WASHINGTON — On the brink of a nuclear power resurgence in America, the once-vilified industry is buoyed by a slate of presidential candidates who seem ready to embrace -- or at least consider -- a nuclear energy future.
Already enjoying strong support in the White House, nuclear-fueled electricity is championed by all of the Republican front-runners. And, while the top contenders on the Democratic side cite serious concerns about safety, waste disposal and plant security, only former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina flatly opposes construction of new nuclear plants.
The Republicans tend to frame their interest in terms of energy independence, as a means of weaning the U.S. off natural gas -- which is subject to price spikes and shortages. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona joins the Democrats in emphasizing climate change as the prime reason for pushing nuclear power, which does not emit greenhouse gases.
"We don't really care how we get there," said John Keeley, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade association. "We're dancing with different partners, but it doesn't matter what music is played."
The near-meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979 and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine brought a dramatic halt to the nuclear industry's expansion plans in the United States. More than 100 nuclear reactors generate 20% of the nation's electricity, and the last completed plant was ordered in 1973.
American nuclear power got a boost in 2001 when Vice President Dick Cheney's energy plan called for it to become "a major component" of the nation's electricity supply -- as it is in France and Japan. When President Bush signed the latest energy bill into law this month, he said: "If we're serious about making sure we grow our economy and deal with greenhouse gases, we have got to expand nuclear power."
This fiscal year alone, more than $1 billion in federal research and development spending was devoted to nuclear-power research, far more than any other source of electricity.
The new approach has borne fruit: This year, three applications for nuclear power plants landed at the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Keeley said his group expected at least 15 more proposals to be launched by the end of 2009.
Among the leading Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois hold similar positions. Though they have voted for legislation that includes loan guarantees for the nuclear industry, both say that federal subsidies have been tilted for too long toward fossil fuels and nuclear power and should focus on renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Yet both say that new nuclear power cannot be ruled out.
At a South Carolina rally, Clinton said: "I think nuclear power has to be part of our energy solution. . . . I don't have any preconceived opposition; I just want to be sure that we do it right, as carefully as we can."
Obama, whose home state has 11 nuclear power plants, the biggest concentration in the country, said while campaigning in New Hampshire: "I don't think we can take nuclear power off the table." If the nation can resolve the waste and safety issues, he said, "then we should pursue it, and if we can't, we should not."
The three top Democratic candidates all oppose creating a repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas in the early-caucus state of Nevada.
Edwards voted for the proposal in 2002, but switched his position in 2004 to match John F. Kerry's when he joined the Democratic ticket as the vice presidential nominee. Campaign officials said Edwards changed his mind after coming to believe that faulty science underlay assurances that the dump would not contaminate nearby water.
Now Edwards says that concerns about safety in disposing radioactive waste form the heart of his rejection of new nuclear plants. He is unequivocal. "Would you be in favor of developing more nuclear power here in the United States?" someone asked him in Hanover, N.H. "No," Edwards answered. "Period?" the man persisted. "No," Edwards repeated.
Republican candidates, by contrast, urge a speedup and play down concerns.
"There's been a real bias against nuclear energy in the United States, going all the way back to Three Mile Island in 1979, but I think most of it is unfounded," said Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, in an interview with the environmental website Grist. "I mean, we've been running nuclear submarines for 60 years without accidents."
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has said that his work as a private consultant for Entergy Corp.'s Indian Point nuclear power plant convinced him that such facilities can be made secure.
In 2005, two years after Giuliani's firm was hired, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided to give extra scrutiny to the plant because of technical problems preventing the operation of the plant's new emergency siren, as well as a small leak of spent fuel at its site on the Hudson River north of New York City. The commission announced Thursday that the added monitoring would continue into 2008.
As a lobbyist during the 1970s, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson represented Westinghouse Electric Co. in its bid to build a federally subsidized nuclear plant. The project was killed in 1984.
And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called for developing nuclear power "in a more aggressive way" during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, N.H., adding that this country can learn to reprocess the spent fuel, as the French do.