Nuclear Power Makes a Quiet Comeback in the States
By David Harrison, Staff Writer
When President Barack Obama recently promised $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to help finance proposed nuclear reactors, Illinois State Senator Mike Jacobs saw his chance and pounced. It didn't matter that the federal help was for a plant in another state-Georgia. Jacobs sensed that the politics of power were shifting in nuclear energy's favor and that this would be a good time to try to overturn Illinois' 23-year-old moratorium on new plants.
Nuclear-power supporters in Illinois had tried this before with no success. This time, it was different. On March 15, Jacobs' bill sailed through the state Senate by a vote of 40-to-1. He's hopeful of its chances in the state House. "It gave me cover," says Jacobs, a Democrat, referring to Obama's announcement. "The president has given us a green light."
The bill would make Illinois the first state in the country to overturn its own ban on new nuclear power plants. Residents likely wouldn't see any immediate impact from the change. But it would signal a new willingness on the part of state officials to embrace an energy source that has been out of favor for a generation.
After shunning it for decades, legislatures around the country are warming to nuclear power as a way to address the nation's increasing demand for electricity. About a dozen states have bans on new nuclear plants, many dating to the days when an accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979 gave nuclear power a bad name. But lawmakers in many of the states with bans, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Hawaii and Kentucky, have joined Illinois in trying to open the door again to new reactors.
None of their efforts has succeeded yet, but that hasn't stopped some energy analysts from talking about a "nuclear renaissance." Pietro Nivola, an energy policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., is one of them. "I was a real skeptic of a nuclear revival a few years ago but I'm beginning to change my mind," says Nivola. "At the local level the ground is beginning to shift."
That shift began in 2005, when President George W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act, which promised the sort of federal loan guarantees for nuclear plant construction that Obama has just offered in Georgia. Nuclear plants can cost billions of dollars-the price tag on the Georgia project is reported to be as high as $14 billion-and the loan guarantees place much of the financial risk with taxpayers.
The politics of global warming also have helped nuclear power's chances. Although Congress has bogged down in its efforts to create a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, energy companies expect legislation sooner or later will drive up the price of fossil fuels and make nuclear power and renewable energy more financially attractive. And while some environmentalists have long complained of the dangers of radioactive waste, others are taking a more positive view of nuclear power.
"You really do need to look across the board at all the low-carbon energy sources that are out there," says Tony Kreindler, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund. "And nuclear is one of them."
Public opinion is changing, too. A Gallup poll last month found 62 percent of respondents favored nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity, the highest level since Gallup first started asking the question in 1994.
Industry successes and setbacks
Although there are 104 working reactors at 65 power plants in the United States, not one has been built in three decades. Nationally, nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of the nation's energy generation. In some states, nuclear's share is much higher than that. Even with the moratorium on new plants, nearly half of the energy produced in Illinois comes from six nuclear plants that were built before the state's ban went in place.
Lobbyists for the nuclear-power industry have deployed to state capitols to try to strike down regulatory roadblocks. While final say over approval of new plants lies with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), state-level opposition can thwart the planning of plants. And state support makes new power plants more attractive to investors.
"If states and communities start showing more receptivity towards projects," Nivola says, "that will have ramifications on Wall Street."
Nuclear-power advocates have scored a few wins. South Carolina passed a bill last year to consider nuclear energy as a "renewable resource," putting it in the same category as wind and solar power. Georgia, Mississippi and Kansas have enacted legislation allowing utility companies to charge customers for new nuclear plants before the plants open. Critics say those cost-recovery mechanisms force ratepayers to pay for expensive projects that might never come to fruition. Advocates counter that paying for the plants upfront lowers interest payments in the long run.
Despite those wins, the industry recently suffered a setback in Vermont. In February, Vermont senators denied a license renewal for the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Vermont is the only state that requires a legislature to sign off on renewing the license for a nuclear power plant. The plant had been leaking tritium, a potentially dangerous substance, into the groundwater.
The Vermont case was a reminder of more serious nuclear accidents, such as the partial core meltdown of the Three Mile Island plant and the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Significant cost overruns at plants under construction in the 1970s and 1980s also helped turned the public and policymakers against building more plants. When the NRC streamlined the process for licensing new plants in 1989, there was no rush by utility companies to apply for permits.
It wasn't until 2007 that the NRC received its first application since 1979. Today, the agency is reviewing 13 license applications and has hired hundreds of new staffers anticipating a rush of filings. Agency officials estimate that the first new plants could be up and running later this decade.
But the U.S. Department of Energy still lacks a long-term solution for disposing of nuclear waste. Although federal officials agreed to take nuclear waste off states' hands in 1982, a controversial plan to store it in Nevada's Yucca Mountain was scuttled by the Obama administration in March. That prompted utility companies to claim in a lawsuit that they should no longer have to pay a federal fee for storing nuclear waste. Both South Carolina and Washington State also have filed federal lawsuits against removing the Yucca Mountain site from consideration. For now, power plants store waste on-site.
"The question is why would you be eager to build new plants and generate more waste when it's likely to stay in your state for a very long time?" asks Ellen Vancko, who studies nuclear energy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's being sold as clean and green, but it's neither."
Jacobs, the Illinois lawmaker is unperturbed about the question of waste. His district includes the Quad Cities nuclear plant which he says has been "a stable provider in my community."
"I have nuclear storage two miles away from my house, and those spent fuel cells have sat there," he says. "I'm not worried about it."