US must exorcise its nuclear demons

Jane screws up, yet Jane endures. That seems to be the lesson of the success of Jane Fonda's new autobiography*. One reason Americans like Miss Fonda is that her challenges are so often their challenges. Young Jane had a bad family (cold Henry as father, the suicidal mother). Many Americans have faced the same obstacle. Adult Jane spent many of her middle years justifying her own stupid behaviour in Vietnam. Ditto American baby boomers - although their behaviour did not usually range to posing for photos with North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns.

But there is a final Jane-related challenge still confronting the US. It is a challenge that Congress is reviewing as it moves forward on energy legislation, and it is one that George W. Bush, the president, will discuss with Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, at a forthcoming summit of the Group of Eight in Scotland. It is America's China Syndrome.

The China Syndrome has nothing to do with China. The name comes from Miss Fonda's 1979 Columbia Pictures film about a massive meltdown at a nuclear power plant, in which a reactor core burns deep into the earth, or "all the way to China" (hence the title). The film featured Miss Fonda with bright red hair and the giant hoop earrings that were popular that year - a year when there was a revolution in Iran and the petrol price soared. Two weeks after The China Syndrome opened in New York cinemas there was a genuine nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Small amounts of radioactivity escaped into the atmosphere. This created, as Miss Fonda puts it, "the most shocking synchronicity between real life catastrophe and movie fiction ever to have occurred". Shares in nuclear power companies plunged. Shares in Columbia Pictures rose. Miss Fonda and her then husband, the activist Tom Hayden, embarked on a 52-city anti-nuke tour.

The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in Ukraine that came half a decade later reinforced the prejudice against the industry, even though US standards were far higher than Soviet ones. The introduction of new plants ceased; the authorities suspended projects under construction. The most spectacular of these suspensions was Long Island's Shoreham plant. Lilco, the utility, spent more than $5bn on the plant only to see regulators decommission it. Electricity ratepayers on Long Island were forced to shoulder much of the cost of the loss.

This anti-nuclear attitude seemed affordable as long as other fuels existed. There was always coal. In the past decade, American power companies leapt into the natural gas business. Gas-fired plants were less likely to attract demonstrators. Investors wanted to avoid a Shoreham repeat - hundreds of thousands of hours and billions of dollars committed only to confront failure.

But, as Peter Huber and Mark Mills remind us in a book** considerably less self-indulgent than Miss Fonda's, the substitution has been outrageously wasteful. It takes four tons of coal to provide the power needs of one inhabitant of Chicago's Lake Shore Drive for a year. A few ounces of uranium could cover the same need. There is also the damage to the environment. The central hypocrisy of the green movement in our era is that anti-nuclear policy has driven the US to use the hydrocarbon fuels so much opposed by the anti-global warming movement. Or, as Mr Huber puts it: "If we had simply built all the plants that were in the pipeline at the time of Three Mile Island then we would have reduced current coal combustion sufficiently to satisfy the Kyoto treaty."

Meanwhile, over decades, US nuclear-power plants operated successfully and increasingly efficiently. That record ought to have been considered against the Three Mile Island story. But it was not.

The mood is now changing and the energy options open today are far more numerous than in the 1970s or 1980s. Scarcity, once the premise of all energy policy, can now be questioned: new technologies mean that the US may never run out of energy. As for the China Syndrome, the US is beginning to overcome it. Useful changes in the law made over a decade ago mean permits can be granted upfront, allowing companies to avoid a Shoreham experience. Now several consortia are seeking permits for new plants. James Lucier of Prudential Equity Group predicts that a site permit will be issued in the next year.

The Bush administration for its part backs increased use of nuclear energy. The energy bill is likely to provide investment tax credits for new plants. This month Mr Bush argued for the nuclear components of the new legislation. On Friday Dick Cheney, the vice-president, spoke about getting past the Three Mile Island experience.

But the White House needs to be more aggressive. In coming weeks we will hear a lot about a "nuclear option" in the Senate, the phrase referring to the White House's intent to escalate its procedural war against Democratic filibusters. Let the White House also go "nuclear" on nuclear energy. After all, anti-nuclear romanticism can always come back into fashion. Hoop earrings have. And, as Miss Fonda proved in her day, vehemence can be very effective.

* My Life so Far (Random House);

** The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why we will

© Copyright 2005 Financial Times

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