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U.S. power industry sees nuclear renaissance near

HOUSTON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Growing agreement among U.S. utility leaders that global warming worries will lead to limits on carbon dioxide emissions bode well for a nuclear power revival, executives said at a conference this week.

Optimism about prospects for new reactors from executives at the annual Cambridge Energy Research Associates conference came despite concern about rising construction costs, lack of skilled workers and uncertainty over the future of nuclear waste disposal.

Meeting the nation’s growing appetite for electricity while protecting the environment makes nuclear power attractive again, a variety of executives, investment bankers and consultants at the conference agreed.

"Nuclear has to be part of the equation," said John Rice, president of General Electric Co.'s GE.N infrastructure unit which includes energy.

“If is doesn’t happen in the next couple of years, we’re crazy. It’s simple math,” he told reporters.

U.S. electric demand is projected to climb by 45 percent by 2030, requiring 350,000 megawatts of new capacity.

One Cambridge Energy power scenario anticipates as much as 85,000 MW of new nuclear generation in that time if the nation takes steps to reduce carbon emissions.

This week, DTE Energy Co. DTE.N joined more than a dozen companies, including Exelon Corp. <EXC.N,>, Entergy Corp. ETR.N and NRG Energy NRG.N that are studying nuclear projects, citing financial incentives offered in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

“I don’t see any other viable option for baseload generation,” Craven Crowell, former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, now an energy and water resources consultant with Mercer Management Consulting told Reuters before the conference.

Neither renewable power nor conservation can supply enough power to allow the economy to prosper, said Crowell. The volatility of natural gas prices makes it “impractical” for baseload generation, Crowell said.

New reactor designs and a revamped licensing process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will reduce some of the risk of building expensive reactors, Crowell said.

Obstacles to a nuclear renaissance include finding skilled workers to build and operate new reactors, Crowell said, noting increased competition for workers from the NRC and nuclear vendors.

The industry also needs a new strategy to resolve the waste issue, he said.

“We can’t have a long-term, viable nuclear program if we don’t find a permanent solution to the high-level waste issue,” said Crowell. “We can move along with construction while we work on it, but it must be resolved.”

Last week, Nevada issued a study saying that a long-term storage facility built at Yucca Mountain would cost billions more than continuing to store nuclear waste at existing sites.