ON this tenth anniversary of the accident at Three Mile Island, there's a new perspective on atomic power. In the 1950s, proponents hyped the splitting atom as a revolutionary energy source that would make electricity too cheap to meter. By the 1970s, nuclear power's dark side had punctured that dream.
Now, as we near the 1990s, the threat of a global warming climate change has cast the fissioning atom in yet another light. It produces no heat-trapping carbon doxide as does the use of fossil fuels. It doesn't even cause acid rain. So energy planners look to the atom as a climatically-benign energy source.
It's time those planners took nuclear power seriously - really seriously. That means looking its inherent hazards squarely in the face and determining whether or not nuclear power is truly safe enough for the world to live with.
Accidents at Three Mile Island (March 28, 1979) and at Chernobyl (April 26, 1986) convinced the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively, that they had serious problems with the personnel who run atomic power plants. The American nuclear power industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took strong measures to tighten standards. The Soviet Union has started a massive effort to do the same. Yet it's easy to find knowledgeable critics who say that, even in the United States, the situation is not completely satisfactory. And, for the world as a whole, the issue of operator reliability is a disturbing uncertainty.
Meanwhile, no one is satisfied with any of today's reactor designs. The Soviets are rethinking their entire program. In the United States, a panel of the National Academies of Science and Engineering and of the Institute of Medicine has said ``new technologies for publicly acceptable nuclear reactors - so-called `safe reactors' - should receive attention in an R&D program on alternative energy sources.'' Western Europe and Britain are also looking for improved reactor designs.
Then there are the growing temporary storage depots of nuclear power plant waste. Despite considerable research in industrialized countries, there is no permanent storage scheme which is technically or politically acceptable.
It is fair to say that the nuclear nations have diddled around with this problem when they should have given it first priority.
With over 400 power reactors in 26 countries, the atom already provides 16 percent of the world's electricity, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Present trends would boost that to 17 or 18 percent by this century's end. But if nuclear power is a viable option for a climatically- benign energy source, that percentage could - and should - shoot up dramatically.
Thus those who tout the atom as a safe alternative to coal aren't just talking about safety standards for the United States and a few other industrialized nations. They are talking about many thousands of reactors operating safely in widely different environments all over the planet. That means a global nuclear power industry with safety standards developed and enforced by all nations working in concert.
The world has scarcely begun to think of nuclear power this way. We don't know whether it is possible to achieve such universal high standards. But we can't wait for the 20th anniversary of Three Mile Island to find out. If nuclear power can't become a really safe industry on a global basis, then energy planners should learn this now and leave the atom out of their strategies to cope with the threat of global warming. A Tuesday column