A Nuclear Power Play

Dick Cheney isn't the kind of politician you'd expect to see on "Hardball," the loud and rude cable-TV talk show. Host Chris Matthews likes to yell at his guests and make them squirm. Solemn Cheney doesn't go in for that sort of thing. But when Matthews went on vacation last Wednesday, the vice president surprisingly agreed to appear. Filling in was Cheney's longtime buddy Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming senator. "We're really going to call this 'Softball,' old pal," Simpson reassured him.

Cheney came prepared for more than just an amiable chat. The friendly forum was an ideal place for the vice president to launch a political trial balloon on a controversial topic: nuclear power. Appointed by the president to find fixes for the country's energy problems, Cheney has echoed Bush's familiar calls for oil and coal exploration and natural-gas pipelines. But when Simpson asked him what the White House planned to do about rising carbon dioxide levels, Cheney had an unexpected answer ready. "If you want to do something about carbon dioxide emissions, then you ought to build nuclear power plants, because they don't emit any," he said. Armed with statistics, the vice president made a short, pointed case for nukes, suggesting it was time to "go back and let's take another look."

Considered politically dead for decades, nuclear power is finding new life in George W. Bush's White House. Cheney's cabinet-level Energy Policy Development Group, which is expected to deliver its findings to the president next month, is seriously studying how to revive the flagging industry. It's been 25 years since the last nuclear power plant was built in the United States. Today just 20 percent of the nation's energy comes from nuclear power, and that number will decrease as aging facilities are shut down. It could be a tough sell to the public. For many Americans, the words nuclear power still evoke ominous, decades-old images from "The China Syndrome" and the Three Mile Island disaster. But for the White House, faced with rising natural-gas prices and environmental concerns over fossil fuels like coal and oil, nukes could be tempting solution toa real problem. "Nuclear has to be part of the equation," says one Bush insider.

Until recently nuclear power wasn't a high priority for Cheney. He and Bush barely mentioned it during the campaign, focusing instead on drilling for oil. Inside Cheney's task force, it was just one of many ideas floating around, and the vice president didn't think it had much support. But he changed his mind last month, when he met privately with about 100 members of Congress. One of them asked why the administration wasn't doing much to promote nuclear energy. Cheney threw the question back to the group. How many of them thought the country needed more nuclear power plants? Three quarters of the hands went up. "He really was surprised at the response," says a task-force member. "He realized that nuclear power wouldn't be viewed as a nutty thing."

As it turns out, Cheney's energy task force has built-in ties to the nuclear industry. A key member of the task force, Energy Department official Joe Kelliher, was a longtime nuclear-power lobbyist. Another connection: Roy Coffee, who worked as Governor Bush's lobbyist in Washington, was recently hired by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying group. Nuclear executives have enjoyed extraordinary access to the energy task force, meeting repeatedly with top Bush officials, including economic adviser Larry Lindsey and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham--who mentioned nukes in a major "energy crisis" speech last week. At the meetings, the executives laid out their case for a nuclear revival.

Nuclear power is still just one of many ideas bouncing around the task force. Officials have also worked closely with coal, gas and oil lobbyists, and Cheney is heavily focused on easing restrictions on the so-called extraction industries. Administration insiders say the vice president will likely push to open Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling, find cleaner ways of burning coal and speed the construction of oil and natural-gas pipelines to keep up with growing demand.

Environmental groups, feeling shut out of the task force's deliberations, grumble that Cheney is glossing over significant problems--how, for instance, will we dispose of radioactive waste from new nuclear power plants? Leaders of the Green Group, a coalition of 30 environmental organizations, have asked repeatedly for meetings with top officials. The response was chilly. "Abraham said he was too busy to meet with us for a long time," says Elizabeth Thompson of Environmental Defense. Industry is warming up nicely to the Bush White House. But to the enviro movement, it's looking more like nuclear winter.