Archive for Sunday, August 20, 2006

Nuclear power is the best alternative

Does U.S. need more nuclear power plants?

August 20, 2006

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— There is a quickening of the pace. There is a feeling that after nearly 35 years of drought, some rain is going to fall on the nuclear meadow; that this year, or next, the first new nuclear plant in decades will be ordered in the United States.

If so, a return to nuclear is not only long overdue. It also is an environmental necessity and a national security imperative.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the forces of public policy are waking up to the reality that if the United States wants abundant electricity, essentially for all time, it has to rediscover nuclear as the low-impact form of electric generation. The facts are catching up with the malicious fiction that consigned nuclear - the high-technology, alternative way to produce electricity - to limbo.

Not only is the United States looking afresh at nuclear, but some stubbornly hostile foreign governments have already done so, or are doing so.

Finland, with a small population, dedicated to the environment, realized that it could not increase its dependence on Russian natural gas and reluctantly ordered its fifth reactor. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, against the rump of his Labor Party, is advocating more nuclear power. Blair is interesting because he has spared no effort in promoting alternative generation. But he has come to realize that Britain needs nuclear power; that alternatives will not fill the gap; and that his only other option is gas from Russia - a mercurial supplier at best.

The days of anything-but-nuclear are not over. But the crushing demands of the U.S. economy point to the need for a reliable electric base that will extend 50 years into the future, not just to the next election cycle.

Even the environmental community is beginning to realize that if you want a lot of electricity permanently, from known sources, nuclear stands out as domestic, reliable and adds nothing to global warming. What is more, if progress continues in an evolutionary manner, and we proceed from light water reactors to breeder reactors, the electric future becomes infinite.

Two new technologies suggest that the need for electricity will increase rather than decline in the United States.

The first is the plug-in hybrid car, and the second is the greater use of hydrogen in the economy. Both will reduce emissions. But if the new electric demand is met with fossil fuels, the pollution will simply be moved from the tailpipe to the smokestack.

With abundant electricity, the human prospect improves. Electricity has already transformed the world. It has improved the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people. Without it, only the rich could hope for lives of comfort. Without it, we would not have seen the migration from the North to the South, nor a world where women have escaped the drudgery of the home. It is so beneficial that aside from clean water, it has no peer in the realm of human well-being.

I believe so deeply, so completely in the benefits of electricity, and I have so much confidence in America's ability to engineer its way out of its problems, that it seems incomprehensible that we do not pledge ourselves wholeheartedly to an electric future. Most of the railroads still await electrification. There is a glimmer of its possibility for automobiles, and cities need to rediscover trolleys and trams.

Back to the future, I say - the nuclear electric future which, by definition, is less volatile and more reverential of the environment.

For 30 years or more, we have talked about new technology - and meant computers. Because of social and cultural pressure, the truly exciting technology of the atom has been shunned.

Now we talk a lot about nanotechnology. But if we are already using the components of matter, atoms, we should also have the moral courage to split them for electric power.

Llewellyn King is the publisher of White House Weekly (www.kingpublishing.com) and host of the weekly PBS television show "White House Chronicle."

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