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Editorial: From Gregg, a new look at nuclear power

Former New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg and former Indiana senator Evan Bayh have agreed to chair Nuclear Matters, an organization devoted to stressing the important role nuclear power plays in America’s energy mix. We applaud the bipartisan effort, even if it is by former rather than current office-holders. The debate about nuclear power’s role going forward is worth having. Still, the campaign, if that’s what it is, had a coy and cautious rollout. Gregg and Bayh decried the closing of aging power plants and the obstacles to their replacement, but they stopped short of calling for more nuclear power plants to be built.

If it’s going to do more than take advantage of Gregg and Bayh’s Washington connections and perform the public educational function it wants to fulfill, the organization needs to tell the whole story. Nowhere, for example, on its website, does Nuclear Matters say who’s funding the organization. Its literature touts the benefits of nuclear power, which provides one-fifth of the nation’s electricity, but says not a word about the still unsolved problem of disposing of nuclear waste or what has become the even greater need for taxpayer subsidies to make nuclear power economically viable. It makes no mention of the risk, however small, of a Fukushima-style disaster.

What the group is right about is the need to be open to the possibility that an increased reliance on nuclear power may be necessary to combat global warming. That case is being made by environmentalists who, while concerned with the risks inherent in nuclear power, see little hope that energy conservation and a large-scale switch to energy sources like wind and solar power can occur fast enough to forestall climate disaster. Chief among those making that argument is James Hansen, formerly NASA’s chief climate scientist.

At some point, Nuclear Matters says it will suggest policy changes that could slow or stop the closing of nuclear power plants, which struggle to compete in the marketplace when natural gas prices are low. We are eager to hear what those proposals will be, but glad that they will come too late to affect the decision to close the decrepit Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant on New Hampshire’s border.

Nuclear Matters wants the public, and presumably Congress, to consider changes that, in the name of combatting climate change, diminish the economic challenges faced by the industry. Those policy changes, if they’re ever made, should not include asking the public to bear either increased risk or provide even larger taxpayer subsidies of waste disposal costs, liability insurance and financing. The government subsidies devoted to alternative energy development already pale before those given to the nuclear, oil, coal and gas industries. Nuclear Matters also made no mention of a carbon tax. That tax, levied on all fuels, should be used to level the playing field for energy providers. It should be set to recognize not just the impact of burning fossil fuels on global warming but also the enormous health care costs that have historically been shifted from industry to the public.

The danger posed by global warming justifies a reconsideration of nuclear power, but one that includes both its pros and cons.

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