Towers of Potential


The nuclear question is back. And this time the environmental front is divided -- a victim of its own success in sounding alarms about global warming.

Save the polar bear? Go nuclear.

That's one way to beat climate change, or so says the Nuclear Energy Institute. When the industry group posted on its Web site poll results reflecting shifting opinions about nuclear power, it tossed in a picture of a polar bear traipsing across the tundra.

But industry opponents see a more threatening beast in their midst, like a hungry grizzly emerging from the woods after decades of hibernation.

The nuclear question is back. And this time the environmental front is divided -- a victim of its own success in sounding alarms about global warming.

Even in Pennsylvania, home to the Three Mile Island fright of 1979, Democrats have recently signaled a willingness to consider nuclear power as an alternative to carbon-coughing electric plants fueled by coal.

Few voters even pressed them on it.

"A whole generation has grown up here knowing nothing about Three Mile Island," said Judith Johnsrud, an adviser to the Pennsylvania Sierra Club. The plant's partial meltdown put proposals for new U.S. nuclear reactors on ice for a quarter-century...

But the nuclear industry, which produces most of France's electricity, faces many unresolved obstacles to its growth in the United States.

Wary insurers and enormous construction costs -- about $8 billion per reactor -- demand federal aid and loan guarantees.

Plans to store waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain Repository remain in legal and political limbo. The Energy Department was slated to begin accepting spent fuel there a decade ago.

Still, eight power companies have applied for federal licenses for new reactors. About two dozen sites have been pitched for new nuclear facilities. Currently, 104 reactors provide about 20% of the nation's electricity.

"What's held us up in the past," said Derrick Freeman, who directs legislative efforts for the Nuclear Energy Institute, "is that America took on a sour mood about nuclear power after Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl disaster" in the Soviet Union in 1986. The Chernobyl blast directly caused at least 50 deaths, and some areas around the plant remain off-limits.

"That has changed," Freeman said.

A few years ago, the group Environmental Defense reconsidered its opposition to nuclear energy and now considers it a "low-carbon option."..

Although the public remains split, surveys show opposition to nuclear energy is slowly shrinking as concerns about climate change and energy dependency mount.

Some polls show that support for nuclear power rises or falls with oil prices. That puzzles experts, who note, with rare exception, the two energy sources serve different functions. Nuclear fission makes electricity, powering lamps and TVs. Oil is refined into gasoline and for making petroleum-based products.

"You ask people where energy comes from, and it's the proverbial switch on the wall," said Ann Bisconti, who conducts surveys for the nuclear industry. "The public isn't analyzing these issues in great detail."

...As the industry tries to capitalize on fears of global warming (its lobbyists say the nation has avoided 8 billion metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions, thanks to nuclear plants), some antinuke groups are shifting their case away from the environment and toward economics...

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