Suddenly, a light shines on nuclear power

The mood in the nuclear power industry has dramatically brightened. Both in the United States and abroad, industry officials, dare we say it, radiate optimism.

At atomic power plants, the protesters are gone. In American universities, most courses in engineering dealing with nuclear power are overbooked. Students are being told they have a lifetime career ahead of them in the industry. Workshops for young professionals who believe in nuclear science and technology have every seat filled.

"Time of Opportunity" was the theme at this week's Nuclear Energy Assembly in Washington. Some 400 industry officials from the US, Europe, and Japan expected to hear US Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman assure them of the Bush administration's support for a new generation of nuclear power plants.

"Everyone is excited," says Penny Phelps, spokeswoman in the US for AREVA, a French state-owned nuclear-power firm.

Even Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, is jumping on the bandwagon. In past years he has talked of nuclear power worldwide being on "a plateau." But in February, at a meeting of his board of governors, he spoke of "rising expectations."

Several factors cheer the industry:

• Apprehension of global warming has grown. Rising world temperatures, blamed partly on greater use of coal and natural gas for power generation, makes atomic power more attractive. A nuclear power plant does not generate such greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.

• Demand for nuclear power plants is picking up in some nations. Worldwide there are 440 operating nuclear power plants churning out a massive 363,000 megawatts. About 27 are under construction, mostly in former communist countries, but also in Iran and Japan. Asia is the biggest market.

In South Korea, two new plants are under construction, and contracts for two more are being negotiated. They will be added to the 20 in operation today. China talks about needing 25 to 30 new plants by 2020 for its booming economy, costing perhaps $2 billion apiece. Negotiations for the first four are under way. China is expected to make a choice between three bidders late this year.

India plans to multiply its nuclear power capacity tenfold by 2022, and 100-fold by 2052. Japan, with 54 nuclear power plants in operation, has three more under construction.

In the US, industry consortiums plan to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a combined construction and operating license by 2008 and to get a new plant up and operating by 2014. It has been 32 years since a nuclear power plant was ordered in the US. With rising productivity, the existing 103 plants provide 21 percent of the nation's electricity.

• The next generation of nuclear power plants is designed to be safer. Furthermore, the US industry still expects to see approved the Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste in Nevada. The current practice of storing the highly radioactive fuel rods at power plants is a challenge, because the rods must be replaced every 18 months or so.

"We are confident it will go through, though, with some bumps along the way," says Adrian Heymer, head of new-plant development at the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington. Industry officials see the delay in opening Yucca as a political matter, not a scientific issue.

• The opposition of some environmentalists to nuclear power plants has weakened. To a considerable extent this is because any means for generating electricity involves problems and risks.

It is a question of picking your poison, some former critics of nuclear power now figure. Coal and natural gas produce air pollution. Wind towers are often regarded as unsightly, noisy, and dangerous to birds. And they work only when the wind is blowing. Hydroelectric power can clobber fish and destroy landscape - and not much water power is left to be developed in areas where the demand is growing rapidly. Solar power is limited by the space it needs - and because it requires sunshine.

The benefits of nuclear power "far outweigh the risks," Patrick Moore, the founder of Greenpeace, recently told a congressional subcommittee on energy.

In European nations, the position of nuclear power varies enormously. Germany shut down a 37-year-old plant this month. The current government, depending on a small Green party to stay in power, has a policy of phasing out the remaining 17 plants.

Sweden voted in 1982 to phase out atomic power. One of its 12 plants was recently closed. An assumption that power based on "renewables" would replace the lost power is proving shaky. Swedish public opinion now strongly favors "nukes." France has decided to replace its aging 59 nuclear plants with new nuclear plants. In post-election Britain, there's speculation the Labour government may switch to a pro-nuclear policy. Four tiny 50-megawatt plants, among 27, have just been shuttered.

Despite political and environmental storms over nuclear power, it provides 16 percent of the world's electricity, almost the same as it did in 1986. Since 1970, the output of nuclear power has grown on average 9.2 percent a year.

"The market is going gangbusters," says Vaughn Gilbert, a Westinghouse Electric Corp. spokesman. Of 103 US plants, 62 are of Westinghouse design, and many more elsewhere in the world.

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