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Senate to consider giving new boost to nuclear power

Kathy Kiely USA Today

WASHINGTON – More than 26 years after a near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, the Senate is considering an energy bill that includes financial incentives for construction of nuclear plants. It’s the latest sign of the industry’s quiet rehabilitation.

Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who is the chief architect of the bill being debated, has long been an advocate of nuclear energy. And President Bush will repeat his call for boosting nuclear power when he visits the Calvert Cliffs plant in Lusby, Md., this week.

They have some unexpected company:

•Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that although he has been “totally opposed to nuclear power” in the past, he’s now willing to give it a second look. “You’re going to see a move towards nuclear power,” he predicted. “If it’s done right, it will protect the environment.”

•Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., includes incentives for nuclear power in a measure he plans to offer to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. McCain argues that nuclear power can help solve global warming. “I am a green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy,” he said in a Senate speech.

•Another recent convert: Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat whose home state of New Jersey gets nearly 52 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. “Nuclear issues are being forced on us by the realities of life,” he said. “We are being blackmailed by those who produce fossil fuels that we import, and more traditional domestic energy production poses risks to the environment.”

No nuclear power plant has been licensed in the United States since 1978, the year before the Three Mile Island accident in central Pennsylvania. But interest is growing. The reasons: rising prices for oil and natural gas, concerns that fossil fuel emissions are harming the climate, and an increasing desire to make the nation less dependent on energy supplies from the Middle East.

“It’s now dawning on people that if you’re talking about producing cleaner energy that will really fulfill needs of large populations, nuclear stands alone,” Domenici said in an interview last week.

No one died at Three Mile Island. But the failure of mechanical systems, which caused a partial meltdown of the reactor core and some release of radioactivity, was “a public relations disaster for our industry,” said Steve Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Even so, nuclear power never went away. There are 103 nuclear plants operating in 31 states, which Kerekes said generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Now, three companies have told the Energy Department that they plan to file for nuclear power plant licenses.

The Senate energy bill and a version passed by the House contain incentives to encourage investment in nuclear power. Both bills renew federally backed insurance for the nuclear industry, which Bush also supports.

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