Support for Nuclear Power Is Growing

Published June 1, 2006

With natural gas prices rising rapidly and the price of crude oil hovering above $70 per gallon, nuclear power is emerging as an increasingly attractive source of energy to both the general public and some influential environmentalists.

A March 2006 Gallup poll shows a majority of Americans support the construction of more nuclear power plants, while the founder of Greenpeace has added his voice to those supporting nuclear power as good for the environment.

Bipartisan Support Increasing

According to the Gallup poll, fully 55 percent of Americans support expanding the use of nuclear energy. The embrace of nuclear power transcends political party affiliation, with 62 percent of Republicans and 51 percent of Democrats responding to the Gallup survey voicing their support for more nuclear energy.

Not a single nuclear facility has been built since the late 1970s, but nuclear power is once again becoming a public favorite. The nation’s 103 remaining nuclear facilities have continued to be a reliable source of clean fuel, supplying about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs today. In addition, nuclear energy is relatively inexpensive, costing about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, or roughly the same as coal or hydroelectric.

With the U.S. Department of Energy predicting demand for electricity will increase by more than 50 percent by 2025, nuclear energy is re-entering the American energy picture in a big way. In a March report cited in the New York Times on April 10, 2006, the global finance rating company Fitch Ratings said, “It is no longer a matter of debate whether there will be new nuclear plants in the industry’s future. Now, the discussion has shifted to how many, where and when.”

New Plants Welcome

Nine utilities, including Duke Power and the Southern Company, have applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to build as many as 19 new nuclear facilities.

One of the first new plants is slated to be built 30 miles from Gaffney, South Carolina. Like many small southern towns, Gaffney has been devastated by the closing of textile mills, having lost 2,500 jobs in the once-booming sector since the late 1990s. But that’s about to change. Duke Power and the Southern Company want to team up and build a $4 billion to $6 billion facility that will employ 1,500 people during the construction phase and, upon completion, provide 1,000 full-time jobs at the plant. If all goes as expected, the plant will go on line between 2012 and 2015.

All of this is music to the ears of local residents. “I can’t remember hearing a single negative comment from a local resident,” Cody Sossamon, publisher of the local Gaffney Ledger, told the New York Times.

Greenpeace Founder Lends Support

It’s not just local residents eager for economic revitalization of their communities who are showing enthusiasm for nuclear power. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, once rejected the technology but sees things differently today. Moore, who parted company with Greenpeace in 1986, now believes nuclear power to be a safe and clean source of energy.

Moore points out that the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island was actually a “success story.” “The concrete containment structure did just what it was designed to do–prevent radiation from escaping into the environment,” he wrote in the Washington Times on April 16, 2006. “And although the reactor itself was crippled, there was no injury or death among the nuclear workers or nearby residents.”

Modern nuclear plants, Moore notes, are a world apart from the facility at Chernobyl in the old USSR, where a deadly accident occurred in 1986. Chernobyl was “an accident waiting to happen,” Moore points out. “This early model of Soviet reactor had no containment vessel, was an inherently bad design and its operators literally blew it up.”

For those concerned about manmade greenhouse gases and their effect on the climate, nuclear power offers distinct advantages, Moore wrote. “[T]he 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States effectively avoid the release of 700 tons of CO2 emissions annually–the equivalent of the exhaust from more than 100 million automobiles.”

Extremists Still Oppose

While some environmental advocates have shown a willingness to take a second look at nuclear energy, others remain adamantly opposed to the idea.

The late British Bishop Hugh Montefiore, founder and director of Friends of the Earth, was forced to resign from the organization after he wrote an article favoring nuclear energy in a church newsletter. Greenpeace released a report in April highlighting 200 “failures” at American nuclear power plants since 1986, which it described as “near misses.” And the only real opposition to the construction of a nuclear power plant in Gaffney, South Carolina has come from the North Carolina-based Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

Bonner R. Cohen ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.