Nuclear Power's New Promise and Peril

Article excerpt

At the cusp of two centuries, humanity faces a crossroads in energy development. At the same time as the fossil fuel use of the twentieth century has increased pollutants in the earth's atmosphere, it has led to U.S. dependence on oil controlled by some of the world's most anti- American nations. While coal is more readily available and less tangled in international politics, it emits high levels of contaminants.

Even renewable energy sources such as hydroelectricity have come under environmental scrutiny for disrupting the habitats of many species and causing loss to their populations. Yet, as last year's rolling blackouts in California have dramatically illustrated, modern society depends heavily on a constant, plentiful energy supply.

Nowhere is this more crucial than in the now-developing world. Forecasts of energy needs in the International Energy Outlook 2001 report project a 59 percent increase in the world's energy consumption over the next 20 years. The study estimates that the developing nations are increasing their energy requirements by 4.8 percent a year, while the developed nations' needs are rising at an annual rate of 1.6 percent. In addition, it is expected that expansion in per capita car ownership and mechanization will create additional burdens on the environment.

Against this backdrop, world energy experts are rethinking the practicality of nuclear power. Discussing national energy development at the twelfth annual Energy Efficiency Forum, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said, "If you're really concerned about global warming and carbon dioxide emissions, then we need to aggressively pursue the use of nuclear power, which we can do safely and sanely, but which for twenty-some years has been a big no-no politically."

Noting that the much-touted Kyoto Protocol of 1997 is meant to limit emissions of so-called greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, which some scientists say may be speeding up the phenomenon known as "global warming," he points out the blind spots in the logic of the proposal: "As the president has said many times, it leaves out a significant part of the world. The No. 2 emitter, China, is not covered. India, the No. 5 emitter, is not covered. That's over half the world's population right there."

In addition, he noted, nuclear power emits no carbon dioxide at all, "but the same people who yell the loudest about global warming and carbon dioxide emissions are the first ones to scream when somebody says, 'Gee, we ought to use nuclear power.' "

POWER STRUGGLE

Although the United States has the largest number of nuclear power plants worldwide (104), they generate only 20 percent of the country's energy usage. The next largest nuclear energy producer, France, runs 59 plants, which produce more than 70 percent of its energy needs.

In fact, 18 other countries surpass the United States in terms of nuclear energy generation as a percentage of total energy usage. Except for Japan and South Korea, all are in Europe. Only recently are such nations as India, Pakistan, Brazil, and China entering the nuclear power community. Because of this, the debate over nuclear energy until now has largely been among the democratic, highly educated, technologically advanced nations with a comparatively free flow of information.

Although all environmental issues engender heated discussion, none is quite as explosive as that of nuclear power. In a 1993 abstract from the Uranium Industry Symposium, authors Colin Duncan and Sylvie Modigliani cited several reasons for the highly emotional public reaction to nuclear power issues.

According to the authors, the public perceives nuclear energy matters as cloaked in secrecy, perhaps due to the initial military applications of nuclear materials. It also fears that plant technology waste and disposal are unsafe. Public misgivings fuel political procrastination on developing the infrastructure for safe transportation, processing, usage, and storage of nuclear fuels. …