Nuclear Power's Powerful Ally

 | Jan 20, 2012 | 4:00 PM EST
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As Republicans battle it out in South Carolina and Florida, one winner has already emerged in the fight over nuclear power: nuclear power itself. So says Marv Fertel, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Last Thursday, the United States Energy Association (USEA) held its annual State of the Energy Industry Forum. Based on the diverse roster of leaders in the energy industry who spoke before packed audiences, it appears USEA's focus for 2012 is electric power.

NEI is one of several Washington-based associations focused on electric power. Its primary interest is nuclear power, but it also has initiatives in nuclear medicine, nuclear transportation and nuclear waste.

Most of the nation's larger generating utilities, including Progress Energy (PGN), American Electric Power (AEP) First Energy (FE) and several coal and nuclear utilities maintain leadership positions within NEI.

NEI's long list of non-utility members includes U.S. companies such as 3M (MMM) , General Dynamics (GD), and General Electric (GE), and foreign names such as Electricite de France, Mitsubishi, and Tokyo Electric Power (the owner of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant). Among U.S. academic intuitions members include Columbia, Harvard, MIT, the University of Michigan and more.

I mention all these associations because understanding NEI's membership is important. NEI's statements about nuclear power represent a cross-section of industries, academics, law and labor.

So the comments offered by Fertel at USEA, an association representing other energy associations, were taken seriously and were a little surprising. NEI described polls that disclose 62% of Americans favor "the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States." The most recent poll was taken last September, months after the Fukushima Daiichi event.

According to an NEI report, "In the latest survey, two-thirds of the public rated nuclear energy facility safety high, compared with 35 percent in 1984. Americans believe U.S. nuclear energy facilities are safer: 73 percent believes that 'nuclear power plants operating in the United States' are safe and secure."

Furthermore, 80% of the public and 87% of people living near existing nuclear power plants believe nuclear energy will be important for meeting the nation's future electricity needs. "A near-consensus 85 percent of the general public and 86 percent of plant neighbors agree with renewing the license of nuclear power plants that continue to meet federal safety standards," the NEI says.

This is clear support for commercial nuclear power, and the timing supports the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's eminent approval to start nuclear construction at Southern Company's (SO) Vogtle facility in South Carolina and SCANA's (SCG) V. C. Summer facility, also in South Carolina.

Combined, these four new reactors will represent a $30 billion investment in the next generation of nuclear power. It will also provide thousands of highly paid construction jobs and will lock in hundreds of permanent jobs for decades. With the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar Unit 2 slated to go online next year, the U.S. is poised to have five new nuclear plants under construction before 2020.

That's it. NEI is not expecting any additional nuclear units before 2020. In fact, Fertel said that he believes utilities are delaying nuclear construction because of abundant and low-cost natural gas, among other challenges.

There's another factor, and it's not a federal issue. Individual states have ultimate authority regarding who can build what type of power plant. Large power plants are challenges for many of these states. In fact, in restructured states it is nearly impossible to build any power plant without violating state policies.

Public approval polls suggest that almost twice as many Americans approve of nuclear power than they approve of any presidential candidate. But as the NRC completes its licensing process, roadblocks will shift from federal agencies to individual state governments. States need to find a path to nuclear success or face constituents who seek reliable sources of safe and economic electricity.

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