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Atomic power regains its glow

Governments must take a gimlet-eyed look. Nuclear's drawbacks haven't gone away.

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More than two decades after the Chernobyl meltdown, the world again is staring uneasily at the Janus faces of nuclear power. One offers an energy source that won't cause global warming. The other presents challenges in cost, safety, disposal, and nuclear proliferation.

Rising energy prices, and especially the need to find alternatives to fossil fuels that pour out greenhouse gases, have put a fresh focus on nuclear power. "We are facing a nuclear renaissance," the head of a French nuclear energy company said recently. "Nuclear's not the devil anymore. The devil is coal."

Today the world's 439 nuclear plants provide about 16 percent of electricity, a percentage that has altered little over 20 years. But that's changing.

Britain recently announced that it will look favorably on companies that apply to build new nuclear plants there. Finland and France already have active building programs. Italy, which banned nuclear plants after Chernobyl, is now engaged in a debate on the subject, and interest in the US appears to be reawakening, too. In all, more than 100 new plants are being built or planned, about half of them in developing nations such as India and China.

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