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Is It Time to Revive Nuclear Power?

Concerns about climate change and America's dependence on fossil fuels are prompting a reconsideration of nuclear energy

As President Obama and other world leaders strive to meet rising electricity demand with clean energy, they are encouraging construction of new nuclear power plants.

That's because nuclear energy is uniquely able to safely and continually generate large amounts of electricity without emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In fact, nuclear power plants in 31 states currently produce more than 70 percent of the electricity supplied by sources that do not emit greenhouse gases or other air pollutants.

We will need a lot more electricity in the decades ahead to power our increasingly electrified lives—from iPods and BlackBerrys to electric cars. Energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies must play a bigger role, but America's insatiable demand for electricity means that we must have a balanced mix of clean energy sources and cannot gamble our future on just one or two approaches.

The outstanding safety and operating performance that has persuaded policymakers of nuclear energy's value is rooted in reforms put in place 30 years ago, after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Plants across the country now actively share their safety expertise; private inspections and training programs help achieve excellence above and beyond the government's regulatory requirements.

Nuclear power plants are also economic powerhouses, typically providing up to 700 jobs at substantially above-average salaries.

It's time for the U.S. to be realistic about our future energy needs and the threat of global climate change. One solution is to ramp up our investment in nuclear energy.

Scott Peterson
Vice President, Nuclear Energy Institute

We should not resume building nuclear reactors on a large scale until we solve the safety, security, and environmental problems associated with the 104 plants operating in the U.S. today.

In addition to electricity, nuclear reactors produce highly radioactive material that can cause cancer and other diseases at low exposures and kill within days or weeks at high exposures. A serious accident could contaminate air, water, and food—potentially putting millions of Americans at risk.

Such accidents are improbable, but not impossible. The most serious ones occurred at Three Mile Island in 1979 and at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union (now Ukraine) in 1986. Dozens died in Chernobyl's immediate aftermath, and after the radioactivity drifted across Eastern Europe, thousands of children across the region developed thyroid cancer.

If a pipe breaks or a pump fails, uranium fuel could overheat and melt, releasing radioactive gases and particles. Nuclear plants do have safety systems, like emergency cooling water and containment buildings designed to prevent radioactive releases in the event of a fuel meltdown. But these safety systems are not foolproof; it's even possible that some containment buildings could rupture in a serious accident.

Terrorism is another concern. Even at the safest plant, a terrorist attack could cause a meltdown. Armed guards protect U.S. plants, but security problems remain. Some guards have been caught sleeping on duty.

Finally, there is the problem of radioactive waste, which remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Until we can establish a final disposal site for the tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste already produced, it is hard to justify building more reactors that will produce a lot more of it.

Edwin Lyman
Union of Concerned Scientists

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, September 20, 2010)