WASHINGTON — Like it or not, the nukes are coming.
Driven by soaring energy demands, the high cost of gas and oil and worries about global warming, an expansion of peaceful nuclear power increasingly appears to be inevitable.
``I believe very strongly that new nuclear plants will be built in the U.S. in the coming decades to address problems with respect to higher energy demand, high prices and global warming,'' said Sudarshan Loyalka, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia. ``I believe the nation has no other choice.''
Even some environmentalists are swallowing their previous distaste for atomic energy and supporting the expansion of nuclear power in the United States.
Some earlier foes now regard coal, the cheapest but dirtiest fuel, as worse for the environment than nukes. Many proposed coal plants are being canceled because of public opposition and mounting costs.
In addition, there's ``a tremendous international movement toward nuclear energy,'' said Dennis Spurgeon, the assistant secretary of energy for nuclear energy. ``It has gained a lot of momentum in the last couple of years.''
According to Spurgeon, 31 countries are in the nuclear energy club and another 55 developing nations are eager to join.
``By 2050, 86 countries could have nuclear power,'' Spurgeon told a committee of the National Academy of Sciences in January. The committee is studying America's future energy needs.
A prime motivator for a ``nuclear renaissance'' is mounting alarm over global warming, which is caused largely by burning fossil fuels that dump carbon dioxide, or CO2, into the atmosphere. Nuclear plants produce almost no CO2.
``It's scary,'' Spurgeon told the academy panel, using more dramatic language than most Bush administration officials employ. ``We need to level off (the CO2 in the atmosphere) and turn it down, or we may get to the point where we won't be able to turn it off. The dire need is clearly there.''
Just to maintain nuclear energy at its current share of 20 percent of total electricity demand, the U.S. must build 45 to 50 advanced nuclear power plants by 2050, Spurgeon said. In addition, the 104 older reactors that now are operating must keep working for 20 more years.
In the last two years, 20 applications have been filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for licenses to construct and operate new power plants using advanced technology. The first could be ready by 2018, or a year or two sooner.
No company has made a firm commitment to build, but some are ordering long-range supplies such as steel and cement, Spurgeon said.
To smooth the way, the Bush administration and both parties in Congress have approved billions of dollars in tax credits and loan guarantees to help private industry meet the high cost — $3 billion to $5 billion each — of modern nuclear plants.
"Federal loan guarantees are critical,'' said Michael Wallace, the president of the Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, based in Baltimore.
High costs led one company, MidAmerican Nuclear Energy, to announce recently that it's scrapping plans to build a reactor in Idaho.
Skeptics argue that money for nuclear plants could be better used to develop renewable sources of energy, such as wind, geothermal and solar power, or to provide more efficient cars, appliances and buildings.
``Quicker, safer and much more economically sound ways to cut greenhouse gases already exist,'' says a brochure by NC WARN, an anti-nuclear organization in North Carolina.
Accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine in 1986 continue to shadow the industry, even though advanced reactor designs make such mishaps less likely.
``One incident could put a stop to nuclear energy in the United States,'' warned James Miller, the chief executive of PPL Corp. of Allentown, Pa., which operates atomic reactors in Pennsylvania and Montana.
``Nuclear power continues to pose serious risks that are unique among the energy options being considered for reducing global-warming emissions,'' said David Lochbaum, the director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union for Concerned Scientists in Washington.
But he acknowledged that the latest nuclear-power reactors ``have the potential to be significantly safer and more secure against terrorist attack'' than earlier designs.
Experts divide the history of nuclear energy into four ``generations,'' each safer and more efficient than the last. Generation I covers the first reactors, built in the 1950s and '60s. Most of the older plants in this country belong to Generation II. Recently installed reactors in France and Asia form Generation III.
Future reactors will be either Generation III-plus or Generation IV. They'll have ``passive'' safety systems, meaning that no human will need to shut down a plant in an emergency. They'll ``recycle'' their used fuel, lowering the volume of radioactive waste.
``Generation IV reactors will be safer than the present generation of liquid water reactors,'' Loyalka said. ``The Generation IV reactors are planned to be advanced burners that use the nuclear fuel more efficiently, and thus they will produce less radioactive waste.''
Stewart Brand, who in 1968 founded the environmentalists' bible, the Whole Earth Catalog, is a recent convert to nuclear energy. In an article two years ago in Technology Review magazine, Brand wrote that ``the only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power.''
A British environmentalist, James Lovelock, argues that nuclear power is the only reasonable alternative to fossil fuels for producing large amounts of energy without overheating the Earth.
``Civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear energy now, or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet," Lovelock wrote in his 2006 book, ``Revenge of Gaia.''