Global warming heats up a nuclear energy renaissance
Global warming and the BP oil spill have helped rehabilitate nuclear energy in the eyes of the public – and some environmentalists.
As a young engineer in the mid-1970s, Eugene Grecheck worked on plans to construct four reactors at a new nuclear power plant in central Virginia's rolling countryside – only to see two of them scotched before completion because of industrywide concerns over soaring costs and public perceptions of environmental danger.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, three decades later, Mr. Grecheck is overseeing plans to finally add a third reactor at Dominion Energy Inc.'s North Anna plant that could power up to 375,000 Virginia homes. The company is one of more than a dozen nationwide seeking licenses from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build and operate 22 new reactors.
"For me, emotionally, there would be no better way to end up than where I started with this," Grecheck says, as he surveys the patch of ground near the Lake Anna reservoir where a stake marks what would be the new domed reactor's center. "I feel a great sense of satisfaction that I've helped get us to this point."
"This point" is the nuclear renaissance that Dominion, and the industry as a whole, seems to be enjoying. Global warming has energized the quest for clean, carbon-free energy that won't add to the greenhouse effect; and the BP oil spill has added to the distaste for fossil-fuel dependence.
Public and political acceptance of nuclear power as a logical large-scale alternative to fossil fuel is higher than it has been in a generation. Once mainly associated with mishaps like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl – not to mention bumbling nuclear plant worker Homer Simpson – the energy source now has support from 62 percent of Americans, a Gallup Poll found in March. That's the highest since Gallup began asking about the topic in 1994.
Even former foes like Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and an alternative-energy crusader, and Mark Udall, a member of the Udall family Democratic political dynasty that has stewarded natural resources, are rethinking the nuclear energy option. They're influenced more by the immediately tangible environmental consequences of greenhouse gases than by possible radiation disasters.
Likewise, President Obama has taken steps to push the new thinking into action. In February, he announced federal government loan guarantees to build the first new power plants in three decades. And construction of these plants is encouraged by a comprehensive energy and climate change bill introduced in Congress in May.
To Grecheck and other supporters, the reason for such a renaissance is clear: The country has at last realized that nuclear power's advantages far outweigh its risks. It already generates about one-fifth of the nation's electricity, and advocates say it could provide much more as it reduces the reliance on carbon-producing fuels such as coal and oil.