Published on Wednesday, May 2, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Cheney Promises Big US Nuclear Power Expansion
by Martin Kettle in Washington, Paul Brown and Mark Milner
Vice-President Dick Cheney threw away 20 years of environmental caution yesterday when he announced that the US would build a new generation of nuclear power plants in the government's effort to overcome a national energy shortage.
The US rejected nuclear power after the major accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. It has not built a single new nuclear plant since then, although the industry still produces a fifth of its electricity.
Apart from the fear of an accident, reinforced by Chernobyl in 1986, the industry has been dogged by the problem of dealing with spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.
Attempts to create a long-term depository for thousands of spent fuel rods and the accumulated waste of 50 years have failed, in both the US and Britain.
Mr Cheney has shrugged aside these difficulties, and given the government-owned British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), which two years ago bought the biggest US nuclear reactor designer, Westinghouse Electric, a huge boost.
Westinghouse has designed half the world's nuclear stations and 60% of those in the US. Eighteen months ago, after 14 years of work, its newest design, the AP600, was licensed by the US department of energy, but none has been built.
At 600MW, it is much smaller than previous Westinghouse station: half the size of Britain's newest nuclear station, Sizewell B in Suffolk, also a Westinghouse design.
The idea would be to build a series of them across the US. Mr Cheney said between 1,300 and 1,900 new generating plants would be needed. If Westinghouse built only a few of them it would make BNFL a very rich company.
The US has not revealed the scale of its proposed reinvestment in nuclear power, but Mr Cheney has not concealed in recent weeks that he is determined to give it a prominent role in the report of his energy policy taskforce, which he is due to hand to George Bush later this month.
"If we are serious about environmental protection, then we must seriously question the wisdom of backing away from what is, as a matter of record, a safe, clean and very plentiful energy source," he said in a speech in Toronto.
His report is expected to call on the US to build at least 5 new power plants a year for the foreseeable future to create enough energy to avert the power cuts which have plagued California this year and are expected in parts of north-eastern US, including New York City, this summer.
Neither Mr Bush nor Mr Cheney made any prominent mention of their readiness to embrace nuclear power in last year's election campaign. The Republican party policy platform for the elections did not mention the nuclear option in its nine-point energy plan.
But the nuclear industry has an open line to Mr Cheney through his long-standing friend Tom Loeffler, a former Republican congressman and Washington lobbyist whose clients include the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry pressure group. Mr Loeffler's former aide Nancy Dorn is now in charge of congressional liaison for Mr Cheney.
Power generators have begun talking to the energy department and the nuclear regulatory commission about speeding up the licensing process adopted after Three Mile Island.
The nuclear industry has no shortage of supporters in Congress. Ten senators, led by the Republican Pete Domenici of New Mexico, are sponsoring a bill to require the US to build new nuclear plants. The senior Republican in the lower house, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, said this week that he "absolutely and firmly" supported new nuclear plants.
The US has 103 nuclear power plants, which produce 571.2bn kilowatt-hours a year, about 20% of the total.
The incident at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in which a reactor overheated and its core partially melted, was the worst nuclear accident in US history. No one was killed and the radiation was contained, but it dealt a devastating blow to the industry's credibility.
Recent opinion polls suggest that about two-thirds of Americans favour new nuclear plants, compared with under half two years ago.
In recent months there have been leaks that BNFL wants to build new nuclear stations to replace its ageing Magnox reactors, which are due to close over the next seven years. It is expected to propose in its five-year corporate plan, due soon, that they are replaced with AP 600s.
It is being encouraged by Department of the Trade and Industry officials, who have long been known to favour the expansion of nuclear power, despite the current government policy of letting the industry fade away as the plants reach the end of their design life.
British Energy, the privatised company which operates Sizewell B and the seven British-designed advanced gas-cooled reactors built in the 70s and 80s, is also engaged in the US through a joint venture, but is not thought to be considering new stations.
France relies heavily on nuclear power but the government has decided to diversify. Germany is committed to a phasing out its plants, and no new stations are planned in western Europe. There are about 70 reactors in Russia and eastern Europe, only a handful built to western standards.
The Bush administration is ready to increase America's energy supply by drilling for oil in some of the country's most protected natural wildernesses and expanding the nuclear power industry for the first time in 22 years.
The vice-president, Dick Cheney, who heads a taskforce set up by President George Bush to look into the US energy crisis, dismissed on Monday night the idea of "conserving or rationing" as 1970s-era solutions to the US's energy shortages.
In a speech in Toronto, Mr Cheney said that "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy".
His taskforce's report, asked to find solutions to the energy crisis which has caused power blackouts in California and a rise in petrol prices across America, is expected to be published later this month.
Ignoring international outrage at Washington's decision to pull out of the Kyoto protocol on climate change, Mr Cheney said he would call for oil and natural gas drilling in protected areas in Alaska and the Rocky Mountains, the revival of the US coal industry and the first nuclear power plant-building programme in North America since the Three Mile Island reactor disaster in 1979.
He rejected energy conservation and renewable energy sources as major alternatives, promoting nuclear power as good for the environment since it emitted few greenhouse gases, ignoring the problems of nuclear waste disposal.
This new tact will be greeted with delight by British Nuclear Fuels, the largest designer of nuclear stations in the world.
"America's reliance on energy, and fossil fuels in particular, has lately taken on an urgency not felt since the late 1970s," Mr Cheney said. "Without a clear, coherent energy strategy, all Americans could one day go through what Californians are experiencing now, or worse."
Oil, coal and natural gas would remain the US's primary energy resources for "years down the road", he said.
Drilling for oil was needed in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) in Alaska, Mr Cheney said. The US needed to build between 1,300 and 1,900 new power plants during the next 20 years just to satisfy existing levels of demand.
These and other projects would be a windfall for energy construction companies such as the Halliburton Corporation, from which he received an income of $36.1m (£25m) in 2000, according to tax returns he filed last month.
A report later this week by the American Council for the Energy Efficient Economy is expected to say that compulsory fuel efficiency measures for cars would save almost three times as much energy a day as could be obtained from drilling for oil in Alaska.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001