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Nuclear Energy: Trying to Get it Right

“If men can develop weapons that are so terrifying as to make the thought of global war include almost a sentence for suicide, you would think that man's intelligence and his comprehension... would include also his ability to find a peaceful solution.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower, November 14, 1956

Greetings readers,

60 years after Atoms for Peace, we’re still trying to get it right.

On December 8, 1953, President Eisenhower, went before the General Assembly of the United Nations to discuss Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.  He laid out his vision for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.  This vision included the International Atomic Energy Agency and the pursuit of “methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind.” (Found this as I was confirming numbers on global nuclear energy use - IAEA Feature on Atoms for Peace - so suffice to say, my illusions of originality on that score are shattered and I will leave it to the Feature referenced above to provide further details).

Fast forward 60 years.

On December 7, 2013 President Obama, in an interview at the Brookings Institute, made the case for diplomatic agreements with Iran to halt their march towards a nuclear weapons capability, but allowed for continued steps towards nuclear power for peaceful use. 

So why – when the recent agreement between the US and Iran clearly demonstrates the challenges of monitoring weapons programs, special nuclear material, and national security as a part of nuclear energy programs – is it still so important to recognize nuclear energy as an energy option?

Is it because of the need for nuclear as an energy source right now? Currently, nuclear energy accounts for about 11% of the electricity worldwide.  In countries like France, Ukraine, Belgium, and Switzerland, nuclear energy is a major energy supply.  In others, including India, China, Japan, Mexico and Iran, nuclear is a minor contributor. Specifically, in Iran, nuclear accounts for less than 1% of their current energy supply.

Another possibility is the future sustainability of energy supplies and the scalability of nuclear energy to support growing populations.  As coal, gas, oil, and possibly hydro power supplies slowly ebb, the promise of nuclear grows more appealing.  Perhaps appealing enough to overcome fears of groundwater contamination, radioactive waste, and nuclear accidents like Fukushima.  

One must also consider that nuclear technology is well-understood, well-proven, and financially feasible; while other forms of energy are less mature, less well understood, and cost prohibitive at the scales needed for cities and states.

I’d contend that it is a combination of all of the above (and likely other factors that I haven’t addressed) that keeps nuclear energy in the running, even with the obvious challenges associated with this form of energy.

So, if nuclear is here to stay, we have to – over the next 60 years – work in an open way to make it safer, less of a security risk to the US and nations around the world, and more environmentally tenable.  It cannot be about simply growing the industry and relying on the natural improvements that come with a maturing sector.  With a clear acknowledgement that governments are working on this; the US, IAEA, and nations around the world have to maintain/increase their efforts to develop new nuclear power designs and enrichment technologies (such that unwarranted enrichment is more easily ferreted out and isolated, and the processes for nuclear power and nuclear weapons are more distinct), promote closed fuel cycles, improve treatment of spent fuel, and institute more rigorous containment and safety measures.

Nuclear is a tough area to address and proponents and opponents of nuclear energy have been around since its inception, and will be around for decades to come. So, while we try to “get it right”, we (critics and advocates alike) need to acknowledge our reality and work aggressively towards solutions.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of Energy or any other entity of the U.S. Government.

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