By: John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E., Contributing Editor
Nuclear optimists are always seeking hopeful signs in the latest political, technical, economic and regulatory developments. Now, a number of events in all of these venues conspire to once again fuel U.S. nukes’ eternal hope.
The reelection of President Bush and an increase in Republican power in Congress warmed the hearts of many nuclear power advocates. The Republican Administration has supported nuclear energy, even when that support entailed significant political risk. The Department of Energy’s push to open the high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain was one such initiative. Also, the Administration’s Energy Bill proposed strong support for nuclear energy, including loan guarantees and other funding devices to help “jump start” the industry after its 25-year slumber. Now that the party has larger majorities in both Houses of Congress, this proposed legislation has a better chance of becoming law. Clearly, a Republican loss would have sounded the death knell for both Yucca Mountain and the proposed Energy Bill.
Some of the mainstream media also seem to have noticed that the nuclear industry is still alive and kicking. In an October piece about the importance of petroleum to modern society, columnist Wm. F. Buckley, Jr. observed that, “Oddly, those who speak lightly about oil are often the most reluctant to explore seriously alternatives to it. In the history of discovery, only one such has materialized, which is nuclear power. Although nuclear power proceeds to light most of the lamps in France and promises to do as much in China, a mix of superstition and Luddism stands in the way of developing the nuclear alternative here.” And in a post-election article, The Wall Street Journal’s Kathryn Kranhold observed that, “Buoyed by the re-election of President Bush, whose administration has pushed to expand nuclear power as part of its national energy plan, the industry sees a window of two to three years in which the political environment could make it easier to win approval for new projects.” At last, there is serious talk about a nuclear future in media outlets other than industry organs.
In a strange turn of events, wind energy proponents may have laid the groundwork for government financial incentives for nuclear power. In October, when the president signed the extension of the 1.8¢ per kWh tax credit for wind projects, he may have established a precedent that will carry over to nuclear power. That same tax credit was also proposed for nuclear energy as a provision of the stalled Energy Bill. Now, opponents of this incentive will not be able to object (at least not convincingly) that nuclear energy is being unfairly subsidized.
Environmental activists continue to emphasize their fear of global warming, thus in a perverse way fueling further interest in nuclear power. In November, Russian Premier Putin signed the Kyoto Protocol for his country, and some alarmists have recently claimed there is noticeable melting of polar ice. Both of these events will put more pressure on the Administration’s voluntary program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That would seem to provide support for nuclear energy, which emits no greenhouse gases. And speaking of perverse support, some Democrats in the Senate have proposed to exempt all research data on global climate change from the usual scrutiny the Data Quality Act requires of other government scientific data. In attempting to preserve the junk science supporting global warming, the Democrats would bolster one of the more popular arguments favoring nuclear power.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has also facilitated progress toward new reactor construction. In addition to streamlining its regulatory process, the NRC has issued its final design approval of the new Westinghouse AP-1000 plant design. The NRC already approved the smaller version of the same plant, and of the GE Advanced Boiling Water Reactor. These approvals of the new, safer and more economical plant designs are a critical first step toward breaking the ice on new reactor construction.
Finally, the financial community is also on-board. Moody’s Investor Service recently issued a report which concluded that nuclear energy is now economically competitive. The September report notes that, “As nuclear plants continue to operate above 90 percent capacity, nuclear power should continue to compete well against almost any form of power with the exception of hydroelectric utilities, which have no fuel costs.”
So, if the press is any indication, there appears to be a growing understanding of the need for new nuclear power plants, and an appreciation of their environmental advantages. In addition, regulators have provided the framework for moving ahead with the next generation of plants. A majority of lawmakers appear ready to treat nuclear power as a desirable technology, much as they treat some renewable energy sources. And nuclear plant operators have their plants performing reliably and economically.
As I’ve said before, all the factors are aligned favorably for a nuclear rebirth in the United States. One of these times I may be right.