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Fallout from Energy Policy Act 2005 Pt. 3 - The Nuclear Option

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In this third chapter of this ongoing discussion and analysis of United States energy policy and its ramifications both realized directly and indirectly from the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, (EPAct 2005) it would be irresponsible not to include U.S. nuclear energy policy in such analysis.

As such, the EPAct 2005 and its previously referenced and unprecedented mandates, in prior chapters of this report, play a role with the reformulation of the regulation of U.S. nuclear energy and its projected and rather overwhelming imminent comeback.

The nuclear energy industry has become a global proposition given the changing geographic demands of energy needs in newly industrialized nations such as India and China. And it would be foolish for the U.S. to assume that it operates in a vacuum and that its future energy needs and demands will not be impacted by such changes in a global economy; one in which the U.S. is now primarily at the receiving end of offshore manufactured goods, including more and more of America's food supply.

But the global economy has but given the U.S. government and in particular in this case, the U.S. Department of Energy, (DOE) an excuse to take the proverbial lid off of sound national security policy which has necessarily dictated U.S. energy policy for decades, until now, for the safety of the American people and the integrity of its critical infrastructure.

Although the first large scale civilian nuclear plant started providing electricity in 1957, it was basically between that time and the late 1970's when all of the current operating nuclear reactor facilities were constructed. And with an average lifespan up to 60 years for each, most of the currently operating 104 U.S. nuclear plants are either in or have applied for their 2nd 20-year licensing period extensions.

Since the last U.S. nuclear reactor was ordered in 1973, those handful that were completed, after 1978 and post-3 Mile Island, were ordered prior to 1973. To wit, in 1996, the last U.S. plant constructed, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar 1 reactor in Tennessee, was the result of a revived dormant license from 1970. And there are plans to build the Watts Bar 2 from another previous license from dating back to1973.

Since U.S. nuclear energy policy has nearly come full circle today, it is important to take stock of its history. The Atomic Energy Commission, (AEC) was formed through the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, originally to specifically oversee the military's and civic atomic energy programs. And it was given the expanded responsibility, for the first time, to assume dual oversight and regulation of atomic energy both militarily as well as commercially through the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

But it was through the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, that created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the present U.S. nuclear regulatory agency, to assume the oversight authority from the AEC. It now regulates most U.S. commercial nuclear activities, including nuclear power reactors and the use of radioactive materials in industry, medicine, agriculture and scientific research as well as fuel cycle facilities and nuclear waste management.

The 1974 law was seen as an opportunity to put trust back into the oversight agency which took on the dual task of both promoting nuclear power while safeguarding the American people, initially in 1954. And it was after that point in time that the American people had already begun to lose trust in the agency's ability to do so. Apparently, the U.S. government thought that changing the acronym of the agency would calm the public's displeasures.

But it was during the late 1960's and early 1970's when the nuclear plant construction boom was in full gear and simultaneous reassurances from the federal government to keep safeguards in place fell on the deaf ears of energy consumers. Most importantly, the agency was designated to walk a fine line of both promoting commercially viable nuclear energy as well as handling all of the required licensing for new construction of nuclear power plants.

And in this global economy, at a time when the U.S. is seeing extraordinary growth in the foreign direct investment and acquisition in U.S. critical infrastructure, it appears reaped with conflict for the licensing agency to also be able to independently assess potential security risks both civilly and criminally.

Unfortunately, the notorious Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant fire in 1975 in Decatur, AL could have been avoided and was the result of human error rather than an unexpected meltdown. A mechanical technician foolishly was looking for reported air leaks within the reactor with a lighted candle which ultimately started the fire.

But Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania, on March 28, 1979, was the most serious nuclear plant fiasco in U.S. history. The reactor sustained the melting of half its core, which was later found to be a combination of technical and human error and allowed for released radioactive gases into the atmosphere and putting its employees immediately at risk.

The 3 Mile failure was followed in 1986 by the misfortune of Unit 4 of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, Ukraine in the former USSR. It emitted radioactive material, far more deadly an accident that 3 Mile Island, affecting 52,000 people in the vicinity, immediately killing 30 people and possibly impacting up to 5 million others. Nevertheless, it was 3 Mile Island that provided the final nail in the coffin for skittish investors in U.S. nuclear technology, although nuclear facilities throughout the U.S. still provide 20% of electrical power generation. It remains very low in greenhouse emissions and is considered a form of clean energy.

In spite of the NRC's own damage control to restore safety measures in nuclear plant facilities over the past 30 years, its ill-repute remains along with remnants of trepidation in reinvesting in nuclear energy. Therefore, the apparent overnight reverse course by the DOE in lining up investors to submit license construction applications for nuclear energy plants, with some 20 expected by mid-2009, has set off alarm bells of another sort.

And that brings us back to the EPAct of 2005 which provides for a vast assortment of givebacks, subsidies and federally subsidized loan guarantees including risk insurance packages to the brokers and investors who come a-callin', totaling billions of dollars worth of incentives. And once again, foreign owned holding companies, foreign government-owned entities and foreign-U.S. joint ventures, acquisitions and mergers will be the recipients of these U.S. taxpayer provided benefits.

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Diane M. Grassi is an investigative journalist and reporter providing topical and in-depth articles and analysis on U.S. public policy and governmental affairs, including key federal and state legislation as well as court decisions relative to the (more...)
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