Nuclear power hasn’t always been a darling on the power scene, especially with disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl still fresh in people’s minds. But nuclear power is making a comeback in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere as higher fuel prices and political fallout from oil imports have helped change consumer opinions.
Most recently, DTE Energy Co. designated a reactor design for a proposed nuclear plant next to its Fermi 2 site in Newport, Mich. If built, the 1,520-megawatt reactor would provide an alternative to coal-generated electricity, natural gas, and home heating oil. Already, Fermi 2, which began commercial operation in 1988, generates about 15 percent of the power generated by Detroit Edison energy plants.
While government approvals are still needed for a new plant — Detroit Edison selected a relatively new reactor design by GE Energy called ESBWR (Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor) — another four years are required to build it, meaning it wouldn’t become operational until 2015 or later.
DTE needed to select a design to be eligible for federal tax credits as provided under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. If a utility files a license application by year’s end and starts construction by 2014, it can tap the tax credits once electricity is generated from a nuclear plant.
Approval of the plant should move forward. Consider that demand for electricity is expected to rise, as General Motors Corp. and its rivals prepare to offer plug-in hybrid vehicles, consumers embrace more electronics like the iPhone and BlackBerry, and world population figures continue to rise. In turn, GE Energy claims that one of its ESBWR plants would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 1.5 million cars off the road (by replacing the same amount of electricity generated in the United States via traditional sources).
Other regions are re-examining nuclear power, as well. In Germany, whose citizens have largely been suspicious of nuclear energy, a recent opinion poll revealed a majority of respondents wanted to reverse an earlier decision to phase out 17 reactors, according to a recent article in the Financial Times. In France, meanwhile, 80 percent of its energy is produced from nuclear power.
On the campaign trail, Sen. John McCain has proposed the construction of up to 45 nuclear plants to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and curb greenhouse emissions. Adding to the proposal, McCain points out that new reactors are safer and more efficient than those built a decade ago or more.
Another nuclear plant in Michigan would create jobs on both the construction side and the operational side. Currently, Fermi 2 has around 900 workers, and many of them hold high-paying engineering jobs. A case could also be made that DTE could sell any excess electricity from a new nuclear plant on the open market, providing yet another revenue generator.
What’s more, a new nuclear plant would spare state leaders from setting a mandate for renewable resources that would undermine free-market principles.