US nuclear industry reaches a crossroads - revamp or shut down

DOES nuclear power have a future in the United States?

The question just won't go away. Critics hope the nuclear industry will fade out - and believe it is well on its way to doing so.

But supporters of the industry, which still produces 21 percent of US power, see new technology reviving the industry.

Against this backdrop, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced on Dec. 12 that it has abandoned plans to complete three of its nuclear plants. Some industry observers say the move reinforces a gaining perception that nuclear power is a perishing industry in the United States.

``The nuclear industry is certainly dead in this country,'' says Ken Maize, editor of the Quad Report, a publication about energy efficiency.

But others see the future differently.

The cancellation of the plants signals an end to the current model of nuclear plants and marks the beginning of a new generation of plants that will be built very differently, says Cathy Roche, vice president of public and industry communications at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear industry group.

TVA, a federal corporation that President Franklin Roosevelt started in 1933 to bring electricity to the Tennessee River Valley, operates one of the largest electric systems in the US. It serves nearly 8 million people in seven Southeastern states. In the 1960s, TVA began a planned 17-reactor power system. During the 1980s, however, TVA canceled eight of the plants for cost reasons. Today only three are running.

Its Watts Bar 1 plant in Tennessee - the only nuclear plant under construction now in the US - is slated to open next year, 22 years after first ground was turned and nearly $7 billion over budget.

TVA chairman Craven Crowell cited increasing debts ``guided by policies that are decades out of date'' for his decision to cancel construction on the three plants. The agency is $26 billion in the red and has a congressionally imposed debt limit of $30 billion. Completing the three plants would have catapulted TVA above the federal ceiling.

The high cost of building, maintaining, and providing energy through nuclear facilities is the main reason why the industry no longer has a future in the US, Mr. Maize says. The energy market is very competitive, he adds, and nuclear power costs more per kilowatt hour than the cost of other sources, including gas.

Stephen Smith, the executive director of the Tennessee Valley Energy Reform Coalition, agrees. ``Nuclear power is really too costly to continue in its present form,'' Dr. Smith says. ``As other energy options become more cost-effective, the financial risks ... associated with nuclear power are going to make it a less attractive option. Many utilities have already identified that.''

But Ms. Roche of the Nuclear Energy Institute says the industry's future is not bleak. She describes a new generation of nuclear plants that are under design and will be certified this year. These plants will differ from the previous ones because the designs will have passed the approval process before building begins; all licensing questions will be answered up front; and they will be constructed in five to seven years, instead of a traditionally much longer period. The designs are already being built overseas, and she expects US orders for the new plants early in the next century.

``In order to meet international commitments on carbon dioxide emissions, we cannot turn our backs on nuclear energy,'' Roche says. But critics say nuclear wastes outweigh the clean-air argument.

``The economics suggest to me that there's going to be a significant period of time where there are more efficient, more environmentally benign ways to meet the need for electricity,'' contends Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America.

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