With oil prices and global temperatures rising, the nuclear option has once again entered discussions about the future of the world's energy supply. Piggybacking on the growing awareness of global climate change, the nuclear industry in the United States, Russia, and elsewhere has launched a new public relations campaign, marketing its services in the interest of clean, environmentally sound energy. In contrast to similar proposals from the 1950s, technical feasibility and economic profitability seem to be taken for granted, whereas concerns about safety and nonproliferation have gained significance. The nuclear industry today promotes new, "inherently safe," and proliferation-resistant reactor designs, improved methods of personnel training, and cost-effective standardization, along with strict licensing procedures under independent regulatory agencies. Thus, in addition to legal provisions, the industry advocates a series of "technical fixes" to prevent nuclear proliferation. The unresolved problems of radioactive waste and lingering public opposition to nuclear power are either left out of the picture, or countered with unswerving technological optimism.
This article looks at differences and similarities between current and past proposals for developing a civilian nuclear industry. It provides some historical background - particularly on the Soviet experience, which the author has explored in some depth elsewhere. Although recent proposals continue to advocate the normalization of nuclear energy on the basis of its further commercialization, a reflection on past successes and/or failures is largely missing from current discussions. A cautious reading of recent enthusiastic endorsements of nuclear energy would be well-advised.