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The Nuclear Option Revisited

As fossil fuels become scarcer, we must look to the atom's great reservoirs of energy.

July 08, 2001|WILLIAM TUCKER | Wxilliam Tucker is the author of "Progress and Privilege: America in the Age of Environmentalism."

WASHINGTON — The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has won accolades during California's electricity shortage for keeping the lights on in Los Angeles without raising rates. Yet has anyone bothered to ask where the DWP gets its power?

More than 50% of the municipal utility's electricity comes from coal plants in Arizona, Utah and Nevada. More than 25% comes from natural-gas plants located around Los Angeles. The bulk of the remainder is split between the Palo Verde nuclear reactor in Arizona and Hoover Dam and other hydroelectric facilities. Unlike most other utilities in California, the DWP gets virtually none of its power--a mere 2%--from "alternate sources" like wind and geothermal plants. Why? The California Public Utilities Commission decided not to saddle the DWP and other municipal utilities with expensive and often unreliable alternate energy sources.

The lesson is instructive. No matter how much people talk about "conservation and solar" or "drilling for more oil and gas," the nation's real choice in generating electricity remains between coal and nuclear. In 1980, when nuclear seemed poised as the fuel of the future, we generated 51% of our electricity by burning 569 million short tons of coal. Today, we generate 56% of our electricity by burning 978 million short tons of coal. This is the principal source of our greenhouse gases.

The nuclear effort died in 1980 because of excessive costs, environmental objections and the Three Mile Island accident, which gave the technology a forbidding aura. After 20 years of lurking in the shadows, nuclear power is again emerging as a promising technology. Nuclear produces no carbon dioxide, as does coal, oil and even "clean" natural gas. Moreover, as we attempt to reduce auto emissions by switching to electric cars (as California is now mandating), an even greater energy burden will be placed on the electrical grid.

There are three main questions about nuclear energy: 1) Can reactors be made safe? 2) Is exposure to low levels of radiation dangerous? 3) Is there any way of solving the problem of nuclear wastes?

After Three Mile Island, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began an aggressive program for safety improvements. Each of the nation's 103 nuclear reactors now has a simulated control room in which operators practice and train one day out of four on the job. Ownership has shifted from passive, regulated utilities to more ambitious private energy specialists such as Exelon and Duke Power.

At first, the NRC was horrified at the idea of private ownership of reactors. In 1993, Ivan Selin, the commission chairman, warned that running reactors for a profit might create "incentives to cut corners." Today, the NRC admits it was wrong. "The industry has made tremendous strides," says Victor Dricks, spokesman for the commission. "Both the number of safety-system activations and scrams [automatic protective shutdowns] are about one-tenth of what they were in 1985."

Safety and profit, it turns out, go hand in hand. "We spend 24 hours a day thinking about safety," says Karl Neddenien, spokesman for Constellation Energy, which owns three reactors in Maryland. "If one reactor in the country had a meltdown, we'd lose our whole fleet."

Nuclear reactors now run nearly two years without shutdowns. In 2000, the nation's fleet of reactors ran at an astounding 90% of capacity. By contrast, coal plants run at 69% capacity, and oil and natural gas at less than 35%, mainly since fuel is so expensive, it pays to shut them down. Hydroelectric dams, at the mercy of rainfall and snowmelt, ran at only 40% capacity in 2000.

"Combined with the drop in uranium prices, this has made nuclear the nation's cheapest source of electricity," brags Marvin Fertel, director of business operations for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry trade group. "This can only improve as natural gas becomes more expensive."

While nuclear power's fuel costs drop lower, however, construction costs remain high. Gas-fired plants can still be built for $500 per kilowatt; nuclear reactors cost $2,400 per kilowatt. Even as energy companies rush to extend their reactor licenses for another 20 years, no one is proposing any new plants.

But this may also change. "Under state regulation, every new reactor has been designed from the ground up," says Fertel. "We're trying to get the NRC to approve a standard format." If nuclear reactors can be built off-the-shelf, with uniform architecture and interchangeable parts, they will become much cheaper.

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