US Nuclear Industry Banks on China's Demand

Firms hope US will end ban on technology sales. Even if it does, a comeback is uncertain.

To the faltering American nuclear-reactor industry, the road to survival runs through China.

Eager to bridge power shortages that could slow its industrial expansion, Beijing has embarked on a mammoth nuclear-power expansion program worth an estimated $50 billion, a bonanza without parallel anywhere.

With Canadian, Russian, and French companies ahead in the race for contracts, United States firms such as Westinghouse, General Electric, and ABB Combustion Engineering Nuclear Systems, are clamoring for President Clinton to use Wednesday's summit with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to end a 12-year-old ban on US nuclear-technology sales to Beijing. At stake, they argue, are their futures and tens of thousands of American jobs.

"If continued to be denied China, US companies will be out of the business, with a corresponding loss of trained personnel to support the 100 US civilian nuclear power plants," says a study released in June by the President's Export Council, a panel heavy with industry representation.

But other analysts say that the US nuclear industry, encumbered by financial, image, and technical problems, may be beyond rescue whether Clinton ends the ban on sales to China - a move contingent on China's meeting US concerns on arms - or not.

"I do not see a rebirth for nuclear power," asserts Carol Werner of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a Washington think tank. "A lot comes down to safety, economics, and environmental concerns, and because the track record of the nuclear industry is something that cannot be overcome."

Other experts question whether China has the financial resources to complete its ambitious plan. "Can China really put together the financial package to do this? They are making huge investments across the energy sector right now. Where will nuclear be?" asks Jennifer Weeks, a professor at Harvard University's Center for Science and International Affairs.

Despite increases in recent years in nuclear-generated power worldwide, a US Department of Energy (DOE) global forecast projects scant growth through 2010. Nuclear-power production will then face a slump due to a slowdown in plant construction and retirements of aging reactors, the department projects.

Only in East Asia are governments pursuing major long-term nuclear power programs. None are bigger than that planned by China, which says it wants to expand its current nuclear capacity of 2,600 megawatts, generated by three plants, to 50,000 megawatts by 2010. That would require the construction of scores of additional plants. Eight are already under construction by Canadian, Russian, and French firms, but China is anxious to buy US technology, judged to be the most advanced in the world.

By participating in the Chinese market, US firms contend that they and their domestic suppliers will boost the American economy and create or retain tens of thousands of domestic jobs. Participation will also allow them to survive the projected global downturn in nuclear business until the beginning of what they believe will be a revival in the coming century.

"We see nuclear power coming back in this country," asserts Marvin Fertel, a vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based nuclear-trade association.

The US nuclear-power sector is the largest in the world, with 110 reactors providing about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. But no new plants are planned; the last to go on line began operating in February 1996. The DOE forecasts that by 2015, US nuclear capacity will have declined by 36 percent over 1995, due to the retirement of aging reactors and the absence of new orders.

Nuclear advocates dispute the forecast. They cite a number of factors in predicting that US utilities and those in other industrialized countries will again invest in nuclear power. Improvements, they say, are reducing the extended shutdowns that have troubled nuclear plants. As a result, they expect many utilities to drop plans to retire reactors after their normal 40-year life spans, and to undertake upgrades that will keep them operating for another 20 years.

Furthermore, they argue that the development of advanced reactors will make atomic power safer, cheaper, and more reliable. The need to cut global emissions of greenhouse gases produced by fossil-fuel-burning facilities will also help spur the return to nuclear power, they say.

"I think many people ... are concluding that nuclear energy needs another look," says John Holdren, a Harvard University professor of environmental science who led a presidential committee on 21st-century domestic energy needs. "We should be investing a lot more effort ... trying to determine whether we can make nuclear energy a viable, expandable energy option again, because we might need it."

But other experts are deeply skeptical that the enormous construction and operation costs associated with nuclear plants can be reduced. They also point to strong popular distrust in atomic power, a major reason why utilities are no longer investing in new nuclear plants.

Furthermore, the competition unleashed by the deregulation of the power industries in both the US and Western Europe will ensure that utilities invest in the most cost-effective generation method. That is now natural gas, expected to remain relatively cheap and plentiful for decades.

A final factor is the lack of a permanent solution for disposing of a high-level nuclear wastes produced by commercial plants.

There are currently 32,000 metric tons of waste being stored across the US. The amount is expected to grow to 85,000 metric tons if all of the country's plants operate until the end of their 40-year life spans. Meanwhile, government plans to build a depository under Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a project estimated to cost $34 billion, have stalled.

"These problems ... have not been dealt with and do not seem likely to go away," says the Environmental and Energy Study Institute's Ms. Werner. She and other experts, including some senior administration officials, say America's energy future lies with renewable resources like solar and wind power, and that new technologies and materials are making renewables efficient and competitive with fossil fuels.

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