If America is on the verge of a "nuclear renaissance," as proponents of nuclear power contend, our nuclear Dark Age has cost us dearly.
The nuclear industry provides just 19.7 percent of America's electrical power, a remarkably small share for a country with our industrial capacity and energy needs. There were 112 reactors operating in the United States in 1990. Today, there are just over 100.
Polls indicate that 51 percent of Americans approve of building more nuclear power plants, but only 40 percent would approve of those plants in their community.
This NIMBY -- not in my backyard -- phenomenon has dogged the nuclear industry since the near-disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979.
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Although Three Mile Island caused no deaths and no injuries, orders for new U.S. reactors fell from 41 in 1973 to zero after the incident.
The fact that most of the area's residents were exposed to one-sixth the amount of radiation absorbed in a typical chest X-ray was irrelevant. The damage had been done -- and more was yet to come.
Seven years later, a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine released huge amounts of radiation. More than two dozen workers died within months, and 4,000 cancer deaths may eventually be attributed to Chernobyl, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
To be sure, the long-term effects of Chernobyl are tragic. But it pays to recall that the Soviet Union's public safety record was much different than America's, as underscored by the divergent outcomes at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
No matter. Environmental groups, the news media and Hollywood used Three Mile Island and Chernobyl to turn public opinion against nuclear energy. Many in government joined the antinuclear bandwagon.
And the nuclear industry itself seemed to wave the white flag.
Some within the industry suggest that it didn't do enough to defend itself. "After Three Mile Island happened, there was a tendency to sort of want to dive into the fox holes," Frank Bowman, former CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, told CNET in 2007.
While the U.S. nuclear industry flat-lined, the rest of the world kept building. Nuclear power accounts for 79 percent of Lithuania's electricity needs, 78 percent of France's and 50 percent of Sweden's. China has built nine new reactors since 1991. Even Ukraine, the very place that bears Chernobyl's scars, derives half its energy from nuclear power.
There are signs that America's nuclear Dark Age is ending.
Some former critics of nuclear power embrace it as an alternative to fossil fuels. Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, for example, now leads NEI's Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.
Plus, the political winds may be shifting. The Bush administration promoted nuclear power, opening the way to 22 nuclear plant applications for the period 2007-2010. President Barack Obama acknowledges that nuclear power should be "part of the energy mix." But we shouldn't rush into building nuclear plants out of any sense of an energy crisis. After all, another part of the energy mix is oil from right here in America.
The United States has 30.4-billion barrels of proven oil reserves. That number is growing: The Arctic holds an estimated 90 billion barrels, a third of which is in Alaska; a new field in the Gulf of Mexico contains perhaps 15 billion barrels of oil; and RAND estimates that Colorado, Utah and Wyoming hold more than 500 billion barrels of oil-shale.
These reserves won't last forever. But along with expanded nuclear energy, they are enough to carry the United States into what might be called the post-petroleum economy.
Both cases -- drilling for oil and going nuclear -- are simply a matter of will.
Dowd is a senior fellow and senior editor based in Indianapolis with Canada's Fraser Institute (www.fraseramerica.org), a free-market think tank.