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Despite these concerns, environmentalists are losing the public-relations war over nuclear. A recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) poll of 18,000 people in 18 countries found that, after being reminded of nuclear energy's low emissions of greenhouse gases, 53% of respondents said they would not oppose the construction of nuclear reactors. And where the public and politicians do not stand in the way, nuclear reactors will surely follow. Once considered uneconomical, reactors are increasingly being hailed as a sound investment. The Nuclear Energy Agency, which studies the nuclear industry in OECD countries, recently concluded that in order for nuclear plants to compete with coal or gas as an energy source, oil must cost more than $45 a barrel; with oil now at twice that price, nuclear energy seems more viable than ever. And because nuclear power plants don't emit CO2, they will be exempt from future carbon taxes or carbon-trading schemes, including one the European Union recently pledged to implement, which will force utilities to buy permits to offset their emissions. "The economics now clearly favor nuclear," says Julian Critchlow, head of the global utilities practice at Bain & Company. "Between high commodity prices and prices on carbon, it's a very sound model."
These factors mean that even with their multi-billion-dollar startup costs and the steep price of eventual decommissioning, reactors now appeal not only to state-owned utilities but to the private sector, too. The Olkiluoto reactor, which was planned to cost $4.4 billion and open by 2009, is now at least two years behind schedule and, by some estimates, around $1 billion over budget. Still, the plant is ultimately expected to turn a profit for its owners, a consortium of Finnish industries, which agreed to fund the project in return for energy provided at cost.
But even the most optimistic proponent of atomic energy knows that another accident could halt the industry's growth. In 1974, President Richard Nixon predicted that the U.S. would have 1,000 plants in operation by the end of the century. Then came the disasters at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. By the turn of the millennium, only 104 plants were operating in the U.S.
The industry has gone a long way to allay fears over plant safety. Its recent record has been strong, and new reactors come fitted with "passive" safety features, which help prevent meltdowns even without human intervention. But no system is fail-safe, and problems remain not least in finding qualified replacements for the industry's aging workforce. According to one estimate, nearly a third of the people in the U.S. nuclear sector will be eligible for retirement in three years. But lean years in the 1990s left a generation gap in trained engineers. The industry is recruiting rapidly, but it can be a struggle to attract talent in a field where the iconic worker has for the last 20 years been the buffoonish cartoon character Homer Simpson.
Such challenges aside, the debate over nuclear power has moved from whether new plants will be built to how many, and where. In the U.S., where no new plants have come online since 1996, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects applications for 27 new reactors over the next two years, and Congress has encouraged this by offering the nuclear industry billions of dollars in tax credits. Western firms are also busy courting India, China and other developing nations, where half of the world's new reactors are being built or planned. In recent months, President Nicolas Sarkozy, France's nuclear evangelist in chief, signed partnership deals on behalf of Areva with Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Algeria. And in 2006, 28 countries without nuclear power plants attended a meeting organized by the IAEA on how to start a nuclear program, although it's not clear how many developing countries will be able to afford new plants, or have the infrastructure to harness their massive electricity output.
But just as nuclear power is based on unstable uranium atoms, the technology itself can be difficult to control, and many worry that the combination of nuclear technology and human fallibility will lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The nuclear fuel cycle for reactors begins by enriching uranium until it can sustain a nuclear reaction, and it ends with the production of plutonium. Both are processes that create material for bombs. Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), countries must undertake these sensitive operations with supervision from the IAEA. Anticipating the spread of nuclear power, IAEA director general Mohammed ElBaradei recently called for the creation of international fuel centers, which would enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium for multiple client countries. But many governments point out that it is their right under the NPT to make their own fuel. Currently, the primary proponent of this argument is Iran, which insists it is enriching uranium for peaceful means despite international suspicion that its true intent is the accumulation of weapons-grade material.
"I'm a bit tired of leaders in the nuclear field who say there is no link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons," says Gerald Doucet, secretary-general of the World Energy Council, whose members include energy companies and government bodies. "To me, this is the biggest issue for the industry, bigger even than nuclear waste. We have to address it openly and stop pretending it's not there."
In the meantime, back in Olkiluoto, workers are focused on the more prosaic challenges of finishing their long-awaited reactor. The tips of massive cranes are hidden in the low cloud; their cables appear from the sky like marionette strings. Nearby, engineers are beginning an assessment of the feasibility of yet another reactor on the island. Amid all the activity, it's still not clear whether this historic project and the nuclear future it portends should be a source of fear or hope.
The originally published version of this story incorrectly stated that the Nuclear Energy Agency studies the nuclear industry in OPEC countries. In fact, it studies the nuclear industry in OECD countries.