Meanwhile, the U.S. tiptoes ahead. In the nation that gave it birth, nuclear power may get its second wind in a mowed field outside the quiet town of Port Gibson, Mississippi. The field, close by a reactor that has been operating since 1985, is part of the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, owned by a subsidiary of Entergy Corporation, the fourth largest electricity producer in the U.S.
Entergy hopes to fire up a new nuke here by 2015. First, General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse, the nation’s only reactor makers, must finish detailed designs for machines they’ve been promoting as more foolproof and easier to operate than those they built decades ago. Formal license applications could be filed by 2008. Federal regulators might chew on them until 2010.
To expedite the process, Entergy organized a consortium in 2004 of nine utility companies plus GE and Westinghouse. The consortium, named NuStart, hopes to test new Nuclear Regulatory Commission procedures that will grant a combined construction and operating license to avoid the interminable hearings of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Only then, if GE, Westinghouse, or both, get approval, will Entergy and other NuStart members decide on actual orders. Construction would take four to five years.
That’s if there’s money. Congress last year passed an energy bill that guarantees loans made by investors and includes a subsidy of up to six billion dollars for running the first new plants. But the industry insists that it can’t get private financing for construction of the plants without government loan guarantees. Environmentalists like Speth consider the nuclear industry mature enough to sink or swim without federal assistance—and with vigilant regulation.
Everyone in the business knows financial woes helped torpedo the first wave of atomic ambition four decades ago. Next to the vacant, waiting Grand Gulf field is an unfinished concrete silo that stares at the sky like an empty eye socket. It was to be the containment structure for a twin to the reactor there today. But just before Christmas 1979, staggered by construction costs, Entergy (then called Middle South Utilities) pulled the plug on the second silo.
Even so, the one reactor that was completed drained the company coffers. In 1984 it feared it wouldn't be able to make payroll. “We had the bankruptcy lawyers all lined up,” says Randy Hutchinson, an Entergy senior vice president. American banks turned their backs. Only a high-interest loan from a consortium of European banks kept the company afloat.
In the long run, even nuclear advocates agree that the best hope for the future lies in new designs for reactors. In two or three decades the industry could see generation IV machines that run more efficiently at much higher temperatures, thus getting far more energy from their starting load of uranium. The intense nuclear reactions at such temperatures would leave waste that, compared to today’s, is less toxic and lasts for a shorter period of time. Advanced reactors would have simpler safety features and require less sophisticated backup systems. They could cool themselves down in the event of an accident with little human intervention, making them less tempting targets for terrorists.
Last year’s energy bill authorized 1.25 billion dollars for the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory to build an experimental, high-temperature, helium-gas-cooled reactor specifically to learn how efficiently such a thing can produce both electricity and—no small extra—hydrogen gas, which could be used as vehicle fuel.
For now, however, the most ardent pro-nuke advocates can’t argue with a worst-case scenario. A major release of radiation such as from Chernobyl in 1986; a terrorist attack that somehow penetrated elaborate security and steel-reinforced walls to purloin fuel or release a cloud of radiation; diversion of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium to rogue nations or criminal groups—all have visceral impact far beyond the pollution, coal-mine accidents, and climate-altering emissions of fossil fuel plants. In a speech at Grand Gulf, Gary Taylor, head of Entergy’s nuclear division, stressed the hazard to both the public and the industry if a reactor should go seriously wrong. “We have 40 years in an industry that has proved itself to be safe—and I mean safe. Nukes haven’t made news lately, but with just one major accident...” he snapped his fingers. “Everything we have worked for could die, just like that.”
In the meantime, fields like the one at Grand Gulf lie untouched. Can a new nuclear era even get started? Nearby residents are eager to see action. National polls show a rising acceptance of nuclear energy, with some showing as high as 59 percent in favor. Port Gibson’s mayor and board of aldermen endorse a new reactor for the boost its taxes would give local schools and other institutions.
Does anyone in town consider Grand Gulf’s lone operating nuke a menace? Michael Herrin, pastor of Port Gibson’s First Presbyterian Church, its tall spire topped by a golden hand pointing skyward, answers: “People from the plant speak at local meetings. We know the cloud of steam that comes from the cooling tower isn’t radioactive. In this town, the dragon is unemployment. Entergy is the hero.”