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The Nuclear Dilemma

In the 'seventies, when nuclear power plants prompted demonstrations from San Luis Obispo to Upstate New York, the concerns were all about accidents (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island), low-level radiation from normal operation of the plants, what to do with the waste, and the fact that the federal government had to underwrite liability insurance. In the end, it was simple economics that was largely responsible for the demise of the industry (no new plant has been built for more than 25 years).

Now, however, with the justified panic over global warming, nukes are making a return appearance and getting support in places that had held only opposition decades ago. There hasn't been a serious accident since Chernobyl, and fears of low-level contamination have not been proved valid. It is also true that no terrorist has yet been able to cause a major catastrophe, though there are no doubt many itching to try. And the economics are still vexing.

The major nuclear-electricity countries—France and Japan—provide all sorts of subsidies, hidden and otherwise, to their reactor industries. The U.S. seems unlikely to go in for big nuclear subsidies, but we'll see. It would also take years to build uranium enrichment facilities to make the fuel, but that's another story.

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