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Introduction to the Question

No other energy technology has generated more controversy than nuclear power. Because nuclear reactors are fueled by, and produce highly radioactive material, the risks they pose are often perceived as more menacing than those associated with other energy sources. Two major accidents, at Three Mile Island in 1979 and at Chernobyl in 1986, have increased public concern about nuclear power safety.

Despite the ongoing debate, many countries continue to pursue aggressive nuclear power construction programs. However, in the United States, where installed nuclear power capacity leads the world, no new orders for nuclear power plants have been placed since 1978.

The reasons why U.S. utilities have not pursued the further development of nuclear power are varied and complex. Because so many claims and counter-claims have already been made, many people find it difficult to get a clear picture of what the issues are, and what is at stake.

This document utilizes, in part, a pro/con format to examine the best arguments for and against nuclear power and other electricity-producing energy sources. The pro and con statements in the text were selected to represent key issues commonly advanced by groups and individuals engaged in the energy source debate. As such, the pro and con statements are often general arguments for and against the subjects under discussion, and are not necessarily factual or correct. On the other hand, Association of Media Accuracy (AMA) commentaries, which appear below the pro and con arguments, are factual analyses designed to clarify, verify, and/or supply background information on the topics under discussion. Please note that disparities in the column length of the pro and con arguments are not intended to be used as measures of the relative merits of the subjects under consideration.

The Inception of Nuclear Power

"On October 17, 1956, Her Majesty the Queen officially opened the nuclear power station at Calder Hall (in England) when she switched electrical power generated from its reactors into the distribution mains of the Central Electrical Authority. She was making history, for this was the first time anywhere in the world that nuclear power had been used to generate the electricity used in factories and homes."1

Although England was the first country to generate nuclear power for commercial use, the utilization of nuclear energy was made possible through an international scientific effort that dates back to the 1930's. In late 1938, fission -- the process of splitting atoms to release neutrons -- was chemically identified by scientists in Berlin. Weeks later, two Swedish nuclear physicists documented the same process, and in March 1939, three French scientists first proved that with the release of many neutrons in one fission, a nuclear chain reaction was possible.2

With the onset of World War II and the German occupation, almost all nuclear energy work ceased in France -- then considered the leader in nuclear energy research -- while the Germans gave priority to the development of rockets.3 In the spring of 1940, the Soviet Union established a "State Fund for Uranium Metal," but its early nuclear research was interrupted by Hitler's invasion in June 1941, did not resume until late 1943, and was plagued by a variety of problems until 1947.4 Atomic energy research continued in England until 1943 and did not resume until 1945.5

In the United States, at first, little progress was made in the field of atomic research. However, while American political and military leaders turned a deaf ear to the idea of harnessing energy by splitting atoms, many European scientists were immigrating to the U.S. to avoid participation in, and persecution by, the Nazi regime. Finally, after positive reports on the progress of British atomic research continued during late 1940 and all of 1941, officials in Washington planned a course of action. On December 6, 1941, one day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the decision was made to apply substantial technical and financial resources to the construction of the atomic bomb. This effort was to become known as the Manhattan Project.6

Although the years 1942-1947 were dedicated almost exclusively to atomic weapons research in the U.S., advances in the application of atom-splitting to produce energy were forseen by the scientists involved as a byproduct of the research. In 1942, Enrico Fermi, Walter Zinn and their colleagues operated the first experimental nuclear reactor which demonstrated that a chain reaction of fissioning atomic nuclei could be started, regulated and stopped. In 1943 and 1944, to supply plutonium for the Manhattan Project, the first two water-cooled reactors ever built went into operation.7

While World War II essentially put a halt to atomic energy research across Europe (with the notable exception of Germany), Canada assumed a leading role in the field. Its National Research Council sponsored nuclear experiments in 1940, and in 1942, with the cooperation of the British, established a laboratory at the University of Montreal. Scientists working with the Montreal project were in close contact with the Americans working under Fermi in Chicago. By the fall of 1945, in a remote location called Chalk River, in Ontario, Canada, the first experimental reactor outside the U.S. was put into operation. A much larger reactor (and for many years to come the largest in the world) went into operation there in 1947.8

Almost immediately after the end of World War II, France, England, Canada, and the United States laid plans for the development of atomic power -- with varying degrees and kinds of commitment. General De Gaulle's provisional French government established the Commissariat a' l'Energie Atomic (CEA) in October 1945, which was responsible for overall nuclear development.9 By the end of 1945 the British had drawn up a plan to build a nuclear research station, and by February 1946 they had established an organization to plan and oversee the design and operation of industrial atomic energy plants.10

