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Analysis: Democrats, greens nuclear fans?

By BEN LANDO, UPI Energy Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 (UPI) -- Democrats from Iowa to powerful members of Congress are endorsing more nuclear power in the United States, often to combat climate change or dependence on oil, but critics say it's a shortsighted venture.

There are 103 reactors online, churning out 20 percent of U.S. energy consumption, but the wave of nuclear support that began mid-20th century died after the disaster in Chernobyl and the incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

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Or, nearly died.

Increasing U.S. -- and worldwide -- energy demand and the growing cost of fossil fuels, coupled with tax incentives in last year's federal energy bill, has breathed life into an industry that last attained federal approval for a plant in 1978.

Nearly 789 billion kilowatt hours of electricity was generated by U.S. nuclear power in 2004, the most ever for the country and the fifth record set since 1998 despite no new nuclear plants coming online since 1996, according to the World Nuclear Association.

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Earlier this month, state lawmakers, the Hawkeye Labor Council and the mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, rallied at the state's only nuclear plant for a reversal of a decades-long drought in civilian nuclear growth in the country.

The plant's owner, FPL Energy, is part of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which organized the rally and relies on most of its funding from the nuclear industry's lobby, the Nuclear Energy Institute, The Gazette in Cedar Rapids reported.

The Progressive Policy Institute, a nonprofit policy branch of the Democratic Leadership Council -- a coalition of "New Democrat" politicians -- released a report Oct. 16 that included new nuclear plants as part of the formula to cut "an addiction to carbon-based fuels that endangers America's national security, economic vitality, and environmental health."

Michelle Boyd, legislative director of Public Citizen's Energy Program, called nuclear-friendly Democrats "unfortunate."

"It's a political platform that guarantees they get money from the Nuclear Energy Institute," Boyd said.

She warned committing resources to nuclear power will take away from the very renewable energy sources looked to as an alternative to polluting fossil fuels.

"I certainly wouldn't put all my eggs in the nuclear basket," said Judith Greenwald, director of innovative solutions at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, but those looking at environmental issues see nuclear power as a part of a diverse, pollution-free portfolio.

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"That conversation is happening."

The Sierra Club said it isn't at the pro-nuclear power discussion table, however.

"There are some left-leaning groups that are recalculating their beliefs but that does not include the environmental community," said Josh Dorner, spokesman for Sierra Club, adding the organization is "squarely opposed to nuclear energy."

The Natural Resources Defense Council's stance isn't anti-nuclear outright, but says without government subsidies, nuclear power isn't competitive on the open market.

And, "NRDC will continue to seek redress for serious waste, security and proliferation concerns associated with both domestic and international nuclear power applications," wrote NRDC spokesman Ralph Cavanagh, in an e-mail to United Press International.

Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, like other nuclear opponents, attributed the perceived pro-nuke environmentalist movement to Patrick Moore, co-founder of radical environmental group Greenpeace. Moore left the group in 1986 and is now a nuclear proponent.

Moore, along with Christine Todd Whitman, President Bush's first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, leads the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

Mariotte said Democrats as an entire party don't back nuclear energy.

The Democratic Leadership Council, a strong influence in the party now and parent organization to the Progressive Policy Institute, is "the center-right of the Democratic Party," he said.

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"The Progressive Policy Institute has never been progressive," said Public Citizen's Boyd, when asked about PPI's nuclear advocacy in its recent report.

"Historically we're seeing a shift in support" from Democrats, said Jerry Slominski, senior legislative director for the Nuclear Energy Institute, adding all but four of the party's U.S. Senators voted for recent climate change legislation that included a nuclear provision. (Mariotte, however, countered that the senators initially supported the climate bill but voted no after the nuclear provision was inserted.)

Slominski said the Democrats' umbrella always included environmentalists, which nuclear critics are a part of. And with the climate change issue gaining traction while the anti-nuclear movement that effectively, possibly temporarily, closed the industry's shop decades ago being "rather old," he said support is growing.

That can be seen in the breakdown of the more than $289,500 in campaign contributions the NEI doled out since Jan. 1, 2005. Thirty-nine percent went to Democrats, a growing share, which Slominski said is a "mirror" for their support of the nuclear industry.

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(Comments to energy@upi.com)

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