With uncertainties increasing about supplies of natural gas and oil, nuclear energy is making a powerful global comeback, prompting concerns about atomic terrorism in the post-Sept. 11 era.
A number of countries around the world, from China to Finland and the United States, are gearing up to build new reactors as demand for electricity grows. Governments are also viewing nuclear power as a way to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, given intensifying concern over global warming.
But the prospect of an atomic renaissance is raising the uncomfortable question of whether an expansion of nuclear power is compatible with the fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
`'Neither politics nor technology has an answer to this question right now," Gerard Stoudman, director of the Geneva Center for Security Policy, said in an interview at a recent international conference on homeland security.
"It's really bad timing," said Alain Marsaud, president of the domestic security group in the French Parliament.
"We're coming to the end of the economic use of fossil fuels at a time when terrorists are trying to get their hands on nuclear material or target nuclear infrastructure," Mr. Marsaud said in an interview at the conference, which was held in Geneva. "If the world is condemned to use more nuclear power it will be a real challenge."
With 439 reactors operating in 31 countries around the world, nuclear power accounts for about 16 percent of global power production today, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. And with demand for electricity expected to increase almost fivefold over the next five decades, the agency says reactor capacity could quadruple by 2050.
The Far East is projected to lead the worldwide growth over the next two decades, more than doubling its output.
Experts at the United Nations energy agency cite three risks in the expansion of nuclear power: theft by terrorists of weapons-grade plutonium stripped out from radioactive waste during reprocessing; an attack on a nuclear installation or transport convoy; and, as suspected with Iran and North Korea, an attempt by countries developing a nuclear power sector to build weapons with the same technology.
"If you have more nuclear material in the world, you have a higher proliferation risk — it's a truism," said Alan McDonald, a nuclear expert at the agency. But with demand for electricity increasing across the globe, he added, nuclear energy remains important despite the risks.
Signaling the nuclear revival, 31 reactors are under construction worldwide. China plans to add 32 nuclear power plants to its existing 11 by 2020, while India with currently 14 plants aims to triple its reactor capacity over the next eight years.
Japan, South Korea, Ukraine, Romania and Argentina are all in the process of adding to nuclear capacity as well.
Finland recently commissioned the first new plant in Western Europe since 1999. France — the biggest per-capita user of nuclear energy in the world — is planning to build one shortly (the site has yet to be chosen), and British officials are softening their language on nuclear energy.
Loyola de Palacio, the European Union's departing energy commissioner, said last month that the E.U. would have to retain the option of building up its nuclear capacity. "With the challenge of climate change, the E.U. cannot avoid nuclear energy for the foreseeable future," she said.
Even in the United States, where no new reactor has been built since the partial meltdown in 1979 at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, the nuclear industry is stirring — not least because of encouraging noises from the Bush administration.
Twenty-six plants in the United States have received 20-year extensions of their operating licenses and 18 others have applied for extensions at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, after the administration streamlined the relicensing process.