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The Planet
Looking to Future, Nuclear Industry Tries to Bury Past

By John Byrne Barry

The magazine ad shows a helmeted young woman leaning on a scooter, grinning as she listens to her cell phone. The headline says "Clean Air is so 21st Century."

But the ad is selling a discredited 20th Century technology - nuclear power - which the Nuclear Energy Institute's ad dubs "the clean air energy."

With President Bush pushing for $1.5 billion in tax incentives to facilitate building of nuclear power plants, the nuclear industry is poised for a comeback. And many Americans, concerned about global warming, fossil-fuel pollution and energy shortages, seem to be receptive. A Field Poll released on May 23 showed 59 percent of Californians support expanding nuclear power. A June 5 ABC/Washington Post national poll found that 46 percent of adults surveyed support federal action to build more nuclear plants.

Could nukes make a comeback?

"Not if we do our job," said Debbie Boger, the Sierra Club's new global warming and energy staffer in the Washington, D.C., office. "Nuclear power has been under the radar of late. The more people learn about it, the less likely they will be to support it."

Nuclear energy's most insurmountable problem, said Boger, is its radioactive waste. It's one of the most dangerous materials ever created by humans - it kills at high doses and can cause cancer and birth defects at low doses - and can remain dangerous for up to 200,000 years. Every nuclear reactor generates about 20 tons of waste a year and even after more than 40 years of trying, researchers have failed to find a safe way to store it.

Nuclear proponents are pushing to bury the waste in Yucca Mountain, Nev., but the mountain is suspected of being seismically active. Transporting the waste from the more than 100 civilian nuclear reactors to Nevada would introduce additional dangers to the communities en route.

The Club also opposes nuclear plants because of the potential for catastrophic accidents and the risk the nuclear material will be used to make bombs.

But Boger asserted that the main reason the public will refuse to embrace nuclear energy is its exorbitant cost. "It's the most expensive way ever devised to boil water," she said.

When introduced in the 1950s, nuclear power plants were touted as "too cheap to meter." That was wishful thinking.

No nuclear power plants have been built in the United States since 1973. Facilities in Oregon, New York, Maine, Illinois and Connecticut have been shut down before the end of their planned life because they were too expensive to continue operating.

"Nuclear power can only make a comeback with massive federal subsidies," said Boger. "Better that we invest those monies in wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable technologies, which can help us meet our energy needs and protect the environment."


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