The Nuclear Power Bargain: The Potential Benefits Are Enormous If We Can Continue to Make Progress on Safety, Environmental, Fuel Supply, and Proliferation Concerns

Article excerpt

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.

The initiatives stemming from Eisenhower's 1953 address helped quite literally to electrify the world. Today, 441 nuclear power plants provide 16 percent of the world's electricity. After years of intensive technical and institutional development to correct early problems, these plants are now operating safely and, on average, with high reliability and competitive costs. Many countries depend critically on nuclear power. Among the 10 countries that rely on it most heavily (Lithuania, France, Belgium, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Sweden, Slovenia, Armenia, and Switzerland), nuclear power provides some 40 to 80 percent of each nation's electricity. Not far behind are the Republic of Korea (38 percent) and Japan (35 percent). The United States, at 20 percent, ranks 19th but generates more electricity from nuclear plants than any other country, and six of its states derive 50 percent or more of their electricity from nuclear power. As licenses of existing U.S. plants are being extended by 20 years, and as similar actions are taken overseas, continued usage at present levels through mid-century seems assured.

What is less clear is whether nuclear power capacity will actually expand during that period. Certainly the potential is there. Major growth in primary energy production will be needed to serve a global population that could reach 9 or 10 billion by 2100. Electricity demand is projected to grow by 480 percent in a high economic scenario and by up to 140 percent in an ecologically driven scenario governed by conservation and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Given those looming needs, it seems logical to predict a widening role for a source of economical combustion-free energy that does not generate greenhouse gas or air pollution emissions and that uses a fuel supply that is sustainable over the long haul.

But expansion of nuclear power has reached a virtual standstill. In the United States, no orders have been placed for nuclear power plants in more than two decades. Worldwide, only 32 nuclear power plants are under construction, most of them in India and China. From the mid- 1980s until recently, R & D budgets for civilian power had been steadily declining in most of the industrialized countries, with the exception of Japan and France. The downturn is largely a result of slower growth in electricity demand and an abundance of natural gas at low prices. Under those conditions, gas-fired plants have grown more economical for expanding capacity. But history also plays a role. The legacy of earlier problems, including the high-profile accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, remains in the form of continued public skepticism about the safety of nuclear power and its radioactive wastes. Those concerns are amplified by a general fear of radiation and the specter of the atom bomb. In response, Sweden, Italy, and Germany have imposed moratoriums on nuclear power.

To contribute significantly to global energy demand, the nuclear power industry must earn public confidence by maintaining an excellent safety record. …