Washington, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- On the eve of the new millennium, nuclear energy in the U.S. is undergoing a scientific and public revival following years of largely negative public attitudes.
The federal government this year is providing $19 million to promote nuclear research. The program (the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative) funnels money to scientists across the U.S.
According to William Magwood, Director of Nuclear Energy Science and Technology at the U.S. Department of Energy, some of the projects being funded involve building new types of reactors that are safer, smaller and more resistant to proliferation.
Magwood tells RFE/RL that next year the Department of Energy intends to make significant investment in existing power plants to make them more efficient and secure.
There are 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S., providing about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. They are scattered across the country, with the highest number located in the northeast. The U.S. is the world's largest consumer and producer of nuclear energy, followed by France and Japan.
Nuclear power plants are privately owned, while the government provides licenses and conducts inspections. This is done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Magwood heads the Department of Energy's branch for promoting research and technology. He says his division's discoveries are eventually released for use by the private sector.
U.S. public opinion of nuclear energy turned largely negative after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. Equipment failure and human error led to a partial core meltdown. That event and the 1986 accident at Chornobyl caused a major public outcry about the dangers of nuclear power.
Those concerns largely put a stop to new nuclear plant construction. The closing of some plants in recent years means there are fewer nuclear reactors working in the U.S. today than were open at the beginning of this decade. The number of operating plants reached a peak of 112 in 1990, compared to the 104 open today.
But Magwood says the U.S. public's concerns over nuclear safety have eased in recent years:
"I think that every year nuclear power plants operate safely and quietly and no problems arise, the public feels more comfortable with them. I think the public was disturbed by the events at Three Mile Island and Chornobyl, but I think they also see that most nuclear power plants in this country have operated safely without causing any concerns for many years."
Magwood says there is a renewed interest in nuclear energy because of growing concern over global climate changes. He says nuclear power, in his opinion, is the only energy source available today that can produce enormous amounts of electricity without emitting carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is suspected of contributing to rising temperatures in the earth's atmosphere, known as global warming.
Edward Quinn is president of the American Nuclear Society, a pro-nuclear power, non-profit organization. He recently told RFE/RL that the U.S. is responsible for about 25 percent of the world's carbon emissions.
"We need to reduce our carbon emissions. We are not setting good standards for the rest of the world. And nuclear energy is a major component in our ability to reduce carbon emissions."
Quinn says growth in the nuclear energy sector in the U.S. has slowed in recent years and that some plants were shut down after the power industry was deregulated. Under deregulation, power monopolies were broken up and competition was increased.
As a result, Quinn says the issue quickly became a financial one -- what kind of power would be the most inexpensive and effective.
Quinn says some older power plants were at a disadvantage because they were expensive to run, had complex designs and were lacking enhanced safety features. Those plants lost out to cheaper forms of electric generation.
In order to stay competitive, Quinn says the leaders of the nuclear energy industry began focusing on ways to utilize new technology and build plants with an emphasis on efficiency, safety and lower production costs.
"If, as a source of energy, the new nuclear designs are not financially attractive, then they won't be built. The way the program has been developed is that the new nuclear designs are to be the same price or cheaper as the strongest competition, which is natural gas."
Quinn says it's only a matter of time before nuclear energy becomes a pressing global issue as world population increases and the need for electricity expands. The World Energy Council is predicting a 50 percent to 75 percent increase in electricity use by 2020.
But some organizations believe that there are other ways to produce energy without having to rely on nuclear technology.
Members of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation -- a U.S.-based international anti-nuclear education and advocacy group -- believe the long-lived radioactive materials that are produced in nuclear reactions and which must be stored are a threat to future generations.
The foundation is part of a global network called Abolition 2000 whose members support the total elimination of both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.
A statement issued by the foundation as part of the Abolition 2000 campaign says: "We must move toward reliance on clean, safe, renewable forms of energy production that do not provide materials for weapons of mass destruction and do not poison the environment for thousands of centuries."
(This is the fifth of six features from NCA on the status of the nuclear power industry in several nations, East and West.)