The Byron nuclear plant in Illinois.

Just as political momentum was building for a rebirth of sorts of nuclear power in the U.S., the explosion at the Fukushima plant in Japan is clouding what was already a murky future for the industry.

As the world faces potentially the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the debate has already begun in renewed vigor over the safety of nuclear power.

“The catastrophic nuclear explosions and radioactive emissions in Japan are likely to lead to increased oversight and scrutiny of similarly designed plants in the U.S., as well as lead to more public skepticism on the safety of nuclear plants,” said Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago.

Nuclear energy companies also took hits on the stock market.

Prior to the incident in Japan, new projects in progress in the U.S. after a drought of about three decades and numerous applications currently under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave nuclear power backers hope that the industry, while far from undergoing a renaissance, might be gaining momentum.

Several state legislatures in the Midwest are in the process of removing barriers to new nuclear plants or providing incentives for them.

Illinois last year lifted a ban on construction of new nuclear plants, while both Minnesota state houses recently voted to do the same (that measure awaits action by Gov. Mark Dayton, who has opposed the effort).

In Indiana, the state Senate recently passed a bill that contains incentives for clean energy, including nuclear energy. The state House now must take up the measure. The Hoosier state currently has no nuclear power plants.

Last year, Iowa passed a measure encouraging utilities to conduct studies into the possible expansion of nuclear energy in the state. MidAmerican Energy Co. has been exploring possible sites, according to Dean Crist, the utility’s vice president of regulation, and likely will proceed with Small Modular Reactors because of the lower cost and the ability to add capacity as needed.

Some experts say the smaller reactors, which would use less fuel and run cooler, would not be prone to the catastrophic meltdown engineers are trying to avoid in Japan.

The Iowa legislature is considering another measure that would allow regulated utilities to begin charging customers for the cost of nuclear power facilities while they are still under construction.

Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds told reporters Monday that she expects the state to proceed with plans for a second nuclear plant.

In Ohio, Duke Energy has been working with its Southern Ohio Clean Energy Park Alliance to see if a Piketon, Ohio site is viable for a new nuclear plant. Company spokesman Tom Williams said the old brownfield site is still being explored.

While MidAmerican and Duke Energy consider new projects, other companies currently operating nuclear reactors in the region have no immediate plans for new building projects.

Chicago-based Exelon Corp. – which has the largest nuclear portfolio in the U.S. – has no plans to build new plants, said Marshall Murphy, director of nuclear communications. The company is, however, focusing on continued upgrades for six Illinois nuclear stations.

American Electric Power, which operates the Cook Nuclear Plant in Michigan, may be involved in a new nuclear reactor in the future, but it won’t be in the first wave, said company spokeswoman Tammy Ridout.

“We would look at options going forward and know we will need a mix to meet future demand, but have no current plans for a new nuclear plant,” Ridout said.

And Xcel Energy, which operates two nuclear power plants in Minnesota, has no plans for new plants at this time.

At the federal level, a combination of proposed clean energy standards that include nuclear energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Combined Operating License (COL), federally backed loans and new technology have all been driving renewed interest in nuclear power. President Barack Obama’s proposed budget includes additional loan guarantees for nuclear power and plans for research on small modular reactors.

The NRC’s new Combined Operating License handles both the construction and operating licenses at the same time, instead of licensing a plant for construction and later licensing it for operation. The new process will allow for a quicker turn around time for companies to begin earning money on the large investment.

The commission currently is conducting reviews of its first applicants under this process.

Terri Hughes-Lazzell has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers, magazines and online publications, as well as social media networks and blogs. She is based in Indiana and her work appears in publications across the U.S., as well as digital publications.

Photo by Bill and Vicki Tracey via Creative Commons

Creative Commons License
This work by Midwest Energy News is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.