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msnbc.com

For years now, anyone who spoke of a revival in the American nuclear power industry has been dismissed as either a zealot or a crank. No American energy company had the stomach to propose a new power plant since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. But new technology may bring nuclear power back into play.

MSNBC.com has learned that America’s largest nuclear energy company, Exelon, is talking to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission about building a new generation of safer, smaller nuclear reactors and has told the NRC it may begin the application process as early as December. Sources close to these talks say Exelon hopes to win approval for construction of a series of mini-reactors of the experimental “pebble-bed modular” design, which even opponents of nuclear power concede would be a huge step forward in producing nuclear power safely. No company has applied for a construction license from the NRC since 1978.

At the NRC — the agency charged with monitoring the nuclear industry — spokesman Victor Dricks confirmed that Exelon has notified the NRC it may ask for a “pre-application review” before Christmas. “We’ve had some preliminary discussions with Exelon about what we want to see if and when they deliver a plan. They say they may come to us with something in December. They now have a very clear sense of what our expectations are.”

Another government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the company is exploring the idea of putting one or more of these advanced reactors in Zion, Ill., a town about 40 miles north of Chicago. Chicago-based Exelon Nuclear operates 17 older reactors across the country, as well as two retired reactors in Zion.

Craig Nesbit, an Exelon spokesman, would not confirm that a new plant would be built on the Zion site, but did say, “If Exelon or any other company does go ahead with a new plant, it’s likely to be on an existing site.”

Nesbit said Exelon wants to move quickly on licensing issues, in part to help the NRC adapt its own regulations to new technology and to ensure construction could begin as soon as possible if a decision to build a new plant were made.

“Exelon is being prudent in investigating what’s out there and in looking at what regulations exist and what changes would have to happen to proceed beyond the developmental stage,” he said.

Pebble-bed reactors are under construction by Exelon and several partners in South Africa. The reactors produce only about one-tenth the power of nuclear plants operating in the United States, but their small scale and modular design make it possible to mass produce them more cheaply than traditional plants. Exelon says up to 10 of these modular plants can be run off a single control room.

Most importantly, given the political cloud hanging over the nuclear industry since the 1979 Three Mile Island, the pebble bed reactors are considered safer by all sides in the debate.

Energy map of AmericaEven nuclear skeptics tend to agree with that assertion. “Because there is not as much fuel packed into the core, if there is a problem and the cooling is interrupted, the natural convection of heat rising is enough to cool the fuel,” said David Lochbaum, the top nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that monitors nuclear issues. “On paper, this design should be far safer than the existing fleet of reactors. It looks very credible.”

If a pebble-bed nuclear plant were built in the United States, it would mark a major departure for the American nuclear industry. Existing American plants are all variations of light-water reactors, both to generate the steam that turns electrical turbines and to cool the white-hot reactor core. The NRC has spent the past few decades “pre-certifying” three specific light-water designs under the assumption any future plant construction would be along those lines.

The pebble-bed design is radically different, not only in scale, but also because it uses gas, not water, as a coolant. The pebble-bed concept employs helium heated by small, tennis ball-sized “pebbles” of graphite-coated uranium to turn the turbines. What makes the pebble-bed technology revolutionary is not that gas is used as a coolant, but the small-scale and modular design of the reactors. Their small size not only makes them more attractive business propositions and less volatile politically, it also makes them far safer than the behemoths of the 1960s and ’70s.

In short, existing nuclear plants use “active” reactors where the nuclear fission is continuous and any shutdown requires a painstaking, dangerous procedure to avoid meltdown and radiation release. Pebble-bed plants, on the other hand, would be “passive reactors” where fission could not begin unless heated helium is added to the reactor core. What’s more, the core itself cools naturally when the flow stops.

Nothing about the pebble-bed modular design, however, addresses the most serious problem associated with nuclear power: What to do with the highly radioactive waste that is produced as a byproduct. The U.S. government’s preferred solution — a huge underground storage area at Yucca Mountain, Nev. — is stuck in court once again. That means the “temporary solution” of holding such waste on plant property is the only option.

Because of these uncertainties, the pebble-bed reactor in South Africa, expected to be on line in a few years, is designed to store its nuclear waste — the contaminated “pebbles” — on site for 40 years. Opponents of nuclear power — even those who concede the design may make a Three Mile Island-style radiation release or Chernobyl-style meltdown impossible — still point out that the waste can remain radioactive for up to 23,000 years.

“It’s the other 22,960 years (critics) are worried about, I guess,” Lochbaum said.

Some studies suggest that while they will produce less nuclear waste overall than existing reactors, they will produce more of the most dangerous waste — the spent fuel itself.

“So the volume of (radioactive) waste is reduced, but the amount of the most radioactive waste increases,” said Lochbaum. “And for that, so far, there’s no solution.”

David Roe, a nuclear power expert at Environmental Defense, a Washington-based watchdog group, said he remains unconvinced that anyone has solved the three basic dilemmas of nuclear power: the high costs involved, the danger of another Three Mile Island and the disposal of waste.

“The real test of the technology is whether companies like Exelon are willing the insure these plants without the Price-Anderson Act,” he said, citing the 1978 law that made the federal government the insurer of the nuclear industry. “Until that day, I’d say their talk of safety is just that — talk.”

A variety of changes and new developments have helped revive interest in nuclear power in America after decades in which the industry has been regarded as little more than a failed experiment — and a bad investment. Flickers of interest began to appear about three years ago, roughly coinciding with the deregulation of the electrical industry and a sudden spike in the price of natural gas that made nuclear reactors far more competitive than they had been since the early 1980s. This year’s power shortfalls in California and elsewhere, plus the Bush administration’s favorable view of nuclear power in its energy policy blueprint, certainly helped put the issue back on the map for most people.

But, in fact, the nuclear revival predates the Bush election victory by several years. Its most notable feature has been a sweeping consolidation of the nation’s 103 nuclear reactors into the hands of about a half-dozen large companies, the biggest of which is Exelon.

In fact, Exelon is just one of five large energy companies that has recently submitted questions or met informally with NRC regulators about building more plants.

The others, according to NRC sources, are the Southern Co. of Atlanta, Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Power, Duke Power of Charlotte, N.C., and Entergy of New Orleans. All, sources say, appear to be interested in adding large, new reactors to existing sites. These would be “pre-certified NRC designs” for liquid-cooled, light-water reactors that Dricks called “evolutionary improvements” over the 1970s designs.

Whether pebble-bed reactors or traditional light-water reactors are the first to be built remains in question. But even with the continuing dilemma of what to do with the nuclear waste these plants produce, the industry appears poised for a second generation of nuclear power plant construction driven by technological progress, a more favorable economic and political climate, and an environmental movement taking a new look at an energy source that produces no greenhouse gases.

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