Westinghouse Electric Co., once synonymous with America’s industrial might, wagered its future on nuclear power -- and lost.

Now a unit of Japanese technology giant Toshiba Corp., Westinghouse on Wednesday filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-court protection, citing as much as $10 billion in debt. The company will continue operating while it comes up with a plan to repay at least part of what it owes.

The move marks a potential end to a troubled era, which began in the late 1990s, when the company made a series of sales that left it with only the nuclear business. Since then, atomic power has failed to take off in part because of cost overruns, cheaper alternatives and the fallout from an accident in Japan.

“They placed a big bet on this hallucination of a nuclear renaissance,” said Peter A. Bradford, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member who now teaches at Vermont Law School. “Toshiba seemed to believe that all the nuclear plants were actually going to get built.”

In earlier iterations, Westinghouse, based in Cranberry Township, a suburb of Pittsburgh, was an innovator on par with today’s Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc. George Westinghouse, a prolific inventor and rival of Thomas Edison, founded the company in 1886. Its technological breakthroughs included the commercializing of alternating current generators and transformers. In no small measure, Westinghouse helped electrify the world.

First Reactor

Westinghouse supplied the world’s first commercial pressurized water reactor more than half a century ago in Pennsylvania. There are currently more than 430 nuclear power stations globally, with about half based on Westinghouse technology.

Westinghouse tried many strategies to stay relevant with changing times. Like one-time rival General Electric Co., the company diversified. In the 1980s, it offered financial services, suffering heavy losses. Westinghouse went into broadcasting when it bought CBS in 1995 and took its name two years later.

But it never found its footing. By the time CBS sold itself to Viacom Inc. in 2000, there was little left of Westinghouse but the nuclear business. (As CBS, the company started licensing the Westinghouse brand to makers of everything from microwave ovens to solar panels.)

Energy Revolution?

First « 1 2 3 » Next