Climate change hardly qualifies as good news for anyone. But for advocates of nuclear energy, these are practically glory days. As the urgency of combating global warming has risen, even environmentalists and politicians who may have once chained themselves to the reactor gates are taking another look at the industry that has languished in regulatory and PR hell since the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. The reason? Nuclear energy, which now generates 20 percent of the nation's electricity, does not produce greenhouse gases. "If you believe that climate change is the issue of our generation, then it's disingenuous to say that nuclear energy is off the table," says Bill Chameides, chief scientist for Environmental Defense, who admits his own position on the issue has evolved from "skeptical" to "agnostic."
He's not alone. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, includes generous subsidies and tax credits for nuclear and other non-fossil fuels. President George W. Bush has consistently called for a revival of nuclear plant construction as a way of boosting domestic energy production-and curbing greenhouse gases. Even Al Gore recently told a House committee, "I am not an absolutist in being opposed to nuclear."
Approval—or at least acceptance—also runs through the presidential field. Republican presidential hopefuls John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are both strong proponents of nuclear power. Democratic contender John Edwards said at a recent CNN/YouTube debate that he is opposed to nuclear energy because of concerns over cost and waste disposal, but his competitors have been noticeably less critical. At the same debate, Hillary Clinton also described herself as a nuclear energy "agnostic," while Barack Obama went further, with a call to "explore nuclear power as part of the energy mix." Obama and Clinton have joined McCain as co-sponsors of the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act of 2007, which includes an additional $3 billion in funding and loan guarantees for the construction of nuclear plants using next-generation designs that improve efficiency. A2006poll sponsored by the nuclear industry (and conducted by the same firm that works for Clinton) found that public approval for nuclear energy rose significantly when those surveyed were told that the plants emit zero greenhouse gases.
For the nuclear industry, all this means that the political climate has not been more favorable in years.To bolster its powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, the industry recently launched a new public relations offensive, hiring former Bush EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman and former Greenpeace co-founder Dr. Patrick Moore as spokespeople. Moore, who quit Greenpeace years ago after a dispute, has since rebuked his former allies in the green movement for spreading "misinformation and hysteria" about nuclear energy during the 1970s and 80s. "I was caught up in the anti-nuclear fervor of the time in which we failed to distinguish between peaceful and military uses of nuclear technology," Moore told Newsweek. "I'm sorry I did that." Moore , an ecologist, says all other non-fossil energy sources "pale in comparison" to nuclear, which he expects will eventually provide half of the nation's electricity. (Solar generated less than 0.01 percent last year.)
But for all the talk of a nuclear "renaissance", the United States lags far behind other countries, generating only 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, a proportion that has been stagnant for years. (Coal, the single largest source of U.S. electricity, provides about50 per cent.) In France, by contrast, nearly 80 percent of the country's electricity is nuclear-generated; in China that figure is 50 per cent. Japan and South Korea also generate significantly more nuclear power proportionately than the United States. In each of those countries, governments assume a huge role in financing nuclear plants, which are far more expensive than coal-based facilities.
There are still significant concerns about the cost and safety of nuclear power remain. In a recent sting operation by the Government Accountability Office, investigators easily obtained and altered a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowing a bogus company to acquire radioactive materials, underlining concerns that terrorists could assemble a "dirty bomb" by a similar ruse. The planned nuclear-waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is decades behind schedule and billions over budget, due to regulatory and legal battles that have stalled construction.. And in Japan public support for nuclear energy plunged last month when a reactor leaked low-level radioactive waste after a powerful earthquake. A report in The Wall Street Journal last week found that safety-related incidents at commercial nuclear plants around the world are insufficiently documented, or in some cases not reported at all to the International Atomic Energy Agency , because regulators are wary of making it appear as though their countries have poor safety records.But the cost of nuclear energy remains perhaps its biggest hurdle. Many environmentalists question the ability of the nuclear industry to compete against other carbon-free technologies such as hydro-, wind and solar without subsidies or loan guarantees by the federal government. Prohibitive costs, says Sierra Club president Carl Pope, make the revived nuclear energy debate "nothing but a distraction." It now costs $4 billion to $5 billion to build a nuclear plant; the last new U.S. plant, which went online in the Tennessee in 1996, cost $7 billion and took 22 years to build. "You don't want to rule out nuclear," says Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But you don't want to subsidize it at the expense of more attractive options."