Among the many disputes in the field of energy, in many countries none appear to be as acrimonious as those surrounding nuclear power. Its supporters are confident that nuclear power will have an important long-term future on the global energy scene, while its critics are equally confident that its days are numbered and that it was only developed to provide a political fig-leaf for a nuclear weapons programme. Both sides believe the other to be thoroughly biased or stupid and there is little constructive debate between them.
As the disputes rage, especially over such issues as the management of nuclear waste, the economics and safety of nuclear power compared with other sources of electricity, the possible links with nuclear weapons and the attitude of the public towards the industry, decision-making is either paralysed or dominated by those who shout loudest. As a result, governments, industry and the financial sector have in recent years found it increasingly difficult to develop policy in this field.
Deciding about future energy developments requires balanced and trustworthy information about issues such as the relative environmental effects of different options, the safety of installations, economics and the availability of resources. This is of particular importance now because world energy use is expected to continue to grow significantly during this century, particularly in less developed countries. In the same period, global emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, will have to be severely curbed. To meet both these requirements may well involve a step change away from being able to meet growing energy needs by depending on an ever increasing supply of carboniferous fossil fuel.
To address this situation, the Royal Institute of International Affairs undertook a two-year research project, aimed at providing information from the standpoint of an organization with no vested interest in either the pro or the anti camp, but close connections to both. The project has aimed to illuminate the differences, rather than to adjudicate among the various 'sides'.
The question at issue is what role nuclear energy might play in this new world. It could be expanded rapidly and it clearly has the potential to contribute to mitigating climate change. However, as indicated above, the industry presents a number of challenges. The aim of this project has not been to come to judgments as to what role, if any, nuclear power will or should play in future energy supplies, but rather to expound and develop, from an uncommitted standpoint, the arguments used by proponents and opponents of the technology.
Nonetheless, we feel it appropriate to highlight some themes which have emerged: