Mass. torn between lure, fear of nuclear power

Boston - Gov. Deval Patrick has championed alternative energy as a hallmark of his first term.

But amid all the talk of solar arrays, wind turbines and geothermal power, one source of non-greenhouse gas emitting energy has been noticeably absent: nuclear power plants.

Until last week, when he sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking for greater scrutiny of two area plants, Patrick had said virtually nothing about nuclear power as a resource when discussing the state's short- or long-term energy portfolio.

Asked in 2008 whether nuclear power should be considered to help reduce energy costs, Patrick offered qualified support.

"It's going to have to be a part of the solution. And in order for it to be a part of the solution, the disposal issues are going to have to be solved and they haven't been," he said.

Patrick's ambivalence comes as President Barack Obama has revived talk about nuclear energy.

In his State of the Union address last month, Obama called for building "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country."

He followed that up by including in his budget request to Congress $54 billion in additional loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants. There have been no new nuclear power plants built in the country in three decades.

Patrick's Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles said he agrees the country needs to take "advantage of all forms of zero carbon emission power over fossil fuels," but said no new nuclear power plants are on the horizon in Massachusetts.

"It's unlikely that you would see the first new generation of nuclear power plants coming to New England," Bowles said. "Realistically, New England in general will want to see the next generation (of nuclear plants) get built in another part of the country."

Only after those new plants "get vetted out and validated" would any thought be given to trying to license a new plant here, Bowles said. He said there are a series of hurdles including the region's dense population, the cost of construction and the question of what to do with nuclear waste.

Still, Bowles said that "philosophically we would say yes this is part of the solution" to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. He said Massachusetts already receives about 15 percent to its energy from nuclear power plants.

Not everyone is excited about Obama's new push for nuclear power.

Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said his group isn't opposed to nuclear power, but said the technology still has a lot of problems - from threats from terrorists to safety issues to the question of what to do with the nuclear waste.

Lyman said he wasn't impressed by promises of a new generation of safer nuclear power technology.

"No matter how safe your plant is from accidents, people who know what they are doing could sabotage it," he said. "Unless those problems are resolved satisfactorily, it's not advisable to greatly expand nuclear power."

Supporters of nuclear energy say it is critical to the creation of an energy grid for the country that relies less and less on fossil fuels. They say renewable sources like solar and wind energy, while important, will never be able to satisfy the country's energy needs.

The 104 nuclear reactors operating in 31 states provide only 20 percent of the nation's electricity, but are responsible for 70 percent of the power from non-greenhouse gas producing sources, including wind, solar and hydroelectric dams.

Still, a recent leak of radioactive tritium from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant near the Massachusetts border has raised worries about the potential hazards of nuclear power.

After the leak was made public, Patrick sent a letter to the NRC asking the agency to order extensive tests for tritium and other radioactive substances at both the Vermont Yankee and the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass. Patrick asked the NRC to postpone relicensing both plants until any leaks are fixed.

Dave Tarantino, a spokesman for the Pilgrim plant, which opened in 1972, said test wells have shown no similar tritium leaks. The New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. owns both plants, which are both seeking a 20-year license extension when their current licenses expire in 2012.

Tarantino said he agrees with Bowles that New England likely won't be on the vanguard of a new generation of power plants because of political and social resistance.

"It's too bad. Nuclear in the Northeast is really a good alternative," he said. "New England was considered in the early days of nuclear power to be a prime area for nuclear power plants because we're not close to any source of fuels (like coal and natural gas)."

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