Maureen Hayden, Kokomo Tribune CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief
Indianapolis — For the first time in his career as the state’s top expert on future energy needs, Doug Gotham is getting serious questions from state lawmakers and others about nuclear power plants.
He thought he’d never see the day.
Gotham was just a kid when nuclear power suffered its public-relations meltdown a generation ago, but he knows the organization he heads — the State Utility Forecasting Group — was created in the wake of the industry’s multi-billion dollar blunders, including a major one in Southern Indiana.
“When I first started with the forecasting group, nuclear was a four-letter word here in Indiana,” said Gotham. “Nobody would even consider building a nuclear power plant here as an option.”
That may be changing. As the U.S. Senate debates curbs on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, nuclear power is pushed by proponents as a carbon-free source of electricity.
Both the Obama administration and congressional leaders — including Indiana’s senior senator, Richard Lugar — are pushing for billions of dollars in incentives to build a new generation of nuclear power plants.
The technology to do so is being developed at places like Purdue University, one of the few colleges in the nation that still offers a degree in nuclear engineering.
Purdue researchers Amit H. Varma and Ahmed Hassanein say the next generation of nuclear power plants will be safer, smaller and less expensive than their predecessors.
“There’s no doubt that nuclear energy should be the near-future reliable source of electricity in the U.S.” Hassanein said.
But he also acknowledges that other issues beyond technology are why it’s been 30 years since the U.S. began construction on a new nuclear reactor.
The public, he says, still remembers the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the massive cost overruns at Marble Hill nuclear power plant in southeast Indiana, which lead to the abandonment of the half-finished plant in 1984.
The massive cost overruns at Marble Hill — more than $2 billion shifted to ratepayers — led to the creation of the State Utility Forecasting Group, which Gotham now heads.
It’s an independent agency charged with forecasting future energy needs, to prevent electric utilities from overbuilding power plants.
Gotham’s group has given coal favorable marks in the past as a cheap energy source. But that’s changing. The forecasters recently predicted a 14 percent increase in Indiana utility rates over the next four years due to federal clean-air standards that will make it more costly to burn coal.
Nuclear power isn’t a cheaper alternative yet. But there are other challenges as well, including what Purdue University political science professor Daniel Aldrich calls the “dread risk” — the visceral feeling of fear that nuclear power elicits.
As nuclear power proponents like to point out, there have been no deaths attributed to nuclear power accidents in its 55 years of use, but fatal accidents have claimed the lives of hundreds of workers in the coal, natural gas, and oil industries.
It’s the difference in the danger perceived.
“With something like coal, we’re willing to let somebody else take the risk of an accident happening to them,” Aldrich said. “With nuclear power, we perceive there’s a risk that a catastrophe could harm the rest of us.”
There are other issues with nuclear power, Gotham and Aldrich say. Among them: Long-term storage of nuclear waste and financing of what remain billion-dollar projects.
Still, they find it interesting that nuclear power is part of the public conversation in way that it hasn’t been in a long time.
“I talk to a lot of people,” Gotham said. “Everybody from legislators to the Lion’s Club are asking me a lot more questions about nuclear energy than ever before.”