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Outsider

Nuke 'em

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As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by looking." But most of the time, we just look at the same old same old: where we live, where we work, where we drive. And thanks to our jangled, frenetic lives -- Did you know that the average American is hit with 1,200 advertising impressions every day? -- we don't have time to make sense of it all.

Maybe because of this, we live in a world where public debate is driven by lies, misinformation, ignorance and self-interested manipulators. And we're so used to this stuff that we scarcely notice.

For example, the other day I was watching expert financial bimbo Suze Orman on her advice show. Responding to a call-in query -- Does it make sense to buy a new car, or a used car? -- Ms. Orman responded, sensibly enough, that buying an almost-new car is your best bet.

She pointed out that your new car loses 20 percent of its value the minute you drive it off the dealer's lot, so why not let someone else take the hit? I was impressed -- until I changed channels, and there was the selfsame Ms. Orman, shamelessly shilling Chevrolet's "zero percent financing" for new cars!

TV hustlers aside, we really don't know what to believe, so we simply decide whom we ought to trust, and listen to them. A month ago, we passed Amendment 37, requiring utility companies to derive 10 percent of their power from renewable sources. The companies bitched; environmentalists, as well as rural conservative lawmakers touted clean air and prosperity; so now it's windmill time.

And, if you voted for 37, you probably think that its passage was a Good Thing, and that it'll Make a Difference. Well, sure, if you think so ... but I'd like you to join Yogi, and observe.

Utility companies in Colorado have a current generating capacity of 10,000 megawatts, of which 50 percent is generated by coal-fired power plants. Three additional such plants are planned, adding 2,200 megawatts. That's a lot; enough to power the city of San Francisco, and the city of Colorado Springs, and the city of Grand Junction.

And Colorado's plans aren't exactly unique. According to industry expert Robert McIlvaine, who tracks new power plant construction, utilities in 36 states are planning to build 118 new coal-fired plants, collectively generating 80,000 megawatts.

Here's a simple truth: If you want to generate massive amounts of electricity, you have three choices -- natural gas, coal or nuclear. Renewables can be and ought to be in the mix, but even the most ardent enviros recognize that they can't yet replace the big three -- or should I say the big two, since no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States since the '70s.

Natural gas has tripled in price since the late '90s, making its use in power plants both wasteful and uneconomical. Coal, on the other hand, is both abundant (Colorado and Wyoming, with the world's largest reserves, are the Saudi Arabia of coal), and cheap -- hence the 118 new plants.

But unlike nuclear power plants, coal-fired plants dump massive amounts of pollution into the air, much of it as greenhouse gases, thereby contributing to global warming. Too bad that nuclear power is so dangerous, right?

Well, maybe it isn't. Nuclear power advocates, what few there are, will tell you that so-called fourth-generation designs, such as the helium-cooled pebble bed modular reactor, are safe, cheap and environmentally friendly. They'll tell you that Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are relics of the past, onetime industrial accidents. And you know something? I think they're right.

But even so, it won't matter. Public policy in this country is made by the clash of interest groups, and nobody wants nuclear power. The utilities are gun-shy; environmentalists hate it because, well, because they hate it. And the rest of us don't want new stuff to be scared of.

So we can look forward to smoky skies, giant strip mines and supersized power plants in once-pristine corners of the American West. But one country seems poised to embrace the new nuclear technology -- a country whose leaders are engineers, not lawyers. You guessed it: China.

So observe with Yogi. Here in Colorado you mix technophobic enviros with fossil-fuel-lovin' Bushies, and we get the worst of both worlds: cheap and damaging coal, expensive and inconvenient wind. Where's our li'l double-talking hustler when we need her? C'mon Suze, how bout comin' out for nuclear?

But not for last year's used model, please ...

--johnhazlehurst@earthlink.net

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