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Nukes got a new lease on life with deregulation. The nuclear industry is beginning to think it can also build new nuclear plants for the first time in 25 years in the United States.


A surprise to nearly all involved in the electric market, nuclear plants are currently about the cheapest source of energy available. As long as potential accidents aren't figured into the equation, nukes are providing electricity at about one-fifth the price of the electric market's going rate this winter. That noted, nuclear is cheap only because consumers have paid off the plants' mortgages for utilities -- with major interest. For instance, PG & amp;E's ratepayers have forked over upward of $32 billion for Diablo Canyon -- a plant that cost $5.5 billion to build -- according to California Public Utilities Commission analyst Bob Kinosian.


Nukes are not only running flat out when they can, they are the grid's saving grace for the foreseeable future. There is no incentive whatsoever to shut them down despite public fears of radioactive leaks, and there's a move to store high-level waste on site at every plant from Point Beach (Wisconsin) to San Onofre (California).


The feasibility of new nuclear plants, and new owners of existing plants in the states, were the subject of recent hearings at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Pocket nukes, officially called pebble bed reactor technology, are slated to be first built in South Africa. The technology is small and modular and aimed at settling down to serve areas that are crying for more electricity -- kind of like Northern California.


"If everything goes well in South Africa, it would be at least five years down the road" before considering new plants in the U.S., said Exelon spokesperson Neil McDermott. Exelon is one of the investors in the South African pebble bed plant. He quickly added, though, "None of that is even on the table."


Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is making it much easier to extend the licensed life of nuclear plants for an extra 20 years. The process, with the apt acronym "GALL" (Generic Aging Lessons Learned), would allow existing nuclear plants to run for extra decades with no local public hearings or other public input. While the nuclear industry is confident that plants won't burst at the seams by running 60 years instead of 30 or 40, critics cite plenty of evidence that it's a bad idea.


"During the early stage of life and the late stage, the failure for both man and machines is generally higher than during middle age; the reliability of both man and machines is generally lower during the early and late stages. The prudent and proper course of action is to retire aging nuclear plants before they reach the point where reliability drops off markedly," notes Dave Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety engineer.

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