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October 22, 2008

Nuclear power: seeing less political fission these days

Posted: 11:30 AM ET

From the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference in Roanoke, Virginia:

Is nuclear power making a comeback?

After being battered by its own missteps, near-calamities, strong opposition and financial overruns, the nuclear power industry is showing increased signs of emerging from a three-decade coma in the U.S.

Many are giving a second look to the U.S.. nuke industry, including longtime skeptics on the lookout for alternatives to fossil fuels.  Here at SEJ's annual conference, there's a livelier-than-usual discussion about nuclear power as a part of the solution to America's energy woes.  One of the most prominent voices here calling for a nuclear power revival was R.K. Pachauri, who as Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore last year.

Right now, the U.S. gets just under 20% of its electricity from nukes, and about half from coal.  Natural gas is good for nearly another 20% of energy generation, with oil, hydro, wind, and solar contributing most of the last 10%.  To listen to the rosy projections a half century ago, nuclear would have provided power "too cheap to meter" from over 400 reactors by the year 2000.

We topped out at just beyond 100 reactors total when Wall Street got cold feet from the risk, the opposition, and the above-average costs of boiling water by splitting atoms.  The 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania put the chill on the industry, and the disaster at the Soviet reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine seven years later brought on the deep freeze.  Nuclear advocates didn't help their cause by acting like the shark-denying mayor of Amity Island in the movie "Jaws."  No new reactor orders were placed in the U.S. for three decades.

But the permit requests are trickling in, and in this election season, the candidates are hopping aboard the nukewagon:   Obamas cautiously supports new licensing (his home state of Illinois hosts eleven reactors, more than any other state).  McCain gets more specific, targeting 45 new reactors by the year 2030 - a goal many say is unrealistic.   With the industry in cold shutdown and steel manufacturing pulling up stakes in the U.S., we don't make reactors any more, and would have to wait in a long, long line to order reactor vessels from the steelworks in Japan.

The nuke industry's arguments are piling up: Thirty years of relatively safe operation with no major incidents; improving technology; and a measure of liberation from fossil fuels, imports, and greenhouse-gas emissions.  Its public front is now a lot more polished than back in the Mayor-from-"Jaws" days, and they're much better positioned to argue against nuclear opponents, some of whom are falling back on hidebound, reactionary, dubious arguments. 

But the questions haven't gone away:

The industry still has no answers to ensure safe storage of nuclear waste, potentially dangerous for thousands of years.  Britain and France reprocess spent fuel and re-use the recoverable material, but the reprocessing facilities at Sellafield, UK and La Hague, France have left a messy environmental legacy.  For the U.S., the designated site is Yucca Mountain, Nevada.   Overruns at the Yucca Mountain site are measured in the billions, and the delays are into the decades, with commercial nukes continuing to store their own waste on site across the country.   And the desert site north of Las Vegas has a powerful home-state foe in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, so there's little chance of action there soon.

The world is a more dangerous place than it was 30 years ago.  Spreading nuclear fuel always leaves the risk of spreading nuclear weapons to those who would be eager to use them.

Also, many nuclear arguments overlook the continuing, shameful legacy of uranium mining.  Los Angeles Times reporter Judy Pasternak did a remarkable series of stories last year on the widespread damage to human health and the environment in the US Southwest last year.

So what's your take?   Is it a fair trade to swap the risks for a weapon against global warming and an increase in electrical capacity?  Or are nukes still too hot and costly to revive?

–Peter Dykstra Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech, & Weather

Filed under: Energy • environment


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