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Companies & People The Silence of the Nuke Protesters Christopher Helman, Chana R. Schoenberger and Rob Wherry
Atomic power is making a comeback in the U.S., with only muffled squawks from the usual opponents. Could that have something to do with the price of oil? Or maybe global warming?
Sandra Lindberg and her husband, Samuel Galewsky, intended to start a ruckus. She, a theater professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and he, a biology prof at Millikin University, entered the Vespasian Warner Public Library one night in April 2003 to discuss a proposal by Exelon Corp. to add a brand-new nuclear reactor to its existing plant in Clinton, Ill.
Lindberg and her group, No New Nukes, drew inspiration from three decades of protests. Like other towns where an outraged public defeated plans for new plants, Clinton, she hoped, would reject this one. No new reactors had been proposed in the U.S. since the Three Mile Island disaster. Outcry over the proposed repository for radioactive waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain showed that America wanted nothing to do with nuclear power.
Or so she thought. By the time of the second meeting, in December, the town--once split 50-50 on the new reactor--now overwhelmingly supported the project. Economics, not environmentalism, seemed to be swaying this rural community. With unemployment at 8%, Exelon, Dewitt County's largest employer, said that if the plant were built there would be 3,200 construction jobs, 600 new full-time positions to operate the plant and a big jump in the county's tax take. By the time Galewsky finally rose to speak out against the plant, it was late and the room was almost empty--an outcome that could have been foretold. With backing from the industry's powerful lobby, the Nuclear Energy Institute, Exelon had spent weeks meeting with leaders and heading off the very concerns about health, safety and the environment that Lindberg hoped would galvanize the crowd against the plan.
Yes, nuclear power is back, after a quarter-century of suspended animation. The industry has avoided the kind of direct confrontation that might arouse the wrath of an American public that still doubts the safety of reactors and is spooked about terrorism. Over the last five years fans of atomic power have quietly lined up the support of federal and municipal governments and have cozied up to General Electric and Westinghouse Electric (now part of the British BNFL Group) in service to an ambitious agenda: building perhaps 5 new reactors by 2015, a dozen by 2020 and 50 by mid-century.
The U.S. nuclear construction industry was presumed dead. It is anything but. If oil prices stay high, if people worry about carbon dioxide causing global warming, if the Middle East stays violent, nuclear power stands a good chance of making a huge comeback in this country.
Six weeks before the last Clinton library meeting, Marilyn Kray, an Exelon vice president, had gathered 11 executives from the largest nuclear operators and reactor vendors at a private room in Olives, a tony Washington, D.C. restaurant three blocks from the White House. As the dominant player, with 17 of the nation's 103 commercial reactors, Exelon of Chicago took the lead in discussing the future of the industry. (The company recently launched a $27 billion bid to buy PSE&G, a deal that would give it 3 more nuclear reactors and customers in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.) Sitting next to Kray was Dan R. Keuter, her counterpart at Entergy, the number two operator. As diners nibbled their salads, the two led them through a 23-page report. Kray asked, Why not band together to help each other build new plants--and usher in a new dawn of nuclear power?
Two meetings followed in conference rooms at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The result was a consortium called NuStart Energy--comprising utilities with 30.5 million residential customers and $97 billion in annual revenues, as well as GE and Westinghouse. Its goal is to choose two of five sites by September, then go after the permits. By 2007 NuStart expects to see certification of GE's reactor design and to have its financing, at $1.5 billion per plant, in place--so a utility could put a plant out for bid the following year. On that schedule groundbreaking should be in 2010. Assuming construction goes well, the first new reactor could be hooked up to the grid five years later. By then there will be nothing stopping this consortium, and a dozen more plants may be starting to go up.
Fifteen years ago no one even considered building new reactors. There was still a bad hangover from the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 and the Chernobyl explosion in 1986. The economics of the business stank. Far from being "too cheap to meter," as promoters predicted at the dawn of atomic power a half-century ago, nuclear energy was a lot more expensive than energy from coal and natural gas. Many small nuclear-power operators couldn't even turn a profit on their old reactors.
A big problem was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, known for being unpredictable and fatally slow. In 1997 it had 14 plants on its "watch list" and fined others for such trivial non-safety violations as recording maintenance records on the wrong form. Howard Bruschi, former chief technology officer at Westinghouse, recalls that a regulator asked him to provide additional specs on an exhaust fan for a men's locker room.
