DOE and a consortium of energy companies are getting serious about licensing new plants.

Industrial PVF distributors can take heart in a glimmer of good news. We may be at the beginning stage of a long, drawn-out process that could result in a victory for all the environmentalists who clamor for the United States to revamp its economy in favor of non-polluting, ozone-friendly, safe, renewable energy sources. Most won't see it that way, however. Like kids who kick and scream when told to do something that's good for them, environmental activists are sure to get hysterical trying to prevent a new era of nuclear energy.

While keeping a low profile, five leading energy companies and two nuclear reactor vendors plan to form a consortium that will work with the U.S. Department of Energy to obtain a Combined Construction and Operating License (COL) for advanced nuclear power reactors. No commitments have been made to build any plants, and no such decisions are expected until after 2010 at the earliest. Nonetheless, the consortium represents a first step toward resurrecting nuclear power.

It's about time. The COL process was established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1992 to streamline licensing. Before COL could get underway, the anti-nuclear movement, energized by the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, rendered nuclear power into political poison. No new nukes have been built or ordered in the United States in more than a decade. Instead, we have continued to gorge ourselves on fossil fuels, whose political, economic and ecological fallout has proven much more harmful to the residents of planet earth than all the radioactivity ever released by the thousands of nuclear reactors in operation around the world.

Nuclear energy helps solve so many problems, it's bizarre that it meets such fierce opposition from the same people who also scream loudest about the problems it solves. Nuclear power offers a better solution to ozone depletion than the Kyoto Treaty. It improves the geopolitical scene by diminishing the power of unsavory oil-producing regimes. Its safety record is impeccable compared with the coal, gas and oil industries.

“Impeccable! But what about Three Mile Island?”

Glad you asked. TMI was a scary accident, but one in which nobody, repeat NOBODY!, got killed or even seriously hurt. More things went wrong than anyone expected, but not more than the engineers guarded against. Since then, they've figured out how to let laws of physics automatically shut down a reactor when problems arise rather than rely on man-made and therefore fallible mechanical-electrical systems.

I happened to be in TMI's hometown on April 28, 2000, when a headline in the Harrisburg Patriot-News caught my eye. “TMI's link to cancer dismissed,” it read. The article told of a University of Pittsburgh study about the lingering health effects of the 1979 TMI accident. Medical researchers spent 13 years following up on more than 32,000 people living in the plant's vicinity. Results were published in a National Institutes of Health medical journal, finding no significant increase in cancer deaths. The newspaper article also mentioned that at least 15 previous studies had been done about the health effects of the TMI accident.

I know nothing about those other 15 studies, but it's guaranteed they didn't uncover any health problems either. Why so sure? Because if any of those studies had found even a hint of TMI after-effects, does anyone doubt it would have been splashed all over the media?

Such is the ideological pollution of this subject that the article in the Harrisburg newspaper felt obliged to caution its readers not to take those 16 studies as a definitive clean bill of health for the TMI incident. Oh no, we must allow for dozens or maybe hundreds of studies until some researcher makes a wispy connection between TMI and cancer. That one will be treated as conclusive, and you can count on hearing about it on the evening news.

What about Chernobyl? That was a genuine catastrophe, one born of outdated technology, reckless operation and a totalitarian regime's callous disregard for worker and public safety. But it must be balanced against the sterling safety record of hundreds of nuclear power plants operating throughout the world over the last half-century. And even Chernobyl's casualty toll doesn't surpass the number recorded in the same time frame by mine collapses, gas explosions, refinery fires and other accidents related to the production and use of fossil fuels.

In the final analysis, nothing is totally risk-free. Nobody can guarantee no more nuclear accidents. But risks must be balanced against rewards, and common sense needs to triumph over environmental superstition.