Nuclear Energy Looking Better

The Greening of Nuclear Power

Published Saturday, May 13, 2006 (NYT)

Not so many years ago, nuclear energy was a hobgoblin to environmentalists, who feared the potential for catastrophic accidents and long-term radiation contamination. But this is a new era, dominated by fears of tight energy supplies and global warming. Suddenly nuclear power is looking better.

The nuclear industry recently trotted out two new leaders of its campaign to encourage the building of new reactors. They are Christie Whitman, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace. This campaign is the latest sign that nuclear power is getting a more welcome reception from some environmentalists who have moved on to bigger worries.

True, most environmental organizations remain adamantly opposed to any expansion of nuclear power and instead look to conservation and renewable energy to get us out of the fossil fuel age. But when the ecologist James Lovelock ? creator of the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that Earth and all its organisms behave as if they were a single living system ? urges his colleagues to drop their “wrongheaded opposition” to nuclear energy, it is clear that fissures are developing.

There is good reason to give nuclear power a fresh look. It can diversify our sources of energy with a fuel ? uranium ? that is both abundant and inexpensive. More important, nuclear energy can replace fossil-fuel power plants for generating electricity, reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute heavily to global warming. That could be important in large developing economies like China’s and India’s, which would otherwise rely heavily on burning large quantities of dirty coal and oil.

But nuclear power should not be given a free pass in our frantic quest for energy and environmental security. Making any real dent in carbon emissions could require building many hundreds or even thousands of new nuclear plants around the world in coming decades, a hugely ambitious undertaking fraught with challenges.

As nuclear expertise and technologies spread around the world, so does the risk that they might be used to make bombs. Unfortunately, the Bush administration erred badly when it signed a nuclear pact with India that would undercut the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. That misguided deal needs to be repudiated by the Senate. We can only hope that it does not undercut a more promising administration plan to keep the most dangerous fuel-making technologies out of circulation by supplying developing nations with uranium and taking the spent fuel rods back.

There remains the unsolved problem of what to do with the radioactive waste generated by nuclear plants. Many people are unwilling to see a resurgence in nuclear power without some assurance that the spent fuel can be handled safely. The Energy Department’s repeated setbacks in efforts to open an underground waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada do not inspire confidence, but there is no reason why the spent fuel rods can’t be stored safely at surface sites for the next 50 to 100 years.

More problematic is the administration’s long-term solution for waste disposal. It wants to recycle the spent fuel in a new generation of advanced reactors that would use technologies that don’t yet exist, following a timetable that many experts think unrealistic. Its current approach is apt to be costly and would leave dangerous plutonium more accessible to terrorists.

Nuclear power has a good safety record in this country, and its costs, despite the high initial expense of building the plants, are looking more reasonable now that fossil fuel prices are soaring. How much impact it could really have in slowing carbon emissions has yet to be spelled out, but there is no doubt that nuclear power could serve as a useful bridge to even greener sources of energy.

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