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A Nuclear Renaissance In U.S. Was Unlikely Even Before Fukushima Disaster

To all those who may be concerned that the catastrophic events at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will derail the heralded renaissance of nuclear power in the U.S., you can relax. The reason is simple: There is no renaissance.

Not even Exelon Corp., the nation’s biggest nuclear generation company, has been holding its breath for a surge in orders or appreciable increase in new generating capacity.

The reason has little to do with an unreasoning public’s fear of nuclear meltdowns and radiation poisoning, and almost everything to do with pure economics. As John Rowe, Exelon’s chairman and chief executive, told an audience at a Washington think tank two weeks ago, you can build a new natural gas plant for 40% less than a new nuclear plant, and the price of its fuel is at rock bottom.

“Natural gas is queen,” he says. (To be fair, Exelon also makes a lot of money from gas.)

In recent years, nuclear energy has been promoted as a “green,” or at least greenish, alternative to coal power and other fossil-fueled generation. That’s been a potent selling point as concern has mounted over the latter’s effect on climate change by the production of greenhouse gases. Nuclear power is burdened by its own environmental issues, including the dangers of radioactive release into the atmosphere, but the production of carbon dioxide isn’t among them.

Yet the technology’s potential as a weapon against global warming has been as oversold, just as its virtues as safe, clean and “too cheap to meter” were during its infancy in the 1950s. To realistically make a dent in climate change, nuclear plant construction would have to take off at such a rate that it would “pose serious concerns” for the availability of construction materials, properly trained builders and operating technicians, and safety and security oversight, as a report by the Council on Foreign Relations observed in 2007.

“For at least a couple of decades to come, nuclear will be very uncompetitive,” the report’s author, Charles D. Ferguson, told me this week. Ferguson is president of the Federation of American Scientists.

The ongoing disaster in Japan will exacerbate social concerns about nuclear waste disposal — the on-site storage of spent fuel, which is common at U.S. plants, has complicated the situation at Fukushima — as well as concerns about the safety and security of existing plants. But those concerns have existed for years, so the spectacle of the Japanese grappling with the consequences, graphic as it is, may not in itself affect public attitudes.

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