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The world is increasing its reliance on nuclear energy. For many people, that is a dangerous development. For many others, it is the only responsible choice. The truth is energy-policy decisions are becoming increasingly difficult. A national debate — in Japan and elsewhere — is a necessity. Ultimately, however, solutions to some of the most pressing problems will be taken at the international level. But those debates must begin soon. Many of the most challenging problems are already evident.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear energy production climbed nearly 4 percent worldwide last year, and now accounts for more than 16 percent of the electricity generated. Thirty countries, plus Taiwan, have nuclear power plants. At the end of last year, 438 nuclear plants were in operation across the globe. Another 32 reactors were being built in 2001, mostly in Asia and Europe. The IAEA forecasts nuclear capacity will grow between 4 percent and 7 percent by 2005, and between 7 percent and 15 percent by 2010. Most of the growth is expected to take place in Asia and Central and Eastern Europe.

Nuclear energy plays an important role in Japan, the world’s fourth-largest energy consumer and the second-largest importer (trailing only the United States). Cognizant of the vulnerabilities created by dependence on foreign energy sources, Japan doubled its nuclear energy production between 1985 and 1996. Nuclear plants supply 15 percent of Japanese electricity (putting it third in nuclear energy production behind France and the U.S.), and that percentage is expected to double again by 2030. There are currently 51 nuclear plants in use, and the industry plans to build nine to 12 more.

The case for nuclear energy is a powerful one. It reduces dependence on foreign suppliers, especially oil from the volatile Persian Gulf region. Conservative estimates project global primary energy use will double or triple by 2050, yet known oil reserves are half depleted. Nuclear energy prices should be more stable both in the short term and over longer periods of time as demand increases in pace with economic development elsewhere in the world. Even more important, nuclear energy will substantially reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

Indeed, that is a key justification for Japan’s nuclear program. This country is the fourth-largest producer of greenhouse gases. The government wants to bring emissions down in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, but that will be difficult since Japan is already one of the most energy-efficient nations in the developed world. If most inefficiencies have been eliminated, then cleaner energy sources are a must. That is the logic behind the nuclear development program.

Public acceptance of that policy would be easier if nuclear-energy production was less dangerous. Japan’s nuclear facilities have been plagued by a string of mishaps and accidents, one of which claimed several lives a few years ago. In each case, the industry has promised that the incident was an isolated case. Then, later, it has been forced to explain yet another mishap. Trust has been eroded — perhaps permanently.

Another important issue that is only reluctantly addressed is the problem of nuclear waste. It is estimated that world accumulation of spent fuel will reach 341,095 tons by 2010; Asia’s share will be 50,610 tons — enough to cover a road 10-meters wide and 300-km long to a depth of one meter. That waste will contain 450 tons of plutonium.

Japan has devised a solution to that problem: It is building a reprocessing facility that will recycle the plutonium into usable fuel. Those plans have been controversial, not least because they have raised concerns that the plutonium could be used to make nuclear weapons. Such fears are misplaced, the recent comments of politicians notwithstanding. Not only is there no public support for such a policy, but Japan is subject to intense scrutiny by the IAEA.

Japan’s solution may work for this country, but it will have no impact on the waste accumulating elsewhere in the world. Japan could offer to recycle waste for other nations, but that is problematic, especially with the shaky public consensus regarding nuclear energy that already exists in Japan. The willingness of other countries to go along is another stumbling block.

Still, the issue should be on the table. Given the competing demands — increasing energy use, declining supplies from traditional sources, concerns about greenhouse gases — nuclear energy is looking increasingly desirable. Yet, nuclear energy has special problems all its own. Japan, like the rest of the world, needs to examine them anew and with more creativity.

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