John Kane, the chief Washington lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute, has been trying to sell Americans on a kinder, gentler nuclear power that is safe, cheap and environmentally sound. Until recently, Americans weren’t buying. Now, even he is amazed at the success the industry has had in rebuilding its public image. “The analogy I like to use for what has happened with us is Cinderella,” he says. “Poor Cinderella toiled unappreciated and abused for a long time. Finally, somebody took a look at her and she got a chance to go to the dance.”
Nuclear energy–poor, abused nuclear energy–is indeed finally at the dance. Nuclear power plants are selling for record prices. The most pro-nuke administration since that of Richard Nixon is in the White House. A recent AP poll found that half of all Americans now say they support nuclear power. And stock in the nation’s largest nuclear holding company has doubled in value in the past year and a half.
It all amounts to a remarkable turnaround for an industry once so politically untouchable it spent the greater part of two decades in duck-and-cover mode–pronounced dead not just by environmentalists but also by investors stung by its high costs and risks, and the fear that the government subsidies that have kept it afloat would eventually dry up.
But the truth is, nuclear power, like the waste it produces, never really went away. America remains the world’s largest generator, churning out more atomic power than the two runners-up, France and Japan, combined. And output will almost certainly grow in coming years. Global-warming concerns and the energy crunch in California have helped, allowing the industry to cast itself as the ozone-friendly supplier of limitless energy. The new slogan of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), “Nuclear: the clean air energy,” is a definite step up from the old, “Nuclear: more than you ever imagined.” The economic outlook for the industry has also brightened because of political inroads in Washington that have helped the industry tame federal regulators and insure renewal of the crucial subsidies.
The change of leadership in the Senate will hurt, especially because it means a demotion for the industry’s most important Congressional advocate in modern history, Republican Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Domenici, who once delivered a speech in Russia claiming nuclear power was essential for the “protection of vital freedoms,” has preached the gospel of nuclear power so fervently–and kept the nuclear pork flowing so flawlessly–that he is affectionately known as “St. Pete” at his state’s many nuke facilities. But even Congressional foes of nuclear power say the most important pieces of the industry’s agenda will move forward because of boosters in both parties. Besides, while the advocates of nuclear power may have lost their patron saint in Domenici, in George W. Bush they think they have the Second Coming.