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Is Nuclear Our Energy Future?

by Ryan Randazzo-The Arizona Republic  

Despite all the attention electric utilities in the U.S. have been giving renewable-power sources such as solar and wind, their faith is in nuclear power to help meet the country's energy demands amid concerns about climate change. That's one of the findings from a recent poll of 329 professionals from utilities across the country conducted by Black & Veatch, an international engineering, construction and design firm.

 Nuclear plants don't have the carbon-dioxide emissions of coal or natural-gas power plants that contribute to climate change. But whether to describe them as renewable has been the subject of debate, because they technically rely on uranium mined from the earth, which is finite - not endless in supply like sunlight or wind.

Nuclear plants also are expensive to build, and there is not yet a permanent solution for the used radioactive fuel.

Just over half the respondents thought nuclear power would produce 30 percent or more of the nation's energy by 2050. It produces about 20 percent today.

Of course, there's much less need to worry about building new power plants today amid a recession that has shrunk energy use.

The study also found that fewer than one in four of the experts think electricity use in their utility's territory will grow more than 1.5 percent annually in the next decade.

Even though nuclear gets top marks among the survey respondents, and environmental groups strongly oppose coal plants, 77 percent said that there still is a future for coal-power generation in the U.S. because of how expensive other power sources are by comparison.

Sixty-five percent said they expect carbon legislation, such as the cap-and-trade bills that have been debated in Congress the past two years, to pass by 2012. Such a bill would limit the amount of greenhouse gasses power plants could produce.

"(Utilities') expected leading role in curbing carbon emissions would hit utility costs very hard," said William Kemp, who leads Black & Veatch's management consulting services for strategy and sustainability.

"Yet their sales are declining or relatively flat, and regulatory commissions are reluctant to approve rate increases when the economy is down. Electric utilities will be hard-pressed to satisfy both customers and investors over the next few years."

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