Nuke plant revival debated


Anton Caputo
San Antonio Express-News

If CPS Energy's board decides Monday to throw the utility's money behind two new reactors in South Texas, it will be leading the charge in what's being touted as a national nuclear renaissance.

Buoyed by the need for an energy source that doesn't add to global warming and propped up by various federal subsidies, an industry considered stagnant for more than two decades is undergoing a resurrection.

But the industry's expansion is dogged by a bundle of issues that opponents are beating on like a drum to slow the charge.

With the specter of the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, safety questions linger in many minds. There's still no long-term solution to waste storage, meaning that each reactor is the de facto repository for thousands of tons of radioactive material. And the multibillion-dollar cost of each plant along with the massive federal subsidies being employed to jumpstart the industry has opponents charging that energy companies are just looking to get fat off federal tax dollars.

"I think there is a renaissance in promises made by the nuclear industry, but there is no indication their promises aren't as full of hot air as they were a generation ago," said Tom Smith of the Texas office of the environmental and consumer group Public Citizen.

The industry and its proponents are undeterred, riding what they describe as a new wave of public acceptance illustrated in polls over the past few years.

Given the increasing worries over global warming, Peter Wilcoxen, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of public administration and economics at Syracuse University, thinks the boom is all but inevitable unless there's a sudden downturn in public opinion.

"There are people who have been nuclear advocates forever, and climate change has come along at the last second to save them from oblivion," he said. "The advantage that nuclear has is that you can generate electricity with no carbon emissions in the process. And as we get more serious about global warming we would have to cut back on carbon emissions."

New Jersey-based NRG Energy, with CPS Energy as a likely partner, has made the first official application in the country and wants to build two new reactors at its South Texas Project near Bay City. Those would be the first new reactors in this country since 1996.

Also in Texas, TXU Energy is expected to follow suit soon with plans to build two more units at its Comanche Peak nuclear facility; while Exelon Energy, which owns property in Matagorda County, and Amarillo Power, are also considering building nuclear plants. Nationally, 17 companies have expressed interest in building at least 31 more reactors. "The interest levels and the movement are certainly an indication that we are in a revival or a renaissance," said Mitch Singer, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Attraction to nuclear comes on the heels of a similar revival in interest in coal plants. CPS Energy is building the first coal-fired power plant in Texas in nearly a generation. Other utilities in power-hungry Texas have had similar plans, but worries abut global warming and pollution seemed to have slowed the coal rush while fueling the nuclear one.

A question of money

As local history illustrates, nuclear has always been an economically risky proposition. When the current South Texas plants came on line in 1988 and 1989, they were eight years late and cost six times as much as originally promised.

This type of economic uncertainty and the fear caused by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 helped bring the industry to a near standstill. A new plant hasn't been ordered since 1978, and that one was canceled. It's been more than a decade since the last new nuclear reactor came on line in this country and it took 24 years for that one, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watt's Bar reactor, to make the journey from permitting to operation.

Still, there are 104 nuclear plants operating in the United States, providing about a quarter of its energy.

But the 2005 Energy Act drastically changed the landscape and reduced the economic risk. So would some kind of tax on carbon dioxide, which the United States is increasingly likely to impose. Carbon dioxide is a global warming-causing pollutant emitted by most power plants but not nuclear.

The 2005 Energy Act offers roughly $13 billion in tax breaks and incentives as well as federal loan guarantees for 80 percent of the cost of new reactors and $2 billion in risk insurance to pay for construction or permitting delays for the first six reactors. And a new energy bill that passed both houses, but is caught in conference between the two, would increase the loan guarantees.

"This is not a revival of nuclear power, but the revival of the hunt for subsidies," said Geoffrey H. Fettus, senior project attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action organization.

The new generation of plants being proposed is touted as safer then the old, although industry proponents are quick to point out there has never been a major accident at a nuclear power plant in the United States. The famous accident at Three Mile Island was contained before a catastrophic meltdown.

Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum, who also is director of the Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety project, said the new plants are thought to be safer largely because they rely on the same systems of pumps and motors to cool the reactor in case of an emergency or accident that they use in day-to-day operations.

Most older plants have a second set of equipment that kicks in during an emergency but sits unused the majority of the time. This means, said Lochbaum, that, except for scheduled tests, the equipment is rarely operated and could therefore be unreliable during an emergency.

In theory the new method should be safer, Lochbaum said, but there's not much of a work history to judge.

"This can be cheaper and safer because your reliability goes up, but it's somewhat hard to tell because they have only been tried out in cyberspace," he said. "None has melted down in its first week, which is great."

The units being proposed for South Texas are new models called Advanced Water Boiler Reactors (AWBR). Four have been built in Japan and three more are under construction in Taiwan and Japan. Two of the Japanese ABWRs were part of a nuclear power complex that was hit by an earthquake in July. As a result of that earthquake, what has been described as a "small amount" of radioactive water leaked.

CPS officials said that, from what information they have, the reactor's safety features worked correctly. But they're sending an official to tour the plant.

The waste problem

To many, the most daunting problem with nuclear power is what to do with the radioactive waste that needs to be safely stored for thousands of years.

As of 2005, there were more than 53,000 tons of nuclear waste in the country from nuclear power plants and another 22,000 canisters of waste from military activities, according to the U.S. Energy Department. By 2035, this amount is expected to more than double - and that does not account for new reactors.

Currently, there is no long-term solution to the problem. Some countries reprocess the waste to use again, but that makes the material highly radioactive, which is a security concern that has hampered reprocessing in this country.

As it is, the waste is stored at nuclear plant sites in either large pools or 20-foot-tall steel and lead containers. The South Texas and Comanche projects alone have more than 1,500 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored on site.

The most commonly touted long-term solution is the proposed federal repository under Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas. The president and Congress have approved this plan, but the state of Nevada is fighting the licensing process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Jon Block, nuclear energy and climate change project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it likely will be years until the agency makes a decision. Last time he checked, the filings in the case totaled more than 1 million pages, and that was at least six years ago.

But nuclear backers see the waste issue as far from a showstopper. CPS Energy CEO Milton Lee said waste storage at the Bay City facility has been done safely throughout its history and is an acceptable method for the new units until a long-term solution is found.

Wilcoxen took a similar view.

"Basically climate change is going to force us to do something that is acceptable even if it isn't ideal," he said.

Smith couldn't disagree more strongly.

"There's a real moral question of whether it is appropriate for one generation to leave behind a mess that will take 10,000 years to go away," he said.

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