Atoms for Peace

December 14, 1993|By MARTIN E. NELSON

Annapolis. -- Forty years ago this month, a new era was born when President Dwight D. Eisenhower mounted the podium of the United Nations General Assembly and proposed an international program to guarantee the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Response to his ''Atoms for Peace'' address was extremely favorable, due to the yearning and determination of other countries to enjoy the benefits of nuclear technology and to prevent its misuse. Simply put, they saw in nuclear energy a way to improve their economies and living standards.

Now, another president -- eloquent only in the simple profundity of his plea to curb the threat of global warming -- is helping to provide a framework for responsible international action. Like the address of his predecessor 40 years ago, President Clinton's climate plan could be a turning point in redirecting our emphasis in energy production away from fossil fuels and toward environmentally benign sources. But this will require an understanding that the only way to produce large amounts of power without pouring more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is to use nuclear power.

This fact has crucial significance. While providing about 17 percent of all electricity used worldwide, and more than 22 percent in the United States, nuclear energy emits no carbon dioxide or other pollutants. As an alternative to fossil fuels, U.S. nuclear plants have avoided the emission of 5.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since 1973. Safe and reliable, nuclear power can help reverse the dangerous trend toward global climate change.

The magnitude of the warning, its timing and regional effects are still imprecisely known, but we cannot wait 20 years to see what will happen when greenhouse gas emissions reach higher levels. Such environmental concerns drove the National Academy of Sciences, an independent source of scientific advice for the government, to call for more energy-efficient technologies, the development of renewable energy sources and the revival of nuclear power. Not any one of these measures is sufficient; all are necessary.

If America has the will to transform most of its electricity production to nuclear power and to run its car engines from stored electricity, the economy's running costs would be lower, its pollution problems less, its effect on global warming would be cut by a third, and the trade deficit would be cut or perhaps even brought back to a profit. Why don't we?

Eisenhower's message 40 years ago remains just as relevant today. He declared, ''The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here -- now -- today.''

Martin E. Nelson is professor of marine engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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