Nuclear power advocates have added a new weapon to their arsenal -- a "moral" argument aimed at liberal consciences. Proponents still stress the traditional defenses of nuclear power:
* That it provides electricity more cheaply than coal and oil.
* That it has an excellent safety record -- not in spite of the Three Mile Island accident, but as evidenced by the containment of that situation.
The new argument, directly responsive to "the Hollywood-based anti-nuclear lobby," is that wealthy, developed nations have a moral obligation to "go nuclear" in order to help the third world and to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
Western industrial nations prospered, it is reasoned, by using low-cost fossil fuels. Now, with the price of those fuels skyrocketing, the third world finds economic development difficult and catching up with the West virtually impossible.
Thus, it is argued, the West should not compete with the third world for such fuels, especially oil, driving up the price and hampering industrial development of those nations. Instead, countries like the United States should use their capital resources and advanced technology to "go nuclear" at maximum speed.
European nuclear scientists take the argument a step farther. These experts say that the world's limited uranium supplies should be used sparingly and shared with the third world. Meanwhile, the richer nations, they insist, should put top priority on building networks of fast breeder reactors, which operate on reprocessed fuel from thermal reactors and produce more plutonium than they burn.
A chief formulator of the newly surfacing moral argument is Harry Lawroski, president of the Illinois-based American Nuclear Society (ANS) which has a membership of 13,000 nuclear sicentists and engineers.
"I find it really immoral," Dr. Lawroski told the Monitor, "to be burning hydrocarbons for producing power in the United States."
Just back from visiting France's fast breeder facilities, this specialist in reactor safety and nuclear waste management said: "I hate to think that we would continue competing for the world's diminishing oil supplies and thereby depriving other countries of the oil they need for development."
Uranium, he pointed out, has no good use except for making electricity -- unlike petroleum products, which are vital for transportation, for the chemical industry, and for producing a variety of synthetic materials.
Dr. Lawroski says the virtual halt in nuclear power plant construction in the US since the March 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania has been tremendously costly. The postponement of planned thermal reactors has forced the US to produce more electricity with imported oil -- meaning higher electricity bills for US consumers. And the oil imports have added to world demand for oil, meaning higher energy bills for the third world, he notes.
Another reminder of the worldwide implications of the US debate over nuclear power came from the Edison Electric Institute convention in Chicago June 9-11.
Speaking to representatives from most of the country's electric utility companies, the deputy chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, Dr. Walter Marshall, said that "the USA has lost its balance in its perception of nuclear risks."
Dr. Marshall urged the US to develop fast breeder reactors, saying this will launch an international economic system that will help prevent nuclear weapons proliferation.
In his view, smaller countries would share in the economic benefit of fast breeders. Third-world countries would develop thermal reactors -- and sell the otherwise worthless spent fuel from their reactors to the advanced industrial nations for use in fast breeder reactors.
The British nuclear scientist stressed "moral" reasons, concluding: "The advanced countries of the world are already close to exhausting mankind's oil reserves before the majority of mankind, in the developing countries, can afford to use them. That is not an ethical behavior. The advanced countries are now heading toward exhaustion of mankind's accessible uranium reserves before the developing countries have a chance to use them, either. The long-term future lies with fast reactors, and our objective must be to get them operating before the remaining uranium becomes too expensive."