Energy & Environment

The Nuclear Option

Building nuclear power plants has been unthinkable in this country for a quarter-century. It's getting thinkable again.
by | November 2006

Susan Bucher still gets angry when she talks about what happened to her in the Florida House of Representatives this May. The Palm Beach County Democrat went to the floor to warn her fellow legislators not to vote for a bill to promote new nuclear reactors in the state. She said it would create environmental hazards and trample on local control. Given that nuclear power has been controversial for decades, in Florida as elsewhere, she expected some support. But no one else spoke up. The bill passed both the House and Senate easily, and became law. Either "they can't hear," Bucher fumes, "or they're not paying attention."

One reason Bucher lost was that the nuclear provisions were part of a broader energy bill that Democrats as well as Republicans liked. But there was a more fundamental reason: Both parties seemed to be in agreement that nuclear power should not only be allowed to go forward in Florida but actively encouraged.

Backers of nuclear energy hope the Florida scenario will be repeated in other legislatures around the country in the months to come. And they have reason to hope. Factors ranging from higher energy demand to worries about global warming make the outlook for nuclear in the United States brighter than it has been in a long time. But that does not mean reactors are about to spring up all over the landscape. Longstanding environmental and economic concerns have not gone away, and for now, Florida remains the exception rather than the rule.


The construction of nuclear power plants went out with disco nearly three decades ago. The last nuclear facility in America was approved in 1978, a year before the accident at Three Mile Island brought a halt to any additional nuclear plans for the foreseeable future. When the Chernobyl disaster occurred in the Soviet Union a few years later, support for nuclear power became politically suicidal and economically hard to justify for the better part of a generation.

That generation may have passed. Last year's federal energy legislation created billion-dollar incentives for new nuclear reactors. Seeing this development, wary Wall Street financiers seem inclined to consider nuclear investment for the first time in recent memory. U.S. energy companies have plans for 30 new reactors to replace or supplement the hundred or so currently in operation, although none has yet won approval from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and none will be operational in this decade.

These steps are an acknowledgment that much has changed since the 1970s. Three Mile Island has receded in the memory of most Americans and the nuclear industry insists that technological advances make similar incidents much less likely. Energy demand has risen and is expected to rise a great deal more in coming decades. Nuclear power currently generates 20 percent of the nation's electricity, but, given that old reactors will be decommissioned in the years ahead, that figure is unsustainable without new ones. Especially with high natural gas prices, the prospect of maintaining or increasing the 20 percent figure with new nuclear plants is enticing.

The revival of interest in nuclear energy is linked directly to concerns about global warming. Nuclear reactors don't emit carbon dioxide, the most common man-made greenhouse gas. In contrast, coal, which supplies half the United States' electricity, is a major source of CO2.

As a result, a "grand bargain" being bandied about would trade regulation of carbon dioxide, likely including a tax on CO2 emissions- -a major concession for many producers--in exchange for new nuclear power plants--a major concession for environmentalists. That's similar to the deal that Florida lawmakers struck earlier this year.

The Florida bill included a streamlined process for approval of facilities and a change in rate-setting policy that allows nuclear plants to bill upfront for the daunting costs of construction, so long as they make up for the expense once the reactors are on line. But the bill also created an energy commission charged with studying ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a first for Florida, and tax breaks for promoting solar power and energy-efficient appliances. The author of the bill, Republican state Representative Adam Hasner, argued that he wasn't calling for nuclear power to the exclusion of renewables-- just trying to strike a balance. "Nuclear power allows us to achieve fuel diversity," he says, "which is critical to becoming energy- independent and protecting our environment."

The coalition supporting a nuclear option seems to be growing in breadth. Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace founder who later left the organization, made a splash when he and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman teamed up in a pro-nuclear promotion campaign. Utah state Representative Mike Noel, a Republican who insists he's "not sold on global warming," nonetheless mentions reducing CO2 emissions as one of the reasons he is leading the pro-nuclear cause in Utah.


