The Magazine

Nuclear Proliferation

An industry rises from the dead.

Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By WILLIAM TUCKER
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To everyone's great surprise, upgrading capacity factor improved safety. The number of "scrams" and unplanned outages has fallen by more than 90 percent across the industry during the past decade. "Performance and safety go hand-in-hand," says Kingsley, who now heads the World Association of Nuclear Operators. By 2004, the entire industry's capacity factor exceeded 90 percent. Nuclear now provides a larger share of the nation's electricity than it did in 1990, even though no new facilities have been built. "The improved performance has been the equivalent of adding 20 new reactors," says Marv Fertel, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

For their owners, nuclear plants have become a gold mine. In March, Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal paid the ultimate tribute by proposing a windfall profits tax on the state's two reactors. "In 2006, the nuclear Millstone II and III generators in Waterford will have profits of $274 million and $419 million respectively," complained Blumenthal. More than half the nation's 103 reactors have now received 20-year extensions on their original licenses. Completely insulated from fossil fuel prices, they face a long, profitable future.

Still, there was little talk of new construction until another turning point--passage of the Energy Act of 2005, which offers a wide range of federal support. The bill provides loan guarantees, insurance against regulatory delays, plus a 1.8 cent-per-kilowatt-hour production tax credit to the first 6,000 megawatts of new capacity that make it through Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, licensing. "I don't think anybody seriously believed we were going to try new construction until those incentives were in place," says Entergy's Taylor. Now utilities and merchant companies--most of them in the South--are filing preliminary applications with the NRC almost every month. The commission is hiring 350 new staff members to handle the deluge.

"With operating costs now at about 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, that tax credit is going to create huge profits," says Tim Valentine, head of nuclear research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "It's going to be a horse race to see who can get through NRC licensing first."

Environmentalists are slowly coming around. Patrick Moore, the cofounder of Greenpeace in 1972, has joined Christie Todd Whitman to form the Coalition for Safe Energy, an organization dedicated to promoting nuclear energy as a solution to global warming. "My friends say I'm trading on my past work at Greenpeace," said Moore after addressing the convention last week. "I tell them Greenpeace is trading on my past work."

Stewart Brand, the environmentalist founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, has also joined the call for a revival. "It's not that I've seen the light," Brand told the NEI convention. "I've seen the dark." Brand warned that abrupt climate change could trigger mass starvation and universal warfare. "Don't try to sell my fellow environmentalists on this issue," he added. "They will have to sell themselves."

Problems remain. A spent fuel repository at Yucca Mountain is still a decade away--if it ever gets built at all. But other solutions are emerging. Dry cask storage, which could resolve the problem for decades, has already been adopted by several utilities. A return to fuel recycling--which was abruptly terminated by Jimmy Carter in 1977--would eliminate 95 percent of this supposed "waste" and make Yucca Mountain an afterthought.

In any case, the growing momentum within the industry is creating the sense that obstacles are no longer insurmountable. "The Tennessee Valley Authority's reconstruction of Brown's Ferry I is rolling along on time and on budget," says Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a strong supporter of nuclear. Operating on a license issued in 1973, Brown's Ferry I--which closed in 1985--will be the first unit completed in more than a decade when it opens in 2007.

With France now producing 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear--and selling another $55 billion in power each year to the rest of Europe--there is ample evidence that the technology can work. Three decades after America abandoned its nuclear effort, "the road not taken" is about to be given another try.

William Tucker is working on a book about the revival of nuclear power.