Control over the future use of the atom in America was transferred from military to civilian hands with the passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which created the five-member Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The legislation charged the AEC with the responsibility of overseeing and developing all facets of nuclear technology.11 In the same year, a similar law went into effect in Canada, creating the Canadian Atomic Energy Control Board.12 The Soviet Union began a concerted nuclear energy research effort in 1946, which was sharply accelerated after they achieved their first controlled nuclear chain reaction in the spring of 1947.13 Under postwar military regulations, West Germany was prohibited from almost every facet of nuclear energy work.14

Between 1946-1948, United Nations negotiations on atomic energy took place, but ultimately failed. During that period, the United States released an appreciable amount of general information about its nuclear research. This information, coupled with declassified reports that made their way into scientific journals, provided basic atomic knowledge to countries that had not participated in the wartime developments.15

Even though the U.S., England, and Canada had agreed to keep secret much of their atomic know-how acquired during the war, France managed to start up the first experimental atomic power reactor in western Europe, at the end of 1948. This coincided with the discovery of large deposits of uranium within France's borders.16 In 1950, at Windscale, the British completed the construction of two large experimental reactors designed for the production of plutonium.17

In the United States, between mid-1951 and the end of 1955, through the AEC's Industrial Participation Program, a dozen different utility/industry consortia contracted with the federal government to undertake various reactor research projects and cost estimates.18 While the AEC was concerned primarily with building the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal during this period, these tentative overtures to the development of nuclear power met with some success. On December 20, 1951, the AEC's federally controlled experimental breeder reactor was put into operation, producing atomically-generated electricity for the first time in history.19

With electricity generation through atomic energy a reality, England became the first country to unveil a practical plan to produce nuclear power for commercial use in 1953. The initial plan called for the construction of one reactor opposite the two production reactors in Windscale, on the banks of the River Calder. A few months after work had started on the first reactor, an additional demand for plutonium -- the key ingredient of atomic bombs -- induced the construction of a second reactor at the same site.

Like the technology that gave nuclear power its potential, the first electricity-producing reactors were made possible by defense-related needs. In July 1956, one reactor at Calder was generating electricity used across the river at the Windscale works. In October 1956, the Queen opened the Calder Hall nuclear power station.20

Between 1955-1960, many non-nuclear nations began to show interest in, and lay plans for, the development of atomic power. They included Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, West Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and Yugoslavia. A shift away from absolute secrecy regarding nuclear research, heralded by President Eisenhower's 1953 "Atoms For Peace" speech, the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954, and the first international Geneva conference on atomic energy held in August 1955, all contributed to the worldwide development and use of commercial nuclear power.21

1 Sir Christopher Hinton, "Atomic Power in Britain," Scientific American, Vol. 198, No. 3, March 1958, P. 29.
2 Ibid.
3 Arnold Kramish, "Atomic Energy in the USSR," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 15, No. 8, Oct. 1959, P. 322.
4 J. Gueron, "Atomic Energy in Continental Western Europe," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, VOl. 26, No. 6, June 1970, p. 62.
5 Gordon Dean, Report on the Atom, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1959), p. 259
6 Robert Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), p.p. 105-112.
7 John F. Hogerton, "The Arrival of Nuclear Power," Scientific American, Volume 218, No. 2, Feb. 1968, p. 21.
8 Dean, op. cit., pp. 260-262.
9 Bertrand Goldschmidt, "The French Atomic Energy Program," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 18, No. 7, Sept. 1962, p. 39.
10 Hinton, op. cit.
11 Atomic Energy Act of 1946, Pub. L. No. 79-585, 60 Stat. 755.
12 Dean, op. cit., p. 262.
13 Kramish, op. cit.
14 Gueron, op. cit.
15 Ibid.
16 Goldschmidt, op. cit.
17 Hinton, op. cit. p. 30.
18 Wendy Allen, "Nuclear Reactors for Generating Electricity: U.S. Development From 1946 to 1963," (Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, June 1977), p. 20.
19 Atoms For Power: United States Policy in Atomic Energy Development, (New York: The American Assembly, Columbia University, 1957), p. 55.
20 Hinton, op. cit.
21 Gueron, op. cit., p. 64