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
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
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
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
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