Nuclear power regains support

The Dungeness Nuclear Power Station in Britain, where the government plans to fast-track the construction of 10 plants.
The Dungeness Nuclear Power Station in Britain, where the government plans to fast-track the construction of 10 plants. (Dan Kitwood/getty Images)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

LONDON -- Nuclear power -- long considered environmentally hazardous -- is emerging as perhaps the world's most unlikely weapon against climate change, with the backing of even some green activists who once campaigned against it.

It has been 13 years since the last new nuclear power plant opened in the United States. But around the world, nations under pressure to reduce the production of climate-warming gases are turning to low-emission nuclear energy as never before. The Obama administration and leading Democrats, in an effort to win greater support for climate change legislation, are eyeing federal tax incentives and loan guarantees to fund a new crop of nuclear power plants across the United States that could eventually help drive down carbon emissions.

From China to Brazil, 53 plants are now under construction worldwide, with Poland, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia seeking to build their first reactors, according to global watchdog groups and industry associations. The number of plants being built is double the total of just five years ago.

Rather than deride the emphasis on nuclear power, some environmentalists are embracing it. Stephen Tindale typifies the shift.

When a brigade of Greenpeace activists stormed a nuclear power plant on the shores of the North Sea a few years ago, scrawling "danger" on its reactor, Tindale was their commander. Then head of the group's British office, he remembers, he stood outside the plant just east of London telling TV crews all the reasons "why nuclear power was evil."

The construction of nuclear plants was banned in Britain for years after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in what was then the Soviet Union. But now the British are weighing the idea of new nuclear plants as part of the battle against climate change, and Tindale is among several environmentalists who are backing the plan.

"It really is a question about the greater evil -- nuclear waste or climate change," Tindale said. "But there is no contest anymore. Climate change is the bigger threat, and nuclear is part of the answer."

A number of roadblocks may yet stall nuclear's comeback -- in particular, its expense. Two next-generation plants under construction in Finland and France are billions of dollars over budget and seriously behind schedule, raising longer-term questions about the feasibility of new plants without major government support. Costs may be so high that energy companies find financing hard to secure even with government backing.

But experts also point to a host of improvements in nuclear technology since the Chernobyl accident and the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979. Most notable is an 80 percent drop in industrial accidents at the world's 436 nuclear plants since the late 1980s, according to the World Association of Nuclear Operators.

A 'pragmatic' approach

So far at least, the start of what many are calling "a new nuclear age" is unfolding with only muted opposition -- nothing like the protests and plant invasions that helped define the green movement in the United States and Europe during the 1960s and 1970s.

As opposition recedes, even nations that had long vowed never to build another nuclear plant -- such as Sweden, Belgium and Italy -- have recently done an about-face as they see the benefits of a nearly zero-emission energy overriding the dangers of radioactive waste disposal and nuclear proliferation.

In the United States, leading environmental groups have backed climate change bills moving through Congress that envision new American nuclear plants. An Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House, for instance, shows nuclear energy generation more than doubling in the United States by 2050 if the legislation is made law. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing applications for 22 new nuclear plants from coast to coast.

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