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Why nuclear power is not the answer

PRESIDENT BUSH is once again playing word games that mask a deeply flawed energy policy. The chief proponent of ''clear skies," a legislative assault on essential pollution protections in the Clean Air Act, is now advocating for ''safe, clean nuclear power" as a way to curb our dependence on foreign oil.

Bush would have us believe that new nukes could be a panacea, ending our dependence on foreign oil while preventing emissions of perilous greenhouse gases whether or not the president admits there is such a thing as ''global warming."

Few Americans would think to use the words ''safe" and ''clean" to describe an industry whose high-level radioactive wastes sit in temporary storage at dozens of operating and decommissioned plants across the country, with experts still unable to agree upon an adequate means of long-term disposal.

There are also economic reasons for looking skeptically at nuclear power. Over the course of the last 50 years, billions of taxpayer dollars have been showered upon the nuclear industry, and it still remains only marginally profitable. The energy bill that the president is now pushing would authorize major expenditures on new reactor designs while providing free federal insurance protection in the event of a power plant disaster. If nuclear power is so safe and clean, why is this extraordinary level of government buffering needed?

Assuming the president is serious about advancing a more environmentally sound energy agenda, he will need to revisit his opposition to known and practical ways of cleaning up our nation's coal-fired power plants. Rather than looking enviously toward France, with its 78 percent dependence on nuclear power, he should take responsibility for our own power sector, which is 51 percent dependent on coal. That coal, if burned in state-of-the-art facilities, can meet much of our electricity needs for the coming generation at much lower environmental cost than the antiquated behemoths that today are allowed to belch out millions of tons of uncontrolled sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere.

Cleaning up coal-fired power plants also calls for creative measures to reduce those plants' emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas targeted by the Kyoto Protocol. Faced with the Bush administration's refusal to ratify the protocol, the governors of 10 Northeast states have begun to advance their own Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. This flexible ''cap-and-trade" program, if done right, will scale back carbon dioxide emissions through a flexible diet that will include retooling conventional power plants, investing in energy efficiency, and tapping renewable energy like wind and solar.

To ease our transition from fossil fuels over the coming decades, cleaner-burning natural gas is a vital resource. Ensuring a safe and adequate supply of this fuel is no small challenge, however. We need to advance a responsible process of gauging the actual need for new gas supplies and evaluating sites for import facilities. Offshore terminals as well as remote onshore sites need to be rigorously examined.

Looking beyond fossil fuels, we need to provide real incentives for renewable energy technology. If wind energy were a priority, we would see industrial-scale facilities cutting into fossil fuel-based power production throughout the nation. These and other renewable resource-based facilities could achieve what has already been attained in Denmark, where wind energy alone provides close to 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

To be sure, renewable energy has its flaws. Solar can be costly; wind can mar pristine landscapes and ocean horizons; and hydro dams can disrupt fish habitats. But if sited carefully and operated intelligently, each can contribute substantially.

A ''safe, clean" US energy policy will also require a major investment in the right forms of transportation. Accessible and affordable public transit is our best antidote to car-dependent sprawl. Governor Mitt Romney should be held accountable for longstanding, unfulfilled transit commitments made in connection with the ''Big Dig" highway project.

More hopefully, several states in the Northeast including Massachusetts are advancing ''clean car" regulations that echo the tough emission standards pioneered by California's Legislature.

A bright energy future that offers cleaner air and lower costs to consumers while standing against the rising tide of global warming is possible. But we must act now, pursuing multiple avenues for innovation and investment rather than single-technology panaceas.

Philip Warburg is president of the Conservation Law Foundation, New England's oldest and largest environmental advocacy organization.

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