MOSCOW. (Academician Yevgeny Velikhov, for RIA Novosti) -- I am an optimist, and I don't think that natural energy resources will be depleted anytime soon.
At any rate, oil and gas rather than nuclear power will continue to be the main source of energy, which will be sufficient to ensure the world's steady development until the middle of this century.
In addition, we still have coal. As for atomic power engineering, its role during this period will be to stabilize the world's energy situation, which appears to be extremely complicated.
Certain countries possess a prevailing amount of natural resources due to their uneven distribution in the world. For this reason, the energy issue is intertwined with politics, and sometimes becomes a trump card in a political game. Nuclear power engineering is capable of reassuring all those who are not certain about having sufficient energy today and tomorrow. There is no doubt, that it is the only source of energy which can ensure the world's steady development in the foreseeable future. Today, this fact is understood not only by physicists, but also by politicians, who have to accept it as an axiom.
In the modern world people are actively striving to improve the quality of life, but better amenities require a great deal of energy. Several billion people, whom the nations of the golden billion only recently considered poor and an object of charity, are today consuming as much energy as they need. This allows them to achieve fast economic progress. Many of them (China, Korea, India, Malaysia, and others) are reaching the level of the world's leaders. New powerful consumers are emerging on the energy market.
Experience shows that all known sources of energy are at the service of people, and have a role to play in their lives. Although nuclear power will be moving to the fore, I do not rule out that mankind will develop alternative sources of energy as well. The energy of the sun, wind, tides, and biomass will find a niche. The use of these energy carriers is justified and they harmoniously supplement each other.
However, nuclear power engineering has indisputable advantages over alternative sources of energy. For instance, it takes many echelons to transport coal, but it can be easily replaced with several kilos of uranium.
Nuclear power engineering will not only relieve transport of a titanic burden, but will also give an addition reserve of fuel. Oil and gas prices keep growing, and it is clear that they are not going to fall. This situation may cause a collapse of the economy or of individual industries. In the United States, for one, the price of gas is so high that its chemical industry is losing its ability to compete on the world market. Other countries are faced with similar problems as well. Nuclear power engineering will be the only energy alternative in this situation.
Although this industry is very complicated, and requires huge investment and proper security, it is still the best option in the final count. In the European part of Russia it makes more sense to build nuclear power stations than gas ones. Gas may be used more rationally in the chemical industry, or sold abroad at a good price, which will contribute to the national budget. Replacement of gas with nuclear energy is a strategic cause for Russia.
Today, Russia is at the world's average level in the use of nuclear energy. Its contribution to the common energy pot averages 17%-18% (up to 30% in the European part of the country). If we look three or four decades ahead in order to evaluate Russia's nuclear energy requirements, we will see that its share should be increased by at least 25%, if not more.
Russia is not the only country to recognize the value of nuclear power engineering. The French nuclear power plants account today for up to 80% of national energy consumption. In his recent State of the Union Address President Bush spoke about the need to replace non-renewable energy sources with nuclear energy. Supplies of cheap Russian gas to Europe put a certain restraint on the development of nuclear power engineering. Germany was even considering giving it up altogether. But now everything is changing. Rational Europeans have realized that nuclear power engineering is indispensable. As for India and China, it is difficult even to imagine these giants making progress without such a powerful source of energy.
True, they are rich in coal (for the time being!). But the burning of coal generates large amounts of carbon dioxide, which is fraught with unpredictable climatic changes, for instance, accelerated global warming. There is another problem: coal is linked to the appearance of aerosols, which are the main source of lung cancer. I do not mean to say that coal mining has no future. People will learn to burn coal without these side effects, just as they have coped with a number of problems in nuclear power engineering. I think that today the latter industry has left others far behind in terms of security and ecology. As for the negative impact on the climate and environment, it can well compete with any other power generation, including solar and wind energy.
The advantage of nuclear power engineering is that it is not accompanied by hothouse emissions or pollution of the atmosphere. The 1986 technogenic Chernobyl disaster slowed down the advance of nuclear power engineering, and the public lost interest and trust in it. But the progressing market difficulties with hydrocarbons have compelled the world to turn to nuclear power engineering once again. Today, many countries, Russia among them, have placed their bets on this industry.
By the middle of the century we physicists are hoping to see rapid development of another, more progressive type of nuclear power engineering - thermonuclear synthesis. Let me remind you that all life on Earth is a stream of solar energy of thermonuclear origin. Will thermonuclear energy meet mankind's requirements? Of course, there is no magic wand, which would make energy sources last forever. But thermonuclear energy is very promising. It is not for nothing that it is called the Sun of the Earth (150 million degrees inside the reactor). For the time being this type of energy is very expensive, and commercially unviable. Experts will have to solve a whole package of scientific problems, and upgrade a number of technologies in order to make the thermonuclear power plant competitive with other energy sources.
Seven participants in the unique project - Europe, Japan, Russia, the U.S., China, Korea, and India have agreed to invest five billion dollars into the construction of a thermonuclear experimental reactor (ITER - Russian acronym), and use for this purpose their intellectual resources, industrial capacities, and technologies. The site for it has already been chosen -- Cadarache in Provence, France. When will this project be implemented? If we start building it by a well-orchestrated effort this year, its construction will be completed in ten years. Another five years will be spent on designing an electric power station, and another 20 years on extensive research. The fast track suggested by Tony Blair's advisor Sir David King, is aimed at building the first thermonuclear electric station by 2030. If this experience succeeds, the world will receive very powerful sources of energy -- thermonuclear electric stations. This will be an effective cure for the headache caused by the energy problem for a long time to come.
ITER's history is an amusing illustration of how politicians have advanced the cause of nuclear power engineering. A perfect balance of mutual interests has taken shape: politicians have no choice but to vote for atomic power engineering, whereas its destiny largely depends on the political will of governments. It is no secret that on the one hand, politicians express national interests, whereas on the other hand, they are speaking for themselves with an eye to elections, populist motives, personal prestige and ambitions. Decision on the ITER project was a strictly political one, and credit for it goes to the political leaders. In 1985, Russian physicists convinced the then President Mikhail Gorbachev of the advantages of thermonuclear energy. In turn, he had a fruitful discussion with Francois Mitterand, who appeared to be well versed in the subject and took it further by convincing U.S. President Ronald Reagan of its benefits. As a result, an agreement on ITER was signed the same year in Geneva.
This is not the end of the story. Credit for the choice of the site in France goes to another French President, Jacques Chirac, who put huge pressure on other participants. Moreover, Chirac managed to persuade Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was very enthusiastic about Japan hosting ITER. He finally gave in, but not for nothing. The Japanese were happy about a brilliant idea suggested by Russia - to start designing a commercial thermonuclear power station in Japan on a par with the experimental ITER project in France. This idea received universal support.
Under heavy pressure from his domestic opponents, President Bill Clinton was forced to withdraw from the ITER project. But the new President, George W. Bush, made a rational decision on the return to the project. He even urged the nation to view ITER as a priority of American energy policy of the future. Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the world to give credit to nuclear power engineering at the Millennium Summit in New York in 2000. Thank God, today's world compels politicians to think about the future.
Academician Yevgeny Velikhov, prominent Russian scientist, President of the Kurchatov Institute Russian Scientific Center.