More than two decades after the Chernobyl meltdown, the world again is staring uneasily at the Janus faces of nuclear power. One offers an energy source that won't cause global warming. The other presents challenges in cost, safety, disposal, and nuclear proliferation.
Rising energy prices, and especially the need to find alternatives to fossil fuels that pour out greenhouse gases, have put a fresh focus on nuclear power. "We are facing a nuclear renaissance," the head of a French nuclear energy company said recently. "Nuclear's not the devil anymore. The devil is coal."
Today the world's 439 nuclear plants provide about 16 percent of electricity, a percentage that has altered little over 20 years. But that's changing.
Britain recently announced that it will look favorably on companies that apply to build new nuclear plants there. Finland and France already have active building programs. Italy, which banned nuclear plants after Chernobyl, is now engaged in a debate on the subject, and interest in the US appears to be reawakening, too. In all, more than 100 new plants are being built or planned, about half of them in developing nations such as India and China.
This nascent boom comes despite the known shortcomings of nuclear power. Radioactive waste from nuclear plants, such as plutonium-239, can remain toxic for thousands of years. And no permanent storage facility to keep it safely sequestered indefinitely has been built anywhere in the world. The American site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has proceeded at a snail's pace and is opposed by that state's most influential politician, US Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D). Its opening remains at least a decade away.
Plant accidents remain a real concern, too, especially in developing countries where official corruption can go unchecked and safety standards and public accountability may be lacking. Reactors are tempting targets for terrorist attacks. And they have the potential to produce weapons-grade plutonium, another obvious concern.
Together, these considerations provide ample reason to give pause.
But the time for weighing alternatives is running out. Unabated building of coal-fired power plants would produce a level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that could usher in unacceptable changes to the world's climate. Technologies that could capture carbon emissions from coal plants and bury them underground are only in their experimental stages.
Some environmentalists argue that turning to nuclear power could siphon off government support for other fossil-fuel alternatives – wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, and so on.
That shouldn't be allowed to happen. Neither should it stunt initiatives to cut energy use through conservation and more efficient products. Ramping up efforts on these preferable alternatives can keep the building of new nuclear plants to a minimum.
Governments must take a gimlet-eyed look at nuclear power. They must insist that operators have strong safety plans and adequate funding for the entire life cycle of facilities, from construction to proper decommissioning and storage of hazardous waste.
Nuclear power is a friend that bears close watching.