Nuclear summer on its way?

Opposition to coal power plants is helping create interest in nuclear plants

Critics of nuclear power say alternative energy sources, such as Ormat’s 12.5-megawatt Yankee Caithness geothermal complex south of Reno, can provide enough energy to prevent a revival of nuclear power. They face skepticism.

Critics of nuclear power say alternative energy sources, such as Ormat’s 12.5-megawatt Yankee Caithness geothermal complex south of Reno, can provide enough energy to prevent a revival of nuclear power. They face skepticism.

Photo by Dennis Myers

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid may find that his opposition to coal fired power plants is working too well.

The nuclear power industry, always alert for an opening, is exploiting the declining fortunes of coal plants to call for new nuclear plants to take up the slack. A revival of nuclear power would bring renewed pressure for construction and opening of the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada’s Nye County, which Reid and virtually all Nevada officials oppose.

It’s not only the industry promoting nuclear power plants. Political leaders and major publications—and they include some surprising names—are urging a new look at nukes as an energy source.

Coal plants have been cancelled, delayed or otherwise suffered setbacks this year in Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas and other states. In a single instance in Texas, an 11-plant deal was cut to a three-plant deal.

Reid’s decision to oppose three coal plants in Nevada, and then to try to block all coal plants, has become a major hurdle for the coal industry because of his influential role in the Senate. But his opposition to coal is cited by supporters of nuclear plants as helping to drive a revival of nuclear power.

Three utility corporations have filed applications with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for new plants, the first such applications in more than a quarter of a century. Unusual figures like Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore have embraced nuclear power.

Critics of the Yucca Mountain project express doubt about a comeback for nuclear power plants.

“I don’t think so,” said Jan Gilbert of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “There’s so much going on in alternative energy. Why go to those two types of energy that are non-sustainable and unhealthy? If you put a solar power facility in a community, you’d probably get 100 percent support.”

In the nation’s capital, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Jon Wellinghoff said, “But I think if we’re going to have fewer coal plants built—which I think we are going to have fewer coal plants built—it simply means we’re going to have more natural gas plants built. … One thing it may mean is that we may have to become much more serious about also siting LNG [liquefied natural gas] facilities at strategic points around the country.”

But energy development does not always flow in expected paths. In 2001, in the wake of the energy deregulation crisis in California, a new generation of coal-fired plants was almost universally predicted.

One laboratory where the nuclear experiment is playing out is Washington, where Gov. Christine Gregoire, like many governors, has launched a large scale effort to reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

Washington has a long and troubled history with nuclear power that has given the state good reason to steer clear of nukes. Along the Columbia River at Richland, a massive decades-long cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a multi-reactor and dump facility, is going on. In 1982, the Washington Public Power Supply System, a private system which launched construction of five nuclear power plants, defaulted on $2.25 billion in loans ($4.8 billion in 2006 dollars), a default so huge that the state—which was not even associated with the project—lost bond rating points.

Yet Washington is taking a hard look at nuclear power and environmentalist leaders like Vancouver Sen. Craig Pride more and U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee are leading the way. Inslee told Seattle Times columnist Kate Riley, “Global warming is such a titanic challenge, all of us have to check our prejudices at the door.”

In the financial world, bankers and investors who were once burned by the financial black hole of nuclear power are considering a second look. In April, Global Market Brief argued, “As coal plants continue to come under attack, nuclear energy will only grow more attractive.” The Wall Street Journal reported, “If significant numbers of new coal plants don’t get built in the U.S. in coming years, it will put pressure on officials to clear the path for other power sources, including nuclear power, or trim the nation’s electricity demand, which is expected to grow 1.8 percent this year.”

The nuclear power industry is expected to make its most serious push for new sites in the Southeast, where consumer advocacy groups are weakest.

Those who oppose both coal and nuclear face some major obstacles. Many policy makers and investment sources believe that alternative sources of energy are not able to take up the slack if coal is deemphasized. Supporters of alternatives say that’s a myth, but if so, it’s a myth that commands widespread belief.

Natural gas plants run cleaner than coal plants and cost less to build and run. “They just keep finding more and more gas,” Wellinghoff said. Natural gas supplies about 20 percent of power in the United States, about the same as nuclear, but the price of gas has been rising as demand grows, and production lags. Moreover, there is often resistance to LNG facilities from local communities, as there was in Lyon County in the 1990s.

Opponents of nuclear power frequently point out, first, that the industry must still solve the waste storage problem, and second, that Sen. Reid is the gatekeeper on issues in the Senate.

But the need to solve the waste problem is a double edged sword. If interest in nuclear power continues to grow, it will generate more and more pressure for the Yucca Mountain dump. And the protection that Reid offers against nuclear power assumes a number of things—that Reid will continue as majority leader, that the Democrats will continue with a majority, that the political dynamics will stay the same—an unpopular Republican president, for instance. A Republican president who achieves good working relationship with Congress would be a whole different matter.

“We’re seeing all the [presidential] candidates come in here and say, no nuclear waste in Nevada,” Gilbert notes.

Well, not exactly. All the Democratic candidates are saying that. And some of them supported waste in Nevada until running for president.

No nukes

Nevada has no nuclear power generating plants—the nearest is the mothballed Rancho Seco in Sacramento—but it was not for lack of trying:

1952 U.S. Sen. George Malone of Nevada announced formation of a committee, chaired by former state engineer Alfred Merritt Smith, to work for installation of the world’s first atomic power plant to be located at Ruby Hill near Eureka.

1964 With the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Alan Bible of Nevada, Sierra Pacific Power Company had a proposal prepared for submission to the Atomic Energy Commission, seeking authority to construct a $3 million atomic power plant in Lyon County that would generate 100,000 kilowatts and employ 500 people. This effort continued for many years.

The lack of such plants is one of the state’s arguments against construction of the proposed Yucca Mountain dump. It’s the states that generate the waste that should host the dump, state officials say.