Ignoring nuclear energy shows lack of brain power

What if the United States rolled out the welcome mat for the construction of new nuclear power plants . . . and no one showed up to build them? For the no-nukes crowd, that would be a victory. But it would be a hollow victory for the rest of Americans, who get 20 percent of their electricity from an aging nuclear energy industry that’s just hanging on by its electrons.

Some alarmists dread a nuclear energy revival in the United States, evoking specters of meltdowns, Chernobyls and three-eyed fish to bolster their naysaying. But a growing number of Americans also seem to recognize that nuclear energy, while not without risks, is on balance a “cleaner” and better alternative than the same old, same old.

Concerns about climate change have even prompted some pragmatic environmentalists to take a second look at the nuclear option, given that these facilities don’t emit so-called greenhouse gases. The Bush administration, Department of Energy and some members of Congress have been offering proposals meant to stimulate a revival.

But as The New York Times reported, it may be hard attracting companies back into nuclear energy, even with a helping hand from the federal government, given a regulatory and political climate that makes such ventures risky.

Despite Washington’s dangling of incentives, “utility executives are sharply divided over whether nuclear power offers an attractive choice as they seek to satisfy a growing demand for electricity,” reported the Times. “For them, the question comes down not so much to safety and environmental impact but to whether the potential reward is worth the financial risk.”

Given the regulatory and political roadblocks that can stand in the way, it can take up to 10 years to construct a new nuclear power plant. And one of the biggest uncertainties confronting would-be builders is what to do about the long-term storage of spent nuclear fuels, since this country’s efforts to deal with that issue have bogged down in politics and protests. Even after years of study, and billions of dollars paid by utilities to the federal government for the design and construction of an underground waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, that project is in trouble and a solution recedes from view.

Until the nation moves forward on a serious storage solution, the energy sector likely will remain skittish about reinvesting in nuclear plants. New reactors can operate for years in spite of the nonsolution of storing waste on-site, in temporary facilities. But why would companies and potential investors think about betting on atomic power again, if the country can’t address this central, but not insurmountable challenge?

In one hopeful note, a consortium of energy companies last week broke ground on a $1.5 billion uranium enrichment plant near Eunice in southeastern New Mexico — the first major nuclear facility built in this country in 30 years. Whether it will supply American reactors is far from certain, however, a point underscored when Sen. Pete Domenici, while heralding the groundbreaking as the start of a “nuclear renaissance,” talked mostly about what a great thing this would be for the folks in Brazil and Asia.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has 27 potential new reactors under consideration, to augment the 103 aging units currently operating. But “under consideration” shouldn’t be confused with “under construction.” While a few companies remain bullish on nuclear, “there is still a high degree of skepticism within the utility industry,” reports the Times. “There are better places to put the money of shareholders,” a Pennsylvania utilitycompany executive told the newspaper.

While nuclear power plants may not disappear from the American landscape altogether, most of 100 senior utility execs surveyed said they did not expect “a future where nuclear generation represents a larger share of generation” than it does today. Instead of a nuclear renaissance, in other words, what the country seems to be inviting is a nuclear dark age, even while the rest of the world boldly moves forward.