Nuclear Power, Long Dormant, Undergoes a Nascent Revival ; Rising Electricity Rates and Concern about Global Warming Spur Second Look at Industry. but Waste-Disposal Problems Persist

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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 years.

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 Clinton.

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 development.

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 Bush.

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 home. …