Fresno, a fast-growing former farming community popularly associated with raisins, is seeking a higher-tech image -- as the future home of a nuclear power plant that could supply power for 1.6 million to 2 million homes.
"Nuclear power holds great promise for the entire San Joaquin Valley," Fresno Mayor Alan Autry told reporters in December, when a group of local businessmen unveiled plans for the plant. "We must find a way to become energy self-sufficient."
The Fresno plan is one of dozens for new power plants in the United States, where the rising costs of natural gas and coal, concerns about global warming, and $8 billion in incentives from the federal government are renewing interest in atomic energy.
Almost all of the 30 applications for new reactors expected in the next few years are likely to come from Southern states, which need relief from the cost and pollution of coal plants.
While wider acceptance of nuclear power might be more of a struggle in California due to a strong anti-nuclear movement and a 31-year ban on reactor development, some experts think many of the proposed reactors in other states will be built.
Groups in Virginia, Maryland, Idaho, Texas, Michigan and New York are considering building new plants, but the nuclear power industry sees its brightest future in Southeastern states, which, unlike California, look to nuclear plants as engines of economic development.
The first formal applications for new plants are expected to begin coming into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this year, said agency spokesman David McIntyre.
"Nuclear energy seems to be poised on the verge of a significant rebirth in this country and around the world," Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, said at a House of Representatives hearing in September. "For reasons of energy independence, national security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear energy seems to be our best option for providing significant base load generating capacity in the foreseeable future."
Credit for the newfound interest in nuclear power can be traced to the Bush administration, which was responsible for the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The act, approved by Congress, dangled $8 billion in incentives for nuclear power plant construction. Since then, more than 20 utilities and private groups have expressed interest in constructing new reactors, in most cases on the sites of pre-existing nuclear power plants.
In December, North Carolina-based Progress Energy announced a tentative plan to build a nuclear power plant in Levy County, Fla., that would generate between 1,100 and 1,600 megawatts, enough to power at least 675,000 homes, said Progress spokesman Buddy Eller. Nuclear power is "one of our most economical forms of energy," Eller said. "We've seen tremendous growth here in Florida in recent years. Our obligation is to provide reliable and affordable energy that will meet the needs of our customers."
Additionally, he said, nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gases, an argument shared by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying arm in Washington, which claims that the United States will need 45 percent more electricity by 2030 than it generates today. Constructing 50 new 1,000-megawatt reactors -- a 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. commercial reactors -- in the next 23 years would not only significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, but would also help meet the nation's electricity needs, institute officials say.
Such an increase in nuclear plant production would mark quite a reversal in fortune for an industry whose domestic sales have been stagnant thanks to cost overruns and numerous atomic power accidents, most notoriously at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.
In the popular imagination, these debacles made TV's buffoonish nuclear plant worker Homer Simpson into a symbol of the atomic age.
McIntyre said it's been nearly 33 years since an application was received for a nuclear power plant that was subsequently built and 11 years since an operating license was issued to operate one. That Watts Bar, Tenn., plant is still operating.
Still, several obstacles stand in the way of a nuclear revival in the United States, including the wariness of Wall Street.
Nuclear power plant construction "is incredibly capital-intensive, both the research and the construction of facilities," said Andrew Friendly, a venture capital investor with Advanced Technology Ventures in Boston, a company that helps fund cutting-edge energy technologies. "No one wants it in their backyard and we still haven't figured out what do with the waste."
On paper, nuclear power has always looked great. Since the 1950s, one of the industry's most effective boasts has been to point out how a few thimblefuls of uranium can generate as much energy as dozens of trainloads of coal, which is a major source of greenhouse gases. They also note that North America has abundant uranium, so nuclear power doesn't require reliance on foreign fuel.
But opponents will point out there is more to the nuclear industry than the nation's 100-plus operational atomic power plants scattered across the map. There is also a national infrastructure of rail lines and highway shippers whose job it is to ferry nuclear and spent fuel to and from reactors and to temporary storage sites.
If anything kills further nuclear reactor development in the United States, though, it's likely to be a problem that has haunted the entire nuclear age: nuclear waste.
In the 1970s, federal officials promised to take spent nuclear fuel off the utilities' hands and bury it somewhere. One possibility included burying it inside craters gouged in the Nevada desert by atom bomb tests.
Ultimately, the U.S. Energy Department came up with a plan to build a dump site 1,000 feet under Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a site surrounded by earthquake faults and dormant volcanoes. But ferocious opposition from Nevada residents and scientific uncertainties about the safety of the site have stalled the plan for years.
The death knell may have come in November when Democrats were handed control of Congress. Yucca Mountain is "dead right now," declared Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., shortly before his elevation to Senate majority leader.
For now, 50,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and waste remain at 72 reactor sites across the country, including in dry cask containers at Diablo Canyon.
