Another Nuclear Dawn

The story of nuclear power seems to have begun and ended in the 20th century. First came the fireworks--two atom bombs that ended a world war and announced vast stores of energy in the fine structure of the atom. Then came a new industry that promised electricity "too cheap to meter," but instead foundered on high costs and inexcusable accidents. Its epitaph was written in the 1980s, when only the blind or the biased could still have believed that the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in nuclear power was money well spent.

So much has changed. The prices of oil and natural gas have gone through the roof and are expected to stay there. Wariness of major suppliers like Russia and Iran is forcing political recalculations across the world. Coal is cheap and plentiful, but it's a big source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that 157 nations are committed to reducing. Environmentalists, who used to be the natural enemies of nuclear power, are now busy beating their drums over climate change. Energy demand is expected to rise worldwide by about 50 percent in 20 years, with growth in developing nations hitting 90 percent. Energy will have to come from somewhere. It's becoming plain that the world needs to exploit renewable sources such as solar and wind. It needs to find clean-coal technologies. It needs to make factories and homes energy efficient. And as leaders from India to Germany have declared recently, it needs nuclear power.

Is nuclear energy worthy of a comeback? There's some truth to the argument that 20 years ago the industry and its regulators were beginning to get things right just as the public was running out of patience. Since then nuclear research hasn't exactly been a growth industry, but engineers have made steady improvements. Reactors now being built, if operated properly, could improve the industry's accident rate tenfold, according to John Deutch, a nuclear power expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. New designs could do better. Advanced boiling water reactors (ABWR), for instance, are made to work even when they lose coolant, without overheating. Japan now operates three ABWRs and Taiwan is building two. Pebblebed reactors use uranium balls that dissipate heat so well they shut down during an accident. China and South Africa are building pilot plants.

Nuclear technology still has two potentially fatal problems. The first is the so-called fuel cycle. Uranium fuel turns into radioactive waste, which must be either recycled or disposed of. Both options are problematic. Reprocessing puts pure plutonium, the stuff of bombs, into circulation; and disposal is politically and technically tricky. Scientists have tried to invent a way out of this mess--one new technology turns nuclear waste into fuel that is worthless in bombs, but it is unproven. Proliferation seems destined to remain a diplomatic nightmare, as the current imbroglio over Iran's nuclear program attests. To contain the spread of weapons material, nuclear nations may allow Iran and other countries to develop civilian reactors in exchange for giving up control over the fuel cycle .

The other question is whether nuclear power is viable economically. On paper, high energy costs create an opening in the marketplace. But, says Deutch, "one doesn't know what costs will be until real plants get built." Much depends on whether industry and its regulators get things right this time--and whether environmentalists and the public give them a chance. An accident here or there may close nuclear power's second chapter as quickly as it closed the first. This time the stakes are higher.