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Such reactors are the most promising near-term alternative to additional conventional coal plants that produce prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide. But it is uncertain when or if they will be built. If it is to happen, the industry must persuade investors to take a big plunge. That means convincing them that the plants will compete financially with other inherently low-carbon-emitting sources, like wind turbines, or with coal plants that sequester their carbon dioxide – a technology that may be achievable but hasn’t yet been demonstrated (see ” The Dirty Secret ”) . According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a nonprofit utility research organization based in Palo Alto, CA, whose members include owners of coal and nuclear plants, the near-term reactor designs may barely be cheaper than the sequestration technology. And if the United States puts no constraints on carbon emissions, nuclear power will have to keep competing with conventional coal plants.

Meanwhile, the industry is still waiting for a solution to its chief near-term problem: what to do with waste piling up at existing nuclear plants. Skip Bowman, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade group, says that without a speedy waste solution, today’s tentative renaissance will “come to a screeching halt.” A company cannot get a license for a new plant without a plan for the waste, and at this point, waiting for the Energy Department to open its long-delayed Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada does not constitute a plan. In this context, Bowman says, GNEP presents a “distraction factor.”

Some academics agree, saying the Energy Department needs to forge a clear nuclear strategy and stick with it. Andrew Kadak, a nuclear engineer at MIT (see ” DOE’s Blurred Nuclear Vision ”) , says the department has followed “zigzag policies.” He counts GNEP as the fifth nuclear initiative in the last five years, citing the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative; Nuclear Power 2010 (an effort to break ground on a new conventional reactor by that year); Generation IV (a new suite of reactor technologies, such as gas-cooled or lead-cooled plants); and the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, which portions of GNEP resemble.

If the Energy Department wants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by promoting the promised revival of nuclear energy, it will have to hurry before power companies fill the market with conventional coal plants that could last 50 years. GNEP may only weaken the department’s focus, adding cost and complexity with new, untried technologies.

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