Is nuclear power's comeback for real?

Commentary about business and finance.
Oct. 20 2007 7:04 AM

Solving "Fission Impossible"

Is nuclear power's comeback for real?

The Exelon Byron Nuclear Generating Stations in Byron, Illinois. Click image to expand.
Nuclear generating stations

We all know that $30-a-barrel oil isn't coming back, just as we know that simply turning off a few lights won't halt global warming. Yet the search for a low-emission, nonfossil-fuel source of energy has been a bit like American Idol: One after another, fresh-faced alternative-energy-rock-star wannabes are eliminated. Wind and solar are nice and clean—but the sun doesn't work 24/7, and the wind is fickle. Ethanol offers politicians the irresistible combination of grow-your-own energy independence and the potential to make Iowa primary voters rich. But because it's corrosive and soluble in water, it's hard to transport ethanol over long distances through pipelines. And to raise a crop sufficient to meet our gasoline thirst, we'd have to plant the entire continental United States with maize, leaving only a small corner of Delaware for bedrooms and a den.

As contestants are eliminated, it's worth looking at the geezer in the bunch: nuclear power. Last month, nearly 50 years after the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania became the first commercial power plant to go online, the New Jersey-based utility NRG filed papers seeking permission to build a nuclear power plant in Texas. This represents the first such new application since 1979, nuclear's annus horribilis. Two weeks after the debut of the fear-inducing nuclear-disaster flick The China Syndrome, life imitated art, as the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown. That effectively forestalled the creation of new nuclear power plants for a generation. The last reactor to come online was the Watts Bar reactor in Tennessee, in May 1996.

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So, what's changed? Twenty-eight years of safe operation (in the United States, at least) have helped pave the way for NRG and for a couple of dozen other possible plants in the works. Indeed, even as they're mocked in popular culture—see The Simpsons—the nation's 104 commercial nuclear-generating units have been quietly humming along without significant incident. "The Bureau of Labor Statistics will tell you that the nuclear industry is the safest place to work—safer than real estate and Wall Street," says former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. (You remember her—she played the environmentalist in the first Bush term.) Through the first half of this year, nukes provided 19.8 percent of U.S. electricity generation, about the same proportion as they did in 1990.

More important, thanks to developments in the broader environment, many longtime critics are changing their tune. As a co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore used to call nuclear energy "synonymous with nuclear holocaust." But he now believes "nuclear is the cleanest, safest and has the smallest footprint" of any major energy alternative source. He says that nukes are cheap and reliable, unlike alternative-energy sources such as wind and solar. Neither do nuclear plants spew sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, as coal-powered plants do, or create massive volumes of CO2 emissions, as gas-fired plants do. The attitude of Moore, who co-chairs the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, an industry-backed supporter of nuclear energy, is virtually indistinguishable from that of David Crane, chief executive officer of NRG: "Advanced nuclear technology is the only currently viable large-scale alternative to traditional coal-fueled generation to produce none of the traditional air emissions—and most importantly in this age of climate change—no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases."

Another megatrend is working in nuclear's favor: demographics. In 2006, an estimated 41.3 percent of the population was under 30. Which is to say that the percentage and number of Americans who remember the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl decline with every passing year.

To be sure—in any article dealing with alternative energy, there's always a "to be sure" section—nuclear power has some serious problems. It takes a lot of money, and a lot of time, to add new capacity. NRG says that if all goes well, its new nuclear units, which could power 2 million homes, may come online in 2014 and 2015. And investors aren't eager to commit billions of dollars to controversial long-term projects that might never get built. The government is trying to help by providing risk insurance and streamlining the approval process.

There's also still the huge problem of where to put the waste. But as Rudy Giuliani suggested recently, if a bunch of European socialists can figure out what to do with the radioactive leftovers, why can't we? "France is ahead of us in nuclear power," he said recently, with the same sort of disgust he might use in reporting that the Red Sox were ahead of his beloved Yankees. "Eighty percent of the electricity in France comes from nuclear power."

But when it comes to reaching a definitive solution on how to deal with nuclear waste, our vieux allies are stuck in the same quandary as we are. For years, Congress has been debating a proposal to store nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. In France, where plans to bury waste in rural areas raised similar hackles, the response has been to change the conversation. France has developed a program to store waste temporarily, while researchers figure out what to do with it. It's hardly an elegant solution. Which explains why nuclear energy, which has been the energy of the future for the last 50 years, may continue to be so.

This article also appears in the Oct. 29 issue of Newsweek.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster . Follow him on Twitter.