Brave nuclear world? The planet is warming, and proponents of nuclear power say they've got the answer. Are nuclear plants the climate cavalry? First of two parts.

Author:Charman, Karen
 
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A few miles down an idyllic New England country road dotted with handsome homesteads and gentleman farms in central Connecticut sits the Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant--or what's left of it. After shutting down in 1996, the 590-megawatt reactor is nearing the end of its decommissioning, a process spokesperson Kelley Smith describes as "construction in reverse."

Most of the buildings, the reactor itself, and its components have been removed. Adjacent to the Connecticut River, the discharge pond, which received the reactor's second-stage cooling water from the internal heat exchanger, is being dredged. The soil, including hot spots near the reactor that were contaminated with strontium-90 from leaking tanks, has been replaced. Forty concrete casks of highly radioactive spent fuel now sit on a fenced and guarded concrete pad surrounded by woods on the company's property about three-quarters of a mile from the reactor site. Soon the spent fuel pool that housed the irradiated fuel assemblies will be drained and dismantled. A twisted spaghetti-like tangle of metal protruding from a partially demolished building will be carted off to a dump site. Stories-high stacks of steel containers packed with mildly radioactive rubble are also waiting to be taken away. One of the final tasks will be to demolish the containment dome, which consists of 35,000 metric tons of steel-reinforced concrete. When decommissioning is completed by the end of the year, over 136,000 metric tons of soil, concrete, metal, and other materials will have been removed from the site at a cost of more than US$400 million to the area's electricity customers.

But for a fluke in timing, Connecticut Yankee might well have remained in operation today. Ten years ago, when the board of directors of the Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Company decided to close its reactor at Haddam Neck, nuclear power was widely considered, if not a dying industry, then one that was seriously and chronically ill. In the newly deregulated electricity market, the company found it could buy electricity for less than its nuclear power plant could produce it. Connecticut's deregulation of the electricity sector required the company to divest itself of the plant. Company directors didn't think they could sell a single reactor of relatively low capacity, so they decided to shut it down.

Just a few years later, the economic landscape for nuclear power began changing with the emergence of companies like Exelon Corporation (a merger between Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison and Pennsylvania-based PECO) and the Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation, which began buying up reactors. Entergy purchased Vermont Yankee, a 540-megawatt reactor, for US$180 million in 2002. Less than 80 kilometers south of Connecticut Yankee, Dominion Resources spent US$1.3 billion to acquire three reactors (two operating and one shut) at Millstone--a plant with the dubious distinction of landing on the cover of Time in 1996 for longstanding, egregious breaches of safety regulations. By 2002, just 10 corporations owned all or part of 70 of the nation's 103 operating reactors.

Fast forward to today. The world has begun to wake up to the very real and growing perils of human-induced, catastrophic climate change. The war in Iraq, increasing tension in the oil-rich Middle East, and memories of both the (market-manipulated) energy fiasco in California in 2001 and the blackout that affected one-third of the United States and Canada in August 2003 have raised awareness and anxiety about unstable, unsustainable energy supplies. These factors, along with a very skillful, multi-pronged public relations and lobbying campaign, have put nuclear power, which is touted as carbon-free, back on the table.

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According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nine new nuclear plants--three in Japan, two in Ukraine, and one each in South Korea, India, China, and Russia--have gone online since 2004. In that time, two plants in Canada were restarted after years of not operating, and there is talk of building a new reactor there. Currently 23 nuclear power plants are under construction around the world, including one in Finland, the first in western Europe since the 1986 explosion at Chornobyl in northern Ukraine. France, whose 58 reactors provide approximately 80 percent of that country's electricity, is also considering building another reactor, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is calling for new reactors to replace Britain's aging fleet of 31 reactors, most of which are due to retire by 2020. In August 2005, U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law an energy bill that contained US$13 billion in public subsidies to help jumpstart a new generation of nuclear reactors.

Nuclear Power vs. Global Warming

A growing chorus of nuclear advocates, government officials, international bureaucrats, academics, economists, and journalists is calling for nuclear power to save us from devastating climate change. Nuclear reactors do not emit carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) and other greenhouse gases when they split atoms to create electricity. But it's inaccurate to say that nuclear power is "carbon-free"--on a cradle-to-grave basis, no currently available energy source is. (Even wind turbines are guilty by association: the...

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