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Is the Era of Nuclear Power Coming to an End in the US?

A battle raging in Vermont over an aging plant may be an important indicator of whether nuclear has had its day.

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Is the End of Nuclear Near -- Or a Revival?

The Fukushima disaster came at a time when the nuclear industry and the Obama administration were pushing for a revival of nuclear power in the U.S., which had largely stalled after the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, and the 1989 bankruptcy of the Long Island Lighting Company, which had spent $6 billion on a Mark I plant that never opened because the company could not develop a viable evacuation plan. (The only ways off Long Island, where New York's densely populated eastern suburbs stretch for 45 miles, are by ferry or through the city on highways that are clogged in a normal rush hour.) The last two nuclear plants to come online got their licenses in 1993 and 1996.

That may be changing. On Feb. 9, the NRC voted 4-1 to let Southern Co. construct two new reactors at its Vogtle plant in Georgia, and it is expected to approve three others in South Carolina and Tennessee. NRC chair Gregory Jaczko dissented, citing Fukushima. On Feb. 16, a coalition of nine Southeastern and national environmental groups filed a lawsuit with the federal D.C. Court of Appeals, alleging that the NRC was "violating federal law by issuing the Vogtle license without considering important public safety and environmental implications in the wake of the catastrophic Fukushima accident."

The coalition also charges that if the plant is redesigned to take the lessons of Fukushima into account, it will "add major delays and cost overruns" that will be passed on to ratepayers. Georgia and South Carolina are among the states that let utilities pass the cost of new plants on to customers before they come online, under a system known as "Construction Work in Progress." (The new Vogtle reactors are scheduled to come online in 2016 and 2017.) The Obama administration has offered Southern $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees through the Department of Energy.

Nuclear energy's supporters tout it as a technology that's already on-line and doesn't burn fossil fuels. (Some cynics speculate that President Obama's sympathy for it might have something to do with the large contributions made by Exelon, a Chicago-based company that is the nation's largest provider of nuclear power, to his 2006 run for the U.S. Senate and then his 2008 presidential campaign.)

Its opponents say the risk is too big -- the possible damage in a disaster is almost infinite. Vermont Yankee is 17 miles from the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to the Boston area. Pilgrim is 38 miles southeast of Boston. Indian Point, though not a boiling-water reactor, has an estimated 21 million people within 50 miles of its location on the Hudson River in New York's northern suburbs. The oldest of the three reactors at that site was closed down in 1974 after radioactive isotopes, tritium and strontium-90, leaked from the spent-fuel storage into nearby groundwater.

"The Japanese were actually lucky," says Arnie Gundersen, because the wind blew 80 percent of the radiation released at Fukushima out to sea, instead of toward Tokyo.

Maintenance is another issue, says George Harvey of the New England Coalition. "These plants are not being run to retirement. They're being run to failure," he says. "Every nuke in the U.S. will run until it fails in some way. That's not very comforting." Rather than gamble with people's lives and safety, he contends that alternative sources such as wind power and new technologies such as carbon sequestration of natural gas can provide an adequate supply of clean energy.

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