FORMER VICE PRESIDENT Al Gore's latest challenge to the nation is a call for the United States to launch a major campaign to produce all of the country's electricity with carbon-free sources in 10 years.

He compares his proposal to earlier successful federal programs to build the interstate highway system and to put a man on the moon.

Gore may be overly optimistic in thinking the U.S. can produce all the electricity it needs without burning any fossil fuels in just a decade. But the moon launch took less than 10 years, and much of the interstate highway system was built in less than two decades.

In his challenge, Gore made a point that is well worth heeding. He noted that eliminating fossil-fuel-burning electricity plants not only would reduce greenhouse gases, but it would give the country a major economic boost and improve national security.

With oil prices skyrocketing and our growing dependence on oil imported from volatile parts of the world, it certainly would be beneficial to cut back significantly on foreign oil and natural gas.

But producing all of our electricity without using fossil fuels entails more than just eliminating oil and natural gas for fueling power plants. Half of the nation's electricity is produced with coal and only 15 percent from natural gas, with almost none from burning oil.


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Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal produce 8.6 percent of the nation's electricity, while nuclear power generates 21 percent.

Renewable fuel use continues to grow, but cannot expand nearly fast enough to compensate for the loss of coal and natural gas anytime soon.

The only source of energy for producing electricity that could significantly help the nation reach Gore's goal is nuclear power.

France and Japan produce most of their electricity with nuclear power plants. There is no reason this country, which pioneered nuclear power, cannot do so.

What is needed is an agreement on the design of the new plants, an effective and safe method of waste disposal, and an efficient governmental process for approval of them.

Some economic incentives for nuclear power plants along with disincentives for carbon-producing plants should get the United States back on track as a nuclear power leader.

Not only can nuclear power produce electricity for current needs, it also can generate pollution-free electric power for plug-in electric and hybrid cars, further reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

We may not reach Gore's goal in 10 years, but we should make a major effort to build nuclear power plants as quickly as possible along with increasing development of renewable energy sources.