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US: Nuclear Industry Powers Back Into Life

by David TeatherThe Guardian
April 13th, 2004

Twenty-five years after the United States suffered its worst nuclear accident, the moribund atomic energy industry has begun to show signs of life. A consortium of seven of the biggest companies in the business, including a division of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), now says it intends to apply for the first licence to build a commercial nuclear plant in the US since the near disaster at Three Mile Island.

The consortium has not yet said where it intends to construct the plant, only that it will spend millions of dollars on developing the plans, at the invitation of the government.

A series of mechanical malfunctions and human errors led to a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania on March 28 1979, causing it to spew plumes of radioactive gas into the atmosphere. For five days there were fears of catastrophe.

The accident and the anxiety it caused, plus the soaring costs of tighter safety regulations and the availability of cheap, clean natural gas were enough to halt the industry in its tracks. The final orders for new nuclear-fired plants were placed in December of that year. None ordered after 1973 was built.

Government officials say there was no effect on the health of local people from the Three Mile accident. The courts agreed: a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of 2,000 people was dismissed in 1996.

But doubts remain. Recent data from the Radiation and Public Health Project, a non-profit organisation, suggests otherwise. The group claims infant mortality in the local area increased by 47% in the two years after the accident. It also says that, 25 years on, cancer-related deaths among children under 10 are 30% higher than the national average.

Still, broader sentiment appears to have changed as America's thirst for energy continues to increase. A number of factors are working in the nuclear industry's favour. Power blackouts such as the one that blanketed the north-eastern US last summer, concerns about greenhouse gases from coal-fired plants and the shortage of natural gas that is pushing prices higher have combined to rehabilitate nuclear power. The costs of operating nuclear power plants have fallen.

According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the industry's future will depend upon its ability to argue that nuclear power, which produces no greenhouse emissions, is necessary to fight global warming.

"The principal motivation to reconsider the nuclear option is that nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel resources does not impair air quality and does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere," said Professor John Deutch, of the MIT.

There are 103 commercial reactors still operating in the US, generating about 20% of the nation's electricity. The US accounts for almost a quarter of the 435 nuclear power reactors in the world. The fleet of reactors in the US is ageing, however, and many are now applying for licences to extend their lives. By the end of this year, a third of the existing plants, built to last for 40 years, will have applied for licences to continue operating for another 20.

The consortium put together to apply for the new plant is made up of Exelon Nuclear, the largest operator in the US, with 17 reactors; Entergy Nuclear, the second largest US operator; Constellation Energy; the Southern Company, and EDF International North America, a unit of Electricit de France. General Electric and Westinghouse Electric, a unit of BNFL, are the associated manufacturers.

So far, all they have committed to is spending tens of millions of dollars of their own money as well as cash from the government to design a plant. They hope to submit an application by 2008 and have a decision from the nuclear regulatory commission by 2010.

"To protect consumers against spiking energy prices and for our own national security, we need to maintain fuel diversity in the energy industry," said Chris Crane, president and chief nuclear officer of Exelon Nuclear. "Nuclear energy is safe, reliable and non-carbon emitting. We must keep the nuclear option open for the future."

The licensing system was streamlined in 1992 to allow new plant to be built more quickly, but it has yet to be tested.

A number of utilities have applied for "early site permits", part of the department of energy's programme to breathe new life into the industry. Applicant companies have 20 years to decide whether they want to build.

The Bush administration's stalled energy bill provides incentives for nuclear power and seeks the extension of liability against lawsuits in case of accidents. The administration is eager to lessen America's reliance on other countries for its energy needs, particularly nations in the Middle East.

The industry cites statistics that it claims shows reactors are safer than they have ever been. The number of "scrams" - emergency shutdowns - has fallen from 1.6 for each plant annually in 1990 to 0.4 in 2002.

But there have been worrying incidents. The Davis Beese plant in Ohio run by FirstEnergy has been closed since early 2002 after it was discovered that an accumulation of acid had almost eaten through the six-inch steel reactor vessel.

Two other obstacles loom large. The first is what to do with nuclear waste. The second is what would happen if plants were targeted by terrorists.

The government is developing a plan to bury nuclear waste at Yucca mountain in Nevada, 90 miles north-west of Las Vegas, but faces opposition from nearby residents. The concerns don't stop there. Moving waste across the country on trains is a security risk.

And New York residents note that one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Centre in 2001 flew directly over the Indian Point plant on the Hudson river, 35 miles from midtown Manhattan.





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