America warms up to nuclear power

The cure for the United States' "addiction" to oil is more nuclear power. That's becoming a more popular view. Even a few environmental groups see nuclear power as a necessity to maintain America's lifestyle.

A public opinion survey late last year sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Paris found that, in America, 40 percent of the people see nuclear power as safe and support new plants; 29 percent say existing plants are OK, but oppose building new ones; and 20 percent say the plants are dangerous and want all of them closed.

Curiously, the survey of 18 nations, rich and poor, found that nuclear power is seen more favorably in the US than it is in any other country surveyed except South Korea. Yet US utilities have not ordered a new atomic plant since 1978.

Even in France, highly dependent on nuclear power, only 25 percent support more plants, and 50 percent say enough is enough - don't build more.

Regardless of opinion, nuclear power is reviving around the world. Eight new nuclear plants came on line last year. One in Ontario, Canada, was restarted after a long shutdown. Globally, 443 "nukes" are in operation today.

Last week, President Bush proposed an "Advanced Energy Initiative" that involves investing more "in zero- emission coal-fired plants; revolutionary solar and wind technologies; and clean, safe nuclear energy."

To Patrick Moore, who cofounded Greenpeace, nuclear power is the only realistic solution to future power needs.

"You can't solve this problem with windmills and photo panels alone," says the chairman of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd., a Vancouver, B.C., environmental consulting firm. These two power sources tend to be expensive. More important, they are "intermittent." They work only when the wind blows or the sun shines. Economies need "baseload" power that operates all the time.

Coal can provide an around-the-clock power stream. But the 1,300 coal-fired plants in the US already belch out 10 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. Do we want more climate-changing gas?

With encouragement and subsidies from the Bush administration and Congress, US utilities are further along with new nuclear plants than most Americans probably realize. Frank Bowman, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C., recently noted that nine companies, consortiums, or joint ventures have firm plans for at least 12, and perhaps as many as 20, new plants.

The first application for a combined construction and operating license - a new procedure the industry hopes will avoid delays - should be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next year and win approval by 2010 or so, Mr. Bowman reckons. Assuming construction takes four years, the plant could come on line by 2014.

By 2025, 30,000 megawatts of new nuclear capacity will be operating in the US, with more plants on the way, Bowman guesses. That might displace 30 to 50 coal plants.

Other nations are seeing a need for additional nuclear power. Last November, British Prime Minister Tony Blair talked of taking a "serious look" at new nuclear reactors. Ontario recently decided to restart two mothballed units at the Bruce nuclear power facility - in addition to the Pickering plant put back into operation last year. Pakistan wants to buy six to eight 600-megawatt nuclear-power reactors from China in the next decade. Germany had planned to shutter all its nuclear power sites by 2020. But the recent fuss over Russian natural gas supplies to Ukraine makes that less likely. China plans to add 27 new plants to its existing nine by 2020. And so on.

Is this risky? Yes, but all power sources have problems. Coal mining is dangerous. Dams can clobber the environment. Natural gas is explosive. Oil is costly. All fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases. Windmills are noisy and can kill birds.

To Dr. Moore, the dangers associated with nuclear power are exaggerated.

Fewer than 60 people have been killed by nuclear power accidents worldwide, none in the US. An international team of 100-plus scientists, reviewing the worst nuclear power-plant accident (Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986), estimated last September that up to 4,000 people may eventually die from radiation exposure. That compares with earlier predictions of 300,000.

Terrorists might succeed in crashing an airplane into a nuclear plant. But a modern containment structure is unlikely to be penetrated. It consists of six feet of reinforced concrete, with one-inch steel plates on both sides. Even if such a suicide mission succeeded in penetrating the dome, the plant would not explode. Radiation might be spread, but most of it would weaken rapidly and is less dangerous than many think, says Moore.

More at risk in an aircraft attack is a liquefied natural-gas plant. It could create "one massive fireball," he warns.

Moore supports energy conservation, energy efficiency, and alternative energy sources. But to him, the "mathematics" indicate that nuclear power is essential to the future provision of adequate electricity.

Nuclear proliferation is a separate issue. It requires "real" attention, he says.

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