PROMOTERS of nuclear power should be encouraged by the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA notes that, by the end of 1989, worldwide nuclear electrical generating capacity was nearly 319,000 megawatts - a gain of 9,000 megawatts over 1988. But the advocates' joy is dimmed by the concomitant realization that public skepticism about safety remains a major obstacle to further development of nuclear power.
For example, at last month's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), several speakers at an advanced reactor symposium cited safety as the dominant issue in their industry. That includes the Soviet Union as well as Western nations. At the meeting, Igor Slesarev of the Soviet Union's Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, commenting on the uncertain political future of Soviet atomic power, said, ``We have very active greens [environmentalists] and we must demonstrate to the people that we have safe reactors.''
This is a major global challenge. There is pervasive suspicion of atomic power. Yet IAEA statistics show that the world already is so dependent on atomic energy it can't just walk away from the nuclear option.
At the beginning of 1990, there were 435 nuclear power plants on line in 26 nations, with another 96 under construction. Those 435 plants supply nearly 17 percent of the world's electricity. In some countries, the nuclear share is 50 to 70 percent. Added to this present nuclear dependency is the growing pressure to cut back on use of fossil fuels to slow down climatic warming. Truly safe atomic power could be an attractive alternative to coal and oil.
Thus the ability of engineers to develop inherently safe reactors is a basic factor in humanity's future economic well-being. There is hope that the design engineers can do this.
The US Department of Energy has given $50 million each to the General Electric and Westinghouse companies to refine safe reactor designs. These would be relatively small units, producing around 600 megawatts rather than the 1,000-megawatt units used for most central generating plants today.
Edwin Kinter and John Taylor told the AAAS symposium about various design schemes studied by the industry-supported Electric Power Research Institute. A main theme of these studies is to develop cooling mechanisms for the reactor core that will remove heat efficiently for at least three days in spite of pump failure.
Another theme is emphasis on simpler and smaller standard reactor designs. Dr. Taylor noted that previous design practice, which was dominated by competition, led to large custom-built units whose inherent complexity and reduced engineering margins made these reactors needlessly hard to maintain and operate safely.
That sounds hopeful. But, so far, these are paper studies and only the stuff of dreams. In Japan, on the other hand, substantial safety improvements have already been made, according to Yoshitsugu Mishima, president of the Japanese Nuclear Power General Safety Center. He told the symposium that Japan's rates of unintended reactor shutdowns (0.5 per reactor year) and of fuel leakage (less than one per million fuel rods) now are the lowest in the world.
It's good to know that safety is the top concern of the nuclear industry and that there's hope for substantial progress. But the industry has to move fast to convince the skeptics. The AAAS session on advanced reactors was sparsely attended. But there was standing room only next door for a session on solar power, energy conservation, and other nonnuclear strategies to slow global warming.