Leaders of the moribund nuclear power industry yesterday made public a detailed program to bring their business back to life, setting the mid-1990s as the target for the next generating plant to be ordered and the end of the decade to put it into operation.
The Bush administration endorsed the industry's plan on the spot. Assistant Energy Secretary William H. Young, who on Tuesday told a nuclear industry convention here that nuclear power will have a prominent place in the administration's forthcoming national energy strategy, said the Energy Department "shares the plan's objectives."
The "Strategic Plan for Building New Nuclear Power Plants" was developed by executives of nuclear utilities, reactor manufacturers and power plant construction companies.
The 110-page document acknowledges the staggering political, regulatory, technical and economic obstacles to be overcome, but gives strategies for dealing with them.
It "signals the industry's serious intent to prepare for building and operating new plants," said Sherwood H. Smith Jr., president of Carolina Power & Light Co. and chairman of the planning group.
Under the ambitious program, corporations and groups committed themselves to carrying out the myriad tasks required to get a new plant under construction: passing legislation to expedite licensing procedures, winning regulatory approval for new types of reactors, finding a way to dispose of radioactive waste, obtaining financing from a skeptical Wall Street, convincing the public of the need for nuclear power and finding a site for the next plant.
A "siting group" is scheduled to begin work this month, but industry sources said a tentative decision has already been made: Florida, where electricity demand is growing fast, existing nuclear plants have won public acceptance and the regulatory climate is perceived as favorable.
Nuclear reactors produce about 20 percent of U.S. electric power, but no new plants have been ordered since 1978. Safety fears provoked by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and curtailment of demand for electricity caused by the recession of the early 1980s caused many utilities to cancel plants under construction, while cost overruns as high as 1,200 percent pushed several utilities to or over the brink of bankruptcy.
As the industry atrophied, its admittedly spotty performance record in this country and the disaster at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union spawned a vigorous bloc of opponents. Environmentalists, many state regulators and citizens groups denounced nuclear power as dangerous, inexpensive and unnecessary -- arguments that the industry recognizes will have to be overcome. But industry executives said the climate for nuclear power is more favorable now than at any time in years.
According to the Energy Department, the United States will need to increase its electric generating capacity by more than a third in the next 20 years. If none of that is nuclear, Young said, "coal's share of the fuel generation mix would have to grow from 51 percent in 1990 to 63 percent by 2010."
"I don't believe the American public will want to rely solely on coal for new capacity," Smith said -- especially because the new Clean Air Act, which President Bush is scheduled to sign today, will greatly increase the cost of coal-fired power plants.
Planning committee member J. Philip Bayne, president of the New York Power Authority, said rising public concern about reliance on Middle Eastern oil, coupled with public recognition that nuclear power does not pollute the air or water, is "creating renewed interest in nuclear energy's benefits."
Aided by Energy Department funding, General Electric Corp. and Westinghouse Electric Corp. are developing new types of nuclear reactors designed to be inherently safer than existing reactors. The industry plan calls for Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval of the first of these designs by 1992.
Utilities were forced to absorb nearly $14 billion in nuclear plant costs that state regulators refused to allow them to pass on to consumers in the 1980s, according to a study by Merrill Lynch Inc.