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Not long ago, nuclear power in the U.S. seemed dead, buried by memories of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and mammoth cost overruns that pushed utilities to the brink of bankruptcy. But as the price of oil soars, the onetime pariah is making a comeback.
With a barrel of crude hitting a record $55 on Oct. 25, more Americans are coming to see nuclear energy as a cost-effective and environmentally acceptable alternative to fossil fuels, which could boost national security by reducing dependence on Middle East oil. Now, with the existing 103 nuke plants operating longer, more cheaply, and safer than before, the industry is planning the once unthinkable -- building the first new nuclear facility in 30 years. And that plan will get a big boost from Uncle Sam: By the end of the year, the Energy Dept. is expected to announce it will pay half the estimated $500 million cost of detailed design and engineering work that two consortiums need to win approval for new nukes.Low-Carb Diet
There's more good news ahead for nukes in Washington. Energy is also expected to request proposals to build an experimental advanced reactor in Idaho. And if and when Congress passes an energy bill, it will include tax incentives for new nukes. Instead of digging more coal, sending troops overseas to protect oil fields, and paying soaring energy prices, the U.S. "must put nuclear power back on track," says Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).
Selling that argument to pro-environment Democrats long worried about plant safety is easier because oil is so expensive and the cost of producing electricity at nuclear plants has dropped 50% since 1988, thanks to more efficient operations. And with Russia's Oct. 22 ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the world is rapidly moving toward mandatory limits on carbon emissions to combat global warming. Atom-splitting emits no CO2. "I don't see how we can have low-carbon energy without a new generation of nuclear plants," says CEO John W. Rowe of the Chicago-based utility Exelon. Even many environmentalists agree that nuclear power is essential to any global warming solution. "Nuclear power has turned into a successful business with growing political support," says Roger Gale, chief executive of utilities consultant GF Energy.
But while China and South Africa are moving ahead with a new generation of nukes, there's still a long and uncertain road ahead before construction starts in the U.S. Utilities and plant builders expect to complete designs and apply for licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by 2008. Then they figure the NRC will take two years to review the applications, so nothing could happen before 2010. And there's still a huge hurdle: what to do with nuclear waste.
A repository for spent fuel under Yucca Mountain in Nevada was supposed to be the answer. But some scientists fear the geology isn't stable enough, and Senator Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry vow to stop the Bush Administration's Yucca plans. Proponents like Domenici think they have the votes to defeat Reid, and they hope that Kerry, if elected, will back off, as George W. Bush did four years ago. If they succeed, the atom could be back -- with a surprisingly bigger role in America's energy future. Ralph Reed has gone from the boy wonder of the Christian Coalition to key cog in the turnout machine the Bush campaign hopes will put it over the top on Nov. 2. But even before the votes are counted, Bush's conservative allies have a new calling in mind for Reed: They want him to take over the Republican National Committee next January when Chairman Ed Gillespie's term expires. Some Establishment Republicans are worried that Reed, the ex-Georgia GOP chair, would project too right-wing an image on social issues. If Bush wins, he can appoint anyone he wants to head the RNC. But if Bush loses, a Reed candidacy could provoke a power struggle within the party, with the Old Guard moving quickly to come up with a big-name alternative. Republicans have been portraying Democrat John Kerry as anti-business, but new ratings by the Information Technology Industry Council give Kerry a lifetime rating of 74% on issues of importance to the tech industry. The ITI Council's High Tech Voting Guide rated Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards at 52% for his career. On the Republican side, House Speaker Dennis Hastert scored 90% for his career, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist tallied a 96% rating. The most hostile Hill leader: Representative David Obey (D-Wis.) at 29%. Despite Kerry's longtime tech friendships, his 2004 rating plummeted to 0% because he missed all but two votes important to tech.