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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 October 2007, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
US eyes boom in nuclear reactors
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington

Three Mile Island (file picture, 1996)
The Three Mile Island accident cast a shadow over the nuclear industry
Almost three decades have passed since the last application was filed to build a new nuclear reactor in the US. Now, up to 30 are expected in the next three years.

As time has passed, memories have faded of the 1979 radioactive leak at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania that threw the US nuclear industry into disarray.

Meanwhile, energy security concerns and worries about climate change have reshaped the debate, and financial incentives and a new licensing process have altered the economics.

The first full application for two new reactors, in southern Texas, was submitted at the end of September.

Another four are due by the end of the year and a dozen in 2008, many in south-eastern states, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said.

The earliest could be in operation by 2015.

A range of factors is fuelling the renewed enthusiasm:

  • The introduction of a new fast-track combined construction and operation permit, making new reactors easier and cheaper to build
  • A tax credit, introduced in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 6,000 megawatts generated by nuclear plants
  • Risk insurance adding up to $2bn for the first six plants to be built, protecting companies against the cost of delays in construction
  • Multi-billion-dollar loan guarantees
  • A likelihood that the cost of emitting CO2 will rise as the battle against climate change intensifies

But the impending flood of applications is fuelling a new row over whether nuclear power represents a bold step to address 21st Century needs or a mistaken return to flawed 20th Century technology.

'Reliable source'

Supporters say new reactors are the only way to meet a projected 40% increase in US electricity demand by 2030 - a result of the country's growing population.

Control room at a nuclear plant in Tennessee (file image)

"Our country needs the electricity and it needs clean sources of electricity that are reliable - and that's exactly what nuclear energy is," says Steve Kerekes, spokesman for industry group the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

Thanks to improvements in efficiency, 104 reactors across 31 states already produce 20% of the nation's total electricity supply, he points out.

The NEI also argues that nuclear power is cleaner than gas and coal-fired plants and says studies show that over a nuclear plant's life-cycle - including construction and the mining of uranium ore - its greenhouse gas emissions are comparable to those of wind and hydro power.

"We wouldn't pretend for a second that we should be 100% of our energy supply going forward - but there is a role for us to play in a diversified energy supply that includes renewables, coal and nuclear," says Mr Kerekes.

'Massive subsidies'

However, others dispute this.

This is a renaissance that is only proposed because of massive - you could say unprecedented - federal subsidies
Tyson Slocum, Public Citizen
"It is absolutely not a clean energy source," says Tyson Slocum, director of energy policy for public interest group Public Citizen.

"Does it produce less greenhouse gas emissions than coal or gas? Yes.

"But it produces waste potentially more problematic not only from the mining aspect but from the high-level radioactive waste that a commercial nuclear reactor is going to produce."

Mr Slocum says the industry's apparent renaissance is due very largely to "massive - you could say unprecedented - federal subsidies".

"If you had a programme like this for wind and solar, wind and solar would be the biggest energy sources in the next 20 years," he said.

Security risk?

The question of how nuclear waste is stored is already a controversial issue in the US.

Lorry carrying nuclear waste (file picture)
The issue of long-term nuclear waste storage remains uncertain

A planned national repository for spent fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has run into sustained opposition from some local lawmakers, including Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The government is due to submit an application to the NRC to start construction at the site by 30 June next year. But while it is scheduled to open before 2020, it could still be delayed or blocked altogether.

In the meantime, nuclear waste will continue to be stored on site at power plants.

Critics argue that this inevitably increases the risk that plants will become a terror target, despite steps to give nuclear facilities extra protection after 9/11.

Local fight

Public reaction to the planned expansion in reactors has so far been fairly muted.

Opponents say that is because the nuclear lobby has exploited concerns over climate change.

A Great White Egret in Maryland
Campaigners fear a new reactor could harm Chesapeake Bay wildlife

But the NEI points to evidence that people living near existing plants are more strongly in favour of nuclear power than the general public.

At least one proposal has sparked local opposition, however.

This is a bid by US energy firm Constellation, in partnership with France's EDF, to build a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland - the companies filed a partial application in July and are due to file the rest of the paperwork early next year.

In June, Green Party activist Steve Warner founded the Chesapeake Safe Energy Coalition to fight the plan, bringing together local people, environmental and public interest groups.

We would really like to see other forms of energy investigated
Steve Warner
Maryland campaigner
He argues the addition of a new reactor, generating as much power as the two already at Calvert Cliffs, will push combined radioactive emissions above safe levels.

Of particular concern to the campaigners is whether the reactor could have an impact on the marine wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay, known for its blue crabs.

The project has been backed by the Calvert County authorities because it promises to create 700 jobs, but the coalition hopes to persuade the state legislature to oppose it.

"The main focus is to not build any more reactors until we resolve the waste issues and get some reasonable assurance of how they monitor the emissions," Mr Warner said.

"We would really like to see other forms of energy investigated."

Japanese fears over nuclear power
17 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
World risks 'dirty' energy future
07 Nov 06 |  Science/Nature
Climate costs: The global picture
30 Oct 06 |  Special Reports
Nuclear needs 'huge expansion'
16 Oct 06 |  Science/Nature
Three Mile nuclear fears revealed
17 Jun 06 |  Americas

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