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Nuclear Energy Hotly Debated in United States

There is a debate under way in the United States about the benefits of nuclear power, as the country looks for alternatives to its dependence on foreign oil. Advocates say nuclear power will provide a clean and safe form of energy, but opponents say concerns about safety and what to do with nuclear waste far outweigh any benefits.

There are currently 104 nuclear power plants operating across the United States. President Bush is calling for expanding the nation's reliance on nuclear power as part of his energy plan.

Supporters of nuclear energy say it will make the United States less dependent on foreign sources of oil.

But Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for Public Citizen, a public-interest watchdog group, says increasing nuclear power will not significantly reduce oil consumption.

"Oil is only used to power 1.2 percent of the nation's electricity," he noted. "Nuclear power is not used to power automobiles, which is the biggest source of our oil consumption, and oil is not a significant source of electricity consumption. So, increasing America's reliance on nuclear power is not going to alter the current oil demand balance that we have in this country."

Another contentious issue is the environmental impact of nuclear power plants. Mal McKibben, a retired nuclear engineer who is now executive director of the non-profit Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, says nuclear power plants are environmentally safer than other types of energy producers, such as coal.

"Nuclear [power] does not produce any acid rain. It does not produce smog. It does not produce global warming, where[as] coal and gas do all of those things," he said.

Christine Todd Whitman headed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Bush. She is now co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a group, which advocates the use of nuclear energy. She agrees nuclear plants have little impact on the surrounding environment.

"The footprint of nuclear facilities are very small, so that, many times, you find that you get natural habitats in and around nuclear facilities, because they do have such a low impact on the surrounding community," she explained.

But Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen says nuclear power plants carry their own unique risk to the environment.

"Each facility produces hundreds of tons of high-level radioactive waste that sticks around in the environment for hundreds of thousands of years," he said. "We currently have no solution of how to deal with the hundreds of tons of high-level radioactive waste safely, efficiently or environmentally sustainably."

President Bush has backed a controversial plan to build a storage facility for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a remote area in the western U.S. state of Nevada. He also supports the recycling and reprocessing of nuclear waste through the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

McKibben, the former nuclear engineer, says there is an alternative to storing nuclear waste, recycling it.

"You use all the energy that's in that fuel," he said. "Right now we're using less than 5 percent of it, by just going through one time and not recycling. If we did recycle, we could use up at least 95 percent of it."

Opponents of nuclear energy also point out the possibility of an accident, citing the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in the northeastern United States, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in what is now Ukraine.

But Dale Klein, the new chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, praised the nuclear industry's safety record during a recent talk with reporters in Washington.

"Chernobyl was a very unstable reactor," he explained. "The western world has no commercial reactors like Chernobyl and its inherent instability characteristics. The kinds of reactors in the western U.S. and [the kinds] Western Europe has are much more stable and have an excellent record."

But nuclear energy opponents, such as Dr. Ira Helfand with the group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, say there is a much more ominous risk involved with nuclear energy.

"I think, we have to look at nuclear power plants, basically, as prepositioned weapons of mass destruction that we place at various strategic points around our country, that we make available to terrorists, who might attack them in the future," said Dr. Helfand.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Klein says the industry has beefed up security to ward off any potential terrorist attacks, particularly since the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001.

"I believe the industry has responded very well after 9/11, they have spent a lot of money to make things better, and the security of the nuclear plants is quite good," he noted.

Klein says the nuclear industry must not become complacent.

Nuclear energy opponents, however, say the United States should consider alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar power.