Nuclear Power's 'Renaissance'? the Growing Need for Electricity Prompts Second Look at Reactors

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Byline: Joyce Howard Price, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's been 20 years since the deadly explosion and fire at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and with the passing of two decades comes a time of renewed interest in nuclear energy, given the high levels of safety and production at U.S. power plants and the advancement of technology.

Industry leaders are calling this the "renaissance of nuclear energy," and their only regret is that new nuclear power plants can't come on line to fill the urgent need for more electricity.

"We'll need additional energy in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast in 2009 to 2011, but the first new nuclear plants won't come on line until 2014 or 2015 at the earliest," said Mike Wallace, executive vice president of Constellation Energy, which runs two reactors at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant on the Chesapeake Bay in Lusby, Md., and three other reactors at two other U.S. locations.

Mr. Wallace acknowledges that a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs is a "distinct" possibility. A partnership called UniStar Nuclear, which includes Constellation Energy and Areva, a nuclear plant manufacturer with offices in Bethesda, has told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) it expects to submit applications to build and operate reactors at both Calvert Cliffs and a site in upstate New York in 2008 and 2009.

As for safety, Mr. Wallace said the "safety performance of plants operating today has been exemplary."

"We have 103 nuclear plants in operation in the United States, the oldest of which goes back 40 years," he said.

Things always haven't looked so good. "The outlook for nuclear power was far bleaker in the final decades of the last century," Mr. Wallace said.

Catalysts for change

The worst nuclear accident in U.S. history occurred March 28, 1979, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. That event, followed by the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl in Ukraine seven years later that killed 30 persons initially and spread radiation through a 20-mile radius, chilled many to the concept of nuclear-produced electricity.

Those fears did not readily dissipate.

The sequence of certain events at Three Mile Island - equipment malfunctions, design-related problems and human error - led to a partial meltdown of the TMI-2 reactor core, but only very small off-site releases of radioactivity. The accident, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, brought about sweeping changes involving emergency-response planning, reactor operator training and radiation protection.

As for Chernobyl, "Someone disabled the safety system, and there was no nuclear containment system, as is required in the United States," said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the National Energy Institute.

The accident sent high radiation levels into the surrounding 20-mile radius and 135,000 people had to be evacuated.

What led up to the Chernobyl disaster was the "height of Soviet arrogance," Mr. Kerekes said.

Ralph DeSantis, spokesman for the Three Mile Island Reactor 1 near Harrisburg, calls the U.S. nuclear reactor safety record "exemplary" after the accident that occurred in the second reactor at that site 27 years ago.

Safety is a major concern because the purpose of a nuclear power plant is to boil water and generate steam without the use of fossil fuels. The heat used to generate the steam is produced by a nuclear reaction involving uranium, rather than by the burning of a fossil fuel, such as coal.

"You want a uranium-235 isotope, which is very fissionable," Mr. Kerekes said. "In nuclear plants, we enrich the uranium 3 [percent] to 4 percent, while nuclear weapons are enriched 90 percent and above."

Nuclear power plants were a pariah for many years after TMI 2 and Chernobyl, but now the mood is changing for these reasons: the overall performance and safety records of nuclear power plants; the fact that they are clean - with no air-pollution emissions at all when they are operated correctly; plus the fact there are already designs on the books successfully being used for even safer reactors being built in Europe and Asia. …