DALLAS - Electric utility TXU Corp. said Thursday it plans to build nuclear reactors at up to three sites to meet growing electricity demands in Texas beginning late in the next decade, an indication that nuclear energy could undergo a revival in the United States.
The company said it expects to submit applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008 to build and operate the plants, which would likely begin operating between 2015 and 2020.
TXU said nuclear power is currently more costly than other fuels, but it believes it can shave 30 to 40 percent off capital costs as nuclear technology improves.
By applying to the NRC before the end of 2008, TXU expects to get $6 billion in tax credits, nuclear risk insurance and federal loan guarantees approved by Congress in last year's energy law. The company estimated it would cost $50 million to $150 million to prepare the applications.
Chairman and Chief Executive John Wilder said nuclear reactors could provide lower-priced, low-emissions sources of power that would reduce Texas' reliance on natural gas.
Just a decade ago, Texas was building gas-fired plants because they were seen as a cheaper and cleaner alternative to coal plants, which have produced mercury pollution that contaminates many of the state's lakes.
Earlier this year, TXU announced plans to build 11 coal-fired power plants that would begin operating by 2010.
TXU said the plants would be cleaner than the ones they replace, but environmentalists have opposed the move, and political leaders in Dallas and other cities charged the company is trying to rush its plans past regulators without using the cleanest technology.
This month, two arbitrators dealt TXU's coal plan a setback, recommending that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality deny a permit for a plant to be built near Waco.
TXU said Thursday that the proposed coal plants would meet growing demand for electricity through 2013, but that more power is needed after that.
It's been many years since a nuclear reactor was built in the United States.
But James Smith, head of an energy institute at Southern Methodist University, said TXU's announcement was not surprising, given Congress' move last year to streamline the permitting process for nuclear reactors and offer financial incentives for the first few reactors.
Smith said such caps would make nuclear energy more attractive.
Nuclear energy has run into fierce opposition from environmentalists who argue there is no safe way to dispose of the highly radioactive spent fuel rods.
The federal government's plan to bury the waste in Nevada has been pushed years behind schedule.
In addition, utilities have considered the cost of building a reactor to be prohibitive.
TXU and others are counting on reducing that cost by coming up with a standardized design that can be used to stamp out several reactors, cookie-cutter style.
Energy-industry officials and regulators have said the state has an adequate margin of surplus power, although blackouts occurred in April when an early heat wave hit as several generating plants were down for repairs. TXU does not dispute that the current margin is adequate, but its officials have warned of more blackouts in a few years unless more generation is built.
Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, said TXU is exaggerating the need for new power plants.
"Certainly we want to have a reserve margin, but [TXU officials] want us to be afraid of blackouts so they can build an empire," Hadden said.