural gas versus hydroelectric versus nuclear or coal - and it predicts some growth in nuclear, about five gigawatts from four or five new nuclear power plants.
Mr. EYNON: Five gigawatts of nuclear. When we look at the gas technologies, we have about 100 gigawatts of combined cycle and combustion turbines.
ARNOLD: That's 20 times more natural gas production, it sounds like, huh?
Mr. EYNON: Yeah.
ARNOLD: And the driver there is just basic economics, that it's just natural gas is cheaper and it's cheaper to build natural gas power plants.
Mr. EYNON: That's correct.
ARNOLD: So even before this latest crisis in Japan, the U.S. was only projected to build a few more nuclear power plants anyway over the next 20 years. That's a change from just five or so years ago, when the power industry was looking to build a lot more - maybe 50 new nuclear power plants.
Mr. JOHN LONGENECKER (Consultant): Five years ago, in the heady days of the nuclear renaissance.
ARNOLD: John Longenecker is a consultant. He used to work for the U.S. Department of Energy and later for the private company General Atomics. He explains that a few nuclear power plants are under construction now, but before that the U.S. hadn't built a new one in more than 30 years. And for a long time that was because of fears stemming from the disaster at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
But since then, a safer track record and concern about global warming has made nuclear power look more attractive.
Mr. LONGENECKER: The nuclear plants are not a carbon emitter. So when you're worried about clean air, it's one of the cleanest sources that you find.
ARNOLD: In fact, the government is now offering tax credits and guaranteed loans as incentives to build nuclear power plants. But natural gas has been more plentiful and falling dramatically in price lately. Also, the recession curbed power demands somewhat. And lawmakers failed to pass tough carbon emissions legislation.
Mr. LONGENECKER: Clean air legislation has not passed and so the thought was that the cap and trade or some type of carbon tax would be a strong incentive and advantage to a nuclear power plant that is a non-carbon emitter. So the downturn in the economy, the lower price, the lower demand and the lack of a carbon tax have all been negatives to nuclear power.
ARNOLD: That said, Longenecker thinks in coming decades nuclear power will eventually take off again in the U.S. It'll get harder to meet growing demand with so much reliance on fossil fuels. And nuclear is already growing very rapidly in India and China. So it's unclear what the current situation in Japan will mean there, but those in the industry are hoping for the best.
Mr. JOHN MCGAHA (Former Executive, Entergy): So far the primary containment has held, even though there was an earthquake that was above what the original plant was designed for.
ARNOLD: John McGaha is a former executive with Entergy, a nuclear power company. He now works as a consultant too, and he's hopeful that even this 40-year-old plant in Japan will hold up.
Mr. MCGAHA: At the end of the day, we can show that this plant, even under a worst-case scenario, when all this plays out, hopefully we can say even under these circumstances the plant stayed safe relative to the ultimate impact on the health and safety of the public.
ARNOLD: McGaha hopes that that will be encouraging to politicians, regulators and the general public - but it might not be. Already the German government says it will temporarily shut down operations at seven of its nuclear power plants that are more than 30 years old.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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