WASHINGTON - After the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl heightened fears about the hazards of nuclear power and halted the building of new plants, the industry seemed to fade from attention in the United States.
But now, for the first time in a quarter-century, the nuclear industry's outlook has brightened and its critics say they fear a resurgence. That is because nuclear energy suddenly has two major supporters - President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney - who say they are determined to make the industry a partner in confronting America's energy problems.
Renewing a commitment to nuclear power as a way to meet rising U.S. demand for electricity is a centerpiece of the energy policy that Cheney helped craft and that Bush unveiled last week.
The enthusiastic backing of the Bush administration for nuclear power has upset environmental groups, which have long called for the phase-out of nuclear energy in the United States and are now being forced into a defensive posture.
They warn that generating electricity in fission reactors remains highly dangerous and that the disposal of radioactive waste is hazardous to the environment.
The push for a nuclear revival could spark one of the critical battles over the Bush energy plan.
But for those in the industry, who insist that nuclear power is safe, clean and affordable, there may be much to celebrate.
Cheney dropped in yesterday on a conference of nuclear industry lobbyists to review the Bush administration's recommendations. He was greeted with cheers like a conquering hero.
"American electricity is already being provided through the nuclear industry - efficiently, safely, with no discharge of greenhouse gases or emissions," the vice president said. "And we want, as a matter of national policy, to encourage continued advancements in this industry."
Cheney noted that the nuclear industry provides electricity to one in five homes in America. With demand for energy rising, he added, the nation needs such a reliable energy producer to help churn out more electricity.
The Bush energy policy calls on the federal government to speed up the relicensing process for nuclear reactors and to consider approving the construction of new reactors in the United States for the first time since 1978, a year before the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa.
The Bush administration has thrown its support behind creating a single repository for nuclear waste - a move backed by the industry. But the idea is opposed by many lawmakers, especially those in Nevada, where Yucca Mountain is under consideration as the nation's first underground nuclear waste dump.
The White House policy also calls for re-examining a method of reprocessing nuclear waste for use as fuel, which cuts down on the waste generated but produces weapons-grade plutonium.
Critics oppose the process out of concern that the relatively small amount of plutonium needed to make a bomb could wind up in the hands of terrorists or a rogue nation that wants to amass nuclear weapons.
The Bush energy plan urges Congress to extend the Price-Anderson Act, which shields nuclear plant owners from unlimited liability in the event of a catastrophic accident. The measure is scheduled to expire next year.
Joe Colvin, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying arm, called Cheney's brief remarks yesterday "an exhilarating rallying point."
"We applaud the leadership that President Bush and Vice President Cheney are providing in recognizing that nuclear power is an indispensable component of our energy mix," Colvin said.
The nuclear power industry gave more than $13.8 million to federal candidates and committees in the 2000 election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. More than two-thirds of that money went to Republicans. Individuals and organizations associated with the nuclear industry contributed more than $290,000 to Bush's presidential campaign, the center said.
Opponents argue that Bush and Cheney are portraying the industry as safer than it is. While steps have been taken to prevent accidents and dispose of nuclear waste less hazardously, they note that even minor accidents or low exposures to waste can be deadly.
The Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986 rendered the surrounding area uninhabitable.
But critics are facing a public that seems to be growing less fearful of nuclear power - leaving an opportunity for the White House to back the industry and making it harder for opponents to generate momentum.
For months, Republican pollsters have said that the Bush administration would be safe in proceeding with its plans to back nuclear power.
In a recent Gallup poll, 49 percent of those surveyed said "nuclear power is necessary to help solve the country's current energy problems" while 46 percent said "the dangers of nuclear power are too great."
"People may be less concerned, but the issue of new nuclear power plants hasn't been at the fore for a long time," said Ann Mesnikoff of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program.
Mesnikoff said nuclear energy "is expensive, it generates nuclear waste and it's dangerous."
Industry representatives say their comeback was beginning even before Bush took office and that they were not dependent on any candidate winning.
For example, Calvert Cliffs, a nuclear power facility that operates two reactors on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, in Calvert County, had its operating licenses renewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year. It was the first renewal granted for any U.S. nuclear facility since 1978 and was a breakthrough step for the industry. Over the next five years, 23 nuclear facilities hope to have their licenses renewed.
There are now 103 reactors operating in the country, and the White House has suggested that a good first step would be to double the number of reactors at some already licensed nuclear power plants.
That strategy would avoid the protracted environmental reviews and local protests that usually complicate the process of approving new reactor sites.
Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the National Energy Institute, suggested that the industry is regaining momentum because the public is becoming concerned about energy shortfalls and sees nuclear power as a clean alternative to fossil fuels such as coal.
"What's taking place in the energy world is something either George Bush or Al Gore would have been confronted with," Kerekes said.
But under the Clinton administration, environmental groups, which support conservation and an emphasis on "renewable" forms of energy such as solar and wind power, seemed to have the ear of the White House more than they do now.
These days, the vice president can be found at an event with people such as Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive of Cogema, a European nuclear processing company.
"Wind energy has become very popular because it doesn't have any effect on the environment," Lauvergeon said. "But wind energy is five times more expensive than nuclear energy."
Lauvergeon said White House support for nuclear power has sent the message that the industry is due for a comeback.
"The plan announced by President Bush will have an effect ... in countries worldwide," she said.