Ignoring California's ban on new nuclear power plants, a group of local businessmen in December unveiled tentative plans for Fresno Nuclear Energy Group LLC in collaboration with a Baltimore-based reactor construction firm.
Backers say that new, improved nuclear reactor designs will make the Fresno plant safer than its accident-prone predecessors. They believe the plant will provide not only abundant electricity to the fast-growing region and state, but also attract hundreds of jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tax revenues.
"Domestic violence in our area went up 60 percent in the last 10 years," said John Hutson, who until recently chaired the Fresno Utility Commission and is backing the plan. "Why is this? Lack of opportunities. When guys don't have jobs, they beat their wife and kids. ... All of these community-related problems can be addressed by creating opportunities (for jobs), and nothing creates opportunities like cheap electricity."
The business group has found favor with Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine (Orange County), who has introduced legislation to lift the ban. Few expect DeVore's bill to pass in a Democratically controlled Legislature in a state where environmentalism is strong.
New nuclear plants won't open for business in California, "and it's not because of any legal prohibitions," said Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There's an abundance of better alternatives."
And for environmentalists, safety is still of paramount concern.
"What is Fresno thinking?" demanded longtime activist Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility in San Luis Obispo. "Nuclear power is not safe, cheap or insurable, and it leaves behind highly radioactive waste for our children, and their grandchildren and their grandchildren."
The state has begun a study into the future of nuclear power in California.
Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, a San Luis Obispo Republican whose legislation created the study, said he is neither for nor against nuclear power, but prefers alternative energy sources, which are more forgiving when things go awry. "No one's suggesting that terrorists are going to fly aircraft into solar panels, or that if wind power doesn't live up to its hopes, it will result in a legacy of thousands of years of wastes," he said.
Energy consultant Charles Cicchetti of Pacific Economics Group and the University of Southern California thinks future nuclear power could be cost-effective outside of California, especially with dramatic increases in oil prices.
As for California, though -- forget it. "California leads the nation in wind power and is approaching the lead in solar, and has geothermal resources that are among ... the biggest such sources in the world," Cicchetti said.
But Hutson, the nuclear backer in Fresno, sees nuclear energy as a solution for the Golden State.
"I would characterize myself as a liberal-left Democrat," he said. "The only thing I've got in common with the Bush administration is that we're both for nuclear."
Dec. 8, 1953: President Dwight Eisenhower starts his "Atoms for Peace" project, which will push for development of commercial nuclear power worldwide.
July 12, 1957: Santa Susana (Los Angeles County) begins receiving the nation's first commercial electricity from a small civilian-owned nuclear reactor. Over the next decade, the plant will suffer two partial meltdowns; it is closed for good in 1964. An independent team of scientists later reports the plant might be responsible for hundreds of cancer cases.
Sept. 2, 1957: Eisenhower signs the Price-Anderson Act, which limits firms' liability in commercial nuclear disasters.
Dec. 2, 1957: The nation's first full-scale nuclear power plant switches on in Shippingport, Pa.
1964: After a six-year battle with environmentalists, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. abandons plans to build a nuclear reactor at Bodega Bay. The fight marks the emergence of the California anti-nuclear movement.
1973: U.S. utilities order 41 new nuclear plants in one year, more than any ordered for a single year. Most of them will never be built.
1976: The California Legislature bans new nuclear plant construction until certain problems are overcome, notably how to dispose of nuclear waste.
April 7, 1977: To discourage nuclear weapons proliferation, President Jimmy Carter stops the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel rods. The move is a blow to the U.S. commercial nuclear industry, which had counted on reprocessing to minimize spent fuel and nuclear waste.
March 28, 1979: Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Harrisburg, Pa., forces thousands of residents to evacuate. Cleanup costs more than $1 billion. The accident energizes anti-nuclear movements across nation.
April 26, 1986: Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster near Ukraine in Soviet Union renders thousands of square miles uninhabitable and forces hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate permanently. Many experts suspect the long-term contamination will cause thousands of cancer deaths.
1989: The Sacramento Municipal Utility District shuts down the Rancho Seco nuclear plant because of high costs and repeated failures.
1998: President Bill Clinton authorizes U.S. nuclear reactor sales to China in an effort to revive the stagnant U.S. nuclear industry.
May 17, 2001: The Bush administration launches its pro-nuclear power campaign, saying that atomic energy must be "a major component of the United States fuel mix."
Feb. 15, 2002: President Bush announces that he hopes to open Yucca Mountain, Nev., as a final burial site for the nation's nuclear spent fuel and waste. The project remains bogged down in scientific uncertainties about groundwater risks, litigation with the state of Nevada and a scandal involving three scientists' alleged manipulation of project data.
March 2002: Investigators shut down a nuclear reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio after discovering corrosion that has put it close to rupture. Experts call it the worst incident at a nuclear power facility since Three Mile Island.
Jan. 31, 2006: Bush announces plans for a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership under which United States would promote nuclear energy development at home and abroad.
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