WASHINGTON — The U.S. nuclear power industry -- at a virtual standstill for more than 20 years and looking particularly bleak after Sept. 11, 2001 -- could be on the threshold of a comeback.
Since 1973, no company has ordered a nuclear plant that it eventually completed. Now, energy legislation expected to clear the Senate within the next few weeks would provide federal loan guarantees for up to half the cost of building as many as six new nuclear power plants.
The federal loan guarantees would be just one part -- although an important one -- of a complicated economic and political puzzle that would need to be assembled before any nuclear plants are built. Wall Street still must be convinced of the economic viability of constructing such plants. And nuclear power remains controversial, with critics charging that the benefits aren't worth the risks of a catastrophic accident.
Security concerns spiked after Sept. 11. Doomsday scenarios envisioned a hijacked plane crashing into one of the nation's 103 commercial nuclear power plants, potentially causing radiation leaks. Government officials beefed up security at plants and distributed nearly 10 million potassium iodide pills, which can help protect the thyroid in case of an emergency, to residents near plants.
Supporters of nuclear power believe it is important that the industry move forward again.
The industry's fortunes have improved under President Bush, who has made expansion of nuclear power a prime goal of his energy policy. They brightened more after Republicans gained control of both chambers of Congress in last year's elections and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) became chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Domenici, whose home state was the site of the first test of an atomic bomb in 1945 and today is where two national nuclear laboratories operate, is the author of the Senate legislation. He is confident about the prospects for the measure, citing congressional approval last year for designating Nevada's Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository.
Along with the loan guarantees, the Senate bill would authorize $1 billion for building an "advanced" nuclear reactor in Idaho that would produce hydrogen, a fuel that Bush has championed for cars. "If the demonstration [project] succeeds, it could well initiate a major nuclear reactor renaissance," said Jay E. Silberg, a Washington lawyer for nuclear utilities.
The Senate legislation and an energy bill approved by the House last month would extend a cap on the nuclear industry's liability in case of an accident. And both measures would authorize millions of dollars for nuclear research.
Although the House energy bill does not include the loan guarantees, the issue is likely to be on the table when House and Senate negotiators draw up a final measure.
"Suffice to say America needs a strong nuclear power industry if we're going to meet our energy needs in the 21st century," said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Today, nuclear power generates about one-fifth of the nation's electricity. But high construction costs, as well as public protests after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania, stopped the industry's growth.
Domenici has touted nuclear energy as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil. And he has argued that nuclear power is necessary to prevent the supply shortages and price spikes that occur from too much reliance on a single energy source.
Domenici has been one of the top recipients of campaign contributions from the nuclear power industry, receiving more than $67,000 from January 2001 through early 2002 in individual and political action committee donations from companies that own or build nuclear power plants, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a political watchdog group. The industry gave nearly $9 million overall to congressional candidates and political parties, almost two-thirds of it to Republicans.
But the industry's expansion still faces political opposition.
"Until there's a [resolution] of the nuclear waste issue, it's ridiculous to even talk about" expanding nuclear power, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. For instance, legal challenges to the use of Yucca Mountain for waste disposal are pending.
Additionally, he said, the public remains "scared to death" about nuclear power. "Where you going to put one [a plant]? Not in my backyard -- that's what everybody's going to say."
Lisa Gue, an energy analyst for Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, decried the Domenici-drafted legislation. "Here we see a piece of legislation that continues to prop up one of the most expensive and potentially most lethal forms of electric generation," she said.