Friday, October 21, 2005

Are We Ready?

For more than 20 years, it's been nearly an article of faith that no new nuclear power plant would be built in this country. Last year, a consortium of US power generators banded together as NuStart, to resurrect the US nuclear power industry from its post-Three Mile Island, post-Chernobyl purgatory. The group recently announced the selection of two sites for which to pursue approvals for constructing a new reactor, one in Alabama and the other in Mississippi. Whether these plants will actually be built depends on a lot more than the incentives and protections included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Has the cumulative impact of the Northeast Blackout of 2003, high energy prices, and the two hurricanes changed the socio-political landscape sufficiently for this to be more than a pipe dream?

Clearly, the justification for nuclear power has been altered by circumstances and events. Importantly, there's a real case to be made for nuclear as a response to climate change, including its possible use to generate hydrogen for fuel cell cars. Looking beyond the US, a couple dozen new plants are either under construction or in prospect around the world. Step back from the logic, though, and you have to wonder why Entergy and its NuStart partners think that the US public's mood has changed enough to give nuclear its second wind. Favorable poll results might help, though other recent polls suggest nuclear is still less popular than other energy options. When you consider the experience of other energy mega-projects, it's hard not to be skeptical.

Now, a nuclear power plant and a Liquefied Natural Gas terminal are different propositions in almost every way, except for the issue of perceived risk. If anything, our need for imported natural gas is more critical than for the CO2-free electricity nuclear plants generate. Gas prices have quadrupled, entire domestic industries are being offshored due to a lack of affordable gas, and we face a winter that might just see gas curtailed--cut off--for some commercial and industrial users. And yet, where is the groundswell of support for LNG? It's entirely possible that Congress and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will end up having to cram LNG down the throats of some coastal towns, for the good of the nation. That won't be pretty, but can you imagine the politics of that if the facilities involved were nuclear power plants, instead of ports for bringing in our cleanest, fastest-growing fuel?

So even though I believe nuclear power should be part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future, I'll be a lot less skeptical on the day when the leaders of the communities that have been fighting LNG tooth and nail stand up and say, "We really don't like this stuff, because a whole lot of folks have scared us about its dangers, but we know we need it to keep our houses warm, our employers competitive, and the country strong. Go ahead and build your LNG terminal."

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