At 4:13 p.m. on Aug. 14, Constellation Energy Group Inc.'s Nine Mile Point nuclear plant near Syracuse, N.Y., sensed voltage fluctuations on the grid. The plant automatically cut itself off from the rest of the nation's electrical system to prevent its power from frying nearby lines. Control rods lowered themselves into the two reactors to shut down the fission process. Within seconds, five diesel-powered backup generators were providing the power to circulate cold water around the reactors, cooling them down from their normal operating temperature of 540F. The reactors stayed off for three days as staff ticked through safety and operational checklists.
Depending on which people you talk to, the shutdown at Nine Mile Point was a triumph of nuclear power's safety and reliability -- or the complete opposite. And in the wake of the Great Blackout of 2003, the disagreement between the pro- and antinuke lobbies is about to heat up. With Congress scrambling to resurrect the long-delayed energy bill, the nuclear industry is trying to take advantage of the night the lights went out to build support for more plants. The bill may even include financial incentives to build new reactors. "Ensuring the proper level of power to the country demands that we make trade-offs, including production and greater use of such sources as nuclear energy," Senator Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the powerful Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, said after the blackouts.
Once the pariah of the power business, nuclear power generation has been quietly growing since Three Mile Island nearly melted down in 1979. Thanks to improved equipment and better planning, the average nuclear plant now generates 91% of its total theoretical annual output, up from 62% two decades ago. So even though no new nuclear plants have come online since 1996, they keep cranking out more juice. Today, nukes generate one-fifth of all power in the U.S., up from 11% in 1980. Mindful that 40% of the licenses to operate nuclear plants were set to expire by 2015, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the past three years has granted 20-year license extensions to 16 of the nation's 103 reactors. A further 14 have filed for renewal, and 21 more are predicted to file over the next six years.
Now, proponents of nuclear power hope to use the blackout to extend the industry's renaissance. Industry lobbyists are expected to argue that always-on nuclear plants put less stress on the electrical grid than natural-gas-fired facilities, which are frequently turned on and off to take advantage of differentials in fuel prices and to meet variable power demand. Domenici is keen to provide the industry with federally funded loan guarantees and power-purchase contracts that could pay half of the construction costs for up to seven new nuclear plants. That would be a considerable boon to the industry. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that a new 1,100-megawatt nuclear facility would cost up to $2.5 billion, more than four times the cost per megawatt of a new natural gas facility.
Critics of nuclear power argue that it's absurd to spend so much on utilities that are vulnerable to accidents and terror attacks. They also say that the nation's electrical reliability would be better served through conservation and by building smaller, more distributed power sources -- such as natural-gas-fired microturbines, wind, solar and hydrogen fuel cells -- that can operate even if the grid goes down. "Nuclear is just a problem technology," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy & Environmental Research, a green think tank. Not least of all, Domenici faces opposition from fellow Republicans who are against any kind of federal subsidy.
Will the nuclear power industry emerge from the blackout an even stronger force? It's a toss-up. In June, the Senate narrowly voted to maintain nuclear subsidies in their version of the energy bill. After years of footdragging, Congress is now under pressure to pass some new energy policy. And even if the bill doesn't include goodies for the nuclear industry, it's likely regulators will continue to extend reactors' operating licenses. For good or for ill, America will continue to be reliant on nuclear power for decades to come.
By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles with John Carey in Washington