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Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
US debates nuclear expansion
Three Mile Island nuclear power station
Three Mile Island: Scene of the US' worst nuclear accident
By US affairs specialist Jonathan Marcus

As the world remembers the anniversary of the devastating Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine, there is a renewed debate about the merits of nuclear power in the United States.

Bush administration officials believe that new nuclear power plants may well be needed.

US Nuclear power
103 power plants
100,000 megawatts generated
20% of America's electricity
65 new plants possible
No new nuclear power station has been built in the US since the partial melt-down of the reactor core of the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 - the worst nuclear accident in US history.

Already the battle lines are being drawn up with environmental campaigners highlighting the poor safety standards of the privatised utilities that run the US nuclear power industry.

The nuclear power industry currently accounts for about 20% of the electricity generated in the US - but Bush administration officials believe that this share should be higher.

Vice President Dick Cheney - who heads an inter-agency energy task force - has said the US needs to build 65 new power stations a year, and some of these should be nuclear.

Green argument

In part, the aim is to reduce US energy dependence upon natural gas, but some experts argue that George W Bush may try to present his championing of the nuclear cause as an effort to obtain cleaner power.

US President George W Bush
President Bush is seeking to rebuild his green credentials
His environmental credentials have been damaged by his opposition to the Kyoto Treaty, which sought to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

The administration's view is that nuclear power is cheap, clean, and safe.

It is almost like a reprise of the message peddled by nuclear advocates before the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents.

These episodes tarnished nuclear power for a generation. US experts acknowledge that new nuclear power stations could face widespread local opposition quite apart from the well-organised environmental lobby.

Environmentalist backlash

Environmentalists are also highly critical of the nuclear industry's safety practices.

Chernobyl
Chernobyl casts a long shadow over the nuclear industry
The Union of Concerned Scientists says that as America's 103 operating nuclear plants get older, they see fewer safety inspections, and have less money spent on their maintenance.

Of course the nuclear industry discounts such claims.

But, only a few years ago, it looked as though many US nuclear plants might shut down.

Now there is talk of expansion. President Bush may have his work cut out to convince an increasingly sceptical nation that nuclear power's second coming is not just cheap, but safe as well.

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See also:

15 Jun 00 | Europe
Nuclear doubts gnaw deeper
28 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
Nuclear waste: A long-lived legacy
24 Apr 01 | Europe
German nuclear waste heads for UK
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