Monday, March 21, 2005

Nuclear power coming back in vogue?

Only by building more nuclear power stations can the world meet its soaring energy needs while averting environmental disaster, experts at an international conference said Monday.

Energy ministers and officials from 74 countries were in Paris for the two-day meeting on the future of nuclear energy, as concerns about global warming and fossil fuel supplies renew governments' interest in atomic power.

"It's clear that nuclear energy is regaining stature as a serious option," said Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency the U.N. nuclear watchdog which organized the conference.

ElBaradei said the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol, which commits governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, was focusing minds.

Power plants fired by oil, coal and gas are major sources of carbon dioxide and other gases that cause global warming. The Kyoto accord will force plant operators to pay for their pollution, making nuclear power facilities more competitive by comparison.

"In the past, the virtual absence of restrictions or taxes on greenhouse gas emissions has meant that nuclear power's advantage, low emissions, has had no tangible economic value," ElBaradei said. But the Kyoto Protocol "will likely change that over the longer term."

Soaring fossil fuel costs, including the historic highs charted by oil prices during the past year, are a more immediate worry for governments and a reminder of the petroleum shocks of the 1970s that persuaded countries, including France, to intensify nuclear production.

But accidents at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania in 1979 and at Chernobyl, Ukraine, seven years later undermined public confidence in nuclear power.

Although there is still deep public concern about the risk of accidents and transportation and storage of radioactive waste, nuclear advocates say there also is a new awareness that relying on fossil fuels could lead to an even greater environmental catastrophe.

"The climate will probably change no matter what we now do, but we should, at the very least, make every effort to slow it down," Donald Johnston, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said in a video statement. "We ignore its importance at our peril."

Environmental groups, however, insist that nuclear power is not the solution to the climate problem.

"Today, nuclear energy accounts for 17 percent of electricity consumption and 3 percent of energy consumption," said Helene Gassin, who heads Greenpeace's energy campaign in France. The climate problem "goes far beyond the electricity issue."

When Finland begins construction of a new reactor later this year, it will become the first Western European country to do so since 1991. France plans to start building a new-generation reactor in 2007.

Nuclear plants produce one-third of Europe's electricity, saving greenhouse emissions "equivalent to those of all of Europe's cars," French Industry Minister Patrick Devedjian said.

In a message to the conference, U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman cited a University of Chicago study that showed nuclear power "can become competitive with electricity produced by plants fueled by coal or gas" because of new technologies delivering more efficient reactors.

Echoing recent comments by President Bush, Bodman said: "America hasn't ordered a new nuclear power plant since the 1970s and it's time to start building again."

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