Nuclear Industry Growing Without Federal Handouts

Monday , December 15, 2008

By Jack Spencer


Handouts! Get your handouts, here!

Seems like the only way to get a business going (or keep it going) today is to get help from Washington. That is, unless you’re in the nuclear business. While other industries are begging for taxpayer dollars, the nuclear industry is expanding at an impressive pace — without federal subsidies.

Although no plants have been officially ordered yet, enough utilities are moving forward with plans to do so that companies that supply the components and services necessary to design, build and man those plants have begun expanding already.

Ironically, one of the anti-nuke crowd’s favorite cracks against nuclear is that it’s too expensive to succeed without public funds. Yet their favorites, like wind and solar, seem utterly dependent on the government dole, while nuclear is going gangbusters.

This growth is happening throughout the supply chain. Uranium mining companies are prospecting nationwide and seeking permits to begin operations. Opponents often portray this as a dangerous activity, but uranium is safely mined in places like Canada and Australia and can be safely expanded in the U.S.

Once mined, uranium must be enriched so that it can be turned into fuel. Just a few years ago, the United States had very little enrichment capacity — and what it did have was inefficient and expensive. Fast forward to today: Two new enrichment facilities are under construction, with two more in the works.

Nuclear fuel, of course, isn’t worth much without new reactors. Until recently, the U.S. didn’t have much of a commercial nuclear industrial base. Indeed, there was no domestic capacity to manufacture the large components needed to build nuclear reactors. But all of that is changing — and fast.

In 2006, energy technology leader Babcock & Wilcox opened its doors to commercial nuclear manufacturing. Global nuclear giant AREVA and the American shipbuilder Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, meanwhile, recently announced a partnership to start building heavy nuclear components.

And then there are the jobs. While visions of “green jobs” dance in the heads of Washington bureaucrats, the nuclear industry is creating thousands of high-skill, high-paying actual jobs. Westinghouse, for example, has already created more than 3,000 new jobs and will create another 2,900 for a development in Louisiana it’s building with The Shaw Group. This facility will be used to construct modules to build nuclear plants.

To get these jobs, people need training — and America’s university nuclear engineering programs are expanding to meet the challenge. While some universities like Purdue, Texas A&M, and the University of Florida are growing their nuclear programs, others, such as the University of Virginia, are reestablishing theirs.

The push to develop a skilled nuclear workforce extends well beyond universities. Community colleges are collaborating with private companies to offer education and training in skilled and craft labor. For example, Progress Energy recently awarded a $60,000 grant to Florence-Darlington Technical College’s Advanced Welding and Cutting Center, and New Jersey-based PSEG piloted an entry-level technical-trade program at Mercer County Community College that provides training and education.

To be fair, some subsidies are teed up for new nuclear plants. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized a handful that would help about the first five or six plants (as well as a host of other energy technologies). But even if these did “kick-start” the re-emergence of nuclear power in the U.S., they are not driving this industry-wide growth. These investments are toward something much larger.

They are the result of basic economics. There is growing demand for clean, affordable, reliable energy. Nuclear addresses each. It emits nothing into the atmosphere, and all of its waste is easily contained. Though its capital costs are high (like most other power projects), its operating cost are low, which means that it’s very affordable over time. And unlike wind and solar, which produce energy only when the wind blows or the sun shines, nuclear power plants produce lots of energy 24/7.

That’s why no new subsidies are needed for nuclear energy (or any other energy, for that matter). The Energy Policy Act is doing its job. The industry is clearly moving now. The government doesn’t have to worry about ponying up more money. America’s private sector is on the job.

Jack Spencer is a Research Fellow in Nuclear Energy at The Heritage Foundation.