Nuclear power is subject to two indisputable imperatives. One is to safeguard potential nuclear explosives, particularly the plutonium created as an inevitable by-product of the fission process. The other is the imperative to contain radioactivity in reactor and nuclear fuel cycle operations.
These imperatives have to do with matters of perception as well as matters of fact, and partly for this reason success in satisfying them is still far from being achieved. Nuclear power has remained controversial and, uniquely among energy sources, has lacked broad public acceptance. Coal, oil, natural gas, and hydropower all have their problems, but no other energy source provokes anything like the controversy and emotional response that "nuclear" does.
Other important new technologies of the twentieth century, such as those that have given us the private automobile and commercial aviation, have been allowed to solve their problems as they have gone along. But for more than a decade now, and long before Chernobyl, nuclear power has been in political trouble because its problems were not solved convincingly--and some were hardly solved at all--before the technology was introduced on a commercial scale. That the public should be demanding more of nuclear power may suggest a double standard. But as I shall be noting time and again in this book, the exceptional demands imposed on nuclear power are understandable in light of both its origins as a postwar spin-off from the nuclear weapons program and the mysteries which this still unfamiliar technology represent for the public. They are understandable too in light of the often troubled history and flawed performance of the nuclear enterprise in the United States and other countries.
Radioactive waste disposal and management of the irradiated or "spent" fuel that is removed from the reactor are only part of the overall problem of safeguards and containment, but that part is very important and is