THE FUTURE of energy use in this country seems increasingly a matter of choosing between inadequate options. Oil is scarce and expensive and dirties the air. Coal is more plentiful and cheaper but just as dirty, and is extracted in ways that mutilate the landscape. Natural gas: cleaner, but also scarce and expensive. Renewables such as wind, solar power, biomass and plant-based fuels each has limitations and can't be a sole energy source.
Against such competition, nuclear power is emerging from its quarter-century in limbo since the 1979 radiation leak at Three Mile Island scared everybody silly. Reliable, affordable, emission-free and safe if properly managed, nuclear energy is being promoted by President Bush as an alternative too attractive to ignore.
Before construction of nuclear reactors can resume, however, the nation must resolve the seemingly intractable dilemma over how to dispose of nuclear waste.
Nuclear energy is more than a future option, of course; it is an entrenched reality. The Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland already supplies a half-million local customers with electricity.
Constellation Energy, which owns Calvert Cliffs and two nuclear plants in New York, draws half of the electricity it sells from nuclear energy - though nuclear power supplies only about 20 percent of the electricity used nationwide. Constellation is also part of a consortium seeking a license to build the first new nuclear plant in decades.
But, as Sun staff writer Lorraine Mirabella reported last year, cooling beneath the surface of a giant pool at Calvert Cliffs sits a formidable obstacle: hundreds of bundles of radioactive spent fuel rods, intended, like thousands of others at nuclear facilities around the country, to be buried where they can remain untouched for 10,000 years. But where? Temporary dry storage is available at some sites, including Calvert Cliffs, but not beyond 2024.
The federal government thought it had the storage problem solved with the choice of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a long-term site - despite vigorous resistance from Nevadans who were outvoted in Congress because no other state wanted it, either.
Resistance continues, though. The project is now seven years overdue and threatened anew by revelations that falsified data were used to support assurances that the waste posed no threat to local groundwater.
Nuclear contamination may not be a greater threat than the global warming to which fossil-fuel emissions contribute. But the dispute over permanent storage - at Yucca or elsewhere - as well as more immediate concerns about transportation and temporary storage at sites such as Calvert Cliffs must be resolved before the "renaissance of nuclear power" sought by President Bush and the industry can begin.