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John G. Craig, Jr.: The untapped power

America should get over its nuclear energy anxiety

Sunday, June 03, 2001

I am sure you remember Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda in the prescient "The China Syndrome" and even better the terrifying accident at Three Mile Island that occurred within days of the film's release.

The United States has never gotten over March 28, 1979, and neither has the domestic power industry nor those who finance and regulate it. "No way, not here. Never again."

Now, 22 years later, along comes a politically potent confection of rolling brownouts in California, the Kyoto Treaty and Vice President Dick Cheney, and everyone is talking. The Economist is prompted to ask in last week's cover story, "A New Dawn for Nuclear Power?" and Tuesday's New York Times included an editorial, "Hard Questions on Nuclear Power," that, given the gravity of the subject, was appropriately humongous.

  John G. Craig Jr. is editor of the Post-Gazette ( 

If one were to sum up the collective reaction of the American press and public, it goes something like this: Yes, I hear everything the scientists and operators have to say about safety and more efficient operations. Yes, there are many very good arguments for doing more with nuclear power as a supplement to burning fossil fuels. Yes, it is true that millions of people have been getting safe, clean energy from nuclear power generators for over 40 years now. But I just cannot help myself. Nuclear reactions and radiation still scare the hell out of me.

I don't wish to pick on the Times, but here are its four principal reservations that illustrate the point that the opposition is as irrational as it is reasoned:

Nuclear power is used almost exclusively to generate electricity, so it will have no effect on global warming, because transportation exhausts are the primary villain when it comes to air quality. So who needs clean electricity?

The expansion of nuclear generating in the United States would pose no increased nuclear weapons risk, but more nuclear power plants in other countries could increase the risk of weapons proliferation because they might be used as a cover for weapons programs.

No one has figured out how to get rid of nuclear waste permanently; there is a site in Nevada that might significantly ease the U.S. problem, but if the storage problem were eased globally in this manner, it would increase the risks of weapons-grade plutonium falling into the wrong hands.

The costs of building nuclear plants are too high and this is not likely to change.

The first three arguments are really of the heads-I-win, tails-you-lose variety. They largely answer themselves, depending on political bias. The last one does not. That is why it is emphasized by most critics, including The Economist, which reports these estimates from the International Energy Agency:

The capital cost of today's nuclear plants is $2,000 per kilowatt, compared with $1,200 per kilowatt for a coal plant and $500 for a combined-cycle gas plant.

Construction costs are a huge impediment to nuclear power plant construction. That reality, when coupled with factors like regulatory delays and organized political opposition, as has long been the rule in the United States, have been decisive in shutting down new plant construction in this country.

Ironically, there is general agreement that the nuclear plants operating in the United States today, including Three Mile Island, are very safe and exceptionally efficient (nuclear 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour, coal 2.1 cents and gas 3.5 cents).

Pressures are mounting to relicense plants for 20 more years, as the 40-year licenses under which most U.S. plants operate expire over the next decade. There are also concurrent arguments from the industry for renewed building because designs have been simplified and made more safe.

As the Bush administration forces a national debate on the subject, there are two other significant realities to keep in mind.

The United States does not have control of the situation. Consider Russia's recent announcement that it wants to create a massive site for permanent nuclear waste storage and that 15 nations are interested in paying to use it. Washington made it known that it did not like the idea of Russia using the site in Siberia as the location for a multibillion-dollar business, but it is not easy to see how that will stop nations like South Korea from taking advantage of the offer.

Nuclear power use outside the United States also is growing, if unevenly, with France getting just under 80 percent of its electrical power from this source and Germany, Japan, Finland, Switzerland and South Korea averaging slightly over 30 percent.

The U.S. figure is 20 percent. While lower in percentage terms than what holds in much of the developed world, it still represents a huge number that is integral to the nation's economic well being.

Logic suggests, therefore, that studied review of the nation's policies on the use of nuclear energy is very much in order, even somewhat overdue. Rather than dismiss the president and vice president as a pair of oil wildcatters from Texas, we should be applauding them for raising the subject.

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