- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

PARIS (AP) — Only by building more nuclear power plants can the world meet its soaring energy needs while averting environmental disaster, specialists at an international conference said yesterday.

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, which organized the conference. The IAEA is the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations.

Mr. ElBaradei said the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, which commits governments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, was focusing minds on environmental issues.

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. The United States did not sign on to the agreement.

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 the 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 leads Greenpeace’s energy campaign in France. The climate problem “goes far beyond the electricity issue.”

When Finland begins construction of a 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.

In a message to the conference, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. 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, Mr. Bodman said: “America hasn’t ordered a new nuclear power plant since the 1970s, and it’s time to start building again.”

Three U.S. companies have started the licensing process that eventually would allow them to build nuclear plants, but no licenses would be issued before 2011. A fourth has shown interest.

Even in some countries that have been fiercely opposed to nuclear power, the mood is shifting. For example, Italians had voted against the use of atomic energy in a referendum the year after the Chernobyl accident, and the government gradually began decommissioning plants.

“Regarding nuclear power, we perceive a clear change in public opinion, notably by the young generations,” Italian Industry Minister Antonio Marzano said.

The real boom in nuclear power is expected to focus on developing countries, particularly in Asia.

China is expected to increase its nuclear production capacity from the current 6.5 gigawatts to 36 gigawatts by 2020, according to IAEA figures, while India plans to multiply its production capacity tenfold and Russia is expected to double its capacity to about 45 gigawatts.

A gigawatt equals 1 billion watts.

U.S. nuclear plant builder Westinghouse Electric Co. is among contenders for an $8 billion contract for four new Chinese reactors to be awarded by year’s end.

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