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Nuclear Power?

Let’s rethink this option, without losing sight of alternative energy.

Forget about nuclear winter; these days it feels like nuclear spring. Early signs point to a global renaissance in fission power. Twenty-four nuclear power plants are being built abroad. Well-organized U.S. utilities are identifying sites at existing nuclear power plants where new reactors might be built and asking the U.S. Congress to provide generous subsidies to help (see “Nuclear Powers Up”). And all of this is happening without the kind of groundswell of public opposition to nuclear power witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s.

There is little question that nuclear power works well, produces no CO2, and has a fairly safe record – Chernobyl excepted. The real issue is how best to spend public monies on energy production. The utilities say that new nuclear power plants will require federal help. Fair enough. But other approaches to weaning our thirst for fossil fuels will continue to require federal help, too – and they are equally promising.

A good case, for instance, can be made for advanced wind turbines. They are already economically competitive in regions that have strong winds and are convenient to the electrical grid, and with further subsidies they could be made competitive in more areas. Subsidies for hybrid cars would save oil.

Even research on nuclear fusion has begun to gain momentum: an international consortium has agreed that southern France will host a $5 billion experimental fusion reactor, feeding hopes that the same process that keeps stars aflame will eventually light our cities at night (see “Fusion Research: What about the U.S.?”). Fission reactors are an attractive option, but Congress and power generators should not consider them alone.

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