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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Revitalizing An Industry

Air Date: Week of

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As part of its debate over the energy bill, the U.S. Senate voted down an amendment that would have done away with loan guarantees for the nuclear industry. Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports.


CURWOOD: The nuclear power industry may be getting a second lease on life, thanks to a vote in the U.S. Senate. A provision in the Bush Administration’s energy bill that provides up to $16 billion for the construction of six new nuclear power plants has been given a green light.

From Washington, Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports.

DOMENICI: You are going to find this bill--I think we are going to win today. And when we win I think we are going to come out with a major new impetus for nuclear power in this country.

CHU: That was Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico speaking on the Senate floor in response to a bipartisan amendment to strike down his provision for what some critics say is a tax subsidy for the nuclear industry.

The provision is in the form of a loan guarantee that would finance, up front, up to half the building costs of six nuclear power plants. Supporters of the amendment argue that no single source of power deserves billions of dollars of loans before producing any output. Unpaid loans or failed ventures, they say, would come at a significant cost to taxpayers.

In his defense, Senator Domenici pointed to the environmental benefits of going nuclear. Both he and the nuclear industry tout nuclear energy as a clean alternative that would reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But critics say nuclear plants pose serious risks that have not been sufficiently addressed by the industry. Ed Lyman is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

LYMAN: What they lack in greenhouse gas emissions, they make up for in spades in the production of nuclear waste, for which we still don’t have an adequate solution. And the threat posed by a terrorist attack on these facilities, which is much greater than for any fossil fuel plant.

CHU: The Nuclear Energy Institute has been lobbying to push nuclear into the energy market and into legislation. Scott Peterson, vice president of NEI, says that financial risks are not unique to the nuclear industry.

PETERSON: There is uncertainty in the marketplace right now to build any large power plant, nuclear, coal or gas. And so to have incentives to jump-start this next generation of nuclear technology is important.

CHU: The Senate amendment to do away with the loan guarantee failed by a slim margin of 50 to 48. But it might be up to Wall Street and not Congress to determine the fate of the nuclear industry.

Jonathan Falk is Vice President of National Economic Research Associates, an economic consulting firm in New York City. He says it will take more than an act of Congress to convince electricity utilities to invest in nuclear.

FALK: None of their senior management is in the least interested unless they can get not just the sort of financial guarantee embedded in this bill, but a real guarantee that the plant will make money for them.

CHU: Currently, the nuclear industry supplies 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. The Nuclear Energy Institute says it will continue to lobby Congress, Wall Street, and private research institutions in hopes of boosting that percentage.

The industry says improvements in technology will not only increase energy efficiency and reactor safety, but will make the price of nuclear energy cheaper than coal and natural gas.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jennifer Chu in Washington.



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