Using nuclear power to cool the planet


AS THE concentration of greenhouse gas emissions keeps rising in the atmosphere and warming up the planet, it is time to reconsider a national policy to limit the use of nuclear power -- a policy increasingly at odds with itself.

On the one hand, the government recognizes that the expanded use of nuclear power since the early 1970s has been crucial in reducing the direct burning of fossil fuels. Policymakers support the idea of renewing the operating licenses of nuclear power plants and developing designs for a new generation of advanced reactors. U.S. nuclear plants have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by more than 2 billion tons since 1973, more than any other electricity source.

The environmental benefits of nuclear power have been cited by John P. Holdren, professor of environmental policy at Harvard University and President Clinton's adviser on global warming. He said the dangers of climatic change have caused "many people inside and outside the environmental community to reconsider their opposition to nuclear power."

Doubtless Mr. Holdren alludes to the Natural Resources Defense Council, considered by many to be the nation's most influential environmental organization and a leader in the battle against air pollution and global warming. Earlier this year, NRDC reached an agreement with New Jersey's largest utility to support full recovery of utility investments in nuclear plants and other facilities that might be "stranded" by electricity deregulation.

NRDC said the accord with the New Jersey Electric & Gas Co. in Newark was made possible by the utility's "remarkable" past support for a campaign aimed at reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. NRDC's support for the recovery of billions of dollars in stranded nuclear costs demonstrates that it believes the continued use of nuclear power is essential if we expect to stabilize or reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Yet even as the administration and environmental groups pursue controls on greenhouse emissions, President Clinton is threatening to veto legislation that would establish an interim storage facility in Nevada for spent nuclear fuel. Many nuclear plants around the country are running out of storage space for nuclear waste.

The irony is that we are headed for the very situation the global-warming treaty was designed to avoid. The treaty requires the United States to reduce greenhouse emissions to a level 7 percent lower than in 1990. If nuclear plants are shut down prematurely as a result of competitive pressures aggravated by the waste problem, the trend toward greater use of fossil fuels in electricity production will increase, pushing greenhouse emissions ever higher.

In fact, the Energy Information Administration, a branch of the Energy Department, has warned that 24 nuclear plants might close prematurely, reducing U.S. nuclear capacity from approximately 100,000 megawatts today to about half that by 2020. Carbon emissions would rise to 45 percent above 1990 levels.

The future need not be this way. President Clinton should rethink his position on nuclear waste legislation. And he should establish a national policy to maintain both the current generation of nuclear plants and continued research and development on advanced nuclear plants.

A good start would be to renew the original 40-year operating licenses for current nuclear plants. A number of nuclear utilities are considering extending the lives of their plants. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has already submitted a license renewal application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its two-unit Calvert Cliffs plant.

This approach makes sense. If we are to ensure clean energy capabilities for the future, we must start the license renewal process now.

Anthony J. Baratta is professor of nuclear engineering at Penn State University.

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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