A nuclear power renaissance? Maybe not.

Don't expect more than three new plants to be built in the next 10 years, experts at a session on nukes at Fortune's Brainstorm: Green conference agree.

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By David Whitford, editor-at-large

nuclear_power_plant2.ce.03.jpg

Laguna Niguel, Calif. (Fortune) -- Three new nuclear power plants in the next ten years, max. That was the consensus among the experts attending Tuesday's morning session on nuclear power at Fortune's Brainstorm: Green conference. Maybe five, said one lonely voice. Either way, that's far from the nuclear renaissance we were reading about just a couple of years ago. What happened?

No. 1, the global recession. As economic activity slows, so does demand for energy. More cars with batteries would help. "The electric car," says NRG Energy CEO David Crane, "is the air conditioner of the 21st century." Maybe later. For now the market's way too small to spark big demand.

No. 2, sinking natural; gas prices. At $13.69 per thousand cubic feet, not just nuclear, but any alternative to natural gas for making electricity looks pretty good. At $3.48, where natural gas futures stood last week, the economic incentive shifts.

No. 3, the credit crunch. Big loans are hard to get these days, no matter what the infrastructure project, but they're all but impossible for one with all of nuclear's uncertainties. Among the persistent question marks: No clear idea yet of where the cost of carbon will land, if and when we get a climate-change bill in Washington; continued uncertainty surrounding the government's nuclear loan guarantee program, considered vital to unlocking private investment; and oh yeah, what do we do with the waste? Yucca Mountain will never happen.

Where does the new administration stand on nukes? Good question. President Obama is not anti-nuke but neither is he an active proponent. And while Energy Secretary Steven Chu might be open to new nukes, said one participant, speaking not for attribution, Carol Browner, President Obama's special assistant for climate, decidedly is not. And Browner, this participant added, is calling the shots. To top of page

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