Originally created 05/07/06

Nuclear power making an energetic resurgence

ATLANTA - Five years ago, environmentalists saw one of their old nemeses pop back up unexpectedly.

It was in Vice President Dick Cheney's national energy policy, a phrase they had pushed to the back burner for years but now made them shudder all over again: nuclear power.

Calling it an answer for the country's energy shortages, Mr. Cheney vowed to encourage the development of a new generation of nuclear power plants - a promise that is chugging forward as several companies begin working on applications to build the nation's first new nuclear power facility in years.

For anti-nuclear groups, the push is unsettling.

"One of the biggest sort of shockers was there's kind of been this assumption over the years that we're moving away from nuclear," said Sara Barczak, the energy director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "Now, we're seeing this cascade of events."

As discussions pick up about expanding nuclear power generation, Ms. Barczak and other critics bring up traditional arguments about potential accidents, radioactive waste and high building costs of the facilities. They've added new post-Sept. 11, 2001, concerns that even the federal government has recognized nuclear power facilities could become terrorists' targets.

Utility companies argue that nuclear power releases less harmful pollutants than coal-burning plants and is a more reliable source of electricity than other fossil fuels.

Public opinion has shifted toward nuclear power, they say, in part because of the spikes in bills customers are paying for electricity generated by natural gas.

The U.S. Department of Energy is predicting a 45 percent increase in electricity use by 2030, as more stringent regulations about emissions are put in place for power plants - a combination that has more experts looking favorably toward nuclear sources, said Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.

"We have the demand that's coming now and in the future and the fact that it (nuclear power) is environmentally sound," he said.

Encouraged by renewed support at the federal level, a dozen projects for new nuclear power units are being considered for potential license applications with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including the idea of adding two reactors at Plant Vogtle in Burke County. Most of the other prospective sites are also in the Southeast.

It has been roughly three decades since federal officials approved the construction of new nuclear reactors in the U.S. The 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania caused the public to doubt the safety of the facilities, and other fuel sources remained relatively inexpensive until recently.

There are now 103 nuclear power plants in the country generating more than 20 percent of the nation's electricity, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Only coal, which generates half of the nation's power, is used more. But nuclear power usage could rise in the years ahead because of the renewed push from the government.

The energy bill President Bush signed last year included significant "risk insurance" money for the first six builders of new plants, and he predicted that new facilities would be constructed by the end of the decade.

For the operators of the first two new reactors that make it through the permitting process, the bill pledges up to $500 million each to offset potential delay costs and as much as $250 million for each of the next four reactors built. New plants also could receive production tax credits up to $125 million annually.

In all, more than $13 billion could be paid to support the nuclear resurgence, from research and development expenses to construction and operating costs, according to an analysis of the energy bill by the Washington, D.C., watchdog group Public Citizen.

Earlier this year, Georgia lawmakers adopted resolutions urging the state's electric companies to consider building new nuclear plants and for state utility regulators to support those efforts.

Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, who sponsored one of the resolutions, said he thinks the state needs to develop a comprehensive energy strategy.

"It takes a while to build these facilities," he said. "We've got to act now in order to be prepared to meet our generation needs years from now."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 681-1701 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.

Nuclear Revival

Southern Co.'s Georgia Power isn't the only utility interested in building new nuclear reactors. Below are companies that are seeking or plan to seek regulatory approval for new units.

Company Site Units
Dominion Nuclear North Anna, Va. 1
Tennessee Valley Authority Bellefonte, Ala. 2
Entergy Grand Gulf, Miss. 1
Entergy River Bend, La. 1
Southern Co. Waynesboro 2
Progress Energy Harris, N.C., and possibly Florida. 4
South Carolina Electric & Gas Jenkinsville, S.C. 2
Duke Power Oconee, S.C. Undetermined
Duke Power Davie, N.C. Undetermined
Exelon Clinton, Ill. Undetermined
Florida Power & Light Undetermined Undetermined
Constellation Calvert Cliffs, Md., or Nine Mile Point, N.Y. 1

Source: Nuclear Energy Institute


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