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Hot idea: Fight warming with nuclear power

Nuclear power as a technology that protects the environment? President Bush is touting it as a way to produce energy without emitting carbon dioxide, a key global warming gas, and a few environmentalists are on board.
A man looks out toward the Qinshan Nucle
Neither Three Mile Island nor Chernobyl stopped China from building this nuclear power plant near Hangzhou in the 1980s. The country wants to build 27 more reactors by 2020. Some environmentalists say the plan makes sense because it would mean less reliance on coal and fewer emissions tied to global warming.Frederic J. Brown / AFP - Getty Images file
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When it comes to global warming, President Bush's refusal to endorse mandatory action means he is largely isolated on the world stage. But when the curtain rose at the Group of Eight summit on Wednesday, he was poised to tout a climate strategy shared by some peers, and more surprisingly, by a few environmentalists: nuclear power.

Nuclear power's downsides are well known: the potential for meltdowns, the question of how to safely store radioactive waste and the dangers of  plutonium reaching terrorists' hands.

But Bush, as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, host of the G8 summit, has been stressing a positive quality of nuclear power: the fact that it doesn't burn fossil fuel and therefore produces no carbon dioxide emissions, a key greenhouse gas that many scientists tie to global warming.

"It's time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again," the president said in a televised appearance in June at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland. Nuclear power still produces 20 percent of the total U.S. electricity, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that 100 new reactors would be needed over 20 years just to maintain that share.

"Nuclear power is one of America's safest sources of energy," Bush added, all "without producing a single pound of air pollution and greenhouse gases.

The president has made similar pitches in recent months, and the message appears to be getting some traction.

"The growing pressure to confront global warming and reduce greenhouse gas emissions has breathed new life into zero-emissions nuclear power like nothing else," says Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, which commissions an annual survey on Americans' energy attitudes.

Now, even some environmentalists are breaking the ranks that formed after the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. They say that the warming threat is so serious and so widespread that nuclear power should be reconsidered.

A few venture even further, saying it's time to ramp up nuclear power.

Ex-hippie fuels debate
Stewart Brand, a one-time hippie and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, stirred the pot with his "Environmental Heresies" essay in the May issue of Technology Review magazine.

"The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power," he wrote.

Energy conservation and renewable energy are "still key" strategies, Brand told "The only issue is that it's not really enough."

Mainstream environmentalists "treat nuclear as if it is a trade-off against conservation" — use less energy and nuclear won't be needed, he said.

"But it's really a trade-off against burning coal," Brand said. By ramping up nuclear, he said, nations can phase out coal, which is the dirtiest fossil fuel and causes hundreds of premature deaths each year in the United States alone.

China, which relies on coal, understands that, Brand said, and plans to build 27 nuclear reactors by 2020.

"You do move ahead with what you've got and not wait. The time to reduce CO2 loading was 10 years ago," he said.

Brand's position was partly inspired by other environmentalists who earlier went public in support of nuclear energy. They include Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore; James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, which views Earth as a self-regulating organism; and Hugh Montefiore, a former Anglican bishop in Britain who was asked to resign his longtime board seat at Friends of the Earth when he published his position last October.

Moore, who left Greenpeace over strategy differences a decade ago, told the House Energy and Resources Subcommittee last April that nuclear power's "benefits far outweigh the risks."

"If the U.S. is to meet its ever-increasing demands for energy while reducing the threat of climate change and reliance on overseas oil, then the American nuclear industry must be revitalized and permitted to grow," he said.

The 'maybe some day' camp
Still other environmentalists, while not embracing nuclear power, are saying it could some day be a viable option — if safety issues can be resolved and steps are taken to ensure that plutonium produced as a byproduct from the process doesn't end up in the hands of terrorists.

"The problem of global warming is so serious that we must thoroughly consider every low-carbon option for producing power," the group Environmental Defense says on its Web site.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has a similar position. "These problems" — safeguarding plutonium, reactor safety and nuclear waste disposal — "need to be solved before expanding our commitment to nuclear power," Thomas Cochran, head of the group's nuclear program, told Western governors last year.

And Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, has gone on the record saying:  "I don't believe we should a priori exclude any viable alternative" for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, "including safe nuclear power, provided we address issues of waste disposal and security."

New reactors safer
Jim MacKenzie, a climate researcher at the institute and a physicist by training, says that a new design known as the pebble-bed reactor is "substantially safer" than existing reactors and "basically meltdown proof."

But he also sees significant obstacles, starting with what he calls a "culture" at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that favors the existing reactor designs. And he feels the industry is more focused on getting U.S. government subsidies than on addressing the nuclear waste and proliferation concerns.

MacKenzie favors fostering a mix of greater efficiency and clean energy resources, not building dozens of nuclear plants.

The 'no way' activists
Still other environmentalists refuse to entertain the nuclear notion at all, and took a public stand in June as the Senate debated bipartisan legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions in part by providing incentives for nuclear and other low-carbon energy sources.

“While we are committed to tackling the challenge of global warming, we flatly reject the argument that increased investment in nuclear capacity is an acceptable or necessary solution," the coalition led by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and U.S. PIRG said in a statement. "Instead we can significantly reduce global warming pollution and save consumers money by increasing energy efficiency and shifting to clean renewable sources of energy.”

That legislation, championed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., died for other reasons but it reflected a move by some opposition Democrats to push the nuclear ball forward.

Joining Lieberman, for example, were New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the senior Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee, and Delaware Sen. Tom Carper.

David Hamilton, the Sierra Club's global warming director, said he suspected nuclear advocates were testing whether some environmental groups would accept the financial incentives "as some kind of price to pay for moving global warming legislation forward."

That didn't happen, with even the maybe-some-day camp saying subsidies don't make sense.

Lash, the World Resources Institute president who left the nuclear option on the table, emphasized that "subsidizing a mature technology like nuclear power makes about as much sense as subsidizing Mr. Trump to build another tower."

Opinion polls and smart money
Where do Americans stand on all this?

A Gallup survey in March 2005 found 54 percent were strongly or somewhat in favor of nuclear power. That's up from 48 percent in 2001 and down from 57 percent in 1994.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll last June asked a slightly different question — whether to build more nuclear plants — and got a much lower approval rating: just 37 percent somewhat or strongly in favor.

The 2005 Gallup survey touched a nerve as well when the question became more personal. Asked how they'd feel about construction of a nuclear power plant in their area, only 35 percent were in favor.

That skittishness is also reflected among investors like billionaire Warren Buffett. His holding company already owns utilities, and he told the Wall Street Journal last month that he's keeping an "open mind" about investing in new nuclear power plants.

"The price of making a mistake (by not acting) is such that you should err on the side of the planet," he said. But he also made clear that it would take guidance from Washington for him to commit. "We're here to participate in the dialogue," he said, "but not to set policy."