No new nuclear power plants have been approved in the United States since the 1970s, but the U.S. nuclear industry hopes to expand its role as a producer of energy. The industry says the need for energy outweighs the risks of nuclear power, but environmentalists worry about its safety.
More than 100 nuclear plants operate in the United States, producing 20 percent of the nation's electrical power. A plant at San Onofre, on the California coast south of Los Angeles, has all the security of a military base. In fact, it is located on the edge of Camp Pendleton, a major installation of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Plant employee Ray Golden gave VOA a tour, and pointed out the tight security.
"There are men in that booth right there with guns, men in that [second] booth right there with guns, men right up there in that [third] booth with guns," said Ray Golden. "All of our security officers, and there are several hundred of them, are former or retired military or retired law enforcement."
Security became a major issue at nuclear plants after September 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked commercial aircraft, and flew them into buildings in New York and Washington.
That raised the possibility that nuclear plants and their radioactive fuels could be used as weapons of mass destruction. Golden says studies have since shown that this heavily fortified complex, with thick steel and concrete shielding, is safe.
"And we have high confidence that, if someone was to try and replicate what occurred on 9/11, crashing it [an airplane] into the most important structures that are here at San Onofre, say the containment dome, or the building that houses the used nuclear fuel, or the control building, that we would survive that crash, without any releases of radiation to the environment."
Golden demonstrates the sensitivity of a Geiger counter, which measures radiation, by passing it over the radium coating on the hands of old watches, and even the glazing of old pottery.
Similar technology is used in monitoring devices workers wear to measure the amount of radiation they are exposed to.
"This is keeping a second-by-second accounting of your radiation dose," explained Ray Golden. "As you're walking around being exposed to radiation, this device is detecting it."
Safety is also on the minds of critics of nuclear power, who say the United States should focus on renewable energy sources, such as solar, geothermal and wind energy. One watchdog group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the risks of nuclear plants are manageable, but that current safeguards are not strict enough. David Lochbaum is director of the group's nuclear safety program.
"Nuclear power can never be made inherently safe," said David Lochbaum. "There is always a danger. But there's also always a danger with any form of electricity generation. The goal is to have that risk managed to an acceptably low level."
He says the goal can be achieved, but that a 2002 incident illustrates the goal is sometimes not met. A hole was found in the metal containment vessel of a nuclear reactor at a plant in the state of Ohio. The hole, caused by corrosion, exposed the metal lining of the reactor's pressurized cooling system. The problem was discovered before an accident could happen, and U.S. regulators said there had been no danger. They said that, in the event of a leak, safety systems would have shut the reactor down. Lochbaum says, however, that incident showed the flaws in the safety system.
Other critics point to the 1979 incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, which resulted in the accidental release of radiation, and the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union. But in the face of rising fuel prices and concerns about global warming from burning fossil fuels, public opinion has grown more favorable, and the industry says most Americans support the continued use of nuclear energy at existing sites. Critics say the safety concerns remain, regardless of where the public stands on the issue.