Oil spill illustrates need to get nuclear plants started

Published 10:18 am Monday, May 24, 2010

Now that we in the Gulf region have seen in BP’s drilling rig failure how fossil fuels have inherent environmental risks, it’s definitely time to place more emphasis on safe and clean nuclear power.

But that’s going to require increasing, not decreasing, support from Washington in the form of loan guarantees to build new nuclear plants.

For no amount of effort to build additional reactors will succeed without loan guarantees, that lower the cost of obtaining private financing from banks. If loan guarantees are forthcoming, utility ratepayers would save hundreds of millions of dollars in reduced electricity costs.

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Yet despite bipartisan support for nuclear power in Congress, President Barack Obama’s proposal to triple funding for loan guarantees has gotten pushed aside in the continuing political gridlock over climate-change legislation. Indeed, the dispute over taxing carbon emissions from fossil fuels is the biggest barrier to nuclear power’s comeback.

Nuclear power deserves better. The performance of nuclear power plants has been outstanding. Reactors throughout the South have generated electricity dependably and at less cost than power plants that burn oil, gas and coal. Nuclear plants neither pollute the air nor load the atmosphere with carbon emissions. Solar and wind power are also clean but account for about 3 percent of the nation’s electricity production. Just to reach 10 percent would be prohibitively costly and take decades.

Recent studies by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Edison Electric Institute and the National Academy of Sciences have all determined that nuclear power must play a key role in our nation’s switch to a clean-energy economy. Too much is at stake for the Gulf region and our nation to do otherwise, regardless of the debate over nuclear waste.

It’s absurd to retard the growth of nuclear power on the specious grounds that no solution exists to the waste problem. A dozen states, including California and Illinois, have such bans still on the books. Never mind that used fuel — often mistaken for nuclear waste — is being safely stored at nuclear plant sites, and experts attest that it can remain in concrete-and-steel casks for the next 300 years. Moreover, the used fuel could be recycled to produce new reactor fuel long before that. But right now nothing is more important than getting new plants built to meet the growing demand for electricity.

To grasp the enormous challenges that the nuclear industry faces we need to recognize it is an industry characterized by long lead times, massive capital requirements and returns realized only many years later in the face of real investment risks. Because the industry must plan and operate under long lead times, it cannot raise the necessary capital unless it obtains loan guarantees.

Currently 17 utilities are seeking $122 billion in loan guarantees. But the Department of Energy program makes available only $18.5 billion, that is enough to support three reactors at the most. So far, DOE has approved loan guarantees for two new reactors in Georgia. The loan guarantees would reduce interest rates by as much as 1.1 percent on each project, estimated to cost $14 billion. The savings to consumers would be about $200 million.

Would taxpayers have to pay for loan guarantees? No! If the construction projects are managed properly, the loan guarantees will cost taxpayers nothing. Besides, nuclear utilities pay a premium that covers the financial risk assumed by the government.

The process of licensing and building a nuclear plant will take about 12 years. Demand for electricity in our increasingly digitalized economy is projected to grow in the future even with continuing improvements in energy efficiency. Given the surge expected in electricity use, pressured by the introduction of electric cars, the need for additional reactors will be greater than even in the 1960’s, when construction of the current generation of nuclear plants began.

Amid this state of affairs is an historic opportunity. As the costs of burning coal, gas and oil rise, many of the fossil fuel plants are expected to be retired during the next decade. We must quickly turn the fast-approaching power squeeze to our advantage by launching construction of new nuclear plants and ensuring that loan guarantees are available to make it happen.