FOLLOWING its celebrated inception shortly after W.W.II, nuclear energy offered the public a vision of "electricity too cheap to meter." Indeed, nuclear power was heralded as the country's economic savior in response to dire predictions of soaring post-war electricity demand in the U.S.|
Neither one of these scenarios has come to pass; in retrospect, meterless electricity never would have become a reality in a market economy such as ours. Listening to nuclear power's advocates and detractors alike, one would never know that nuclear power has been very successful. What do I mean by successful? In the 1950s, the U.S. switched on the world's first nuclear power reactors. Today, nuclear power accounts for 21% of the nation's-and 17% of the world's-electricity. In comparison with the rates at which other new energy production technologies have penetrated the marketplace, nuclear power has proven very successful. For example, historic U.S. growth rates for coal, oil, and gas utilization have all been about 7% per year, while the rate for nuclear power in the U.S. soared to 36% in the 1980s. To be sure, since then it has slowed considerably in this country; today the U.S. has no plans to build new nuclear power plants.
Most reasonable projections of world economic growth show that, even after generous allowances for possible improvements in energy efficiencies, a shortfall in energy production in the next half century will have to be made up by a mix of coal and nuclear power. Most of the world's economic growth is occurring in developing nations that contain some 80% of the planet's population. In fact, the projected growth rates of energy usage in the developing world are three times those of the developed world (and dominated by the Chinese), easily outstripping the projected increases in natural gas supplies from recent discoveries. As a result, nuclear power may well become the developing nations' prime option for providing new supplies of electricity, particularly if their governments recognize the importance to the environment of curtailing carbon dioxide emissions from burning wood, oil, gas, and coal.
It seems clear, then, that nuclear power will be with us globally for the foreseeable future. However, an important question remains: What role will the U.S. play in the nuclear world of the future? Will American know-how be used to influence the course of nuclear energy developments, or will we be relegated to bystanders to other nations' technical developments and marketing efforts? The answers are not simple and are not independent of related concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation, global climate change, dependence upon foreign sources of energy, and even jobs (through the export of U.S. technology). Yet the answers will most likely affect our quality of life and the stability of the economically developing world.
A vital U.S. nuclear energy systems and materials R&D program, involving both the federal government and the private sector, should be welcomed, not feared, by the general public. Such a program can help assure adequate mid-to-long-term supplies of energy for this nation, but more importantly, for the developing world. Adequate and safe energy supplies can provide the increases in the standard of living to meet peoples' expectations that, if not met, historically have led to social and military upheaval. Adequate supplies of nuclear-power-generated electricity will help minimize air pollution and capture new foreign markets for U.S. industry. Perhaps most important, strong American technical leadership and influence in the global nuclear arena can pay tremendous dividends in global safety, security, and environmental quality.
Finally, only with strong R&D can we hope to increase the credibility and public acceptance of nuclear power. As described in the article beginning on p. 4, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has a long-standing commitment to providing its broad expertise and advanced technologies to virtually every aspect of nuclear systems and the nuclear fuel cycle. I expect that commitment to pay important dividends to this nation--and the world--for many years to come.