'No Nukes,' No More

By JOHN TIERNEY

New York Times

May 17, 2005

The great taboo against nuclear power seems to be over in Washington. This is a mixed blessing.

The subject had been off limits to environmentally correct politicians since the spring of 1979, when the Three Mile Island accident inspired the Woodstock of the antinuke movement. More than 65,000 protesters marched on the Capitol to hear energy experts like Jackson Browne and Benjamin Spock - and, of course, Jane Fonda, an authority because of her role in the "The China Syndrome."

Celebrities and politicians, warning of meltdowns and cancer epidemics, demanded the shutdown of all nuclear plants. Protesters dressed as mushrooms chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to radiate." I went to the rally sympathetic to the movement but left unsure of which was scarier, nuclear power or its enemies.

Now some prominent environmentalists are having second thoughts, as Felicity Barringer reported in Sunday's Times. Given the threat of global warming, they say, encouraging new nuclear power plants may be necessary. And Congress is about to take up proposals to reinvigorate the industry.

On the one hand, this risk-benefit analysis is a refreshing improvement over the doomsday speeches and the chanting mushrooms. But by looking to Congress to chart a grand new energy policy, environmentalists are making the same mistake they made when they helped create the nuclear industry.

Environmentalists originally supported nuclear power because of its obvious benefits: no dirty air from smokestacks, no need to strip the ground for coal or dig for oil. Economic benefits, however, were not so obvious to investors, who were leery of the plants' costs and new problems, like accidents and waste disposal.

But Washington decided that nuclear power was so good for the environment and national security - how would America cope with the crisis when fossil fuels ran out? - that it should be subsidized. The federal government exempted the industry from full liability for accidents and took responsibility for waste disposal.

If Washington hadn't acted, nuclear power plants wouldn't have been built so fast, maybe not at all. But if the industry had been forced to deal with the costs and the risks on its own, it might have developed cheaper, simpler, more reliable plants.

Instead, it built unwieldy plants that were prone to problems, making them costly to operate and also inciting public fears. Even though the fears about the American industry were overblown, they led to tighter regulations and more expense.

Some proponents of nuclear power argue that the U.S. industry was killed by too much regulation; others say it simply lost out to the fossil fuels we were supposed to be running out of. Whatever the reason, investors looking for a profit lost interest long ago in building nuclear plants in America.

But now, just as in the 1950's, some environmentalists and politicians are seeing something that investors don't. They think that uranium could once again be the fuel of the future - with their guidance. Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman are working on a plan in which conservatives would support limits on fossil fuel emissions if liberals agreed to subsidies for corporations working on new nuclear technologies.

The rationale is the new environmental crisis, global warming, which may turn out to be more real than the 1950's crisis of vanishing fossil fuels. But even if environmentalists and politicians are right this time about the problem, there's little reason to trust them to figure out which form of energy will be the solution.

Starting with nuclear power, they've backed one loser after another for the past half-century. They promised that their subsidies would move us beyond fossil fuels and produce electricity from vast solar arrays, solar towers, geothermal heat, ocean waves, sugar beets, corn, manure and something called biogas (you don't want to know). But when the subsidies ran out, the electricity stopped.

If politicians are determined to combat global warming, their best bet is to try something they understand: imposing taxes. A tax on carbon emissions would make investors take into account the risks of global warming. I don't know if it would make them want to build new nuclear power plants, but I trust them to figure it out better than anyone in Washington who claims to see the energy future. And at least they don't dress up as mushrooms.