Nuclear power inches back into energy spotlight

The nation's nuclear power industry — stuck in a decades-long deep freeze — is thawing.

Utilities are poised to build a new generation of nuclear plants 30 years after the Three Mile Island accident, whose anniversary was Saturday, halted new reactor applications. The momentum is being driven by growing public acceptance of relatively clean nuclear energy to combat global warming.

Several companies have taken significant steps that will likely lead to completion of four reactors by 2015 to 2018 and up to eight by 2020. All would be built next to existing nuclear plants.

Southern Co. so says it will begin digging an 86-foot-deep crater this June in Vogtle, Ga., to make way for two reactors after recently winning state approval, though it won't pour concrete until it gets a federal license, likely in 2011. At least five power companies have signed contracts with equipment vendors. And Florida and South Carolina residents this year began paying new utility fees to finance planned reactors.

The steps signal that a nuclear renaissance anticipated for several years is finally taking shape. Seventeen companies have sought U.S. federal approval for 26 reactors since late 2007. All have enhanced safety features.

"The resurgence of nuclear energy is underway," says Steve Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group.

Whether it will yield a flood of new reactors or a trickle will largely depend on the success — or failure — of the initial wave.

Nuclear a 'better option' now?

The industry believes it can avoid the billions in cost overruns and years of delays that marred nuclear construction in the 1970s and 1980s. Licensing has been streamlined. Utilities are seeking firmer costs and schedules. And designs are more detailed.

Still, some hurdles are emerging. Some companies are submitting incomplete applications or seeking design changes at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), possibly delaying approval. At least two utilities recently said they're switching to different reactor models because they couldn't receive assurances on costs and the timetable. And since several models are new, problems could emerge as they're built in the USA for the first time. The type of reactor planned for Maryland is being built in Finland, where it's three years behind schedule and $2 billion over budget.

"We're talking about a new generation of technology," says John Reed, CEO of Concentric Energy Advisors. "You have to demonstrate to (lenders) that you can make money with these."

Nuclear plants are hugely expensive, and the credit crisis has all but sealed lenders' wallets. The success of the resurgence also hinges on companies' ability to obtain financing.

Nuclear officials are taking comfort in some encouraging signals from the Obama administration. During his campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama seemed cool to nuclear energy, saying waste storage concerns must be solved before the nation builds new plants. Although the new administration has said Yucca Mountain northwest of Las Vegas is no longer a storage option for the waste, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Congress this month that nuclear "has to be" part of "our energy future." Waste, he said, can be stored at reactor sites "for decades."

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