For more than a quarter century, nuclear power has been the enfant terrible of US energy policy. Sure, it's a cheap way today to generate electricity. Sure, it doesn't spew any greenhouse gases out of hour-glass stacks.
Yet there is that problem of radioactive waste, which alone has been enough to harden a generation of activists against it - and ensure that a nuclear plant hasn't been ordered in the US in 23 years.
Yet today, at the birth of a new century and new concerns about domestic energy supplies, nuclear power is getting a second look. Soaring natural gas prices, shortages of electricity, and fresh concerns about global warming are reviving some of the interest.
More important, the Bush administration seems poised to give nuclear power a boost in its new energy plan. Even public opinion seems to have shifted somewhat on the issue: An Associated Press poll out this week shows that 50 percent of Americans support nuclear power - up from 45 percent just two years ago.
While none of this means new nuclear reactors will be dotting the landscape any time soon, it is causing the industry to renew the licenses on some existing plants - and push ahead with a generation of safer reactors.
"We are moving down the road," says Marvin Fertel, senior vice president at the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington.
For the record, the last time an American utility ordered a new nuclear plant was when "Dallas" was a hit TV show and Jimmy Carter was president, in 1978. It was a year before the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Commonwealth Edison in Illinois cancelled the order in 1990. The last commercial reactor to come on line - at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant - did so in 1996, 26 years after being ordered.
As even Mr. Fertel admits, the road ahead to a new plant will be packed with politics and potholes, if not land mines.
"I would be surprised if we saw a new nuclear reactor in this decade," says James Moniz, undersecretary for energy, science, and the environment at the Department of Energy under President Clinton.
Just how far the Bush administration will go in pushing the nuclear option is uncertain. Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC's "Meet the Press" earlier this month that the US must build 65 power plants annually and "some of those ought to be nuclear." The administration's energy task force, which Mr. Cheney heads, is expected to present its report in the next few weeks. Experts speculate - and the industry hopes - the White House will offer tax incentives and ease regulatory requirements to encourage development.
On one level, the White House could play the green card. The administration has come under fire for several moves affecting the environment, and it could claim that new nuclear plants would reduce greenhouse emissions. Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico notes that since the 1970s, nuclear plants have prevented the emission of more than 2 billion tons of carbon.
But opponents point to the highly radioactive wastes produced by the plants, and may consider promotion of nuclear power another sign of a pro-business, anti-environmental stance by President Bush.
There is also the enduring concern of weapons-grade nuclear material falling into the wrong hands. Edwin Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute, argues that expanded reliance on the technology could lead to the proliferation of nuclear arms abroad and a greater risk of sabotage of plants at home.
STILL, proponents won't be deterred. Last month, Senator Domenici introduced a bill to foster more nuclear power. One provision aims at encouraging upgrades of the nation's 103 nuclear power plants. If the improvements step up power output by 5 percent or more, they could get a subsidy of up to $1 million. "We risk the nation's future prosperity if we lose the nuclear option through inaction," Domenici says.
At present, nuclear plants generate about 20 percent of the nation's power demands. During the 1990s, by taking measures to improve efficiency, reduce shutdowns, and expand output, the plants added the effective equivalent of 23 new 1,000-megawatt power plants. That was enough power to serve 30 percent of new electric consumption during that time.
Many thought these existing plants would be decommissioned when their 40-year licenses ran out. But five plants already have had their licenses renewed for 20 years. Another five are before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and 33 more are expected to file in the next three years for 20-year license renewals.
In a power-short nation and with the spread of competitive electricity generation, the plants have become prized possessions. Their price has been bid up as the cost of power produced by natural gas has zoomed.
Despite the momentum, the Achilles' Heel of nuclear power remains where to store the radioactive wastes. The DOE is scheduled to issue a report on the proposed Yucca Mountain waste site in Nevada late this year. It is supposed to be based on scientific findings, not politics.
Mr. Moniz, now teaching physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says his reviews of the years-long research at Yucca indicate "no apparent show stoppers" for an effective depository for radioactive waste that could remain dangerous for thousands of years.
If the report is positive, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham will then make a recommendation to President Bush on whether the site is suitable. If Bush approves, Congress would be notified, and the NRC would start on the path to licensing.
Since public opinion and political leaders in Nevada are opposed to the Yucca repository, a Bush decision could have political consequences. On the other hand, politicians in more populous states with existing nuclear plants and waste-storage sites may push for Yucca. Radioactive waste, at the moment, is stored at plants on site. "I would think they [Nevada politicians] would get steamrolled on this," says David Lockbaum, an engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.
But without further clarity of the nuclear-waste issue, it is difficult to see a new plant being built and licensed, says Moniz. Indeed, there is some debate as to whether Yucca approval would prompt any utility to risk right away the $1 billion or more needed for a new plant, or wait some years further to watch developments.
The industry is, however, moving ahead with new technology. Late this year, Exelon Corp. of Chicago and its foreign partners will decide whether to build a prototype "pebble-bed" reactor that proponents say is incapable of a meltdown like that at Chernobyl.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor