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Nuclear Power, The Scary IF

It is estimated that the world's consumption of energy will increase by 60 percent over the next 20 years. And the United States already has problems in the way it meets its current energy needs. President Bush says the country is addicted to oil, and is urging alternative fuels. And half of U.S. electricity is generated by coal, which is responsible for over 80 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, a contributor to global warming.

There is an energy source that could help meet future needs, but it is one that has been off-limits for years.

This is uranium in its natural form. And this is the sound of radiation.

This is a pellet of uranium like the ones used in nuclear reactors. Ray Golden is the Communications Manager at the San Onofre Nuclear plant in California. "This one little pellet is the energy equivalent of 150 gallons of gasoline, there is no other technology in the world as concentrated as uranium," he said.

There are only 103 active plants in the U.S., yet they still represent nearly 20 percent of the country's energy production. But nuclear power scares many people, thanks to the dramatic nuclear accidents of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in March of 1979 and Chernobyl in Ukraine in April of 1986.

It has been almost 30 years since a permit was issued for a nuclear plant in the United States. Now, things are changing, according to Adrian Heymer, Director of New Plant Deployment at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

"I think it is going to grow tremendously. We believe we'll start construction in 2010. There are nine companies moving forward, preparing licensing applications. They will start to be submitted in 2007 through 2009," Heymer said.

The nine new nuclear plants will be built mostly in the southeast of the U.S. Another five companies are evaluating their possibilities. Each reactor will cost in the billions of dollars.

Mr. Heymer says it will be costly. "In simple terms it comes down to a little over $2.5 billion," he said.

The high price of generating nuclear energy at plants such as San Onofre, half way between Los Angeles and San Diego in California, could be higher still, if we consider the risk and potential dangers that surround nuclear plants. There are three main safety issues: the potential for a radiation accident, the production of nuclear waste, and the plants' vulnerability as terrorist targets.

Ray Golden works for the San Onofre plant. "I cannot stand here and say on any given day that this plant will never have an accident and if it has an accident it will release radiation and if it releases radiation it may increase the incidence of cancer of people living near by, I can't say no to that," he said.

During the last 20 years no serious accidents have been reported around any reactor in the U.S. Safety measures have been a very expensive priority.

However, it is the production of nuclear waste in the form of millions of used, highly radioactive, uranium pellets that continues to be a major concern. Paul Gunter is the Director of the Reactor Watchdog Project for Nuclear Information in Washington.

"We are constantly playing a game of Russian roulette with nuclear power, where risk and probability of an accident are ever present," he said.

The first cup full of nuclear waste generated 50 years ago is still mismanaged. We don't know what to do with it. It will be a problem passed from one generation to the next."

"This is a very serious technology and it has a legacy which is the used nuclear fuel that is going to be radioactive for tens of thousands of years. But the benefit to me far out weighs the risk, even if this means leaving this legacy to future generations," Golden added.

According to scientists, some nuclear waste can remain radioactive for millions of years. In the U.S., nuclear waste has been stored near nuclear facilities, mostly in underground steel-lined tanks and thick walls of concrete. But some tanks are getting old and now are leaking high-level nuclear contamination into groundwater, like at Hanford in the State of Washington.

Over the last 20 years, the government has been talking about Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a central repository for the growing stockpile of nuclear waste. But the expense required, local opposition, and safety concerns have prevented the project from starting.

And then there is the vulnerability to terrorism. Adrian Heymer, from the Nuclear Energy Institute, says the industry has spent billions of dollars on plant security. "Since September 11/01 we have spent $1.2 billion on improvements and modifications to the plants to make them safer," he said.

But Paul Gunter says nuclear plants are still vulnerable. "Radio active waste, the risk of nuclear accidents, the vulnerability to terrorism that uses these sites which are sitting ducks to spread radiation across the land, all of these add up to what the real cost of nuclear power is and is really a cost that is not worth bearing," he said.

Even though nuclear power is controversial, many countries have concluded it is necessary. Nearly 450 nuclear plants generate some 16 percent of the world's electricity today. Twenty-four new plants are under construction in 10 countries, mostly in India and China.