After nearly 30 years of stagnation, nuclear power generation may breathe new life again. The death knell sounded for nuclear power here in 1979 with the meltdown of the uranium core at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, followed by the Chernobyl disaster seven years later, which is said to have driven the final nail into the nuclear coffin. It didn't matter that the containment vessel at Three Mile Island worked as it was supposed to, preventing any significant release of radioactivity, or that Soviet reactors operated within a safety system full of holes.

The Arab oil embargo followed the Three Mile Island event, which created a bleak outlook for the U.S. energy future. However, many believed that the nation didn't need any new giant electric power plants, and that energy efficiency and the development of renewable sources of power would meet energy needs. Of course, this has failed to materialize, as energy needs continue to escalate. For example, about 0.01 % (about 0.5 billion kWh of electricity) of the U.S. total energy consumption came from solar power in 2002, while wind power contributed another 0.27%. Fossil and nuclear fuels still completely dominate the U.S. energy supply.

So how will the U.S. meet future energy demands? U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in addressing an international nuclear energy forum in Washington in January of this year that without a major increase in nuclear energy, the world will be less likely to meet its growing demand for electricity and to slow increases in pollution and greenhouse gases at the same time. He added that current renewable technologies alone could not produce the vast quantities of electricity needed to meet the growing global energy demand.

Abraham said that the U.S. wants to reemphasize the role of nuclear power in its energy mix. While the U.S. has been trying to address major obstacles to construction of new nuclear power plants, including the current regulatory environment, low cost-effectiveness of nuclear power generation and public opposition to nuclear energy, other countries such as France, Japan, South Korea and China have been aggressively advancing significant nuclear energy programs.

Unfortunately, because of nearly three decades of inactivity, it could take possibly another ten years to bring nuclear power on line. We need to get started now. As Abraham noted, it's time for rational people on all sides of the nuclear debate to come together and attempt to find an acceptable way to ensure that the advantages of nuclear energy are part of our energy and environmental solutions. IH