What’s next for nuclear power: David Crane

March 24, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

“Coal really is the alternative here, at least in the short term.”

While nuclear energy is expanding dramatically worldwide, with 65 plants currently under construction in 15 countries, there hasn’t been a new plant approved in the U.S. in more than 30 years. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, is pushing hard to build two plants at the company’s existing nuclear complex in Bay City, Texas, creating what would be the largest nuclear-generating station in the U.S. His partner in that project: Tokyo Electric, owner and operator of the crippled Fukushima plant. Fortune’s Whitford spoke to Crane about the future of the industry.

I have an empty feeling. I’m not at all going to suggest that this isn’t a serious accident that we need to learn from. Shame on us if we don’t get everything we can out of this event. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the stocks of the major coal producers are up 10% since the event occurred. Natural-gas prices have gone up too. The fact is that every major energy source that is part of the mix, in our country and globally, has consequences. I think that we have to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each. Just today, in a stunning juxtaposition, the EPA published a set of proposed new standards for regulating mercury and other airborne toxins, and released a study that highlights the consequences of coal-plant emissions. And coal really is the alternative here, at least in the short term. I would hate to see the moderate to left wing of the political spectrum return to the view that all we need to do to solve the energy problem in America is build more solar and more wind. It’s simply not realistic. At NRG (NRG), we’re making a major effort in solar and think it has a great future. But it will be many years before it becomes a significant part of our energy portfolio.

This incident could lead to a situation where the only thing built over the next 20 or 30 years is natural-gas plants. That’s a great short-term environmental solution; natural gas is cleaner than coal. But it doesn’t get you to where we need to be by 2050 to effectively combat climate change. Over that time the electricity industry needs to go to zero carbon. If the government were to find a nuclear plant in the U.S. that is in identical circumstances to Fukushima — same design, right next to the ocean, seismic area — and it wants to review the safety of that plant, that’s not unreasonable. But don’t shut down every nuclear plant while they study the situation. That would be an overreaction.

What’s next for nuclear power? Six experts weigh in: