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The nuclear option

To meet the demands of a rapidly swelling population, Texas needs to expand and diversify its electric generation capacity. It also must build cleaner, less polluting power plants. That's why it is good to see TXU propose to build as many as six nuclear power reactors at up to three sites.

To meet the demands of a rapidly swelling population, Texas needs to expand and diversify its electric generation capacity. It also must build cleaner, less polluting power plants.

That's why it is good to see TXU propose to build as many as six nuclear power reactors at up to three sites.

The nuclear units wouldn't address Texas' short-term need to increase generation capacity. As TXU officials noted, it's unlikely that any reactors could go online before 2015. But nuclear power can play a vital role in helping meet the state's long-term needs for expanded, cleaner, diversified generating capacity.

Anyone familiar with TXU's previous nuclear adventure -- the twin-reactor Comanche Peak facility near Glen Rose -- might question how anyone could be enthusiastic about North Texas' largest electric utility ever again entering the atomic field.

Comanche Peak cost $11 billion to build -- more than 13 times the company's original estimate of about $800 million. That mother of all cost overruns made Comanche Peak one of the most expensive U.S. nuclear plants ever built.

For years, TXU's top brass shunned the idea of building another nuclear facility. But as a July... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

To meet the demands of a rapidly swelling population, Texas needs to expand and diversify its electric generation capacity. It also must build cleaner, less polluting power plants.

That's why it is good to see TXU propose to build as many as six nuclear power reactors at up to three sites.

The nuclear units wouldn't address Texas' short-term need to increase generation capacity. As TXU officials noted, it's unlikely that any reactors could go online before 2015. But nuclear power can play a vital role in helping meet the state's long-term needs for expanded, cleaner, diversified generating capacity.

Anyone familiar with TXU's previous nuclear adventure -- the twin-reactor Comanche Peak facility near Glen Rose -- might question how anyone could be enthusiastic about North Texas' largest electric utility ever again entering the atomic field.

Comanche Peak cost $11 billion to build -- more than 13 times the company's original estimate of about $800 million. That mother of all cost overruns made Comanche Peak one of the most expensive U.S. nuclear plants ever built.

For years, TXU's top brass shunned the idea of building another nuclear facility. But as a July 16 Star-Telegram editorial said, America should "give nuclear power a second chance, with the focus on doing it much better this time around."

Nuclear power merits a fresh look for several reasons, both in Texas and elsewhere.

For one thing, there's good reason to believe that new plants can be built at a much lower cost than was the case with Comanche Peak.

Its huge price tag was magnified by construction delays and federal regulatory changes imposed after the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979. That was followed by the Chernobyl plant disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986. Many U.S. nuclear plants were plagued by cost overruns and delays, or simply cancelled. But the case for nuclear power has improved markedly since Comanche Peak's second reactor went on line in 1993.

For one thing, natural gas prices have hit all-time highs in recent years. In Texas, that has sent electricity bills soaring because of the state's exceptionally heavy reliance on burning natural gas to generate electricity. Although natural gas fueled only 18.6 percent of electricity generation nationally in 2005, it accounted for 50.7 percent of Texas' power generation.

Meanwhile, nuclear plants have become more cost-effective by greatly reducing down time for maintenance and refueling.

The process of designing, licensing and constructing nuke plants has been streamlined. Reactor designs have improved and are more standardized, making nuclear power more reliable and affordable. Capital costs for constructing nuclear units remain high, but atomic power is considerably more cost-competitive and otherwise attractive than it was a decade or two ago.

New Jersey-based NRG Energy wants to build two more reactors (costing an estimated $2.6 billion each) at the South Texas Project, the twin-unit nuclear plant at Bay City.

TXU officials said last week that they foresee "a strong opportunity" to lower reactor construction costs significantly. The company hopes to benefit from financial incentives provided under the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

The attraction of nuclear power has grown in part because U.S. plants, including Comanche Peak, generally have compiled a strong safety record since Three Mile Island. And concern about the disposal of nuclear waste has been reduced as a result of plans to establish a remote Nevada site as a national repository.

From the standpoint of Texas consumers, construction of new nuclear plants has been made more appealing as a result of electric deregulation. When Comanche Peak was built, its enormous construction cost overrruns could be passed on to TXU's customers.

In today's deregulated world, however, the company and its shareholders probably would bear the brunt of any runaway costs.

Nuclear plants also have become more appealing because they produce few polluting emissions. Expanding reliance on nuclear power could help Texas' polluted metropolitan areas meet federal air quality standards and address concerns that carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants contribute to global warming.

The jury is still out on the environmental impact of 11 coal-fired power plants that TXU is proposing to build.

The state shouldn't be in an all-fired rush to grant permits for these plants. More information and analysis are needed, especially in determining the environmental effects on the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which is in violation of federal standards for emissions of harmful ground-level ozone.

The coal plants are proposed to address Texas' projected needs for additional generating capacity during the next several years. The first plant potentially could be operating by 2009.

In the short term, the public debate over TXU's proposed coal plants should continue.

On a broader scale, the state should continue to expand its reliance on alternative energy sources, including wind power, biomass and solar power. A stronger focus also must be placed on energy conservation at the national and state levels, including the adoption of substantially higher fuel economy standards for vehicles.

In the long term, giving nuclear power a second chance is an increasingly promising option. It would be a low-pollution alternative that could significantly expand Texas' electric generation capacity while reducing the state's excessive reliance on natural gas.

 


Source: http://www.dfw.com/mld/dfw/...

SEP 9 2006
http://www.windaction.org/posts/4474-the-nuclear-option
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