House Questions California's Prohibition on New Nuclear Power Plants

Apr 23 - Knight Ridder Washington Bureau

At a House Science and Technology Committee hearing Wednesday, expansion of nuclear power was viewed as an opportunity.

Gone are the days when lawmakers questioned the safety of reactor technology. Even among those for whom waste is an issue, there is a high comfort level with storing used fuel in dry casks for decades at the reactor sites while a more comprehensive solution is studied.

 The only question that seemed to bother some committee members, mostly Democrats, was whether the billions of dollars in subsidies to revive nuclear plant construction is wise use of taxpayer money.

Among some Republicans who think nuclear power needs to be a bigger part of the country's answer to global warming, however, concern was raised about California's longstanding law prohibiting any new plants until an underground waste repository in Nevada is opened.

"California is confronted with the reality that its blanket prohibition on nuclear power has to be revisited," said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif.. "The alternatives are unacceptable."

Nuclear power is gaining new momentum because of global warming worries. Unlike power plants that burn coal or natural gas, nuclear plants do not emit any of the gases that most scientists believe are turning the planet into a hothouse.

Even environmentalists who used to rail against nuclear energy now believe it will play an important part in the country's energy future if legislation to dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions is approved by Congress. The Senate is expected to take up such legislation in June.

"Nuclear power is in the mix," said Thomas Cochran, a senior nuclear scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's a mature industry.

When it can compete, we should let it. The problem is that new nuclear plants are not economic."

The last time a nuclear plant was ordered was 1973. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expecting as many as 30 applications for new plants to be filed by the end of 2009, and subsidies provided under a 2005 energy bill are a major reason. The package of loan guarantees, operating subsidies and other assistance totals nearly $30 billion over eight years.

But witnesses said the funding is necessary because no new plants have been built for several decades and costs are uncertain. Much of the materials, such as high strength steel, now have to be imported because there no longer is a U.S. manufacturer.

In addition, witnesses said, the industry is working to standardize design and streamline the licensing process. If it works, the first few new plants will shoulder most of disproportionately high costs and those further out on the construction timeline won't need the assistance.

Under questioning by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., James Asselstine, a former managing director of Lehman Brothers concentrating on the electricity business, predicted that the cost of new nuclear plants "will be in line with coal generation."

After the hearing, McNerney said he remained skeptical about subsidies. But on the broader question of nuclear power revival, even in California, McNerney said "I am neutral.