Energy & Utilities

By Lenton, Garry | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, January/February 2007 | Go to article overview

Energy & Utilities


Lenton, Garry, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


ENERGY AND UTILITIES IN A COMMUNITY INVOLVE MORE THAN LIGHT BULBS AND TAP WATER. WHEN THE POWER SUPPLY FOR HOMES AND BUSINESSES IS INVOLVED, YOU ALSO CAN COUNT ON POLITICS, BUSINESS AND MONEY BEING PART OF THE EQUATION. THAT'S WHY INVESTIGATIONS OF THE SUPPLY-AND-DEMAND TRAIL CAN BE SO CHALLENGING.

INCREASING DEMAND FOR POWER REQUIRES CLOSER LOOK AT NUCLEAR ENERGY INDUSTRY

In the classic Saturday Night Live sketch "The Pepsi Syndrome," comedian Richard Benjamin explains to the world how the complicated process of nuclear fission is used to boil water to make electricity "so you can make toast."

The skit aired nine days after the March 28, 1979, accident that destroyed the Unit-2 reactor at Three Mile Island and gave a nervous nation a chance to laugh after a harrowing week. At the time, the world's attention was focused on the nuclear plant and whether a hydrogen bubble inside the containment building would result in a release of deadly radiation.

Up until then, few reporters were paying attention to nuclear energy. It was a trusted technology, an atoms-for-peace initiative that migrated out of the U.S. Navy's nuclear program. Many of the nuclear engineers who helped get the nation's commercial nuclear power plants up and running came from the Navy's program. We were naive.

The accident changed that. In the decades that followed, the nuclear industry came under scrutiny from government regulators, watchdog groups, the media and the public. Then, the Russian reactor at Chernobyl caught fire seven years later. The two events left the industry with two black eyes that lasted into the 21st century. No one was ordering new plants. The legal battles over new sites and finding investors to finance a project would be tough, if not impossible.

Not anymore. Demand for electricity is rising; concerns about pollution from coal-fired power plants are escalating, and the public, which is fed up with rising oil prices and a sense that the U.S. is too dependent on the goodwill of Middle Eastern despots for sweet crude, is beginning to soften its view. Operating licenses are being renewed, new plants are being ordered and the time for journalists to start paying closer attention to this billion-dollar industry is now.

Nuclear issues cut across several beats - environment, public safety, business and labor, to name a few. If you're not covering nuclear, now is a good time to start. Here's a look ahead at some issues worth exploring:

Re-licensing: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees all aspects of the industry and licenses commercial nuclear plants. Licenses are good for 40 years, but 20-year extensions are available.

There are 103 operating reactors in the U.S. at 64 sites in 31 states. More than half were built before 1979, and their licenses will expire in the next decade. It is expected that most owners will ask for an extension. Nuclear sources provide about 20 percent of the nation's electricity and 16 percent worldwide. Without it, the nation would have to find a way to replace the supply. Reliance on nuclear power is heaviest in the East, where most of the plants are located. In Vermont, 72 percent of the electricity supply comes from nuclear power. In New Jersey and South Carolina, it's 52 percent.

Companies start preparing to re-license about 10 years before their current license expires. If the owners aren't ready to go public with their plans, there is one strong indicator of their intentions - investment. Replacing a vessel head, or steam generators, are $100 million projects, not something a company would want to do in a plant it expects to retire in the next decade.

The re-licensing process is described in detail on the NRC's Web site, www.nrc.gov.

Information about each plant and how nuclear energy compares to other forms of power generation can be found at the Nuclear Energy Institute's Web site, www.nei.org. The NEI is a Washington, D. …

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