The first nuclear power plant in the United States was built in Pennsylvania in 1957. The last began construction in 1977, before the Three Mile Island accident, also in Pennsylvania, in 1979 and the devastating Chernobyl meltdown, in the Ukraine, in 1986. Nuclear power plants produce nearly 20% of the nations electricity at 104 plants, and for the first time in a generation, the industry is trying to build new nuclear reactors as many as 19 projects in 15 states.
Opposition to nuclear energy, which has traditionally included environmentalists, focuses on the potential for accidents or terrorist attacks at nuclear reactors, on atomic fissions wartime uses and on the long-lived radioactive waste. Nuclear waste remains dangerous for thousands of years, and theres no attractive way to store or recycle it. Economics is also in play: A new nuclear power plant costs as much as $8 billion to build, roughly four times as much as a coal-fired plant.
Proponents, who now include some prominent green thinkers, say that nuclear powers benefits outweigh its costs in an era of global warming. Unlike coal-fired power plants, which produce nearly half of all electricity in the U.S., nuclear power plants operate without producing significant amounts of carbon dioxide or other air pollutants. Supporters answer concerns about safety by pointing to France, which for 50 years has generated more than three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power with neither serious accidents nor public opposition.
Food for thought: While the greatest untapped energy source in the United States is conservation and efficiency, the nation will need more electricity not only to serve a growing population but also, potentially, to power a new generation of electric cars. Is nuclear part of the answer?
The federal government sets ground rules for the free market. It can make them more or less favorable to nuclear power, it can make subsidies more or less generous and the president can spend political capital developing a national radioactive waste dump, or not.
McCain has made expanding nuclear power a central part of his energy platform by calling for the construction of 45 new plants by 2030. Accomplishing that goal would require aggressive government subsidies or policies, perhaps including a global warming cap-and-trade regulation that would increase the cost of coal.
Obama always acknowledges the opposition arguments against nuclear power, particularly safety and radioactive waste, but he doesnt oppose the use of nuclear power. When it comes to electricity, however, his energy plan focuses on redistributing cash from the oil and coal industries to renewable, rather than nuclear, energy.
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