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Will the Public Cheer?

UNITED STATES manufacturers of nuclear reactors hope to have a few second-generation nuclear power plants built in the US before the end of this century. This scenario assumes, however, that political opposition to additional nuclear power will be ineffective - an assumption that may not be safe. US environmentalists are not backing the improved light water reactor (LWR) industry models. Some environmentalists have indicated they favor research on the type of reactor backed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lawrence Lidsky, but his design is markedly different from those advanced by Westinghouse and General Electric.

Also, it isn't clear where the public stands, partly because of a paucity of news coverage of the new reactors. The history of the ability of the US political system to evaluate different technological approaches is rather dismal.

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One academic study of this political weakness is a book published this year by Yale University Press called ``The Demise of Nuclear Energy? Lessons for a Democratic Control of Technology,'' by Joseph G. Morone and Edward J. Woodhouse.

The authors, professors of political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, write: ``As we now understand it, the essential lesson of the nuclear power experience pertains to the problem of technological inertia, and the blend of democratic debate and decision strategy necessary to shape and reshape technology in accord with evolving social preferences. To put it a bit too simply, the United States failed to use these tools at a crucial time; we became fixated on one highly flawed form of nuclear power [LWRs], instead of treating the technology as a tool that could be reshaped through democratic learning.''

The US Congress could, of course, reconsider the whole question of how the US ``chooses'' a particular nuclear technology. But they would be fighting the inertia of an established industry.

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