The current nuclear crisis in Japan may bring the expected nuclear power renaissance to a screeching halt. What are they key issues as we move forward?
The potential benefits are enormous if we can continue to make progress on safety, environmental, fuel supply, and proliferation concerns. President Dwight D. Eisenhower electrified the United Nations (UN) General Assembly with his vision that "the fearful trend of atomic military buildup can be reversed, this greatest destructive force can be developed into a great boon for the benefit of all mankind . . . to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind . . . [in] electrical energy, agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities." He further proposed to "allocate fissionable material [for peaceful uses] from a bank under international atomic energy agency control [and] . . . provide special safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure." Although the "bank" never eventuated, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were instituted to apply the controls associated with a new "bargain": Nations forgoing nuclear weapons development would be given the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology.
By overlooking nuclear power in the quest for clean energy, we are condemning ourselves to a future of increased fossil fuel use. For more than three decades, energy policies in the United States and much of the Western world have been held in the ideological grip of a flawed concept: the notion that we can achieve sustainable energy by relying solely on conservation and renewable resources, such as wind, the sun, the tides, and organic materials like wood and crop waste. Born in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo and arising out of renewed commitments to environmental quality, this idea has an almost religious appeal. An unintended result is that the world has become ever more reliant on fossil fuels and therefore less able to respond to global warming.
Interest in nuclear energy by developing countries without nuclear experience could pose major challenges to the global rules now in place to ensure the safe, secure, and peaceful use of nuclear power. Motivated in large part by climate change and the need for carbon-free energy sources, governments and companies around the world are pushing to revive nuclear energy. Developed and developing countries alike have expressed interest. For developing countries, however, building a nuclear power plant can be particularly problematic, both for the countries and the world overall. The lack of regulatory and operating experience of developing countries considering nuclear power could pose major challenges to the global rules now in place to ensure the safe, secure, and peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The United States needs to take a fresh look at nuclear technologies in order to tap their potential more effectively. In the United States, we've traditionally optimized new advanced technologies to serve our nation's needs; this has helped us craft an impressive economy and quality of life. With nuclear technologies, we have not followed this pattern. With only a few exceptions such as nuclear medicine, we have done a poor job of evaluating nuclear technologies, addressing real risks, and optimizing benefits. Instead, we worry about our dependence on fossil fuels and increasing oil imports, but we don't use advanced nuclear energy systems that we've licensed and are selling overseas. Many environmentalists who want to reduce carbon emissions don't want to consider nuclear power. We may worry about excessive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, but as we dismantle our own weapons, we store the complex classified components that would allow us to rapidly rebuild weapons. Some who are concerned about the dangers of nuclear waste oppose efforts to move the waste from power plants to a more remote and secure location or to explore systems that enable far better management of waste issues. We have consumer groups concerned about food safety that accept bacterial contamination of food instead of supporting irradiation of food supplies.
The Bush administration’s plan to use fuel reprocessing as the spark to revive nuclear power will not succeed. Only centralized interim waste storage can make a difference in the near term. For the first time in decades, nuclear power is back on this country’s list of possible energy sources. New nuclear power plants are on the drawing board. Public opinion is shifting in favor of nuclear energy. Even some veteran antinuclear campaigners have begun talking up its environmental benefits. The Bush administration has been actively promoting the nuclear industry. But its latest policy initiative threatens to set back the nuclear revival.