Nuclear power rallies
Engineer Jim Miller hasn't worked on siting a nuclear power plant in decades. But today the CEO of engineering-and-earth-sciences firm GeoEngineers Inc. sees a bright future for the nuclear industry.
Miller is working to position his Redmond-based company at the forefront of what he hopes will be a renaissance for nuclear power in the United States. He took one trip last month and plans several more to meet other companies interested in doing work for nuclear power plants.
GeoEngineers is one of several Northwest companies hoping to tap into the controversial and high-stakes nuclear-power market, which seems poised for an upsurge after stalling in the 1970s.
Most observers don't think Washington state is likely to welcome nuclear power plants any time soon. But proposed power plants on the East Coast and in other countries could mean big opportunities for several highly specialized companies in Washington.
No new nuclear plants have been built in the United States in more than 30 years. But many observers think that may change because of several trends.
Global energy demand, already high, is expected to keep growing rapidly, by more than 50 percent over the next 20 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, fossil fuels such as natural gas are getting increasingly expensive. And public resistance to nuclear power seems to be declining.
There's also the passage of the massive federal energy bill, signed into law Aug. 8, which offers billions of dollars in incentives, liability protections and research dollars to the nuclear industry.
Finally, a handful of prominent and respected environmentalists, citing the threat of global warming, is saying the once-unspeakable: Nuclear power should be considered part of the energy mix. The mainstream environmental community remains firmly opposed, but such defections mark a significant departure for a movement that was once rock-solid in opposition to nuclear power.
"What's driving the resurgence in the U.S. is the realization that if we are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we have to find a way of generating sizable amounts of power without burning fossil fuels," Miller said.
The federal energy bill is expected to help jump-start the nuclear power industry through four key provisions, said Steve Johnson, senior executive vice president with Boise-based Washington Group International, a huge construction and engineering company that has worked with every U.S. producer of power from nuclear plants.
The bill's provisions include:
Meanwhile, the push for new nuclear power plants is on. Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi are offering tax breaks and other incentives to the NuStart Energy group, a consortium of 11 large utility companies interested in developing nuclear power. NuStart and other utilities hope to select sites and land permits within the next couple of years and have new power plants on line within 10 years.
The industry will probably grow faster outside the United States, with more than 100 proposed power plants around the world, Johnson said. Plans include 24 proposed plants in India, 18 in China, 19 in Russia and 11 in Japan.
Washington Group and San Francisco-based Bechtel, the nation's largest nuclear power contractor, will likely have prominent roles in building new power plants in the United States.
And new plant construction could mean big business for Washington's specialty firms and subcontractors such as Miller's firm.
Miller, who started his career in nuclear power plant siting in the early 1970s, thinks the 250-person GeoEngineers firm could help with siting decisions and permits by studying seismic activity and environmental impacts associated with construction of nuclear power plants.
He said nuclear power plants would require experts in many other areas, including ground and surface water hydrology, biology and endangered species, demography and land-use planning, power transmission planning and design, public relations and disaster planning.
In addition to GeoEngineers, several other Washington companies or operations expect an upswing in the nuclear power industry, with possible business benefits for them. Those companies include:
Energy Northwest, which operates the state's only nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, doesn't have plans to built an additional nuclear power plant, said spokesman Brad Peck.
But Peck thinks public support for nuclear power is growing nationwide. He points to polls conducted by the Nuclear Energy Institute in May 2005, which found that 70 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed supported nuclear power.
Washington State University Professor Eugene Rosa said public opposition to nuclear power has softened, although he's not convinced that the public really supports the industry.
One surprising reason for a decline in public resistance may come from the environmental movement. Several prominent and respected environmentalists have said they are open to nuclear power, if not outright supportive.
Noted ecologist James Lovelock in 2004 announced support for nuclear power. He was joined by Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand.
Other key environmentalists have said nuclear power might be worth another look, including author Jared Diamond, World Resources Institute president Jonathan Lash, and British bishop and longtime environmental leader Rev. Hugh Montefiore.
"Coal is the enemy," says Roel Hammerschlag, environmentalist and executive director of the Seattle-based Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment. He describes himself as open-minded on nuclear power, calling it perhaps "the lesser of two evils."
Hammerschlag said he believes the potential negatives of nuclear power may be less than what he sees as the certain catastrophe of global climate change.
Local environmental leaders know and respect Hammerschlag's work, but don't draw the same conclusions. Among other concerns, they point to the unresolved issue of radioactive waste disposal. After decades of wrangling, a plan to bury waste under Yucca Mountain in Nevada is still tied up in the courts.
"We can't trade in one environmental problem for another," said Nancy Hirsch, policy director for the Northwest Energy Coalition.
Kathleen Casey with the Sierra Club agrees.
"It would make a lot more sense to us to put more money toward renewables and conservation," Casey said. "At the end of the day, nuclear energy means a lot of expenses, a huge security risk and an environmental mess for tens of thousands of years."
© 2005 MSNBC.com