Energy gap at a time of terror

Solution: New nuclear plants are being promoted as the answer to the nation's growing energy shortfall.

Nuclear Power Reconsidered

August 25, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Beneath the surface of a giant pool at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland, hundreds of bundles of spent fuel rods sit, throwing off radioactivity. It takes 10 years for the rods to "cool" enough to be shifted from the pool to nearby dry storage.

Just where the bundles and thousands of others like them from nuclear plants across the nation will eventually be stored is the topic of fierce national debate and a major question mark over the future of the industry.

Storing nuclear waste is not the only aspect of the plants that is worrying these days. Nuclear plants are seen as attractive terrorist targets and have been ever more tightly guarded since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Armed guards patrol the Calvert Cliffs plant in Lusby, which supplies a half-million customers with electricity. Airport-style monitors are used to scan employees and visitors, while the Coast Guard keeps boats on the Chesapeake Bay at safe distances.

Despite all of this, the long-ailing nuclear industry appears poised for revival.

Oil producers are struggling to meet soaring demand from China and other fast-growing Third World nations. That combined with limited refining capacity and other supply problems is driving global oil prices sharply higher.

Natural gas prices are moving higher too. There is growing concern about environmental effects of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired generators, and the potential of other energy alternatives seems limited.

So nuclear power - which already supplies electricity to one of five U.S. homes and businesses - is gaining renewed appeal, especially since the Bush administration favors it.

Without nuclear as a key contributor in a diversified U.S. energy portfolio, proponents say, the United States will never be able to meet a demand for electricity that is expected to grow 40 percent to 50 percent over the next two decades.

Since March, three separate groups of energy companies have formed consortiums hoping to join with the U.S. Department of Energy in testing a new licensing process for building and operating nuclear reactors.

One coalition includes Calvert Cliff's owner Constellation Energy Group Inc. of Baltimore, eight other power companies and two reactor vendors.

The coalition, known as Nu- Start Energy Development, plans to commit some $400 million to jointly apply for what would be the first new nuclear power plant license in decades.

"There's a growing recognition that nuclear is here; it's not in the future, like developing better solar panels or windmills," said Gilbert Brown, a professor of the nuclear engineering program at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "It's not like we need to develop it. We have it."

Michael J. Wallace, president of Constellation Generating Group, the power production arm of Constellation, says that for all its challenges the appeal of nuclear cannot be denied in an increasingly unstable world.

"When we look at nuclear, we are taking a long-term view of the energy needs for the country and what are the best sources, all things considered, to meet those energy needs," said Wallace. "Nuclear moves to the very top of the list. The world uranium supply is very significant, and much of it is in markets we'd expect to be open to us for along time."

Such enthusiasm represents a significant turn.

No company has applied to build a nuclear plant since 1973, when conservation efforts helped slow growth in electricity demand. Capital investments in new power plants declined, and utilities began favoring less costly natural gas-fired plants.

After the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, some projects were canceled, though 51 nuclear reactors with prior approvals were completed throughout the 1980s and one as recently as 1996.

Since then, gaining regulatory approval of untested new plant designs has proven to be an insurmountable barrier to building new nuclear plants.

Still, energy experts and utility executives tout the industry's strides in safety and efficiency.

They say advanced plant designs offer promising potential - improved safety, stable fuel prices and lower production costs, and less environmental impact than other fuels, including coal and natural gas.

Nuclear energy, they say, is close to being cost effective. Though capital costs are much higher than other forms of power generation, operational costs are much lower than either gas or coal fired plants.

As a measure of the increased efficiency, the existing 103 U.S. plants have been able to generate electricity at what would have been the equivalent of adding about 26 1,000 megawatt plants, thanks to equipment upgrades and shorter outage times in the past decade, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's policy organization.

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