It's usually a mistake to attack the bureaucrats that run your life, but at a certain point the nuclear power industry decided it didn't have much to lose. The utilities complained to Senator Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and the industry's patron saint on Capitol Hill. In 1998 he faced down NRC chief Shirley Ann Jackson and gave her an ultimatum: Fix the agency or see its funding cut by $50 million a year. Jackson (now president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) concedes that shutting down so many plants was a mistake, but insists that reforms Domenici takes credit for spurring were already in the works for two years. She says the new set of risk-based regulations--which focus on safety, not men's room fans--"was my baby."
Whoever the parent, the child is now much more tractable. Over the last six years the NRC has renewed operating licenses for 30 old plants. In September it certified the new Westinghouse AP-1000 reactor--a larger version of an existing 600-megawatt reactor--in 30 months, down from an average seven years.
Looser regulations suddenly gave utilities the green light to buy up underperforming plants. In July 1999 Donald Hintz, then president of Entergy in New Orleans, spent $81 million for the Pilgrim reactor in Massachusetts. He got a 670-megawatt plant, $67 million worth of uranium fuel, a $471 million decommissioning fund and a five-year contract to sell power at 4 cents a kilowatt-hour. It was the first-ever outright sale of a nuclear reactor in the U.S. Corbin McNeill, chief executive of Peco, the forerunner of Exelon, followed close behind in December 1999, picking up Three Mile Island Unit 1 (the healthy sister of the infamous and dormant TMI Unit 2) with a British partner for $100 million--$23 million for the plant and $77 million for existing fuel. The deals kicked off massive consolidation in the industry--at 27, there are now half as many nuclear operators as there were in 1990.
As the utilities assembled bigger reactor fleets, they forged tighter relationships with vendor companies. The benefits cut both ways, improving efficiency and safety in existing plants and providing fresh ideas for a new generation of reactors.
No question that Westinghouse and GE have reaped a windfall since they started providing services to the power giants. Maintaining the plants, training workers and modifying designs and procedures now compose a $2 billion-a-year enterprise at Westinghouse, and more than $1 billion at GE. As for new construction, when the U.S. market lay in a deep freeze, both vendors stayed alive competing for business in places as far-flung as South Korea, Finland and South Africa.
By tying vendors' pay to increased efficiency, utilities have vastly improved the efficiency of reactors. The Pilgrim plant was losing money and running at 76% capacity when Entergy bought it. From 2001-03 it averaged 91%. The story is the same nationwide, where changes in regulations, operations and even monitoring software have allowed engineers to boost nuke output at the average plant by 4% since the 1970s.
Better efficiency has led to fewer mistakes. While no nuclear plant is or ever will be fail-safe, the industry insists that America's current fleet of 103 plants is safer than ever--from accident and terrorism. Engineers have devised redundant sensors, any one of which probably would have prevented the Three Mile Island or Chernobyl disasters. Entergy's River Bend will soon install a $3 million computerized turbine control system built by GE to replace old analog technology. It offers faster and more detailed reports, allowing operators to move quickly and minimize human error--the cause of most calamities. Westinghouse has built a robotic spider that crawls into a reactor's steam generators, where humans prefer not to go, to check for leaks.
The next generation, the industry promises, will be even safer. NuStart's first new reactors will reflect all the improvements Westinghouse and GE have devised over the last 30 years. They will be smaller, simpler and cheaper to build, relying on gravity, rather than electricity, to cool reactors--or, in the unlikely event of a meltdown, to flood a reactor core. Designs still on the drawing board include a Westinghouse-backed pebble-bed reactor, where uranium fuel is encased in graphite pebbles the size of tennis balls; the graphite tempers the fission reactions the way control rods do but can withstand temperatures of up to 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit, making meltdown nearly impossible. The privately held General Atomics of San Diego is promoting a reactor that uses helium as a cooling agent, rather than water, and is built in an underground silo--a deterrent to terrorists.
How to pay for a new generation of nukes, at $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion per plant? NuStart envisions a combination of private and public funding, along the lines of what the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific used to build the Transcontinental Railroad 135 years ago: government-backed loans to help float corporate bonds. (No one, pointedly, mentions the scandalous Crédit Mobilier, used by insiders to line their pockets with the rail subsidies.)
The industry has lots of friends in Washington, D.C. Last year utilities chipped in $42.6 million in lobbying and contributions to politicians, three-quarters of that to Republicans, reports the Center for Responsive Politics. The Bush White House is sympathetic to nukes. The Department of Energy in 2002 launched Nuclear Power 2010 to get a new reactor built by the end of the decade. It's more than a nudge: The plan also suggests a taxpayer-backed fund for engineering costs; the industry proposes direct or loan guarantees by the feds and electricity purchases by the government.
