The renaissance of nuclear power in the U.S. appears inevitable. It just may not happen as smoothly as the Obama administration and others hope.
The Vermont Senate's vote Wednesday to block a license renewal for an Entergy plant shows that supporters of nuclear power still have big obstacles to overcome. Those include the growing costs for new plants, environmental worries and the age of the country's existing nuclear fleet.
"I think if you said 'ready, go' today, any kind of meaningful addition would be 10 years down the road," said Eric Melvin of Mobius Risk.
The U.S. gets about a fifth of its electricity from nuclear power, but no new nuclear plant has been built in nearly three decades.
Momentum for new nuclear plants has been gaining steam, and backers say the production of electricity without any emissions of greenhouse gases outweigh potential problems. President Obama announced $8 billion in loan guarantees last week for two reactors to be added in Georgia, an investment he says is necessary to provide electricity from cleaner sources of energy than traditional fossil fuels.
Giant costs for adding nuclear power have proven to be a drag on utilities, which say the loan guarantees are the only way to get projects off the ground. Reactors can run $6 billion to $8 billion apiece. That tops the market cap of some of the utilities that have wanted to build them.
And some states have put a further strain on trying to develop new plants.
St. Louis-based Ameren, for example, has suspended plans for a second nuclear reactor in Missouri after lawmakers failed to repeal a 1976 law barring utilities from charging customers for certain costs of a new power plant before it starts producing electricity. Florida Power & Light suspended much of its work on two new reactors after Florida regulators rejected nearly all of the company's request for a rate increase.
Safety also becomes an issue for state officials.
Just the idea of a new plant gets people thinking about partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster 23 years ago in then-Soviet Ukraine that spread radiation over much of Europe, Melvin said. "People can't get past the initial fear," he said.
The aging fleet of existing nuclear plants has led to worries about leaks from buried pipes and related systems, including the Yankee plant. "The Vermont Yankee situation certainly threatens to undermine the industry's campaign to spin nuclear power as clean and 'pollution-free' energy," said Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Steve Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry trade group, said Entergy, the second biggest operator of nuclear plants in the U.S., found the leak based on voluntary safety programs put in place in 2006. The leak posed no health or safety threat, he said.
Since 2000, the NRC has granted license extensions at 59 of the nation's 104 reactors, Kerekes said. Another 19 requests are pending and the rest have not needed a renewal since then.
Nuclear plants have shown they can be safely operated for more than 60 years, Kerekes noted.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Diane Screnci said the license renewal for the Yankee plant is pending before the commission. NRC staff has not found any reason not to renew the license.
Entergy said it is committed to win the 20-year renewal of the plant's license.
Spokesman Jim Steets said failure to keep that plant operating means relying on more costly replacement power that it is not as clean as nuclear power. "It makes a lot more sense to continue to operate that plant than shut it down," he said.