Washington - Vice President Dick Cheney, head of the presidential task force studying our energy needs, favors building new nuclear power plants - and he's oddly casual about it.
The industry has been moribund in this country since the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island more than two decades ago set off fierce emotional resistance to an unreliable technology capable of accidentally spreading deadly radiation. No new plants have been ordered since then. Only 20 percent of our electricity is generated by nuclear power.
But President Bush has instructed Cheney to look into the prospect of resurrecting and developing nuclear power as a major part of a broad new energy policy. Cheney argues that modern, improved reactors operate safely, economically and efficiently. "It's one of the safest industries around," he says unequivocally.
There remains, however, a little problem of how to dispose of the plants' radioactive waste. Cheney concedes that issue is still unsolved. "If we're going to go forward with nuclear power, we need to find a way to resolve it," he said Sunday in an NBC "Meet The Press" interview.
No state wants to be the repository of the more than 40,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste currently accumulating at 103 commercial reactor sites around the country. This spent fuel is so deadly it can remain a potential threat to public health and safety for thousands of years. A leak could silently contaminate many miles of groundwater that millions of people depend on.
In 1987, Congress designated Nevada's Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas, as the most likely site to bury the dangerous stuff. But furious Nevada officials, using all their political clout, have thus far managed to fend off final federal approval. Recently they sharply challenged the scientific integrity of a feasibility study that found the location suitable for long-term storage.
Former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., is the author of what the state's congressional delegation calls the "screw Nevada" bill recommending Yucca Mountain. Last December Bush, looking for a friendly Democrat to include in his Cabinet, considered selecting Johnston, now a nuclear industry lobbyist, as secretary of energy.
But Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., publicly warned that he would rally environmental groups and other nuclear opponents for a classic nomination fight. Reid bluntly said he would "do everything I can" to keep Johnston from the energy post.
Johnston wisely withdrew his name from contention. Former Sen. Spencer Abraham, who got the job instead, has been less identified with Nevada's fate but is believed to back its selection for storage as an essential step toward future nuclear power development.
An alternate waste site was suggested in Utah on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation. It was promoted as a temporary location for the waste casks for several years until the Yucca Mountain facility can be built. But Utah's political leaders don't want their state to warehouse the waste either. Not for a day. Not for a minute. And conservative Utah has considerable influence with Bush, who has promised to veto any legislation that allows temporary storage.
"Nobody wants this waste," acknowledges Frank Murkowski, RAlaska, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "It is a highly politicized issue. If you throw it up in the air, it is going to come down somewhere."
Two places it is not likely to come down are Texas, Bush's home state, and Wyoming, where Cheney grew up from age 13 on.
The vice president scowled when he was asked if he would be willing to put the waste in either of those two states. He ducked the issue, echoing Murkowski that "it will have to be put someplace."
Environmentalists, already angry at Bush for permitting logging in federal parks and other anti-conservation policy decisions, are preparing for a noisy political battle over the Bush administration's interest in expanding nuclear power. Federal officials estimate that electricity demand will rise 45 percent over the next two decades and require the construction of more than 1,300 new power plants, some of which may be nuclear reactors. No specific plans, however, have yet surfaced.
Cheney refused to get into the numbers game, saying only that he would like to see the percentage of electricity produced by nuclear power "go up."
The Bush administration figures that the current rush for new energy sources will make nuclear power easier to sell a nervous public than in the past. But they may figure wrong. From time to time, this country goes through a political spasm in which we declare an energy emergency, predicting terrible shortages if we don't do something fast. So far, we have preferred patchwork solutions like voluntary conservation to a growing dependency on nuclear power. It's just too scary a prospect.
Copyright 2001 Hearst Newspapers