The growing demand for electrical power in the United States has renewed discussion of the role nuclear energy should play. The U.S. nuclear power industry has been essentially stalled for years. The newest power plant began operations in 1996, bringing the total in service nationwide to 103. No new nuclear plants have been ordered since 1973.
But in a recent speech on U.S. energy policy, President Bush called on Congress to make it easier to license new nuclear power plants. Mr. Bush also proposed federal risk insurance against unforeseen delays in bringing plants on-line. Industry spokesman Steve Kerekes, with the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, DC, applauds the President.
“The nuclear energy industry is greatly pleased to see the President supporting nuclear energy and embracing some new ideas to help bring new nuclear power plants on-board," he says. "Nuclear power provides twenty percent of the power supplied in the United States.”
For years, the nuclear power industry has faced contentious licensing challenges from environmentalists and others that have added years to the time it takes to bring a power plant into operation. For example, the Shoreham plant, built east of New York City on Long Island, was completed in the mid-1980’s but never produced electricity because of court challenges. But Jerry Taylor at the Cato Institute, a policy research organization in Washington, DC, says there is a bigger reason why new facilities have not been built.
“Investors have turned away from nuclear power for the simple reason that it has become a bad economic bet," he says, adding "The main demand has been for electricity plants that can run during peak demand periods a handful of times a month. So most of the investors have been interested in combined-cycle natural gas plants.”
Jerry Taylor adds that another factor driving away investors from nuclear energy is deregulation. Many U.S. states no longer guarantee utilities a minimum rate of return to offset the expense of constructing power plants. Steve Mariotte, with the watchdog group Nuclear Information and Resource Service, says the nuclear industry should blame itself for losing those guarantees.
“One of the major reasons," he says "those rates of return were removed was because of huge cost overruns on nuclear plants. You had plants that were scheduled to cost in the billion dollar range and ended up in the five and six billion dollar range.”
Nuclear power opponents were given additional ammunition in 1986 when a reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine exploded and released considerable radiation over parts of Europe. Investigators pinned the blame on operator errors and the design of the reactor, a type not used in the United States. Industry spokesman Steve Kerekes says the U.S. government has approved new reactors engineered to avoid the problems experienced with other designs around the world.
“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, over the past five years or so, has approved three advanced-design reactors. They rely more on passive safety systems, things like convection and gravity, so you don’t need as much wiring and fewer pumps and valves to assure that the safety systems work as they should,” he says.
Even with newer designs, there is still the problem of dealing with nuclear waste. Nearly fifty years of U.S. nuclear power production has created some one million gallons of high level waste and more than 40-thousand tons of spent fuel. Presently, this radioactive material is being stored in facilities in 39 states.
In 1978, the U.S. government began studies on using a remote location in the western state of Nevada as a permanent repository for all of the nation’s nuclear waste. Supporters of the Yucca Mountain site add the threat of nuclear terrorism as another good reason for one secure location.
But energy consultant Tom Randall in Chicago says the idea has drawn strong criticism from regional politicians and environmentalists. “Yucca Mountain would be a safe repository," he says "but there are a lot of fears with regard to hauling nuclear fuel across the country and that sort of thing.”
Nuclear energy supporters say the United States can not afford to abandon this source of power in the face of volatile oil and gas supplies and prices. They say more nuclear plants must be built because many present facilities are getting old. But critics say U.S. taxpayers should not wind up footing the bill of the nuclear industry.
But to many observers, the most important aspect of the U.S. nuclear energy debate is ensuring there is enough electricity to power economic growth and maintain a level of prosperity that Americans have come to expect.
Note: This report was originally broadcast on the VOA News Now "Focus" program.
To see more Focus stories, click the "back" button on your browser to return to the main News Analysis page, then click on the Focus logo you see on the right side.