Can nuclear power rebrand itself as environment-friendly?

The nuclear industry is lining up heavy hitters from past administrations to convince Congress and the public that nuclear power represents a solution to climate change. But safety fears post-Fukushima, along with concerns about high building costs and the lack of permanent storage for spent fuel rods, remain big hurdles.   

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman (seen here testifying on Capitol Hill in 2007) is pushing nuclear power as a solution to climate change.

[Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman as a member of Nuclear Matters. Ms. Whitman is co-chair of CASEnergy Coalition, not Nuclear Matters.]

Americans have seen enough disasters – from Three Mile Island to Fukushima – to be skeptical about nuclear energy. Nevertheless, some heavy-hitters from the political world are stepping up to the plate to endorse the technology.

The formation of a group of high-profile advocates from past Democratic and Republican administrations – plus President Obama’s mandate to cut heat-trapping pollutants – offers the nuclear industry an uncommon chance to re-emerge as one of this country’s premier fuels used for electric generation. The push here is to rebrand itself as a climate-friendly energy source that should be green-lighted for a major expansion in the United States.

The logic goes something like this: By 2050, world population will grow 40 percent from today's levels and demand more energy per person than today (where an estimated 1.3 billion people are without any electricity). Demand for power will double or even triple.

Nuclear power can fill much of that gap. Although facilities are extremely costly to build, nuclear plants produce power 24-hours a day, with far less down time than advanced coal or combined-cycle natural gas generators, and feed off an abundant fuel source: uranium.

“When you put nuclear energy into the mix, it emits no greenhouse gases,” says former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President George W. Bush. As a believer in the dangers of man-made climate change and a supporter of Mr. Obama’s executive order that mandates 30 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2030, she touts the billions of dollars that can be saved in climate- and health-related benefits.

“Last year, we spent $100 billion or more responding to and recovering from natural disasters, which is what scientists are telling us we can expect from climate change,” Ms. Whitman, who now co-chairs CASEnergy Coalition, a nuclear advocacy group, says in an interview. There are also economic benefits to nuclear technology, she adds: potentially a $740 billion nuclear energy market in the US.

Nuclear Matters, an industry funded group chaired by former Sens. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana and Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, is taking its pro-nuclear message to Congress and to the American people. Others in the group include President Clinton's EPA Administrator Carol Browner and President Bush’s Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

“The combination of the larger supply of natural gas generation coupled with the retention and growth of the nuclear sector means that the challenges in the climate change debate can be more easily addressed,” says Mr. Abraham in an interview. “I would like to believe that, regardless of which side you are on [in that debate], having a strong nuclear sector is integral to the economic well-being of the country.”

The notion of nuclear power as a climate solution remains anathema to many inside and outside the environmental movement. The arguments against using it are manifold, including not just the most recent nuclear disaster in Japan but also the challenge that there is no permanent resting spot for spent uranium fuel. Beyond the safety issues, critics point to the high cost of construction, which run well into the billions for a single reactor.

These are key reasons Nuclear Matters recruited Ms. Browner, once an ardent opponent of nuclear energy, who has joined other environmentalists operating independently, such as James Hanson at the Columbia University Earth Institute, to support nuclear power. Those eco-activists have found common ground with moderate Republicans who believe that climate change must be addressed to avoid its worst possible effects, such as rising tides and melting snow caps.

“Frankly, if you are concerned about the safety issues, then why not endorse the newer nuclear plants that are built with added safeguards,” Abraham adds. “Moreover, the existing plants have been consistently upgraded to meet the newest challenges and safety threats.”

More than 430 commercial nuclear power reactors are operating in 31 countries, according to the World Nuclear Organization. Seventy more are under construction, notably in China, South Korea, the United Arab Eremites, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom. China accounts for 40 percent of all new construction. In the United States, four reactors at two plants are under construction while the US Department of Energy has been increasing funding for advanced nuclear research and development.

Nuclear Matters is backed by several energy companies, including Dominion Resources, Exelon Corp., PG&E Corp., Southern Company, France's Areva, and Westinghouse (owned by Japan's Toshiba).

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