U.S. Nuclear Power: A dying industry or growing powerhouse?

16:07, February 20, 2010      

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Critics have blasted U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to provide loan guarantees for the construction of two new nuclear reactors, labeling the nuclear industry unsustainable and saying it is in need of life support from Washington.

But supporters say the industry is poised to grow and note that it has support among the U.S. public, Congress and the Obama administration.

Obama announced on Tuesday that the government would provide 8 billion U.S. dollars in federal loan guarantees to help build two nuclear reactors in Georgia. That is just the beginning, he said, adding that he aims to build a new generation of nuclear power plants.

"We are extremely disappointed in Obama because basically he's playing politics rather than doing what's right for the American people," said Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst at Greenpeace, an environmental organization.

Riccio contended that Obama is pandering to the nuclear industry in order to gain support for a climate bill that is languishing in Congress.

"It's a sop. Obama can't get climate legislation passed so he's trying to marry two red-headed step children together and bill it as some sort of a program," he said.

While the nuclear industry contends the plan marks a renaissance, Riccio countered that it is nothing of the sort.

"You don't have the industry moving forward here," he said, "You have the industry coming to Washington with hat in hand saying 'these are too expensive to build unless you back them.'"

Opponents note that both the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office estimated a 50 percent of default risk for nuclear power plants. And a half dozen large investment banks told the Energy Department in 2007 that they would not take on any more financial risk for nuclear power.

Paul Walker, director of security and sustainability at Global Green USA, an environmental group founded by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, dismissed any possibility of a nuclear renaissance, even though the nuclear energy industry promotes itself as a response to global warming.

The three main barriers are high costs, safety concerns and the possibility of weapons proliferation, he said.

Walker said the industry is unlikely to expand beyond the current U.S. levels -- the United States has more than 100 nuclear power plants -- adding that plant numbers could decline because of the decade-long process for building new facilities.

But the nuclear power industry disagrees.

"The nuclear renaissance is going on already," said Tom Kauffman, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a policy organization for the industry.

He pointed out that more than 50 plants are under construction worldwide, although there are no new plant projects in the United States.

But that will change, he added.

"What this was for us was a profound endorsement by President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu of nuclear energy and he stated clearly... that he believes we need to develop a new generation of nuclear power plants," he said of Obama's announcement on Tuesday.

Support in Congress is growing and the Georgia plants are just the beginning, Kauffman said, noting that Obama has asked Congress to triple funding for the nuclear loan guarantee program to 54 billion U.S. dollars.

Kauffman argues that the use of nuclear energy is the only way the U.S.can meet its energy and environmental goals, as the demand for electricity will continue to increase by around 1 percent per year, according to government figures.

Along with other energy sources, solar and hydro for example, nuclear energy will satisfy U.S. demand for clean energy, he said.

Supporters of nuclear power say the technology is safe, and that past accidents such as Chernobyl -- the result of major design deficiencies, violation of operating procedures and the absence of a safety culture, according to the World Nuclear Association -- are unlikely to reoccur today.

Charles D. Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, said the U.S. nuclear industry, with 104 reactors, is not dying but may not grow either.

"After all, the U.S. operates the most reactors of any country," he said.

"However, there are concerns about continued growth. Some loan guarantee money for a couple of plants will do little to stimulate new substantial growth."

Still, an increase in the number of nuclear power plants could create a windfall of high paying jobs for skilled blue collar workers, such as welders, electricians and fire inspectors, he said.

The U.S. has not seen a new nuclear power plant for three decades, after the calamitous Three Mile Island accident spurred panic among the U.S. public.

And many Americans appear to have forgotten the incident. A Gallup poll last year found that support for nuclear energy has reached a new high, with 59 percent of respondents favoring its use.

But Greenpeace's Riccio said the public has expressed its opposition at the state, local and national level, and noted a number of green and other organizations oppose nuclear power, such as Friends of the Earth and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Source: Xinhua
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