Utilities have gotten federal subsidies even as the infamous Energy Bill has languished year after year. With all the negative press on the proposed drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Congress has tacked on $35 million here, $29 million there to its annual spending bill to help the nuclear industry conduct site and permit work. When a marked-up energy bill makes the rounds early this year, it will likely suggest further study of options for fuel recycling and earmark $1.8 billion to get new reactors built pronto.
The bill does not yet give NuStart what it wants most of all: government guarantees of construction loans for new, untested reactor designs. Such backing would help lower the cost of borrowing. (Without the guarantee, the bonds would most likely be rated slightly lower than the utilities' other bonds.) But why stop there? The utilities also want two fat tax credits--one allowing them to deduct 20% of their spending on new reactors and a second to lop off 1.8 cents for every kilowatt-hour of power produced by the new plants. That's the same treatment Congress granted wind-turbine makers in 2003.
That last sticks mightily in some craws--particularly that of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Applied to the average 1,000-megawatt power plant, the credit would result in tax breaks of $150 million a year. That's too high a price for Michele Boyd, legislative director for antinukers at Public Citizen, the Nader-founded group. "They want cradle-to-grave subsidies in order to try to make nuclear power competitive," she complains.
"Whatever the government needs to spend," counters Gary Taylor, head of nuclear operations at Entergy, "it's a small price to pay for weaning America off its addiction to foreign oil, reducing greenhouse gases and protecting our economy."
Here's one nut the nuclear industry can't crack: disposal. The nation's commercial reactors have accumulated 50,000 tons of highly toxic waste, mostly spent uranium fuel rods. When fresh, reactor fuel consists of enriched uranium 235, which is relatively harmless (the skin blocks alpha particles). But fission transforms a small quantity of uranium into extremely radioactive isotopes, including plutonium. Walk into a room with a used fuel assembly and the exposure would kill you in minutes. Plants are running out of room for depleted uranium, yet the Energy Department, which is responsible for its permanent disposal, has nowhere to put it. The plan was to build a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Yet after the spending of $7 billion and 26 years on studying and designing the site, Yucca is mired in lawsuits.
You can hardly blame Nevadans for rejecting a poisonous slag heap 90 miles from Las Vegas, and Senator Reid is fighting hard to block it. In November he managed to horse-trade with the White House to get an anti-Yuccan scientist appointed as an NRC commissioner, in exchange for a promised approval of 100 Bush appointees to judgeships and other openings. Still, with a solid Republican majority in Congress, betting is that Yucca's final approval could come before 2008, with doors opening in 2012 at the earliest. A few billion dollars of federal government bribe money to the citizens of Nevada would ease the pain.
Pending Yucca, there are ways to buy time. If there's room for it, spent fuel can safely sit in cooling ponds inside reactor buildings. Entergy's River Bend plant is turning to casks sitting on a concrete pad outside the reactor building. Virtually impervious to terrorism, shielded with 6 feet of radiation-blocking material, the 50-ton casks are so dense that even a direct hit by a jetliner would have as much chance of breaking containment as a raw egg would have of shattering a bowling ball. On foot, terrorists would have to get past armed guards and concertina wire, then commandeer the plant's custom-built crane to lift off the enormous 10-ton lid. They'd also need thick shielding while making a getaway to avoid dying of radiation poisoning.
New reactors, while they promise to significantly reduce radioactive waste, will still generate more toxins. "Utilities are trying to pawn nuclear off as clean technology even though there's toxic waste," says Deborah Katz, executive director of the Citizens Awareness Network in Shelburne Falls, Mass. Years ago the group helped shut down three reactors in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
But these days protesters are just waking up. "This is going forward so quickly that a lot of questions will end up getting settled before people really know what's happening," says Brendan Hoffman, an energy organizer for Public Citizen.
How to get their message across? Mass mailings, letters to the editor and conferences don't have the same impact anymore--not when the promise of jobs trumps the fear of disposal in places like Clinton, Ill. and Louisa County, Va., where a small consortium led by Dominion Resources wants to build a new reactor.
There may yet be an outbreak of mass demonstrations in Washington. But if the angry crowds fail to materialize, there is always the time-tested means of expressing opposition: through the courts. Public Citizen has teamed with other groups to file a trio of lawsuits in the NRC administrative court, challenging early site permits. The complaints argue that the plans failed to consider the plants' impact on striped bass populations--and gave little thought to the use of renewable energy sources. The case in Mississippi has been thrown out. Two others, in Illinois and Virginia, are pending. The protesters aren't gone, but they just aren't making the noise they used to.