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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 July 2006, 21:03 GMT 22:03 UK
US nuclear debate hinges on costs
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington

Greenpeace activist rallies against nuclear power in Russia on the anniversary of Chernobyl
Activists' appeals to emotion may be beside the point
Anti-nuclear campaigners have some chilling rhetoric at their disposal, the ability to evoke visceral fear with a single word: Chernobyl.

Or with three: Three Mile Island.

No new nuclear power plant has been commissioned in the US since Three Mile Island suffered the partial meltdown of a reactor core in 1979.

But campaigners on both sides of the nuclear power debate in the US say that it is less a matter of environmental or safety concerns than simple economics.

Philip Clapp, the president of National Environmental Trust in Washington DC, said nuclear energy was just too costly without "massive government subsidies".

"There is a large misconception about what killed nuclear power in the US," he told the BBC.

"If we don't have a policy that drives up the cost of coal, then nuclear is in trouble - coal is just too cheap in the United States
Henry Jacoby, MIT

"Most Americans cannot remember Three Mile Island," he said, arguing that dollars and cents, not public fear of nuclear power, was the deciding factor.

"It is wildly expensive compared with any other energy strategies - that is what shut down nuclear power development," he said.

Industry incentives

President George W Bush has spoken of the country's need for more nuclear energy, but Mr Clapp dismissed that as empty talk.

"There is no room in the US federal government budget to buy one nuclear power plant. We have deficits as far as the eye can see," he said.

Three Mile Island, the site of the worst US nuclear accident
Three Mile Island was the scene of the worst US nuclear accident

But in fact the Bush administration's Energy Policy Act has offered investment incentives for the next half-dozen nuclear plants to be built in the US.

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for the nuclear industry's advocacy group the Nuclear Energy Institute, agreed that it was economics that had held up nuclear energy in the US for a generation.

But he disagreed with Mr Clapp about everything else.

"You had a flattening in electricity demand because of a slowdown in the economy," he said - and that was the reason no new plants had been built.

US energy needs are growing again, he said, and the country needs more nuclear power plants as a result.

"The Department of Energy has forecast a 45% increase in energy demand by 2030," he said.

Public backing

The US currently has 103 nuclear power plants operating at 64 sites across the country, which provide nearly 20% of US electricity needs.

Toshiba, which is buying US energy giant Westinghouse to become the world's largest maker of nuclear reactors, expects about 16 orders for new nuclear power plants in the US, Reuters reported at the end of June.

Pie chart of US energy generation

The Nuclear Energy Institute predicts applications for new nuclear plants at a minimum of 10 sites in the US by the end of 2008.

And it says public opinion will not stand in the way.

Three in four Americans would find it acceptable to build a new reactor at their nearest existing nuclear power plant, research for the NEI found in March - and about two in three Americans favour nuclear energy as one way of producing electricity.

"This is a time of greater acceptance of nuclear power now than at any time since the early 1970s," Mr Peterson said.

He said Americans now believed it was safe, that it was necessary to secure energy independence, and that it would be an effective was to reduce the carbon emissions that have been linked to climate change.

And electricity companies believed there was a profit to be made, he said.

"This is not religious fervour. This has to be a business decision. You're not going to put $2bn down on a whim.

Graph showing levels of US public support for nuclear energy

"They will have clients for the electricity before they build the plants."

But Henry Jacoby, an expert on energy policy and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said that ultimately, whether or not nuclear power was financially viable would depend on government policy.

"If we had a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system like the European trading system, it would make a big difference," he said.

"If we don't have a policy that drives up the cost of coal, then nuclear is in trouble," he said. "Coal is just too cheap in the United States."


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