Nuclear power industry gets recharged

Steam billows from the cooling towers at Exelon's nuclear power generating station in Byron, Ill.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went on national television in Cairo today to talk about nuclear power. He wants some -- Mubarak announced Egypt's going to restart its civilian nuclear program, that was shelved after Chernobyl in 1986.

Nuclear power's making a comeback here, too. Tomorrow, the Tennessee Valley Authority is expected to submit plans for a new reactor in Alabama. It'll be the second application for a new plant in the past month-and-a-half. The nuclear industry is already in line for $12 billion worth of government subsidies to finance those plants.

Sarah Gardner reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk power companies are pushing for even more:


Sarah Gardner: When CEO David Crane stepped up to the microphones on Capitol Hill last month, he proclaimed the day "truly historic" -- his company, NRG Energy, had just filed the first application to build a new nuclear plant in the U.S. in nearly 30 years.

David Crane: It's important for all of us to recognize that that was then, and this is now. The nuclear industry today is not the nuclear industry of the 1970s.

Video: Anti-nuclear protest: Why should the American people be subsidizing something that hasn't worked for 50 years? [singing] "Stop, children, what's that sound, everybody look what's goin' down..."

Well, some things haven't changed since the 70s... That's a protest video running on YouTube by long-time anti-nuke celebs Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Brown. They want to draw attention to the industry's aggressive comeback plans and behind-the-scenes efforts to win more government subsidies.

The industry wants to expand loan guarantees for so-called "clean energy" power in the Energy Act of 2005. That program was originally limited to $2 billion -- nuclear lobbyists are now pushing for $50 billion.

Tyson Slocum: That would be an unprecedented level of subsidy to any energy source.

Tyson Slocum is a consumer advocate with Public Citizen. He says given the nuclear industry's history of cost overruns and delays, that's too big a gamble for American taxpayers.

Slocum: And it's not just Public Citizen that feels it's risky. The Congressional Budget Office estimated back in 2003 a 50-percent default rate on construction of new reactors.

Critics are even more alarmed at a provision slipped into a Senate bill that would allow the Department of Energy to approve as many loan guarantees for nuclear reactors as it wants. That's a change from current law, where each year Congress authorizes the amount.

Critics fear there will be less public debate if the decision's made in the executive branch. Other so-called "clean" energy projects, like wind and solar, would benefit from the loan provision as well, but it would be up to the Energy Department to determine the amount of loan guarantees.

Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the nuclear industry, says nuclear is just more expensive.

Mitch Singer: These plants are expected to cost between $3 and $5 billion each. What this will do... it insures that the loan volume is available, that it reflects the high cost of these projects and is not subject to a yearly appropriations battle.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects four more license applications by the end of the year, and another 14 in 2008. David Crane, NRG's CEO, says other energy sources deserve government support, too. But he argues they can't deliver as reliably, or as much power, as nuclear can.

David Crane: We support wind, we support renewables in general, we support conservation. But they're no substitute for baseload generation in the United States at this point -- it's either coal or nuclear.

Wall Street has lobbied for generous loan guarantees for nuclear power as well. Lenders don't want to get stuck holding the bag if a nuclear project falters. Of course, one of the biggest gifts Congress could give the nuclear industry, says U.C. Berkeley's Dan Kammen, is a tax on carbon.

Dan Kammen: In that context a nuclear plant looks like a far better deal than almost anything else.

Nuclear reactors don't emit greenhouse gases, and more policy makers now sing nuclear's praises as an effective way to fight global warming. The industry's detractors hope they can silence that chorus before a nuclear "Renaissance" even begins.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...