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Power Struggle
Nuclear energy’s revival was fading even before the crisis in Japan.

In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that crippled Japan’s Fukushima power plant in March, nuclear energy, which supplies nearly 20 percent of America’s electricity, has come under close scrutiny here. April Senate hearings focused on the disaster’s implications for the U.S. nuclear industry. The no-nukes crowd urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to halt licensing decisions until experts glean lessons from Fukushima. The NRC also took a big hit for its close ties to industry.

Yet even before Japan’s crisis, U.S. nuclear power development had stalled, and its role in the nation’s energy mix remains uncertain. “Fukushima may just be the nail in the coffin,” says Tom Cochran, NRDC senior scientist. “I think the fallout will make matters worse, but not substantially worse, because economically, nuclear plants are not an attractive proposition.”

Just a few years ago the industry appeared poised for a renaissance. High fossil fuel prices made nuclear power a seemingly cost-effective alternative that might also curb carbon emissions and accelerate energy independence. In 2005 Congress approved $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactor construction that would cover 80 percent of building costs, and President Obama has called for an additional $36 billion. He first made the proposal last fall, potentially to pick up Republican votes for climate change legislation, which died in the Senate.

“Hope was extinguished for the nuclear renaissance,” says Kevin Book, an analyst with ClearView Energy, explaining that mandatory greenhouse-gas limits would have prompted billions in investments each year in the shift away from fossil fuels. Instead, two of the four leading reactor projects the Energy Department identified in 2009 as loan-worthy have fizzled as partners backed out or didn’t materialize. The last plant was built in 1996, and most of the 104 U.S. plants are 30-plus years old.

Obama remains steadfast in his support of nuclear as part of his administration’s goal of generating 80 percent of our electricity from “clean” energy sources by 2035. “I don’t know if the concern about climate change is going to overwhelm the concern about nuclear power safety,” says Allison Macfarlane, a member of Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and a George Mason University professor.

Meanwhile, the NRC is conducting short- and longer-term safety reviews of all its plants. “We support the effort, but it’s woefully inadequate to the larger task of ensuring nuclear safety given the grave concerns raised by the accident,” Cochran says. He advocates creating an independent commission to review safety issues.

The NRC has granted 66 operators 20-year extensions on their original 40-year licenses, and more are in line. The agency has never denied a renewal, not even for the Vermont Yankee plant, where problems like groundwater contamination from leaking tritium led the state senate to vote against renewing its license. Furthermore, the Fukushima plant, which was rocked by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, was designed to withstand only 7.0 quakes, raising red flags about natural disaster preparedness. Two plants operate in earthquake-prone California, and in 2008 scientists discovered that New York’s Indian Point plant sits astride two active seismic zones.

Environmental groups are stepping up calls for increasing renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and conservation. In fact, renewable energy shares rose after the accident. For now, though, natural gas is emerging as the leader, thanks to newly discovered reserves lowering its cost. Still, adds Book, “it’s too early to put nuclear to bed forever. We don’t yet know what power demand growth is going to usher it in.”
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