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New Dawn for Nuclear Power

Coming climate change legislation and new technology are leading to a resurgence of nuclear power in America.

A years-long wait for a ramping up of nuclear power is about to end. Four new plants, adjacent to existing nuclear facilities in Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina and Texas, will begin cranking out electricity by 2016 or so. Uncle Sam is providing the facilities with $18.5 billion in low-interest loans set aside by the 2005 energy law.

The four new plants should add around 5,000 megawatts of nuclear-made power to today’s 100,000 MW, though that’s not enough to appreciably boost the industry’s 19.6% share of all electricity production from 104 existing nuclear generators. Later -- by 2030 or so -- as another 25 or so smaller nuclear plants are brought on stream, nuclear power’s share of the overall U.S. electricity market will grow to nearly 30%.

New nuclear power generators will do a lot more than pump more electricity into the grid. They’ll be in the forefront of a fleet of nuclear generators built by electric utilities to reduce their overall carbon dioxide emissions. This will be paramount after Congress enacts a climate change and energy bill that will restrict industrial CO2 emissions, making nuclear power plants all the more attractive.

Investors are sitting up and taking notice of nuclear power’s growing attractiveness. Since the plants emit no CO2, they would help power companies meet more stringent federal emission limits and even sell emissions credits to companies that fall short.


Of course, Wall Street will want to see the industry avoid the sort of cost overruns and other problems that occurred in the past. “It will be very important to demonstrate to financial markets and regulators that these facilities can be built on schedule and on budget,” says Adrian Heymer, senior director of new-plant deployment with the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group.

The 25 smaller plants -- ranging from a capacity of 125 MW to 300 MW -- remain in the wings, biding their time in hopes that Congress will offer incentives such as low-interest loans as part of the climate change and energy bill.

Storage of nuclear power plant waste isn’t likely to derail the startup of a new fleet of atomic plants. While future Congresses are likely to continue to debate whether to move ahead with a spent-fuel repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, highly radioactive material from existing plants can be safely sequestered for decades to come right at the plants.

Meanwhile, there’s technology on the drawing boards that holds the promise of reprocessing nuclear wastes into new nuclear reactor fuel, slashing the amount of “hot” wastes by 90% or more.

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