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Ever since the Three Mile Island meltdown, it’s been a veritable nuclear winter for nuclear energy lawyers. There hasn’t been a formal application for a new nuclear plant � with its long, contentious and lawyer-intensive approval process � for more than a quarter of a century. But rising energy costs and efforts to curb global warming have changed the climate in the energy industry, and in the nation’s capital. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expecting about 30 applications for new reactors in the next few years. Firms with established nuclear energy practices, like Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; and Winston & Strawn, say they’re busier than they’ve been in years and are adding new lawyers. Other firms, such as Duane Morris and Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner, intend to catch some of the work � construction, finance � that will follow. “The nuclear renaissance is real,” said John O’Neill Jr. The Pillsbury nuclear energy partner, who heads the firm’s energy practice from Washington, D.C., said there’s plenty of work lately. “For the couple of firms that know how to do this stuff, shall we say, take a number.” Pillsbury has been busy helping utilities � Progress Energy, Dominion, Amarillo Power and FPL � prepare applications for the NRC. In fact, the 19-lawyer “energy section,” which includes NRC and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission lawyers, was one of the busiest at the entire 800-lawyer firm last quarter. To cope with the increased workload and to build the practice up, the firm has added six new lawyers in recent months, said O’Neill, who added that he wants another six by the end of 2008. O’Neill said he’ll also draw on other lawyers in the firm once the NRC approval process, often a courtroom-like battle between the applicant and opposing forces, begins. In the past, the approval process could last for years, in part because applicants were required to get two separate licenses for a plant’s construction and operation. New rules let applicants get both licenses at the same time, avoiding the risk of a plant that gets built but can’t be operated. Winston & Strawn, which is representing Duke Energy and UniStar in their NRC applications, became the first firm to successfully apply the new rules when it pushed a uranium enrichment facility through a similar process. While not a reactor, the 30-month approval of the New Mexico project leads Winston lawyer James Curtiss to believe that the process for reactors can be as quick. “Hopefully that’s a bellwether for how the NRC will treat these upcoming applications,” said Curtiss, who heads the firm’s energy practice and served on the NRC from 1988-93 when the new rules were adopted. CHAIN REACTIONS While the application process is dominated by just a few firms, others are looking for ways to capitalize on the nuclear resurgence. Philadelphia-based Duane Morris has formed a new nuclear energy practice group that will focus on the companies building the nuclear plants. “The people we’re targeting are the people that are going to be building and designing these things,” said Charles Whitney, the firm’s Atlanta office managing partner and head of the nuclear energy group. “The activity going on right now has to do with the licensing and that’s being done by inside the beltway firms with a long history in the area � we’re not trying to compete with them.” Whitney said the group of more than 20 lawyers was formed last year after inquiries from potential clients. Although no work has resulted yet, he expects it to roll in once operators gear up to build. That will include negotiating contracts for projects worth billions, he said. At Thelen, Washington, D.C., energy partner Phillip Lookadoo also said the firm has only had inquiries on the subject, but expects that projects going forward would turn to the firm’s energy practice, which ranges from financial to regulatory. “When I was younger, I thought I would like to do that work,” said Lookadoo, who studied nuclear physics before becoming a lawyer. “It’s 27 years and I’m still waiting, but now it’s got potential.” Of course, not everyone is as thrilled about nuclear power as nuclear energy lawyers. The disasters at Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union made building new nuclear facilities a radioactive issue with the U.S. public. There’s also the large cost of construction and where to put the waste, issues that may become major stumbling blocks. But nuclear energy lawyers say these aren’t insurmountable problems, and that the public’s fear should be allayed because nuclear plants use much safer and more efficient technology today. “The folks that are afraid of nuclear have no scientific basis for it,” said O’Neill, who studied nuclear engineering and served on a nuclear submarine in the Navy before becoming a lawyer. “What did TMI teach us? If everything went wrong, you would melt down a reactor without any harm to the public.”

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