In the Global Energy Rush, Nuclear Gets A Resurgence

A supervisor inspects one of two nuclear power plants under construction in Bulgaria, this one near Belene. The country has four operational nuclear plants.
A supervisor inspects one of two nuclear power plants under construction in Bulgaria, this one near Belene. The country has four operational nuclear plants. (By Petar Petrov -- Associated Press)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 6, 2007

Sixty miles outside Buenos Aires, construction crews soon will be swarming over a partially built concrete dome abandoned 12 years ago, resuming work on Argentina's long-delayed Atucha II nuclear power plant. They will be in the vanguard of surging interest in nuclear power worldwide.

Faced with evidence that coal- and oil-fired electric plants are overheating the planet, and alarmed by soaring demand for electricity, governments from South America to Asia are turning once again to a power source mostly shunned for two decades as too dangerous and too costly.

Globally, 29 nuclear power plants are being built. Well over 100 more have been written into the development plans of governments for the next three decades. India and China each are rushing to build dozens of reactors. The United States and the countries of Western Europe, led by new nuclear champions, are reconsidering their cooled romance with atomic power. International agencies have come on board; even the Persian Gulf oil states have announced plans for nuclear generators.

"Energy and climate changes can't remain tied to carbon or hydrocarbon," the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said in October. "They are polluting, and we'll have to find substitute energies, including nuclear energy." It creates heat through nuclear reactions rather than combustion, giving off no carbon dioxide, the most important of the so-called greenhouse gases that trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere.

Utilities are dusting off plans for nuclear plants even though most of the problems that shelved those projects remain. Critics say governments have forgotten the crises of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The costs and time to build the concrete-encased plants far exceed those of conventional plants. There still is no safe permanent storage for the used fuel that will remain radioactive for a million years. Added to these problems are the newly realistic worry of a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant.

"It can be very controversial," Mexican Congressman David Maldonado said of his country's plans to build a $4 billion nuclear plant in Veracruz. "The things that have happened in years past, going back to Chernobyl, have created a lot of fear here."

In the United States, the Bush administration has strongly pushed nuclear power and backed a 2005 energy bill offering subsidies to utilities to go ahead with projects in a shortened, streamlined regulatory process. The industry talks enthusiastically of 10 to 30 new nuclear plants being started in the next two decades.

Critics say those predictions will stall without long-term subsidies, and they scoff at the administration's explanations that nuclear plants will help battle global warming and reduce dependence on foreign oil. "The Bush administration doesn't believe climate change is a threat unless it is arguing for nuclear power," said Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

Skeptics contend that the nuclear resurgence is still just talk. In the United States, they note, not a single reactor has been ordered. The high costs and long delays that vexed nuclear construction -- Argentina's Atucha II was 14 years in construction before it was halted -- soon will diminish the atomic ardor in other countries, they say.

"Even with all the respective subsidies, nuclear power plants are still too expensive," Lyman said. "We need to move faster to really take a bite out of greenhouse emissions, and there aren't any scenarios in which nuclear power can do that."

At present, 442 nuclear plants are operating in more than 31 countries, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. The United States has the most -- 103, which provide about 19.3 percent of the country's electric power. Next is France, with 59, and Japan, with 55. Worldwide, atomic energy accounts for 16 percent of electrical production; the vast majority of electricity is generated by burning coal, oil and natural gas.

But carbon emissions from conventional plants bring "higher global temperatures, rising sea levels that would threaten to submerge coastal regions, prolonged droughts and more frequent violent storms," IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei warned in Jakarta, Indonesia, in December.

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