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    WASHINGTON — Spurred by a demand for cleaner energy and buoyed by a receptive Congress, a nuclear power renaissance appears looming on the horizon.

    Nearly three decades after the Chernobyl disaster and the Three Mile Island scare, nuclear energy is on the rebound, promoted as the most viable path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and produce cheap, reliable electricity.

    Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers, who are strong proponents of nuclear power, are central to the industry’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. The Southeast leads the nation in population growth and electricity demands are on the rise, making the region fertile ground for nuclear expansion.

    “Nuclear should be part of the solution,” said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. “You have to bring on new capacity, and nuclear does that quicker than any other electricity-producing measure. We need a nuclear renaissance.”

    The Associated Press -- The unfinished Bellefonte Nuclear Plant, photographed in 2006, is in Hollywood, Ala.

    However bright nuclear energy’s prospects appear, environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, remain steadfastly opposed to the industry’s expansion. Several key lawmakers, including Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, also are skeptical.

    “This industry ... keeps holding its hands out for subsidies from the taxpayer that would be better spent on new, clean alternative energy sources,” Rep. Markey said at a 2007 news conference.

    Congress approved more than $970 million in new funding for nuclear power programs last year. With each new nuclear plant expected to cost at least $4 billion, the industry lobbies aggressively for government dollars as a way to attract more private investors.

    As the nuclear issue evolves in Washington, lobbyists for the industry grew from 429 in 1998 to 951 last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.


    The Senate expects to consider a climate change bill with an emissions cap-and-trade system that could be the nuclear industry’s best opportunity to increase its footprint.

    The proposed bill mandates a cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent by 2050 but does not specify for utilities which low-emissions sources to adopt.

    Cap-and-trade systems place limits on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions a utility can produce. Companies that are compliant can sell their remaining allowances on the open market to those that exceed the limits.

    Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, where the bill originated, has so far been unsuccessful in attaching nuclear to the eligible sources to meet clean-air mandates.

    “It’s good for the environment, and it’s good for the consumer,” Sen. Isakson said. “The utilities supporting cap-and-trade are the ones in nuclear because they’re already compliant. They want to sell their credits to the coal utilities.”

    The current 104 nuclear plants provide 20 percent of the nation’s power. France, by comparison, generates 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources.

    To keep pace with growing energy demand, studies estimate 45 to 50 nuclear plants must be built in the U.S. by 2050.

    No U.S. utility has built a nuclear reactor in more than 30 years, and the last commercial nuclear reactor built and licensed was Unit 1 at TVA’s Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn., in 1996.

    Loan guarantees in the 2005 energy bill sparked increased interest in building reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects to receive 15 nuclear power plant applications in 2008.

    Plants could gain tax credits of up to $125 million for eight years and loan guarantees for up to 80 percent of the building costs. The first new reactor could come online by 2018.

    The Tennessee Valley Authority submitted one of the first applications in a streamlined permitting process. In conjunction with a utility consortium known as NuStart Energy LLC, TVA filed an application for a combined operating license to build two next-generation reactors at its Bellefonte site in Hollywood, Ala.

    TVA stopped construction in 1988 on two reactors planned at Bellefonte after delays and cost overruns. But the new General Electric AP-1000 reactors are expected to be built quicker and for less money.

    “Nuclear is a zero carbon producer. It is the type of power production we need to embrace for electricity,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a member of the Senate Energy Committee.

    Though the industry has found most of its congressional friends among the Republican ranks, nuclear energy also has the support of many Southeast Democrats.

    “We’ve reached the point now where we need to take another look at nuclear,” said Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn.


    Skeptics criticize nuclear technology as too expensive and unsafe.

    Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst with Greenpeace which has fought the nuclear industry for two decades, said utilities have yet to prove that nuclear energy can be cost-effective without major government subsidies and loan guarantees. He said the nuclear industry has understated the cost of constructing new plants, which often face massive budget overruns.

    With the first new reactor coming online in 2018 at the earliest, Mr. Riccio said painting nuclear energy as a panacea for emissions control and global warming is disingenuous. Greenpeace favors a greater focus on efficiency measures in combating global warming.

    “If we continue to throw good money after bad technology and subsidize reactors that are uneconomical, you’re not going to address climate change,” Mr. Riccio said.

    Other opponents cite safety and security concerns, stating nuclear plants could become targets for terrorist organizations. Disposal of spent fuel also is an issue, with a long-proposed nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada stymied by opposition, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists recently criticized the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for not enforcing and implementing stringent security guidelines.

