Advocates and opponents alike can be fanatical in their positions on nuclear energy. Complicating matters for policy-makers is that both sides make valid arguments. Worse still, none of the available alternatives to nuclear power and conventional fossil fuel-driven power has yet proven capable of producing energy on a large enough scale to supersede these options for the near future.
The two biggest benefits of nuclear energy are its low cost and its cleanliness relative to coal, oil and gas-powered energy plants.
A nuclear plant generates power in much the same way as most of those old-style plants - by creating steam that spins a turbine - but it does so in a much more efficient manner. The cost of nuclear fuel is also much lower than the cost of coal or oil, and even lower than natural gas. The combination of high operating efficiency and low materials cost is, understandably, attractive to governments.
Also, nuclear power plants don't produce the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that fossil fuel-driven power plants produce. As more countries make environmental concerns a larger factor in their energy plans - and as countries committed to the Kyoto protocols seek ways to avoid pollution penalties - that "eco-friendly" benefit becomes extremely enticing.
Despite some notorious exceptions, the safety record of nuclear power facilities is also much better than that of their conventional cousins.
Due to their intricate and potentially volatile design, nuclear power plants are much more expensive and often take much longer to build than standard power plants. Also, nuclear foes claim, the lower cost of electricity produced by nuclear plants is achieved in part by subsidies and government funding that is generally not included in the calculation of this cost. So the total savings are, arguably, minimal.
Opponents also contend that nuclear energy is not, in fact, better for the environment. In addition to the danger of a catastrophe, such as the infamous Chernobyl disaster, there is the problem of radioactive waste, the byproduct of nuclear energy. Both in enriching uranium for fuel, and in the nuclear fission process that ultimately results in electricity, extraordinarily dangerous waste products are created. Because of the complexity of storage needs for nuclear waste - some of the waste products remain radioactive for thousands of years - finding localities willing to host storage facilities can be a daunting task.
Of course, there is also the danger of a peaceful nuclear program leading to a weapons program.
None of the available alternatives to the current energy systems offers a perfect solution.
Wind power creates no waste products, but requires a large area and provides energy in unstable quantities.
Hydroelectric power is extremely efficient and very "clean," but it is nonetheless limited by its environmental impact and by the fact that it can only be used in areas with large flowing water systems.
Geothermal power may be an elegant solution harnessing natural steam vents, but it can only be realized in a small number of locations.
With free fuel (sunlight), no resulting pollutants and increasing efficiency, solar power is as close to a perfect power source as is available today.
Until solar energy can be stored cheaply and in a relatively small area, though, it will not be an economically viable option for more than a fraction of a country's electricity demands.
While some or all of these alternatives are relevant choices for the Arab states currently weighing nuclear power, they are unlikely to fully meet the growing electricity demands of those states. - S.S.
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