Asia hungry for nuclear power
On the 50th anniversary of nuclear power, China and India are pursuing ambitious nuclear plans.
While dark memories of nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have virtually frozen nuclear-power development in the West, energy-hungry Asia is increasingly embracing the nuclear option.Skip to next paragraph
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On the 50th anniversary of the birth of nuclear power, analysts say it will be the example of fresh nuclear success in Asia - where 18 of 27 new plants worldwide are being built - that may determine the future of atomic power in the West.
China and India are pursuing especially ambitious nuclear plans. Confronting cities choked with pollution but with few fuel resources, they have started up nine new plants in the past four years, and are building 10 more. Industry sources say China is aiming for a total of 30 plants in 15 years.
Those moves contrast sharply with the atom's fall from grace in the West. Though the US operates 104 plants - nearly a quarter of the global total of 442 - it has not issued a new building permit since before the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. The story is similar in western Europe. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster sowed fear - and only one new plant is now being built, while several countries are phasing out nuclear power or rejecting it altogether.
"Despite the array of measures that have been put in place since Chernobyl to offset the possibility of a severe accident, these risks can never be brought to zero and they continue to weigh heavily on public perceptions," said Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who was in Moscow on Sunday.
Since the atom was first harnessed for peaceful purposes - at the reactor at Obninsk, 60 miles south of Moscow, half a century ago this weekend - the history of nuclear power has proven to be a double-edged sword. While nuclear power is a "clean" fuel that emits virtually no greenhouse gases and is cheap once plants are built, it has also created a mountain of radioactive waste and facilitated the spread of weapons-grade nuclear material.
The risk of terrorism - forecast most graphically as the possibility of Al Qaeda becoming the world's ninth nuclear-weapons power - further complicates the picture. Mr. ElBaradei warned of the urgent risks last week.
"We are actually having a race against time, which I don't think we can afford," said ElBaradei. "The danger is so imminent ... not only with regard to countries acquiring nuclear weapons but also terrorists getting their hands on some of these nuclear materials, uranium, or plutonium."
Reflecting the same concern, the US Department of Energy signed in late May a $450 million deal with Russia to repatriate tons of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) that Moscow sent to 20 reactors in 17 countries over the years. In the years following President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech, the US shipped large quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to more than 40 countries.
"There is a famous saying that 'Atoms for peace and atoms for war are Siamese twins,' " says Charles Ferguson of the Washington office of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies and coauthor of a new book on nuclear terrorism. "Maybe it's impossible to separate them. Is the IAEA the group of surgeons we would turn to? They can't do it alone. We need an enforcement mechanism."
But such concerns are a world away from the euphoria first sparked at Obninsk. "We were sure at that moment it was the beginning of something new," recalls Soviet senior engineer Arkady Karpov.