The world is on the verge of missing an enormous opportunity -- generating cheap electricity and heating homes with nuclear energy instead of increasingly expensive oil and environmentally hazardous coal and other fossil fuels.
That's the view of international nuclear experts here, faced with vociferous public opposition in the United States and Western Europe of those who argue that nuclear energy is dangerous and immoral.
The experts, at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), warn of a slowdown of nuclear plant construction after 1985 in the non-Communist world. They say the lead time to build a nuclear plant in the United States is now 10 years and one month, partly because of controls imposed by former President Carter.
Eight percent of the world's electricity was generated by nuclear energy by the end of 1980, according to figures collected by the IAEA and given by Director General Sigvard Eklund in his report to the Agency at annual meeting.
By 1985 the figure is expected to rise to 17 percent. But after that, it should increase much more slowly than experts were predicting 10 years ago.
At that time, it was thought that 50 percent of world electricity would come from nuclear power by the year 2000.
Dr. Eklund now says the figure will be no higher than 22 percent.
He comments: "When man's ingenuity has enabled him to produce almost unlimited amounts of cheap energy, it is a pity not to make full use of that achievment in order to improve his living conditions."
Dr. Eklund has been using recent speeches and the annual meeting as forums from which to launch replies to the antinuclear lobby so much in evidence in recent months at places such as Brokdorf, West Germany and Mt. Diablo in California.
Dr. Eklund, from Sweden, is one of many scientists to oppose the view that man has reached a level of material well-being that allows him to dispense with a form of high technology such as nuclear power plants. These scientists are convinced that the majority of mankind -- between 2 and 3 billion people -- need cheap energy to raisetheir standard of living.
They say that dangers from nuclear power plants are misunderstood and, in fact, are far less than the antinuclear lobby claims. They underscore what they see as a paradox; demonstrations against nuclear energy at a time when oil is expensive and when some experts predict that the world could exhaust its oil reserves in decades.
Meanwhile, the annual IAEA meeting also saw a fierce backstage battle between developed, industrial countries such as the US and the much larger group of thirdworld, developing nations.
One of the issues was how to punish Israel for its June 7 air raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad.
Led by Iraq, a majority of the 91 nations attending the IAEA annual meeting here, pressed for a resolution suspending Israel from membership in the agency unless it accepted a United Nations Security Council demand to put its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. The United States preferred a weaker resolution which would censure Israel but not suspend it from IAEA.
Western European countries also opposed suspension as a dangerous precedent, but urged that Israel be deprived of about $100,000 worth of technical assistance now supplied by the agency.
At this writing, the final outcome had not been reached. Delegates predicted privately that Israel may escape suspension, but could be warned that action would be taken if it carried out further raids.
Another burning issue here was how the majority of developing nations could be better represented on the agency's Board of Governors and whether a developing country candidate -- Domingo Siazon Jr. of the Philippines, should follow Dr. Eklund as Director-General.