04/22/2014 12:44 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2014

How Can Nuclear Science Promote Sustainable Development?

Earth Day 2014 provides an opportunity to look at what nuclear science and technology has done to establish sustainable development by improving health and the quality of life. We have seen this demonstrated through varied applications such as nuclear medicine, food preservation and safety, industrial materials and processes, basic scientific research, environmental studies, and the generation of electrical power with minimal environmental impact.

It has been defined that sustainable development must meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This concept is expanded in the stated principles of the Rio Declaration. Human beings are said to be at the center of concerns for sustainable development; they are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. States of the world are seen as having the right, within the principles of international law, to exploit their own resources and the responsibility to ensure that any activities within their jurisdiction do not cause damage to the environment or other States. In addition, the right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet the developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.
It is generally held that sustainable development requires attention to:

• Infrastructure such as schools, factories and transportation

• Disease prevention and medical treatment

• Food availability and protection

• Water in adequate quantities

• Sewage treatment

• Steady and abundant supply of energy, especially, electricity

Nuclear technologies contribute significantly to all of these needs. In addition, electricity generated from the use of nuclear power satisfies the economic and environmental protection goals in the Rio Principles.

We must ask the question, "Can nuclear power be used to help meet the current energy needs of our society without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs?" We believe the answer is Yes.

Preservation of Fossil Resources

The amount of fuel (mass and volume) required for nuclear power is significantly less than that required for a fossil-fueled plant. One ton of uranium produces as much energy as 17,000 tons of coal. Nuclear power plants utilize resources of fissionable heavy metal (uranium), which has no other major use. Using uranium in this way slows the depletion rate of fossil resources, helping to preserve fossil fuel resources to meet future development needs. Lowering the demand and dependence on fossil fuels in developed countries contributes to environmental equity by allowing developing countries to have vital energy supplies at lower cost.

Long-Lasting Reserves

Known fuel resources for nuclear power plants are estimated to provide for 250 years of consumption using current "once through" commercial reactor technology. The technology exists to utilize even more energy from each fuel sample, though it is not yet significantly deployed. Recycling of uranium and plutonium could extend the fuel supply for thousands of years of consumption. Uranium is available in relative abundance in politically stable countries. In addition, research on extracting uranium from seawater shows promise of a virtually inexhaustible future supply. These known resources clearly provide for future generations without competing for limited fossil fuel materials or for the air and land required for waste disposal and deployment of extensive decentralized generating systems.

Internalized Environmental Costs

For nuclear power, environmental and waste costs are already internalized as a result of stringent regulations. Yet, nuclear power remains competitively priced. Other energy sources do NOT have their environmental costs internalized, as called for in the Rio Declaration.

Achieving development that meets the needs and aspirations of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is a challenging task. Since the inception of cooperative international efforts over four decades ago, nuclear science and technology, including nuclear power, have effectively applied the Rio Principles and contributed to sustainable development in many parts of the world. This vital technology must continue to be available as all nations strive for a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.