The Week That Was
March 22-28, 1999

COUNTDOWN: Four more weeks to go for the celebration of (Resourceful) Earth Day on April 22

With the US Senate firmly addressing the disposal of spent nuclear-reactor fuel [see TWTW March 15-21], atomic energy seems to be gaining a new lease on life. This may come as a surprise to the folks at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC, who are convinced that nuclear energy is on its way out and have been busily spending their time in writing obituaries.

Nuclear power made history last week the first sale ever of a U.S. nuclear plant -- when AmerGen, a partnership of British Energy and Philadelphia-based PECO Energy Co., snapped up the Three Mile Island reactor, owned by GPU, Inc. This is a working reactor, sitting right next to its twin, the TMI No.2 reactor that was involved in the country’s worst nuclear accident.

Whatever possessed AmerGen to buy a reactor and compete against coal and highly efficient natural-gas plants? The answer was certainly NOT global warming; they just wanted to make a profit. It helps, of course, that they were able to buy the reactor for less than 20 cents on the dollar, including 16-cents-worth of nuclear fuel already contracted for. This is a phenomenal deal for AmerGen; the TMI reactor is selling for about $30 per kilowatt of generation, compared to the more than $500 per kilowatt for a coal-fired plant recently sold by GPU. GPU thinks it’s a good deal for them also; it clears up their balance sheet. And with electricity deregulation in the works, they see their future as a distributor, not as an owner of one nuclear power plant. As their chairman put it in an interview, with nuclear you can’t be “just a dabbler in the business.”

The stock market has been taking note of this, even if the general public doesn’t have a clue about what’s happening. British Energy was privatized in July 1996 and went public at 105 pence a share, sold for 696 pence on February 2, announced higher profits and immediately went to 723 pence. BE supplies 25% of British electricity, owns eight nuclear plants, and reported a ten-fold increase in before-tax profits for the first half of the past operating year.

This may be part of the growing trend. The average nuclear plant, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, produces electricity at an operating cost of 2.48 cents per kilowatt hour; the most efficient ones for only 2 cents. Even as the number of US nuclear plants is declining, nuclear electricity generation is increasing -- as the capacity factor moved from 58% in 1980 to 70% in 1990, and to 80% for the past three years, indicating increasing efficiency of operation.

Similar nuclear production records were set in Spain, Finland, and South Korea, according to the February 1999 issue of Nuclear Energy Insight. The magazine also reported a survey of electric utility executives, who increasingly believe that existing nuclear plants will operate through the end of the current licenses, that most plants will be able to extend their licenses, and that existing plants can compete against most other production, except for some low-cost hydro units. One reason for their upbeat view is the move within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to a more enlightened system of regulation. These ongoing reforms, in turn, may be largely due to the more successful operation of the plants, putting less political pressure on the NRC.

Some of the anti-nuclear fervor in Europe may be in for a change. A French publication reports on a “pro-nuclear-power” demonstration in Bonn, Germany, on March 9. The 35,000 people there protested the decision of the German government to quit nuclear power; it reportedly included a group called the Association of Ecologists for Nuclear Power. As other speakers forecast massive increases in unemployment, the German economics minister who tried to explain his government’s policy was heckled and hooted. We don’t recall reading about this anti-Green demonstration in the New York Times.

The Bonn event was reinforced by a speech by Ms. Kerstin Muller, co-president of German Greens, at the party congress in Erfurt on March 6. She had to admit that there were really no substitutes available for nuclear power. But since the Greens also oppose the use of coal and lignite, the only solution is a massive increase in electricity imports from nuclear France, coupled with a loss of jobs and the loss of nuclear expertise. This is a bitter pill to swallow for a group of ideologues that have held the anti-nuclear position for 25 years.

Even Japan may be coming round, as reported in Nature of March 18. Against strong environmental opposition, parliament is considering a plan from Japan’s Environment Agency to add 20 nuclear plants by 2010, increasing nuclear electric generation by 50 percent. Who said that the Kyoto Accord was all bad?

This month marks the passing of former chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Glenn Seaborg. He will be remembered for his wartime accomplishments in discovering plutonium and creating the large quantities required for bomb material, for his scientific achievements in producing even heavier isotopes, and for spearheading the use of nuclear energy in space exploration.

Next week… the demise of the “Linear-No-Threshold” hypothesis of nuclear radiation may be coming closer...

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