ONE OF THE lesser known economic successes of the past decade has been an astounding improvement in the operating performance of U.S. nuclear power plants. Last year, about 100 nuclear plants produced 778 million megawatt-hours of electricity - 20 percent of the nation's power supply - compared with 557 million megawatt-hours in 1990.
As a result of this huge jump in output, the equivalent of another 25 power plants has been brought online - to everyone's benefit.
Credit goes to improved equipment and better planning. Shutdowns for refueling that used to take several months at the Hatch and Vogtle nuclear plants are now completed in as little as 18 days. With the rise in efficiency, plants run almost two years without these scheduled shutdowns.
NO LONGER the pariah of the energy industry, nuclear power has come full circle since the darks days of the Three Mile Island plant accident almost 25 years ago. Today, nuclear plants are highly sought-after assets, and electrical companies are in bidding contests to buy them.
Instead of plants being mothballed at the end of what was once thought to be the end of their useful life - around 30 years - the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, after determining the safety of the plants, has renewed the licenses of 15 reactors for another 20 years of operation. Eventually almost all of the nation's nuclear plants are expected to apply for renewal.
Yet, even now, nuclear power must compete at a disadvantage with other energy sources. Although it emits no airborne pollutants and is the nation's greatest source of clean energy, nuclear power receives none of the tax credits that are awarded to coal-fueled plants that install pollution-control equipment.
NOR DOES IT get any of the tradable environmental credits that go to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. That's no small matter. Those credits can be worth tens of millions of dollars.
Nationally, we need to recognize the intrinsic environmental value of emission-free nuclear power. Congress should allow nuclear plants to receive credits for avoiding emissions of pollutants that foul the air and load the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, thereby boosting the value of nuclear plants and helping to ensure their operation in a highly competitive, restructured electric-power industry.
Already, serious efforts are under way to help launch the next generation of nuclear plants. The Senate has approved an energy bill that provides loan guarantees up to half the cost of building seven nuclear plants. And the NRC has certified designs for three standardized plants using advanced safety features.
Utilities in three states - Virginia, Mississippi and Illinois - say they plan to apply for early-site approval in the next few months, so that a site will be available if and when they decide to build a new nuclear plant.
Since the plants are conceived on a modular design concept, components of the U.S. designed reactors can be factory built and shipped to any location worldwide. A nuclear plant using one of the new designs is in commercial operation in Japan. Other countries plan to build similar advanced reactors.
Those tempted to dismiss the renewal of nuclear power as a pipe dream should weigh the alternatives, especially renewable energy sources.
In its application to renew the licenses of its two-unit, 1,690-megawatt Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland, Constellation Energy prepared an environmental assessment of its options.
TO RELY ON wind rather than nuclear power, even assuming ideal wind conditions, the utility calculated, it would mean building enough wind turbines to cover 400 square miles. Hydro power? That would require flooding 2,600 square miles. Solar power? Far too expensive.
In short, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to carry forward a carbon-reduction agenda without nuclear power.
(Editor's note: The writer is a retired health physicist. He worked at the Savannah River Site for 35 years.)