CHICAGO (Reuters) - The roughly 100 nuclear power plants in the United States are approaching the end of their useful life, and manufacturing executives say the nation cannot rule out building new ones if it wants to keep up with electricity demand.
"If you want to talk about energy availability and the environment in the same paragraph, you have to be talking about nuclear," John Rice, a General Electric Co vice chairman who heads up the conglomerate's infrastructure arm, told the Reuters Manufacturing Summit in Chicago this week.
Advocates of nuclear power point out that it does not produce the greenhouse gases generated by burning fossil fuels, such as coal, which currently accounts for about half the nation's electricity. Opponents raise concerns about safety and point out that questions remain about how to store the radioactive waste left behind by the fission process.
While GE supplies nuclear reactors as well as the turbines they use to generate electricity, Rice said the future of the company was not tied to that business, which he termed "a relatively small part" of its portfolio.
GE, the second-largest U.S. company by market value behind Exxon Mobil Corp, also makes turbines used in gas and coal-fired plants, as well as green energy sources.
In fact, Rice said GE expected to generate six times as much revenue this year from wind turbines as from its nuclear business.
"We'd be glad to sell more wind turbines, but the fact of the matter is that you can't possibly replace nuclear with wind," Rice said.
James Griffith, chief executive of bearings and specialty steel maker Timken Co, said at the summit that a robust U.S. economy would depend on all forms of energy.
"We've got to embrace solar, we've got to embrace conservation, and we absolutely have to embrace nuclear as a source of power," he said. "Study after study after study says the lights will go out unless we do that, or at least for companies like Timken, the costs will rise."
Rice and Griffith are not alone. U.S. President George W Bush last year said new nuclear plants would be key to keeping up with growing electricity demand, while the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change said the power source could be in the arsenal of tools to fight global warming.
Nuclear power currently accounts for about 20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply.
Sterne, Agee & Leach Inc analyst Nick Heymann in a phone interview ahead of the summit compared the potential investment in nuclear power to the Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive U.S. infrastructure project undertaken during the depth of the Great Depression to modernize and regulate the electricity grid and help stimulate the economy.
"We've very close to seeing nuclear -- both economically and in (terms of) public opinion -- swing over to being the best choice economically for being green and the 21st-century version of the TVA," Heymann said. "Potentially $1 trillion."
(For summit blog: summitnotebook.reuters.com/)
Editing by Lisa Von Ahn