As the nuclear power industry stages a nationwide comeback, New England is emerging as a major battleground in the industry's campaign to be recognized as a ''green" energy source.
Last year, the Seabrook reactor in New Hampshire became the first nuclear plant in the country to win credits for not polluting the air. Emboldened by that success, nuclear plant owners are now pressing to receive similar credits under a nine-state plan to reduce greenhouse gases.
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative may include clean-air credits for low-polluting power plants, and nuclear lobbyists have been pushing to be included.
Many environmentalists oppose the idea, saying it would give a seal of approval for an industry that presents serious threats to the environment, including radioactive waste.
''There is tremendous interest in what's happening here because [the regional plan] would stand as a model for other parts of the country," said Daniel Sosland, executive director of Environment Northeast, an advocacy group that opposes giving nuclear power any clean air credits.
For years, states and the federal government have relied on market-based systems for reducing the pollutants that cause smog and acid rain. The systems place limits on power plants' total emissions, then allow dirtier plants to exceed the limits only if they buy ''pollution credits" from cleaner plants. The idea is to encourage companies to build less-polluting plants.
Now, as regulators begin to develop similar systems for carbon dioxide, the main culprit in global warming, the nuclear industry wants to be rewarded for not producing any.
Nuclear plants now provide about 20 percent of US electrical power and generate no acid rain or greenhouse gases -- unlike coal or gas plants, which can spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other gases into the air each year.
''Overall, the environmental impact of nuclear is relatively small," said Mary M. Quillian, senior manager for environmental policy and programs for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. Quillian said that as regulators evaluate which energy sources are ''clean" and which aren't, the industry only wants the same consideration as other nonemitting pollution sources.
Critics counter that nuclear plants may produce no greenhouse gases, but they can cause huge environmental disasters if they fail. The Chernobyl leak in 1986 sent a radioactive plume over Europe, and thousands of deaths have been blamed on the accident.
Today, others worry that nuclear plants are a terrorist target. In part because of these worries, nuclear energy was specifically prohibited from being considered a green power source under the Kyoto Protocol, a pact among industrialized nations that limits carbon dioxide emissions. (The United States has refused to sign the pact.)
Environmentalists also say that the nuclear industry does produce greenhouse gases -- not at the plant but during mining and uranium enrichment processes required to get usable fuel. ''You have to look at the entire life cycle of the electricity -- mining, building the plant," said Frank Gorke, energy advocate for MassPIRG, an environmental group.
Despite those concerns, New Hampshire regulators decided to give the Seabrook plant credit for not spewing nitrogen oxides last year when the company amended its program for controlling smog pollutants.
The Seabrook plant has asked the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to produce more power; if that boost is approved, it may be able to sell as many as 200 one-ton emission credits for about $3,000 each.
Seabrook is one of five nuclear plants in New England -- two in Connecticut and one each in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. There are 103 reactors in the country at 64 sites.
Nuclear advocates say that if carbon dioxide emissions are to be slowed, nuclear energy needs to be part of the equation. To bring that point home to the public, the Nuclear Energy Institute has been running TV and print ads for several years touting nuclear as the ''clean air energy," featuring children blowing bubbles and running through fields. (In 2000, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that a different set of ads made deceptively broad claims about the environmental benefits of nuclear power, and ordered them pulled off the air.)
Behind the scenes, the industry has been aggressively pushing to win clean air credits under new air pollution rules.
In New Hampshire, Seabrook owners lobbied hard to be included as part of the long-running nitrogen oxides trading program. And now, as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative gets underway, Quillian, the Nuclear Energy Institute official, appears at virtually every meeting, patiently and eloquently making the case for nuclear energy as ''clean," those in the meetings say.
The regional deal would include New England, New York, Delaware, and New Jersey. State regulators are hoping to have a design of the program by April and start it as early as 2007 or 2008.
Regulators from many of the nine states say it is too early to discuss which energy sources will be given credit for being clean.
''Some are interested in exploring giving credits to those who create nuclear power, but the discussion is premature," said Joe O'Keefe, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, who spoke on behalf of state air regulators involved in the initiative.
Meanwhile, in Connecticut, the owner of that state's two Millstone reactors is waiting to see whether state regulators will grant a request for clean air credits like New Hampshire allowed. But the industry's lobbying hasn't always been successful: Massachusetts rejected a similar attempt last spring.
Seth Kaplan, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, a regional advocacy group, said that granting pollution credits to nuclear plants would undermine the purpose of the program.
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, he said, is designed to urge fossil fuel plants to reduce their pollution -- not allow an already profitable industry to make more money simply because they don't happen to produce any.
''The nuclear industry's problem is they have a technology that has other issues that society at best has given a yellow light to, if not a red one," Kaplan said.
Nuclear already has a financial advantage under the regional program because it will never have to buy the clean-air credits that fossil fuel plants will, Kaplan said.
He and some regulators are pushing for clean-air credits to be reserved for cleaner technologies that need some sort of financial incentive to build, such as wind.
Some government groups involved in the initiative have privately indicated they will walk away from the process if nuclear is given any financial credit. But nuclear advocates are standing firm.
''We have all this generation and it produces zero emissions," said Brent Dorsey, director of corporate environmental programs for Entergy, which owns Vermont Yankee and the Pilgrim plant. ''We are the unsung hero for clean air."
Beth Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.