Power shortage may electrify coal, nuclear industries

In the electricity business, opportunity is emerging from crisis.

California's power shortages, the jump in natural-gas prices, and tight electricity supplies elsewhere in the United States have roused hopes in both the nuclear-power and coal industry for a business revival.

"It is making new nuclear plants look better and better all the time," says Marvin Fertel, an executive at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in Washington. The industry has "a real shot" at an order for a new plant "during this decade."

If so, it would be something close to a Lazarus-like event. The last order for a nuclear plant that was actually completed was in 1973. Many experts, noting the high capital costs of a "nuke" and the extreme opposition to them, write off nuclear power for the indefinite future.

The coal industry has even higher hopes of new business.

"Over the last year, we have seen a definite renewed interest in using coal for producing electricity," says Connie Holmes, a senior vice president at the National Mining Association (NMA) in Washington.

Coal today provides 51 percent of the nation's electricity.

But the last major coal plant to come on line was in 1996. For some years, electricity providers have usually preferred to meet the expanding demand for power with new, relatively cheap, quickly built, natural-gas plants. They add little to air pollution. And gas was cheap.

That's changed. Natural gas is now expensive. The reliability of its supply is also questioned.

Right now, the cost of coal is about one-third that of natural gas or oil on a heat-equivalent basis.

Wisconsin Electric Power recently applied for regulatory approval of two large 600-megawatt coal plants. And that order, says Mrs. Holmes, may be "just the tip of the iceberg."

Behind the new enthusiasm for nuclear and coal power is a rising demand for electricity - about 2 to 2.5 percent a year, compounded year after year.

In California, demand has been rising 3 to 4 percent. But supply, caught up in a deregulation mess and the difficulty of finding new sites for plants within the state, has stagnated.

No significant large power plant of any kind has been built in California for 16 years.

Jack Gerard, president of the NMA, says the nation will need all kinds of power - coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro-electric, and renewable resources (wind, solar, etc.).

Coal's hopes for the future lie considerably in an "advanced clean coal technology" that will produce power with less pollution and in the reliability of the domestic supply of coal.

The NMA is lobbying Congress for a special investment tax credit for the first two or three plants using new technology to reduce the "commercial and technological risk" for the companies that order them. It wants this to be included in a comprehensive energy bill that is to be introduced soon.

It also hopes the Bush administration will review a Clinton plan to put a third of federal forest land "off limits" to road building and economic development - including coal mining.

The nuclear-power industry, now providing 20 percent of the nation's power, hopes President George W. Bush will make a decision by the end of this year to go forward with the nuclear-waste facility in the heart of Yucca Mountain in Arizona. Then the existing 103 nuclear plants and any future plants would have a permanent home for highly radioactive waste.

"We want politics to be moved aside and let science, the data, and the regulatory process go forward," says Mr. Fertel.

Many in the industry suspect that the Clinton administration blocked action on this crucial site for political reasons - to win electoral support in Arizona.

Last September, the NEI established a 15-member task force from the three nuclear-plant manufacturers (General Electric, Westinghouse, and ABB), construction firms, and major utilities to explore the possibility of building new nukes.

"An awful lot is going on," says Fertel. The consortium is exploring the possibility of constructing multiple, same-technology plants to minimize financial risks and maximize economies of scale. It will talk to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the end of this month to explore what would be needed to license a new technology: the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. In exploratory use in South Africa, this reactor design has an advantage in safety and small size.

Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute in Washington, says new nuclear power plants would not be competitive. "It may cost as much to decommission a plant as build one," he says. "No one wants the risk."

But old nuclear plants are hot properties, with rising prices.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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