Tech Industry

Giving the nuke option a fair shake

If we're serious about the energy crisis, CNET's Charles Cooper says this still radioactive question deserves another look.

My late Uncle Harold never lacked for strong opinions. He served with Patton's Third Army in Europe and life taught him not to waste time gladly suffering fools.

So it was that after he became an engineer, my uncle later worked on the construction of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power reactor near San Luis Obispo, Calif. It was, no pun intended, always a hot topic of debate at family gatherings.

Since I was a "no nukes" kind of guy, there was no way I would ever trust The Man to do right by the environment. To me, Diablo Canyon and all the other nuclear energy plants going up around the country constituted an invitation to inevitable disaster. My heart was with the green movement. Back then, anti-nuclear sentiment was running high--especially after the accidents at Three Mile Island in March 1979 and Chernobyl seven years later.

"Do you have any idea what you're talking about?" Uncle Harold said.

The overhang from the no-nukes era still casts a shadow. Any proposal to put more investment into nuclear energy always presents the risk of political suicide.

Well, that was a bit fresh. After all, I had watched . OK, even though it was a movie, what if the scenario played out for real?

Uncle Harold, who was having none of it, refused to buy into any emotional arguments. He ticked off with lapidary precision a long list of benefits from nuclear energy and explained the safety mechanisms that accompanied the construction of modern plants. That was so unfair of him to use facts in an argument where it was clear that I was on the side of the angels.

Of course, I wasn't alone in making the popular mistake of twinning opposition to the spread of nuclear weaponry with nuclear energy. As if they were forever joined at the hip. My uncle died a couple of years ago. I don't know whether I've become any wiser over the years but with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I sure wish I could get a do-over with him.

Fast-forward three decades after those conversations and this country--along with the rest of the word--is locked in a noisy debate about how best to reduce fossil fuel consumption. It's been a slow haul.

The overhang from the no-nukes era still casts a shadow. Any proposal to put more investment into nuclear energy always presents the risk of political suicide. So it is that the last time federal regulators in this country allowed work to begin on a new reactor was the same year as Three Mile Island (though the plants never got built). In fact, the U.S. has not brought a new commercial reactor on line since May 1996.

Even so, about 20 percent of the country's electricity gets generated by nuclear. Sounds impressive until you compare that statistic against France's 78 percent. (Not surprisingly, France's carbon dioxide output is one of the lowest per capita in Europe.)

Yet resistance to nuclear energy may be receding from its high water mark. In an interview with CNET, Frank Bowman, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that some of the industry's once sternest critics are giving nuclear another look. The list includes the likes of Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog (you don't get more crunchy that that), and Pulitzer-winning author Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel). The most notable one-time opponent to change his mind about nuclear is Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. In the , Moore says nuclear energy now has to be part of any solution to the nation's energy challenge.

That's not a switch that has gone down well with his former colleagues. In fact, Moore told the magazine, some within the environmental movement now treat him with "considerable disdain."

"It's quite ironic that the very people who are most concerned about climate change are generally the same ones who are against the solution that, from a technical point of view, is straightforward," he said.

After all the angst and questioning that attended my own about-face, I understand why it's so difficult. But the greens may find themselves increasingly isolated. Earlier this week, NRG Energy asked the government for permission to build a couple of reactors in Texas. Another company called Constellation Energy is also rumored to be close to applying for a license.

Forget saving the world--though that's an appealing idea--the growing global competition for increasingly scarce energy resources has turned the search for alternatives into a national security priority. I don't want to re-argue the pros and cons of the debate over climate change, global warming and greenhouse gas concerns but the time is long past for fresh thinking.

And that means giving nuclear a fair shake.