"There is now a realistic assessment that nuclear energy is part of the environmental solution," says Andrew Kadak, an MIT professor and a former head of a Massachusetts nuclear plant. Kadak recently was featured on a National Public Radio broadcast on the issue. "If you look at a country like France, which has significant nuclear energy production, you see that they are one of the few nations that has met or exceeded the carbon dioxide target levels set by the Kyoto Accords."
Nuclear foes, on the other hand, are quick to debunk this characterization. "It's simply fiscally foolish to be pushing nuclear energy before we figure out how to solve the waste problem," says Jay Coghlan, director of the Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. "We're talking about waste that is radioactive for 100,000 years and there are no plans on how to safely dispose of that material."
New Mexico, although not a site for nuclear power plants, is considered a critical component of the new nuclear renaissance. The state houses both Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, as well as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for nuclear waste. A uranium enrichment plant recently was given federal approval for southeastern New Mexico.
"The recent license approval is another sign that the industry is continuing to move forward in its effort to expand the availability of clean, safe and affordable energy in this country," says Trish Conrad, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). Positioning nuclear energy as a clean and affordable resource is a stark change from the power source's reputation over the last several decades.
A Scary History & r & An accident at the Three Mile Island power plant near Middletown, Penn., in 1979 spawned a movement of environmentalists, legislators and everyday citizens who believed nuclear power was simply too dangerous to be meddled with. The infamous meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine in 1986, which caused considerable environmental and human casualties, confirmed the anti-nuke movement's worst fears. Even pop culture took its shots at the nuclear industry. The fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on The Simpsons depicts a factory where safety standards are comically non-existent.
"There was a time when no CEO would be caught dead saying the 'N' word in a boardroom," Kadak says. "Not only were there concerns about the costs but also the environmental issues."
But electricity shortages and the rising price of electricity throughout the country are forcing utilities to consider nuclear energy as an economically competitive alternative, he adds. Americans currently get 20 percent of their energy from nuclear power. That number is likely to jump, considering there are currently 10 companies or consortiums preparing 12 licenses for what could be up to 22 new nuclear plants, according to the NEI. The United States already has 103 nuclear plants in operation. And the environmental concerns about nuclear power in the '70s have made way for current concerns regarding carbon dioxide. According to NEI numbers, nuclear energy accounted for 73 percent of U.S. emission-free generation in 2005.
As to the issue of safety, nuclear energy proponents contend that the days of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are long gone.
"We have a proven record of safety," says Conrad matter-of-factly, citing a 2005 study that found that 83 percent of Americans living in close proximity to nuclear power plants favor nuclear energy. Even environmentalists like Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore have joined the bandwagon. In a stunning April 16 opinion piece in the Washington Post, Moore wrote that his newfound support for nuclear energy was inspired by the dangerously high carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired electric plants. Moore categorizes concerns about the cost and safety of nuclear plants as, quite simply, "myths."
"Thirty years on, my views have changed," he writes. "And the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change."
What About the Waste? & r & Clearly, though, not everyone is a believer. Mark Sardella, executive director of Local Energy, a group that works on reducing energy costs for communities, calls the nuclear industry's campaign "entirely propaganda." Sardella says that nuclear plants are not cost-effective, in part because they require exorbitant insurance policies to protect against disasters. Sardella also points to the much-publicized near meltdown of the Davis-Besse power plant in Ohio in 2002 as evidence that historically lax safety standards are still a reality.
"Our nuclear fleet is 24 years old and needs to be retired," Sardella says. "Everyone is looking for some way to continue the massive consumption our economic structure allows, and nuclear energy is a bad answer."
Further, Sardella and others say, unanswered questions remain regarding the disposal of nuclear waste. Nuclear Watch's Coghlan also points to a 2006 report conducted for the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research that cites the high cost of constructing nuclear plants and the possibility of inadvertently proliferating nuclear weapons as two more reasons why nuclear energy is wrong.
"It is time for the global community to move on from a belief in the nuclear option and to begin focusing its efforts on developing more rapid, more robust and more sustainable options," writes Brice Smith, the study's author.
With pressure to find new energy and do it quickly, politicians also have been sucked into the nuclear debate, as shown in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) licensing of the Louisiana Energy Services' (LES) uranium enrichment facility last month. It was the NRC's first licensing of a large, commercial nuclear facility in 30 years.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former Department of Energy secretary, is weighing in on nuclear energy, too.
"The governor is very aware of the debate that is going on at the national level right now over the future of nuclear energy," Richardson spokesman Jon Goldstein wrote via e-mail. "Nuclear energy has the benefit of not directly producing greenhouse gases, but it should be judged on its total costs and security issues as well."
Goldstein also notes that Richardson is more interested in other types of alternative energy: "Nuclear energy accounts for more than 20 percent of our power nationally, so it can't be ignored, but these waste and cost issues must be addressed before any big moves are made. The governor is much more focused on renewable energy right now -- solar, wind and biomass -- than he is on nuclear power."
Still, with the clamor for a widespread shift in U.S. energy policy getting louder every day, it's clear that the nuclear option is being taken more seriously throughout the country. And even with all the new arguments for nuclear power, the idea that a vast network of power plants could soon fuel our everyday lives makes Jay Coghlan cringe: "Can our safety be personally guaranteed? What's going to happen with nuclear waste? What about the tremendous amount of energy it takes to enrich uranium?" he wonders. "I'm very, very concerned that the public is not being presented with all the facts."