- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Vice President Richard B. Cheney yesterday called for a cessation of the emotionalism that for decades has plagued the debate over nuclear power, which he vowed will supply a much greater share of Americas electricity in the future.

"Everybody stay calm and cool and collected and try to be objective and as nonemotional as possible," Mr. Cheney said at the Nuclear Energy Institute´s annual conference in Washington.

The vice president said the debate over nuclear power must take place "without people falling back on the stereotypes that have so often characterized these kinds of discussions in the past."

He was referring to the demonization of nuclear power by liberals, who have redoubled their efforts since President Bush announced this month that America must embrace nuclear power to help solve the burgeoning energy crisis.

"Nuclear power is a very important part of our energy policy today in the United States," Mr. Cheney said. "One out of five homes in America today runs on electricity generated by nuclear energy. American electricity is already being provided through the nuclear industry efficiently, safely, with no discharge of the greenhouse gases or emissions."

The Bush administration, stung by Democratic accusations that it is environmentally insensitive, is playing up the fact that nuclear plants emit none of the smoke and particulates of coal-fired plants.

"We want to assess the potential for nuclear energy to make a major contribution in terms of improving air quality," Mr. Cheney said.

He made it clear that if environmentalists succeed in derailing the administration´s push for more nuclear plants, the nation will be forced to build even greater numbers of fossil-burning facilities.

"The bottom line is we still have inadequate supplies," Mr. Cheney said. "And the only way to close that gap is to generate more electric power."

"It´s going to be coal-fired, it´s going to be gas-fired, or it´s going to come from nuclear power," he added. "If we reduce the amount of power generated from nuclear energy, we will, in fact, have to make that up from other sources."

Rather than reduce the amount of nuclear energy, the Bush administration is trying to stimulate greater nuclear development. It has pointed to countries such as France, where nuclear plants generate 60 percent of the electricity, triple the U.S. level.

But in recent decades, U.S. utilities have shied away from building new nuclear plants because of the onerous licensing and regulatory process. Environmentalists and other intervenors add years in construction delays and billions in cost overruns through lawsuits.

"We want to encourage the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to expedite applications for new advanced technology reactors, with the top criteria being safety and environmental protection," Mr. Cheney said. "We want to encourage the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to relicense existing plants that meet or exceed safety standards."

No new nuclear plants have been commissioned in the United States since a 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. Although the core of the reactor went into partial meltdown, no one was killed or injured.

In fact, no one has been killed by radiation in the history of the U.S. nuclear industry. Although coal routinely claims the lives of miners both through accidents and black-lung disease and also ends up in the lungs of people who live near coal-fired power plants, coal plants are viewed as safer than nuclear plants by many Americans.

Since nuclear plants emit no harmful emissions, its biggest environmental drawback is where to store the spent fuel, which remains radioactive for many years. Most states oppose construction of long-term nuclear waste facilities within their borders.

"As we prepare to increase nuclear generating capacity in the future, we also want to get on with the business of finding a geologic repository for long-term waste disposal," Mr. Cheney said.

Mr. Cheney´s pledge to resolve the storage question — perhaps as soon as this year — would remove the single biggest obstacle to development of nuclear power in the United States, analysts say.

While the vice president acknowledged nuclear power is an issue that causes "considerable controversy," he emphasized that Mr. Bush "didn´t come to town to duck the tough issues."

In his speech, Mr. Cheney alluded to the administration´s review of Clean Air Act regulations that do not give nuclear power plants credit for being free of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and other pollutants regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Changing those regulations could give nuclear power plants a major economic advantage they don´t now have, enabling them to sell credits for their reduced emissions to other utilities that go over their limits.

Mr. Cheney´s promotion of nuclear power as a "green" and seemingly limitless source of electricity comes just as environmental groups were mounting a major campaign to kill the industry, which until a few months ago they believed was dead and buried.

To the consternation of environmentalists, opinion polls this year have shown increasing public support for building new nuclear plants in the wake of California´s electricity crisis, prompting the Bush administration to take an aggressive stand promoting the industry.

After appearing quiescent on the issue for much of the year, major environmental groups last week came out in force when the White House announced its nuclear plans, making it clear that blocking nuclear power has once again become a top priority.

Still, much of what the administration wants to do to promote nuclear power can be done administratively, analysts say. If the White House takes action through executive order and the regulatory agencies, environmentalists may have to take their battle into the courts.

Another development that complicates the administration´s task is unexpected opposition from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, which argues that the nuclear power industry could not survive without government insurance and other subsidies and should be allowed to die.

"The administration needs to practice the free-market rhetoric that it preaches and put away its nuclear pompons," Cato analysts Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren wrote in a newspaper opinion article last week.

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