New battle looms on nuclear power

Bush energy goals put foes on defensive

May 23, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl heightened fears about the hazards of nuclear power and halted the building of new plants, the industry seemed to fade from attention in the United States.

But now, for the first time in a quarter-century, the nuclear industry's outlook has brightened and its critics say they fear a resurgence. That is because nuclear energy suddenly has two major supporters - President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney - who say they are determined to make the industry a partner in confronting America's energy problems.

Renewing a commitment to nuclear power as a way to meet rising U.S. demand for electricity is a centerpiece of the energy policy that Cheney helped craft and that Bush unveiled last week.

The enthusiastic backing of the Bush administration for nuclear power has upset environmental groups, which have long called for the phase-out of nuclear energy in the United States and are now being forced into a defensive posture.

They warn that generating electricity in fission reactors remains highly dangerous and that the disposal of radioactive waste is hazardous to the environment.

The push for a nuclear revival could spark one of the critical battles over the Bush energy plan.

But for those in the industry, who insist that nuclear power is safe, clean and affordable, there may be much to celebrate.

Cheney dropped in yesterday on a conference of nuclear industry lobbyists to review the Bush administration's recommendations. He was greeted with cheers like a conquering hero.

"American electricity is already being provided through the nuclear industry - efficiently, safely, with no discharge of greenhouse gases or emissions," the vice president said. "And we want, as a matter of national policy, to encourage continued advancements in this industry."

Cheney noted that the nuclear industry provides electricity to one in five homes in America. With demand for energy rising, he added, the nation needs such a reliable energy producer to help churn out more electricity.

The Bush energy policy calls on the federal government to speed up the relicensing process for nuclear reactors and to consider approving the construction of new reactors in the United States for the first time since 1978, a year before the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa.

The Bush administration has thrown its support behind creating a single repository for nuclear waste - a move backed by the industry. But the idea is opposed by many lawmakers, especially those in Nevada, where Yucca Mountain is under consideration as the nation's first underground nuclear waste dump.

The White House policy also calls for re-examining a method of reprocessing nuclear waste for use as fuel, which cuts down on the waste generated but produces weapons-grade plutonium.

Critics oppose the process out of concern that the relatively small amount of plutonium needed to make a bomb could wind up in the hands of terrorists or a rogue nation that wants to amass nuclear weapons.

The Bush energy plan urges Congress to extend the Price-Anderson Act, which shields nuclear plant owners from unlimited liability in the event of a catastrophic accident. The measure is scheduled to expire next year.

Joe Colvin, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying arm, called Cheney's brief remarks yesterday "an exhilarating rallying point."

"We applaud the leadership that President Bush and Vice President Cheney are providing in recognizing that nuclear power is an indispensable component of our energy mix," Colvin said.

The nuclear power industry gave more than $13.8 million to federal candidates and committees in the 2000 election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. More than two-thirds of that money went to Republicans. Individuals and organizations associated with the nuclear industry contributed more than $290,000 to Bush's presidential campaign, the center said.

Opponents argue that Bush and Cheney are portraying the industry as safer than it is. While steps have been taken to prevent accidents and dispose of nuclear waste less hazardously, they note that even minor accidents or low exposures to waste can be deadly.

The Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986 rendered the surrounding area uninhabitable.

But critics are facing a public that seems to be growing less fearful of nuclear power - leaving an opportunity for the White House to back the industry and making it harder for opponents to generate momentum.

For months, Republican pollsters have said that the Bush administration would be safe in proceeding with its plans to back nuclear power.

In a recent Gallup poll, 49 percent of those surveyed said "nuclear power is necessary to help solve the country's current energy problems" while 46 percent said "the dangers of nuclear power are too great."

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