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Jackson Browne might want to load up the tour bus and head for Washington some time soon. The singer-songwriter has been in the forefront of the U.S. anti-nuclear movement throughout his career, including headlining the landmark 1979 “No Nukes” concerts in Madison Square Garden, after the incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. In the years since, it seemed the movement had won the war: No new reactors were on the drawing boards and existing facilities were expected to be phased out. But like ’70s-era bell-bottoms and halter tops, nukes are back. The remarkable resurrection has been fueled by a sustained public relations and self-improvement campaign that is now yielding results thanks to the energy crunch. The industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are gearing up for the possibility of new reactors. A new regulatory regime has streamlined licensing and inspections. Members of Congress are drafting bills to move nuclear power back into the country’s energy lineup. And even Vice President Dick Cheney is touting nuclear power as a key component in solving the country’s energy woes. “If I had talked about building new nuclear plants two years ago, you would have died laughing,” says David Roberts, a lobbyist for Progress Energy, an electricity holding company that owns nuclear reactors. “Last year, you would have chuckled. This year no one is laughing.” So far, no company has made a hard promise to build a new nuclear reactor in the United States. Until that happens, the resurgence of nuclear power remains more of a theoretical possibility than a reality. But if building new reactors becomes a real possibility, the anti-nuclear contingent promises to go into meltdown mode to stop it. “I think it would be World War III to propose to site a new nuclear plant,” says Katherine Kennedy, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program. If the nuclear industry has to thank anything for its recovery, it would be the California energy crisis. For years the industry had been working to improve its own bottom line and its public image. But its quiet makeover had been largely a behind-the-scenes transformation. With the California crisis hitting right as a Republican administration was taking over, energy became a front-burner issue. The new administration has been willing to discuss all options — new power plants, more drilling and mining, and loosening environmental restrictions. Nuclear power stepped in. “We have been working in the industry for years to make nuclear power a viable option, and it looks like now that is going to happen,” says Oliver Kingsley Jr., president and chief nuclear officer of Exelon Nuclear, which operates numerous plants. “California has provided the catalyst or the warning that we do need a national energy policy. And nuclear can play a very active and very significant role in providing for the energy needs of the future.” By the early 1990s, the industry had limited appeal. Plants were expensive and difficult to build. They often cost billions more than projected and took years to get running. The plants in operation ran at far less than full capacity, with an industry average of only 70 percent in 1990, according to the industry’s trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). The plants also required lengthy refueling shutdowns. And the problem of where to put nuclear waste was unresolved. Much has changed, according to the NEI: Operating capacity hit nearly 90 percent in 2000; plants produced record numbers of kilowatt hours in the past few years, 728 billion hours in 1999; and operating costs are dropping — down to 2.13 cents a kilowatt hour in 1998. Nuclear plants are now a more attractive investment for energy companies to buy from deregulating utilities. Companies such as the Entergy Corp. and Exelon have made buying nuclear power plants a cornerstone of their growth strategies. The industry has also been helped by a regulatory shift. Under the auspices of former Vice President Al Gore’s reinventing government effort, the NRC streamlined its regulatory process, moving toward less extensive, more targeted regulations and inspections. “What we have looked at is reducing or eliminating burdensome regulations that were not contributing to nuclear plant safety and creating a regulatory climate that would be more predictable,” says Victor Dricks, an NRC spokesman. Licensing rules, for old and new plants, have been revamped by Congress and the agency. In the early 1990s, many expected that nuclear reactors would be shut down at the end of their 40-year operating licenses. Not now. The NRC has approved several relicensing applications, and the industry expects a majority of the 103 U.S. nuclear plants to be relicensed for additional 20-year terms. But what is giving nuclear power its traction these days are those successes, combined with the industry’s political clout. “Nuclear has been quite out of fashion with the public,” says Jeffrey MacKinnon, a lobbyist with Washington, D.C.’s Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon who works on energy issues. “But they have never lost a vote on the floor.” For the 2000 election cycle, the NEI donated $338,716, nearly 70 percent of that going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Companies that own utilities, as well as those that design reactors, are donors in their own right. The NEI has a $28 million annual budget, which it spends on lobbying, advertising, and public information. The group has been leading the transformation of nuclear’s image from environmental nightmare to eco-friendly energy source that doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses. It buys several rounds of advertising a year, mostly in the print and radio market for Washington, D.C., to directly target federal policy-makers. Nuclear’s new green campaign has recently been giving the industry one of its biggest boosts. Cheney himself cited it as a reason for examining nuclear on a recent Sunday talk show. And that reasoning is making environmentalists howl. “In one sense, it’s a Bush administration ‘gotcha’ on the environment and global warming — if you are screaming about carbon dioxide, then take a power plant,” says Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. BUILDING UP? Now the question is: Will a new reactor be built in the United States? “Everything has its time,” says William Carney, a nuclear energy lobbyist and former Republican congressman from New York. “I think in five years’ time you will see a new nuclear plant licensed.” The Bush administration’s long-term energy strategy is due out soon. Bush advisers and industry executives say the plan will have a large role for nuclear power. The industry says it was heartened by a Bush policy committee that has been open to nuclear power. The committee’s chief staffer is Andrew Lundquist, who worked for pro-nuclear Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska. Murkowski and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., have sent their own signals about the need for nuclear power with pro-industry bills they introduced this spring. Both industry and the NRC are gearing up for the possibility of new plants. NEI members created a working group last September to discuss building new nuclear plants. Made up of chief executive officers from nuclear-owning power companies and nuclear reactor designing companies, the group is discussing how best to approach various facets of erecting new reactors — public acceptance, design, site approval, financing, and construction. The industry’s regulator is also preparing for the possibility of a surge in nuclear plant construction. On March 30, the NRC created its own working group on nuclear power plants after getting such strong interest from the industry. The group, which will be composed of agency staff, is working on the approval process for new nuclear reactors. The working group will make recommendations for commission approval on licensing any new nuclear reactors that may be built. But they remain working groups. No one has proposed building a nuclear plant yet. And the waste issue, one of the industry’s biggest and long-standing problems, is still unresolved. Even if President Bush and Congress back the nuclear storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the site won’t be operational for years. Although many are seeing nuclear power making its way back into polite conversation, they say a nuclear boom is a long way off. “Constructing and licensing new power plants is a very big challenge,” says Robert Sussman, chairman of Latham & Watkins’ environmental practice and a former official in the Clinton Environmental Protection Agency. “The track record in the ’70s of building nuclear plants was pretty scary. There were plants in which huge amounts of money was invested which were then abandoned. Or there were delays, huge cost overruns, huge battles with the communities. It was a pretty grim experience all around. I don’t know if anyone is going to go down that road willingly.”

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