Prague, 28 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The catastrophe at Chornobyl in 1986, which sent a radioactive cloud over large parts of Europe, plus the partial meltdown of a U.S. nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979, were nails in the coffin of nuclear power.
But now there is suddenly talk of nuclear power as almost a "savior" that could help mankind out of its latest environmental dilemma. Robert Matthews is a nuclear scientist at Britain's Aston University.
"Basically, we need to rethink our attitude towards nuclear power, without doubt," Matthews said.
Today, only 16 percent of the world's electricity is generated by nuclear power, and few reactors have been built in the developed world during the past 15 years.
"There is far too much 'touchy-feely,' save-the-planet type philosophy underpinning a lot of the claims made for renewable energy sources."
What is happening now is that scientists are telling us that our vast and growing consumption of fossil fuels is causing global warming, which is upsetting our atmosphere.
Even distinguished environmentalists, such as Britain's James Lovelock, have called for massive renewed investment in clean nuclear power as one means to combat global warming over the next 20 to 50 years.
That's nonsense, say more traditional environmentalists like Jan van der Putte of the Greenpeace organization in Brussels. He says this would mean revisiting the dark anxieties associated with radioactivity, while also noting that it is not even a practical proposition due to the limited availability of uranium fuel.
"If you would replace all fossil fuels today with nuclear power -- that is not technically possible, but just imagining it -- if you would do that, you would run out of uranium sources in three years and nine months. So, it's totally ridiculous to propose replacing the enormous amounts of fossil fuels with the very limited resources of uranium," van der Putte said.
Van der Putte says the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, has put known uranium reserves as sufficient for only 50 years, even at the present rate of usage.
However, IAEA official Hans-Holger Rogner notes that figure applies to known reserves that can be economically recovered using present methods. Rogner says it does not rule out that new resources may be found in future and exploited with new technology.
Also, say nuclear advocates, we are talking here not just about present reactor technologies, but new ones. Scientist Matthews refers to a new type of reactor called the Accelerator-Driven System (ADS).
In present fission reactors, a chain reaction is produced by neutrons bombarding uranium atoms. This reaction must be controlled and balanced if it is not to produce an explosion like an atom bomb.
In the ADS system, there is no spontaneous chain reaction. Instead, the neutrons are fed in from a particle accelerator, and if that source is cut off -- either on purpose or by accident -- the reaction simply stops. In other words, advocates say, it's an inherently stable system, whereas the present fission process is inherently unstable.
Also, the ADS system can use a wide range of nuclear fuels, including waste products from present-generation reactors, and fuels unfavorable for atomic weapons development. But environmentalist van der Putte is unconvinced:
"If you look at the technological reality of accelerator-driven systems, it will not solve the problem of radioactive waste, because in order to create this [system,] you need [nuclear fuel] reprocessing. You need to take apart in a chemical way the highly radioactive waste, and that involves discharges of radioactive waste. It's unavoidable. We know this from the existing technology," van der Putte said.
He says higher levels of radioactive pollution would be the result. Van der Putte says alternative sources of electricity -- like wind and solar power -- offer a more practical alternative to nuclear power, with lower costs.
"Last year, in 2003 [alone], in the whole of Europe, wind power facilities were built which were about equivalent to two large nuclear power stations," van der Putte said.
By contrast, there was no expansion of the nuclear power industry in that same period, or for a long time before that, although a new reactor is planned in Finland and possibly another in France.
Matthews, on the other hand, looks at these renewable sources of energy in a less positive light. "There is far too much 'touchy-feely,' save-the-planet type philosophy underpinning a lot of the claims made for renewable energy sources. It would be wonderful if these predictions were true, but on the scenarios now being drawn up, they are not going to make up the shortfall left by the decline of nuclear power in the next 20 or 30 years," Matthews said.
Both analysts agree the high cost of introducing new technology is a factor that could slow change in the nuclear industry. "There is a deep split in the nuclear sector between the utility companies who want to produce electricity at the lowest price, and the research institutes, who are looking for funding for nice-looking projects," van der Putte said.
He says the utilities are not interested in ADS if it increases production costs, nor are they interested in taking responsibility for the disposal of nuclear waste, the price of which falls on governments, and therefore on taxpayers.
Matthews points out there is another possibility to lessen the energy crunch, one that is often overlooked. It is, simply, the efficient use of energy. "America, for example -- if the United States simply became as efficient as the European community, it would be able to avoid all its dependence on imported oil," Matthews said.