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Nuclear power looks for comeback in U.S.

Is the nuclear winter ending for the industry? Applications for new nuclear plants will likely get filed this year and next.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
A nuclear power plant hasn't been built in the U.S. in decades, but that appears to be changing, says the CEO of the nuclear industry's advocacy group.

Seventeen different organizations have expressed interest in building 31 new nuclear power plants in the U.S., Frank Bowman, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and a retired admiral from the U.S. Navy, said in an interview with CNET News.com this week. Applications for four to seven nuclear plants will likely get filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this year, and eight more will probably follow next year, he said.

The planning and permit process for the first plants will take about three years, and construction should take four years or less, he said. Thus, the first of the new plants could start generating power by 2015 or 2016, he said.

As head of the NEI, Bowman is the spokesman for the nuclear industry, which went into a downturn after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. But in the past few years, global warming, rising gas prices and legislative ideas such as carbon taxation have forced governments to explore alternatives to coal, oil and gas. And mining tragedies, such as the recent accident in Utah, and news about coal-engendered pollution in China have further boosted interest in alternatives.

Frank Bowman, CEO, Nuclear Energy Institute
Credit: Nuclear
Energy Institute
Frank Bowman, CEO,
Nuclear Energy Institute

Although strong opposition to nuclear power remains, politically the subject has become less polarizing, Bowman said. Overall, the general reaction to the industry now is, "yes, but," he said. That is, people can see the benefits of it, but have strong reservations when it comes to safety, disposal, proliferation and other issues.

An MIT poll earlier this year reflects his comments. Thirty-five percent of those polled said they wanted to see nuclear technology increase, up from 28 percent in 2002. Nonetheless, 40 percent opposed storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. Only 28 percent thought nuclear waste could be stored safely for long periods of time.

To this end, the nuclear industry has worked to improve its own practices and technology over the preceding decades, he said. In the past, nuclear plant builders were often vertically integrated. Each made its own components and systems. Now, many have agreed to build according to accepted standards, which should lower prices and speed up the time to build plants.

Some of the standardization ideas come from the Navy, which has used modular manufacturing techniques for years to speed up the construction of nuclear subs. (By the way, there are 104 commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S., and 103 nuclear reactors in the Navy.)

Uptime has also improved, which reduces the financial risks. Fifteen years ago, nuclear plants might have been producing electricity 75 percent of the time. Since then, that figure has risen to 95 percent.

Additionally, safety procedures and practices have changed. Nuclear operators share safety data on a quarterly basis, he noted. The industry has also tried to become more open with the public and tone down some of the insularity and intellectual arrogance that was often part of its reputation.

After Three Mile Island, the industry adopted a "Let's dive into the foxhole' mentality," he said. "An accident anywhere is an accident everywhere."

New technologies for long-term disposal are also being devised. In one scenario, nuclear waste would be reprocessed and used again as fuel. Ultimately, reuse could dramatically cut down the amount of fuel that needs to be sequestered. The U.S. government is also floating supply agreements with emerging nations. In these agreements, emerging nations would get lowly enriched uranium from the developed world, but also agree to let the developed nations and suppliers become the custodian for the waste.

To prepare for an industry expansion, the NEI, in association with utility owners and several state governments, two years ago began to put in programs to train people for the industry, such as recruiting more college students and junior college students. Ideas that have been installed or are being contemplated are ROTC-like scholarship agreements: a utility gives a student a full-ride scholarship, and the student agrees to work at a utility for a set period after graduation.

The industry is also looking at incentives to retain older workers. "Why let 55-year-olds retire?" he said.

Bowman, however, added that he doesn't hold out a lot of hope for fusion. In fusion technology, energy is released by fusing lighter molecules. Nuclear waste and accidents are ostensibly eliminated. Start-ups have gained money to pursue their fusion ideas recently. But so far, no one has gone beyond the experimental stage.

"When I was at MIT in 1971, it was 25 years away," he said. "It is still 25 years away."