Nuclear power surge coming
In the next 15 months, US regulators expect applications for up to 28 new plants.
With this week's application to build a new nuclear plant – the first such filing in nearly 30 years – the industry says the US is on the verge of a nuclear power renaissance.Skip to next paragraph
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With virtually no greenhouse-gas emissions, reactors are touted as part of the solution to global warming. Over the next 15 months, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects a tidal wave of similar permit applications for up to 28 new reactors, costing up to $90 billion to build.
But the renaissance may be less robust than it looks. Even if the projects are successful and building proceeds at breakneck speed, the lead times are so long and costs so high that it's unclear that the US can build enough nuclear plants to make a dent in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. They're so financially risky, experts say, that the only reason building plans are under way is that the federal government has stepped in to guarantee investors against loan defaults.
"Clearly, [nuclear power companies] are not so confident or they wouldn't want the federal government and taxpayer to be guaranteeing the loans," says David Schlissel a longtime nuclear industry analyst with consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics in Cambridge, Mass.
The industry says it needs the aid to get nuclear power rolling again.
"Yes, we need some help and assistance getting these large projects off the ground," says Paul Genoa of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in Washington. "This will always be labeled as subsidies. But one person's subsidy is another person's incentive. These are the first nuclear power plants to be built in years and there's a role for government here."
Also, loan guarantees don't affect taxpayers unless those loans are defaulted on, he points out.
Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the industry already is getting an estimated $12 billion in tax breaks and other largess. The Price-Anderson Act, a law dating from the 1950s, caps the industry's liability at about $10 billion in the event of an accident, even though studies show that a major nuclear meltdown could easily run 50 times that.
Now, the Senate version of a new energy bill includes a provision that could provide tens of billions of dollars more in federal-loan guarantees. On Tuesday, the Energy Department announced it would provide up to $2 billion in federal risk insurance for the first six new nuclear-plant projects, protecting them against losses from regulatory or legal delays.
"In my view, these kinds of taxpayer subsidies are vital to the industry, and they wouldn't be building any of these new nuclear plants without them," says Doug Koplow, president of Earth Track, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm that analyzes subsidies for all forms of energy, including biofuels.
The nuclear industry gets about $9 billion a year in federal subsidies, he calculates, trailing only oil and coal in federal energy aid. That amount could go far higher if companies were to begin defaulting on guaranteed loans, he adds.
The nuclear industry has already put Congress on notice that it could require loan guarantees of at least $20 billion for planned projects – and more later, NEI officials told The New York Times in July.