Energy Firms Plan New Nuclear Power Plants

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For the first time in decades, the country's energy companies are gearing up to build new nuclear power plants. David Whitford, editor-at-large at Fortune magazine, speaks with John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

The U.S. began construction of its latest nuclear power plant in 1973. That's six years before the worst nuclear power accident in U.S. history at Three Mile Island. Still, during the intervening three decades, the country has quietly relied on nuclear power for 20 percent of its electricity. Now, with fossil fuel carbon emissions in the environmental bulls-eye, nuclear power is starting to shake off its bad reputation.

That's what David Whitford found when he took a trip across the country for Fortune magazine to investigate reports of a nuclear power revival in the U.S. He joins us now from member station WBUR in Boston. Good morning.

Mr. DAVID WHITFORD (Editor-at-large, Fortune Magazine): Good morning.

YDSTIE: What are the forces that are aligning that make the industry optimistic that there's going to be a revival?

Mr. WHITFORD: Unless we make substantial gains in conservation or efficiency, we're going to have to find a way to produce more electrical power. That's one of the large factors. Another one is the environmental issue. Nuclear power alone among the major sources of electricity, it doesn't generate greenhouse gases. There are many environmentalists now who began their careers opposed to nuclear power who are now reconsidering nuclear power in the face of global warming.

YDSTIE: How about incentives for nuclear power? There's now, as a result of the 2005 energy bill, billions more in incentives, too, for the industry.

Mr. WHITFORD: That's right. Huge incentives in place. I mean, nuclear power requires those incentives and those subsidies in order to function. That's one of the things that critics complain about when they talk about nuclear power.

YDSTIE: I know you talked to a lot of environmentalists on your trip, and you suggested that they aren't all anti-nuclear anymore.

Mr. WHITFORD: Right. There's some division within the movement. Stewart Brand, you may remember, was - created the Whole Earth Catalog. He's one of - sort of the original off-the-grid environmentalists. He is now convinced that the most important issue confronting us as a society right now is global warming and that nuclear power needs to be part of that solution.

YDSTIE: Well, what about the safety issue? What's the worst that could happen?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, look, nuclear power has been with us, commercial nuclear power, for about 50 years. During that time, there have been two terrible accidents: Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Chernobyl was by far the worst. You had a meltdown, an explosion, and 75 people, according to the United Nations, died as a result of the accident. Three Mile Island, the best hard evidence that I found is that no one was significantly harmed. So, look, the risk is still there. I mean, we're talking about a highly toxic byproduct of nuclear power, radioactive waste, and that has to continue to be a concern.

You know, this is one of the things that Stewart Brown brings up. Nuclear power generates this terrible byproduct and it has to be treated very carefully. But when you compare that with the emissions from a coal-burning electricity plant, you know, the billions of tons of carbon dioxide that are emitted into the atmosphere, then that problem of dealing with nuclear waste begins to seem like one that might be solvable, or more solvable, compared to the problem of dealing with carbon dioxide.

YDSTIE: David Whitford has just toured the country investigating the U.S. nuclear power industry. He's an editor-at-large at Fortune magazine. Thanks very much.

Mr. WHITFORD: Thank you, John.

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