Courtesy Reuters

Making Nuclear Energy Safe and Secure

Between now and the end of this century there is no realistic hope of meeting world energy needs without a substantial increase in the use of nuclear energy; commercial nuclear reactors are bound to multiply three- or four-fold even over the next 10 to 15 years. Commercial nuclear materials must be safeguarded against diversion or misuse by nations or individuals. At the same time, nuclear reactor designs and associated fuel cycle facilities now in common use present both real and public-perception problems as to their safe operation and the safe storage of the radioactive wastes they generate.

More and more these problems are seen to be global concerns. By far the greatest risk in the expanded use of nuclear energy is that it may contribute to the spread of nuclear weapons. Such nuclear proliferation was the main subject of the Review Conference just concluded in Geneva, five years after the coming into force of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But the question of nuclear proliferation, vital as it is, is only part of the overall problem. Basically, the question is whether, and if so how, the use of the "peaceful atom" can be expanded to meet the world's energy needs without incurring unacceptable public risks of any sort. Although experts like to draw a technical distinction between "safety" and "safeguards"-and only the latter came in for extensive review at Geneva-in fact the regulation and control of the whole nuclear fuel cycle is often so closely related as to be almost impossible to divide into discrete parts.

Obviously, much of the problem of additional nuclear-weapons countries is political in nature: if a nation is determined, as India was, to demonstrate the ability to build its own nuclear weapons, probably no international framework can prevent it from doing so; the raw materials and the technology exist, to the point where no amount of international policing consistent with present concepts of national sovereignty-let alone the acute sensitivity of many nations today-can prevent nations from developing

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