It's telling, though, that neither this bargain, nor stand-alone promotion of nuclear power, has caught on broadly at the state level. Georgia's Public Service Commission did vote this year to allow the state's largest utility to spend $51 million to take the initial steps to building new reactors. Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin are studying the issue. Overall, however, the pace is more of a plod than a stampede.

State officials don't always have to take action for nuclear power to go forward. For example, one of the centers of the nuclear re- awakening is Texas. The state is heavily dependent on natural gas for electricity, and therefore is at the mercy of price fluctuations. As a result, energy companies there are proposing as many as 10 new reactors. The state legislature hasn't approved any bill to support them, but it doesn't have to. As long as a planned nuclear facility survives federal scrutiny, it can proceed without state legislation.

Even so, any substantial nuclear power revival remains hostage to the question of waste disposal. Waste always has been the industry's Achilles' heel and, if anything, that problem has gotten worse. The projected storage facility in Nevada's Yucca Mountain was supposed to solve it, but delays have pushed back its opening for at least another decade, with some observers wondering whether it will ever open or hold anywhere near the amount of nuclear waste the country produces. There is the alternative of "reprocessing" spent fuel and reusing it for additional power, but the economic viability of that approach remains in doubt.

Some say that this shouldn't discourage new construction--that existing plants have been safely storing waste on site for decades, and can for decades more. "It's a red herring," says Gilbert Brown, a nuclear engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. "It's like saying we shouldn't burn any more coal until we decide what to do with CO2."

The waste issue, though, continues to make states nervous. California, Minnesota and Wisconsin all explicitly forbid new reactors from being built until there's a permanent home for spent fuel. Indeed, the question in California isn't whether new nuclear plants should be built but whether the two existing plants should be relicensed. Republican Representative Sam Blakeslee pushed a bill through the California legislature this year to study the financial costs to the state if the federal government fails to take control of the waste. "Given the developments at Yucca Mountain," he says, "I think it's clear there are going to be state and local impacts that were never foreseen."

Even aside from the spent-fuel conundrum, most environmentalists object to the premise that nuclear power should be promoted because it's cleaner than coal. "That was the choice in the 1960s," says David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Today, he says, there are many other choices. He sees renewable sources and conservation as the keys to combating global warming and meeting energy demand.


These debates may not block the construction of more nuclear reactors, but they are certain to shape where the reactors will be built. Calvert County, Maryland, a jurisdiction of 88,000 people on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay, announced in August the nation's most generous incentive package for a new nuclear reactor. For 15 years, the county will offer a 50 percent break on the reactor's property tax bill, which is expected to be around $40 million per year. The choice was a simple one, says David Hale, who presides over the Calvert County Board of Commissioners: "100 percent of zero or 50 percent of $40 million."

It's this type of thinking that nuclear power enthusiasts hope to promote around the country. Why, they ask, should governments be willing to offer millions in incentives for the jobs and tax revenue that come with a new auto plant, but not for those that result from a nuclear power plant?

There's a good explanation, though. What makes Calvert County different from most communities is the fact that it's already home to two operating nuclear reactors. At one time it was thought that there might be two more, but those were never built. Filling up the vacant space in Calvert County will cost a lot less than building from scratch. Even more important, the existing plants link up with transmission lines to spread their electricity far and wide. When it comes to new plants, finding an acceptable location for the reactor and for transmission lines, often against community opposition, can be an insurmountable burden. "From local government's perspective," says Hale, "it's hard to try to site a dump, it's hard to try to site a road. Trying to site a new nuclear plant would be a nightmare."

In contrast, nuclear power has been a fact of life for so long in Calvert County that it's no longer very controversial; the Board of Commissioners voted to offer the incentive unanimously. That kind of support doesn't exist in many other places right now; whether it emerges in the next decade may have more to do with the economics of global energy than with the technical details of nuclear construction.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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