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Nuclear power: Can its winter of discontent ever end?

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Under different circumstances, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's recent decision to grant its first license to a nuclear power plant in nearly two decades would be interpreted as a boon for the atomic energy industry.

These, however, are hardly normal times for the nuclear sector, which many observers acknowledge is hamstrung by relentless domestic opposition — even as dozens of new atomic power reactors are being constructed worldwide. Despite nominal backing from the federal government, and an accelerating push to promote carbon free energy sources, the Tennessee Valley Authority's $4.5 billion Watts Bar plant isn't being interpreted as a fresh start for a beleaguered sector.

"We haven't done anything in 20 years … now we're off to the races? Not at all," said Vincent DeVito, a partner at Bowditch & Dewey, LLP, and a former Department of Energy policymaker.

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"It's great for the TVA … but it doesn't address larger issue which is can you build these along the Hudson River and Cape Cod Canal, where the power is needed," he added, citing energy starved hubs of demand along the U.S. East Coast. "That particular success is not transferable."

The stagnation of the U.S. nuclear sector belies developments on the international front, where a wide range of economies have become a major source of demand for new reactors.

Accident free since 1979

Countries such as Switzerland, China, South Korea, Brazil and even Japan — where the meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Fukushima prompted the temporary shuttering of all the country's plants — appear to have surmounted the safety and environmental trepidations that have prevented the U.S. from adding to the 100 licensed reactors that provide about 20 percent of America's electricity.

It's a state of affairs that Bill Johnson, the TVA's CEO, acknowledged as a concern in a recent interview with CNBC.

"I certainly hope that Watts Bar and other plants in use lead to a resurgence in nuclear power," Johnson said, even as he acknowledged that the natural gas boom and high capital costs shifted the energy landscape and "held us back."

Still, he defended the industry against broadsides from environmental advocates. Many of these groups — including the Sierra Club — broadly oppose the development of atomic power on the grounds that it is inherently unsafe, and may contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the Obama administration has voiced support for nuclear power as part of its strategy to combat climate change — which led President Barack Obama to officially kill the TransCanada oil pipeline last week.

"The safety record of the industry is tremendous," Johnson told CNBC, adding that there have been no major safety breaches since the Three Mile Island accident of 1979.

"Clean power plants and the desire for smaller carbon plants will be a significant propellant for nuclear, and a shot in the arm," he said. "If we are going to meet those carbon targets, nuclear is going to have to play a big role" in a climate change strategy, Johnson added.


'A big mistake' to 'mothball' nuclear?

The National Resources Defense Council, which doesn't explicitly oppose nuclear power, operates a program drawing attention to the "safety, security and environmental challenges posed by nuclear power expansion in an era of accelerating climate change." The NRDC says that U.S. nuclear plants have amassed more than 60,000 tons of spent fuel that have yet to be disposed of adequately.

Yet proponents of nuclear power, which include a small but vocal contingent of conservationists, have argued that the U.S. is ceding an opportunity to participate in the international growth of atomic power plants worldwide.

The role of nuclear power in the global energy mix is "an issue that is quite heatedly debated and divides the environmental community," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia's Earth Institute, who backs atomic power.

"In my opinion, nuclear energy can and should play a significant role in a low-carbon U.S. economy," Sachs told CNBC recently. "It can be economically effective and provide a zero-carbon" alternative, he added. In spite of safety concerns, "there are ways to make nuclear power even safer and more efficient with new technologies."

There are more than 400 nuclear power reactors up and running across 13 countries, the World Nuclear Association notes, all of which provide some 2 trillion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity — more than 11 percent of the world's total. Meanwhile, 60 new reactors are under construction in 13 countries, the association added, where construction is being led by Russia, China and others with technical expertise. Sachs told CNBC it would be "a big mistake" if safety concerns resulted in opponents' "trying to mothball the industry."

TVA's Johnson agreed. "There's a concern that we will lose a leadership position in nuclear matters around the world," he said. "If you want to have a place at the table, you need to have" more domestic capacity, he added. "There's huge interest globally, and I would hate to see us lose our leadership position in this."