T&P staff report
It's taken three decades and another staggering energy crisis, but the American nuclear power industry appears poised for resurgence.
Not since 1973 has a nuclear power plant been ordered or actually built inside the United States. While a series of obstacles stand in the way to a new generation of nuclear plants, all signs point to their inevitable arrival.
In recent years, power companies and utilities across the United States have been filing and preparing applications. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 21 companies say they will seek permission to build 34 power plants, from New York to Texas.
The timing seems ideal with increased concern about the country's growing demand for energy, along with desires to find cleaner and cheaper alternatives to coal, which provides almost half of the electricity used by the United States.
If there is to be a so-called "nuclear revival," it will require significant help from the manufacturing sector, which long ago shut down its supply chain for the industry. Power plants would require a range of custom parts, from steam generators, to valves, to pressure vessels, all engineered to extremely precise industry standards.
"It's one of the primary issues we face right now," said Alexis Bayer, director of energy and resources at the National Association of Manufacturers.
"The struggle is going to be whether [the suppliers] can do it fast enough," said Rich Reimels, president of Babcock & Wilcox's Nuclear Power Generation Group. "The talk is [the nuclear plants] will be in operation by 2018 or 2019. Well, if you only had one plant, that wouldn't be a problem. But trying to gear up for that many plants in a very short period of time, it's going to be a huge problem, in my opinion."
The broader push
The appeal of nuclear power was never quite the same following the incidents of Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. But if those nuclear accidents were the nails in the coffin for public policy, the tomb had long been in the making.
In the United States, orders for new reactors effectively died in October 1973. That was the month that kicked off the Arab oil embargo, initiating an era of economic malaise that drove up construction costs and suppressed demand for power. Over the next 10 years, more than 100 nuclear reactor projects, some in advanced stages of construction, were canceled, and tens of billions of dollars were squandered.
Still, nuclear power survived. According to the NRC, the United States has 104 commercial reactors still in operation, accounting for about a 20 percent share of electricity generation--about the same as natural gas, but lagging far behind coal at 50 percent. Globally, nuclear power has a 16 percent market share.
With growing concerns over global warming and gas supplies, support has swelled in congressional circles and within several states for new reactors. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley recently cited a "moral imperative" to build plants to counter the threat of climate change.
Congress, for its part, is helping spur the revival. In its 2005 energy...