A coalition of nuclear industry companies, including Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Group, plans to commit more than $35 million to jointly apply for the first new nuclear power plant license in decades.
With electricity demand on the rise, natural gas prices soaring and concern growing over the environmental effects of carbon dioxide emissions from coal and natural gas, utilities are trying to pave the way to eventually replace aging nuclear plants with new nuclear facilities.
Energy experts and utility executives say advanced designs of nuclear plants offer promising potential for nuclear energy - improved safety, stable fuel prices and lower production costs, and less of an environmental impact than other fuels used to generate electricity, including coal and natural gas.
"We all have a common goal in that we want to preserve the nuclear option," said Marilyn Kray, vice president of project development for Exelon Nuclear, a subsidiary of one of the consortium's members and the company taking the lead for the consortium.
Critics of the effort point out the obvious dangers of accidents or terrorism associated with nuclear plants. They worry that existing plants - many of which have been operating for 30 years or more - are unsafe and new designs are unproven.
"It would not be prudent at this time to place undue reliance on a risky technology with unproven safety performance," said David Locubaum, a nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nuclear watchdog organization. "Nuclear experiments belong in the laboratory, not within the U.S. electricity marketplace."
The 103 nuclear plants now operating in 31 states provide 20 percent of the nation's power, but no company has applied to build a plant since 1973, when conservation efforts helped slow growth in electricity demand and utilities began favoring the less costly natural gas-fired plants.
After the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 - almost exactly 25 years ago - some projects were canceled, though 51 nuclear reactors with prior approval were completed throughout the 1980s and one as recently as 1996.
Nuclear plants have become more efficient and reliable, negating the need for new plants, said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.
"In no small part because of reforms in the industry, since the mid-1980s we've seen steady, consistent improvement in operating performance," he said.
Owners of the aging nuclear plants are seeking to renew their operating licenses, most of which will expire in coming decades.
But the government is projecting a need for another 350,000 megawatts to 400,000 megawatts of generating capacity over the next 25 years. And the consortium members believe new nuclear plants will be needed in the future to help meet that demand.
"When you look at that, we've got to have more electricity in this country from all sources, and we definitely believe there's a role for nuclear as part of that," Kerekes, of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said.
"We need to have a diverse fuel strategy," said Kray, "and nuclear today is one-fifth of that, so we're looking to make sure we can preserve that significant contribution."
The consortium includes energy companies Constellation Generation Group, a subsidiary of Constellation Energy Group Inc.; Philadelphia-based Exelon Generation; Entergy Nuclear Inc. of Jackson, Miss.; Atlanta-based Southern Co.; and EDF International North America, a subsidiary of a large French utility; and two vendors, Westinghouse Electric Co. and GE Energy's nuclear operations.
Exelon is also applying for an early site permit at its existing Clinton nuclear power station in Illinois, which would qualify the site if the company ever decides to build another plant there.
Baltimore-based Constellation, which owns four nuclear reactors and is to soon close a deal on a fifth, has been acquiring nuclear plants as they become available from companies that are shedding them from their portfolios.
"As a company, we are very bullish on nuclear power," said Michael J. Wallace, president of Constellation Generation Group. "It is environmentally very desirable. It should be an important part of the diversified fuel mix we have in our country going forward and it is a source that reflects energy independence." By joining in the consortium, he said, Constellation hopes to "establish the viability of a smooth licensing process for the future of nuclear plants coming on line."
Constellation, the owner of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., owns Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Southern Maryland, which supplies a half-million retail customers. The company has no immediate plans to build a new nuclear plant.