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Japan nuclear crisis: Will it give nations pause?

Chernobyl and Three Mile Island did not stop nuclear power growth. Will the Japan nuclear crisis at Fukushima delay or end the 'nuclear renaissance'?

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Nuclear power's big allure has always been the idea of cheap, limitless power – "electricity too cheap to meter," as one 1960s era slogan termed it. By the mid-1980s, however, nuclear plant construction cost overruns, nuclear utility bankruptcies, and the frightening, costly accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Chernobyl in Ukraine had soured public opinion on nuclear power.

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But in the past decade, the idea of a "nuclear renaissance" had bloomed as a clean, alternative to fossil fuels that might be an antidote to global warming.

And Americans supported the renaissance: After 25 years without a major accident, Gallup found 62 percent support for nuclear energy last March – the highest since the polling firm first asked the question in 1994.

Before Fukushima, more than 60 nuclear reactors were under construction in 15 countries – including, at the head of the pack, China, Russia, and South Korea. Other nations like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and the Philippines were lining up for their first nuclear plant.

Even respected environmentalists such as Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand and Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore had joined the "renaissance" as a last ditch effort to head off climate change.

"My views have changed, and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views," wrote Mr. Moore in 2006. "Nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change."

But as an exploding, burning nuclear plant in Fukushima spewed radioactive smoke on surrounding cities earlier this month, Mr. Moore was horrified. "I was quite upset by what I saw."admits the former antinuclear activist now employed by the Nuclear Energy Institute trade group.

Illustrating the pragmatism that experts say is likely to prevail over the long term, Moore still supports nuclear power: "I have not in any way lost my support for nuclear energy. What's happening is such a unique event, a tragedy.... Until a thing like this is over, you don't know what the consequences will be. I'm just hopeful if they do rebuild on sites like this in Japan that they will make sure it can withstand this type of tsunami.... I'm sure we will all learn from this."

He suggests the accident was due to freak coincidence: Emergency shut-off systems had actually worked and cooling systems would have, too, if the massive quake had not been so quickly followed by a tsunami that knocked out backup generators.

Though the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) doesn't explicitly endorse it, the group has adopted a "moderate" stance on nuclear power and echoes Moore.

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