For the first time since the Three Mile Island meltdown, U.S. interest in nuclear power is heating up.
In southern Ohio yesterday, a coalition of energy companies, including Duke Energy, announced that it is considering ordering the nation's first new nuclear plant in more than 30 years.
Duke's group will have some competition: So far, 17 applications have been submitted to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 26 new reactors, reflecting how concern about energy supplies and climate change have changed the debate over nuclear power.
The plant discussed yesterday would be built near the site of an inoperative uranium enrichment plant in Piketown, about 100 miles east of Cincinnati. Duke's coalition, called the Southern Ohio Clean Energy Park Alliance, brings together nuclear companies USEC, Unistar and French AREVA, plus the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative, a group working for the economic stability of the area.
They plan to seek funding from the Department of Energy, and they could find that federal support.
Nuclear energy has been gaining friends in Washington in recent months.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu is a strong supporter of nuclear power, and there has been discussion in Congress of financing new nuclear energy projects as the government's emphasis shifts toward cleaner sources of energy. The federal stimulus package proposed earlier this year initially offered a $50 billion loan boost for nuclear power, though that measure was dropped in the final negotiations.
The DOE is now preparing to award $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear facilities, and earlier this week, Chu announced $9 million for scholarships and grants for university research into nuclear energy.
"America's leadership in nuclear energy research will be critical in addressing the country's longterm energy independence and climate change goals," Chu said in announcing the scholarship program. He referred to nuclear power as an "important zero-carbon energy source."
A look at nuclear construction under way around the world right now offers a cautionary tale, though.
A survey by analyst Mycle Schneider of the more than three dozen nuclear plants currently under construction found they long lead times, with plants taking over a decade to come online, and that about half ended up with construction delays and several had significant cost overruns. Finland's 3 billion Euro Olkiluoto-3 nuclear plant, which submitted environmental assessments in 1998 and saw the first concrete poured in 2005, was 1.5 billion Euros over budget by 2007.
In the U.S., while some state lawmakers have called for more nuclear power, they haven't been as quick amid the economic crisis to allow those project costs to be passed on to consumers, creating another funding challenge. That tripped up AmerenUE's plans for an Areva nuclear reactor in Missouri, where it wasn't allowed to raise its consumers' rates before the plant was completed. AmerenUE announced that it was suspending its Missouri nuclear plans in April.
Currently, nuclear power generated by the 104 existing reactors in 31 states accounts for 10 percent of all the installed electric capacity in the United States. That number jumps to 20 percent of the overall electricity supply and 75 percent of all carbon-free energy, according to Steve Kerekes, spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute.
It's been years since a new nuclear plant was ordered, though, and there have been no new orders since before March 28, 1979, when a coolant leak led to a partial reactor core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Generating Station near Harrisburg, Pa. (More than 40 plants that had already been ordered were completed in the 1980s and '90s.)
Kerekes says the lack of new construction isn't entirely attributable to the Three Mile Island meltdown.
"Certainly Three Mile Island had an influence on our industry, but the primary reason thus far is that we haven't had to build new plants because we've been getting electricity from what we have," he says.
He cites gains in efficiency and the flattening of demand:
"We have operated plants so much better and have done so over the last 15 to 20 years, increasing our electrical output by the equivalent of 29 reactors since 1990 from existing resources. We've increased our overall electrical output from 25 percent to 30 percent."
He also notes that new U.S. power plant construction in recent years has been for medium-sized natural gas plants, not from the kinds of coal and nuclear plants that create baseload electricity.
In terms of climate impact, nuclear power is negligible. One University of Wisconsin study determined that, per Gigawatt-hour, nuclear power emitted less than 2 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by coal – and about the same amount as wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power.
The likelihood that the federal government will put a price on carbon emissions in the near future is also spurring companies like Duke to investigate nuclear energy as a source of future electicity. About 70 percent of Duke's power right now comes from coal, with 27 percent from nuclear, 2 percent from natural gas and oil, and 1 percent from wind and hydro combined.
"At this point, there's uncertainty with how federal regulations will address greenhouse gases, so we've got to look for ways to serve our customers in the future – clean energy ways," says Rita Sipe, a Duke spokeswoman.
While nuclear power could cut the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions if it replaced coal plants, it still has waste issues throughout its lifecycle, from the uranium mines it relies on for raw materials to the disposal of its spent fuel, which remains hazardous for thousands of years.
A few environmentalists, notably the Greenpeace co-founder-turned-nuclear booster Patrick Moore and James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory that the earth is a super-organism, support nuclear for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. However, most environmental groups still question the risks nuclear power and its waste pose to the environment and humanity. Greenpeace outwardly opposes new nuclear plants.
Kerekes, meanwhile, envisions a wave of construction, with about 30 new nuclear plants being built in the United States over the next 20 to 25 years. The first four to eight of those he expects to come online between 2016 and 2018.