    “An expansion of nuclear power could ... worsen the threats to human safety and security from radioactive releases and wider access to materials that can be used to make nuclear weapons,” the group recently wrote in a report. The UCS is a nonprofit advocacy group that examines government policies.

    But some environmentalists previously opposed to the expansion of nuclear power view it as a more palatable alternative to cheap but pollutant-laden coal, which generates most of the electricity in the United States.

    “Given the scope of the climate problem and the emissions problem, we need to look at all the energy options we have, and nuclear is one of them,” said Tony Kreindler, spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF is a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.


    A report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a leading adviser to energy companies, showed positive political, environmental and economic trends for nuclear energy prospects for expansion over the coming decades.

    “Over the past few years, high fossil fuel prices, energy security and climate change concerns and increasing urgency about reducing greenhouse gas emissions have all converged to improve the position of nuclear power relative to other options,” the report states.

    Derrick Freeman, a lobbyist with the Nuclear Energy Institute, said he senses a much greater acceptance of nuclear power in Congress over the past few years.

    “There’s bipartisan spirit that’s taking place with nuclear power,” he said. “In Congress, there’s a thirst for knowledge about energy issues across the board.”

    Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers say they plan to keep up the fight, with the nuclear industry vital to the Southeast’s growing energy demands.

    Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., noted that during debate over the 2005 energy bill, not a single anti-nuclear amendment was offered.

    “That’s a big change from years ago,” he said. “People are simply facing the facts. If you really want to deal with global warming, the only technologies available in this generation are conservation and nuclear power.”


    * 104: Number of nuclear reactors in the country

    * 20 percent: Portion of electricity generated by nuclear in the United States

    * 0: Amount of carbon emissions generated by nuclear power

    * 807 billion: Kilowatt hours of electricity generated by nuclear in 2007, a record high

    * 31: Number of countries using nuclear power

    * 0: Number of new nuclear plants built since Three Mile Island scare in 1979

    High Uranium Price Doesn't Faze the Industry
    February 25, 2008 11:38 AM ET | Marianne Lavelle | Permanent Link

    Other fuels have boom-and-bust cycles. So why not uranium?

    But perhaps befitting an atomic fuel that decays rather slowly, uranium's commodity price swings appear to be unfolding over generations instead of years. From the 1950s through the 1970s, when uranium was being used in nuclear weapons, and later, nuclear power plants, it was selling at a hefty price. Then the market got a one-two punch: first, when the tide turned against nuclear energy in the United States after Three Mile Island, and a decade later, when the Cold War ended and weapon stockpile uranium became readily available.

    The price was less than $10 a pound in the 1980s and fell to a low of $7 a pound in 2003. But then, the same growing global demand for energy, particularly in Asia, that has pushed up oil prices also began to drive up the price of uranium. With new nuclear power construction proceeding apace in other countries, the price of uranium rose to $40 per pound in 2006 and hit an all-time high of nearly $140 per pound one year ago. Since then, the price has receded somewhat, bouncing around in the $75 to $95 range—about what it was in the 1970s, when adjusted for inflation.

    Last week, at the Nuclear Energy Institute's presentation on the state of the industry for Wall Street, one analyst asked whether there were any concerns about the availability of uranium at these renewed higher prices. Gerald Grandey, chief executive officer of Cameco, the world's largest uranium producer, which accounts for 20 percent of world production from mines both in Canada and the United States, gave his outlook.

    "We're very confident," he said. "I don't think the availability of uranium is much of an issue. The first wave of exploration in the 1960s and 1970s, we found in five years enough uranium to power the industry for 40 years. And for two decades, the price was way too low to encourage mine development." Over that time, the industry was able to live off reserves.

    But now that prices are high again, "there are not just five companies but 400 out there looking for the next generation of deposits," Grandey said. "And those who have gone in early went back to the discoveries of the 1960s and 1970s—those will be the first to go into production over the next four to five years with major new discoveries. Uranium is a very common element in the Earth's crust, and with proper development, there will be more than enough uranium to power the industry for a long time."

    Skip Bowman, the NEI's president, added that the cost of uranium—including the ore, the refining, and enrichment—was only one quarter of the production cost of nuclear energy, which he said the industry estimated at 1.68 cents per kilowatt hour. (That's not what anyone's paying for nuclear energy on a utility bill, by the way, but what the industry says it costs to produce.) "It's truly to the right of the decimal point," he said, adding that nuclear power plants operate on long-standing contracts for uranium supply, so they don't chase the ups and downs of the spot price.

    For a less positive spin on the new uranium boom, here's the New York Times on what's happening at the Grand Canyon, and an Associated Press story on the new mining interest in Colorado ranch country.

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