| Newly approved reactor designs
could reduce global warming and fossil-fuel dependence, but utilities are
grappling with whether better nukes make market sense
By Matthew L. Wald
On an August afternoon in Washington, D.C.,
typically miserable for its heat, humidity and stillness, reporters gathered
at a downtown hotel not known for its air-conditioning. Stuffed inside
a windowless conference room that was being heated still further by the
television people's lights, we waited for Michael J. Wallace, who had been
trying, in fits and starts, to unveil nuclear power's second act.
| A variety of companies, including Wallace's,
say the answer may be yes. Manufacturers have submitted new designs to
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's safety engineers, and that agency has
already approved some as ready for construction, if they are built on a
previously approved site. Utilities, reactor manufacturers and architecture/engineering
firms have formed partnerships to build plants, pending final approvals.
Swarms of students are enrolling in college-level nuclear engineering programs.
And rosy projections from industry and government predict a surge
Modern competitive pressures complicate the matter, however. For one thing, in much of the country any new construction would be by "merchant generators"—independent companies rather than large, monolithic utilities. Nuclear power was simpler two decades ago, because utilities built their own plants and could usually pass costs through to captive consumers no matter how big the overruns. But in states such as Texas, Maryland and New York, where the public service commission has separated the generation of electricity from power transmission and distribution, there is no longer a cushion for a generation company that guesses wrong. Such plants must sell electricity at whatever price the market will bear.
That number is hard to predict, because although reactors would exploit current technologies and techniques, so will modern coal and natural gas plants. Gas, especially, has much lower up-front costs, a big consideration if credit remains tight. And gas plants can be built in small units in only three or four years, as compared with six or eight for mammoth reactors.
For nuclear power, the modernization is intended to produce dramatic differences: plants that will run more than 90% of the hours in a year and last for 60 years or longer. The ones in service today ran only about 60% of the time when they were new and were assumed to have only a 40-year life. But utilities are already signing long-term contracts for large solar generators, and wind turbines are being erected at an unprecedented rate. Those alternatives operate fewer hours of the year, but with no burden of fuel cost or fuel-disposal problems the price of power they produce could be low enough to squeeze nuclear power out of the mix.
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