The Sacramento Bee, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, The Kansas City Star, The Modesto Bee, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, McClatchy Newspapers | 5.24.09
By Alan W. Dowd

If America is on the verge of a “nuclear renaissance,” as proponents of nuclear power contend, our nuclear Dark Age has cost us dearly.

The U.S. nuclear industry provides 19.7 percent of the nation’s electrical power, a remarkably small share for a country with America’s industrial capacity and energy needs. There were 112 reactors operating in the U.S. in 1990. Today, there are just over 100.

Polls indicate that 51 percent of Americans approve of building more nuclear power plants, but only 40 percent would approve of those plants being built in their community.

This NIMBY phenomenon has dogged the nuclear industry since the near-disaster at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979. Although TMI caused zero deaths and zero injuries, orders for new U.S. reactors fell from 41 in 1973 to zero after TMI. The fact that most of the area’s residents were exposed to one-sixth the amount of radiation absorbed in a typical chest x-ray was irrelevant. The damage had been done—and more was yet to come.

Seven years later, a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine released huge amounts of radiation. More than two dozen workers died within months of the disaster, and 4,000 cancer deaths may eventually be attributed to Chernobyl, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  

To be sure, the long-term effects at Chernobyl are tragic. But it pays to recall that the Soviet Union’s public safety record was much different than America’s, as underscored by the divergent outcomes at TMI and Chernobyl.

No matter. Environmental groups, the news media and Hollywood used TMI and Chernobyl to turn public opinion against nuclear energy. Many in government joined the anti-nuclear bandwagon. And the nuclear industry seemed to wave the white flag.

Some within the industry suggest that it did not do enough to defend itself. “After Three Mile Island happened, there was a tendency to sort of want to dive into the fox holes,” as Frank Bowman, former CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), told CNET in 2007. 

While the U.S. nuclear industry flat-lined, the rest of the world kept building. Nuclear power accounts for 79 percent of Lithuania’s electricity needs, 78 percent of France’s and 50 percent of Sweden’s. China has built nine new reactors since 1991. Even Ukraine, the very place that bears Chernobyl’s scars, derives half its energy from nukes.

There are signs that America’s nuclear Dark Age is ending. Some former critics of nuclear power embrace it as an alternative to fossil fuels. For example, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore now leads the NEI’s Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

Plus, the political winds may be shifting. The Bush administration promoted nuclear power, opening the way to 22 nuclear plant applications for the period 2007-2010. President Barack Obama acknowledges that nuclear power should be “part of the energy mix.”

But we should not rush into building nuclear plants out of any sense of an energy “crisis.” After all, another part of the energy mix is oil from right here in America. In fact, the U.S. has 30.4 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. That number is growing: The Arctic holds an estimated 90 billion barrels, a third of which is in Alaska; a new field in the Gulf of Mexico contains perhaps 15 billion barrels of oil; and RAND estimates that Colorado, Utah and Wyoming hold more than 500 billion barrels of oil-shale.

These reserves won’t last forever. But along with expanded nuclear energy, they are enough to carry the U.S. into what might be called the post-petro economy.

In both cases—drilling for oil and going nuclear—it is simply a matter of will.