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The BBC's Jonny Dymond
"Vice President Cheney has said he wants to see nuclear power encouraged"
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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
US attraction to nuclear power
Woman looks for hair products with the help of window light in a Californian shop
California has suffered a series of rolling blackouts
By Stephen Evans in Washington

Nuclear power is undergoing a dramatic rehabilitation in the United States as the new Bush administration reviews the country's future energy demands.

In the middle of the luxuriant forests and farmlands of Pennsylvania, there is an unlikely tourist attraction - a working nuclear power station.

Three Mile Island, once a by-word for nuclear disaster, is now a designated official historic monument and a magnet for tourists.

Three Mile Island
Three Mile Island: Scene of worst US nuclear accident
In 1979, a controlled nuclear reaction here became an uncontrolled one, threatening meltdown and the contamination of a continent.

A heroic effort contained the damage within the concrete, but the closeness of the call changed attitudes. From then, no new nuclear power station was built in the United States.

Now, though, nuclear is coming back. Most American citizens take cheap energy for granted and the new Bush administration is trying to keep those demands satisfied.

Three Mile Island is jointly owned by British Energy and by US company Exelon.

Exelon's Ralph De Santa said the old assumption that existing nuclear power stations would close when their licenses expired has now gone.

"You will see existing nuclear companies put in for license renewal, to extend the life of the existing plants," he said. "So that's very important, because just a couple of years ago the common thought was that these plants would be shut down.

"Ultimately, they are looking at building new plants. So that's the future."

Cheaper costs

Apart from the politics, the economics have changed.

Howard Greenspect, of the independent Resources for the Future think-tank in Washington, said costs had come down, certainly for running existing stations.

These guys are looking backwards by 30, 40, 50 years

Damon Moglan, Greenpeace
"They are operating more efficiently; their utilisation rates are higher," said Mr Greenspect. "The plants are being gathered, instead of being operated individually. They're now being agglomerated and put in the hands of more experienced operators.

"It's now more economically attractive to extend the lifetime of those facilities and seek an additional 20-year period."

nuclear power plant
No nuclear power plant has been built in the US for 30 years
All the same, new plants remain expensive to build. However, as burning coal and oil gets more politically and economically costly, nuclear power plants will become more attractive. And there is the problem of waste, which has to be buried for centuries.

Damon Moglan, Greenpeace's nuclear expert in the US, said pinning hopes on nuclear power meant the Bush administration was dodging the real issue.

"These guys are looking backwards by 30, 40, 50 years, instead of looking forwards," said Mr Moglan. "And it's quite clear that the real solution is going to be the development of alternative renewable, clean technology, wedded to energy efficiency and conservation.

"Those are solutions."

New confidence

The forests around Three Mile Island bristle with monitoring equipment, continually testing the air: a testament to the fact that, when nuclear goes wrong, it goes very wrong.

All the same, the man charged with policing this expanding industry, Dr Richard Meserve, the head of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said lessons had now been learnt.

"We have been preparing for the possibility of new construction by staffing, by trying to anticipate the problems that may arise, that may be presented to us, particularly if new technologies are something that licensees seek," said Dr Meserve. "Every indication we have is that there's great enthusiasm in the generating companies for maintaining their existing nuclear plants and possibly expanding them."

The Bush administration reckons that 1,300 new power stations, conventional and nuclear, will be needed to keep pace with American demand over the next 20 years. The great political attraction of nuclear is that it seems to offer cheap power to a people suffering power cuts. Whatever the long-term issues, that argument will be immediately attractive in Washington.

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See also:

26 Apr 01 | Americas
US debates nuclear expansion
01 May 01 | Business
Is there a US energy crisis?
01 May 01 | Americas
Cheney warns of power shortages
30 Mar 01 | Americas
Kyoto: Why did the US pull out?
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