Nuclear power expansion exploded in the United States during the 1970s, heralded as a cheap, unlimited source of clean energy. Dramatic electricity usage predictions during that decade prompted aggressive plans for further expansion. By the mid-1980s, those predictions proved overblown, and mass cancellations followed.

A few accidents during the 1970s helped sour America on nuclear power development for more than 20 years. The unthinkable nearly happened in 1979 at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pa. The plant suffered a partial core meltdown, but the meltdown caused no deaths or injuries. Before that, a fire at the Unit 1 reactor at Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant, near Huntsville, Ala., prompted a scare in 1975.

Now, however, nuclear power may be poised for a dramatic comeback.

Supply and Demand
Volatile natural gas prices, updated nuclear plant designs, demand for a carbon-free energy source and massive government incentives may enable the nuclear power industry to rise again in the South. After more than 20 years of inactivity, the Unit 1 Browns Ferry reactor resumed splitting atoms in May. So far, utilities have announced plans to request federal licenses in the next two years to build up to 30 reactors, mostly in the South.

Just receiving a license does not commit a utility to actually building a plant, though. Energy giant Southern Co. announced plans to pursue several new licenses, but won't commit to building any plants. "We are in negotiations right now with Westinghouse to determine if nuclear energy is the best option for our customers," said Beth Thomas, spokesperson for Southern Co. "Nuclear is going to have to be cost-competitive with the other base-load sources."

A base-load power plant is one that, in theory, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and primarily operates at full capacity. Coal, natural gas and nuclear plants are common forms of base-load electricity sources. "[Getting a license] is a very low-cost way of going through step one," said Jerry Taylor, senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

However, "low-cost," in this case, means a $50 million investment, according to Marilyn Kray, president of NuStart Energy Development, a consortium of 10 power companies seeking nuclear plant licenses from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). She said preparing an application for a license takes nearly two years of expensive research, and if printed, the "application" would be roughly 25 volumes of 4-inch binders.

Interest in nuclear power is growing because the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects electricity generation in the United States will increase by 40 percent in the next 25 years.

Natural gas - which powered nearly every U.S. electricity plant constructed during the 1990s - has long been the preferred option for electric power generation. But as the third millennium arrived, the United States' natural gas supply plummeted far below the "proven reserve" estimates made during the '90s.

Utilities responded with plans to revert to coal-fired plants, infuriating environmentalists. Other opponents contend that power-generation needs can be satisfied by better energy efficiency, more conservation and greater use of renewable energy sources - wind, biomass, geothermal and solar. But those technologies, some say, are too immature to satisfy future energy demands.

Meanwhile, utilities insist they will need more "base-load capacity," meaning construction of massive new high-performance power plants is unavoidable. Since the American public currently appears to favor carbon-free electricity, some utilities are starting to view nuclear power as a reasonable balance.

But according to critics, nuclear technology remains unsafe, and some contend the projected need for base-load capacity is overblown, like it was during the 1970s.


American Efficiency
Though the serious accidents of the 1970s gave nuclear power a black eye, manufacturers say they have since simplified plant designs to make them safer. And, although

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.