Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the accident at Three Mile Island, which stunned America and effectively shut down the building of domestic nuclear power plants. But now that existing US plants have logged nearly three decades of safe, uneventful operation, nuclear power is ready to step onto center stage again.
Splitting atoms to make electricity makes two huge and nearly irreplaceable contributions to solving America's pressing energy and environmental needs.
First, nuclear can provide energy on a massive scale: The existing 104 plants now reliably supply about 20 percent of the nation's electricity.
While wind and solar show great promise, it's unclear how quickly they can scale up to become consistent energy sources on days either windy or calm, rainy or sunny.
Second, nuclear plants operate virtually free of greenhouse-gas emissions. That gives them an advantage over coal, which is a cheap, abundant, but problematic, domestic energy supply. Even "clean coal" plants are major sources of greenhouse gases, and the technology to bury their CO2 emissions underground is only in its early testing stages. No one knows how quickly or at what cost this kind of "carbon sequestration" can be developed.
That leaves nuclear as the leading candidate to do the heavy lifting to produce clean energy. Both presidential candidates recognize nuclear power's important role. Barack Obama agrees it must stay in the mix of energy sources. John McCain, a more aggressive proponent, calls for building 45 nuclear plants by 2030.
That won't be easy. US expertise in constructing state-of-the-art plants has been lost; the French and Japanese are now the master builders. Components will have to be manufactured overseas, at least at first.
Nuclear plants are also super-sized construction projects, taking years to build. Costs are hard to estimate. The price of the raw materials and labor has been rising quickly. Price tags might range from $7 billion to $11 billion per plant. Still, several utilities are exploring the possibility of building up to 18 new reactors. A tough but streamlined approval process from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) makes investing easier.
The long-term storage of nuclear waste remains a problem. The proposed burial site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has met strong opposition, including concerns over how to safely transport nuclear waste there. Ironically, the need is greatest in the East, which relies heavily on coal and oil to make electricity. The Western US has a greater abundance of clean hydroelectric power.
In the long run, the eastern US may need its own Yucca Mountain. But in the interim, nuclear waste is being safely stored on site at the plants themselves and can continue to be stored in this fashion for many years to come.
Nuclear plants are also a potential terrorist target, which means they always will need proper security. And their admirable safety record, in part due to the operators' willingness to cooperate closely with the NRC, must continue.
Efforts to reduce energy consumption through conservation and to develop wind, solar, and other clean domestic energy sources must be ramped up. But nuclear plants will need to play a major role.