BANGKOK, Thailand - Few issues are as divisive as nuclear power, and the furore over its use threatens to resurface as leading scientists meet in Thailand to thrash out a plan to reduce the impact of climate change.
Nuclear supporters hail it a "clean" energy that will help lessen the world's dependence on the polluting fossil fuels, gas, oil and coal, which spew damaging greenhouse gasses into the air and drive global warming.
The potential of nuclear energy to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions is expected to be mentioned in a report being drawn up in Bangkok this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN's top authority on the issue.
"There has so far been a tendency both at the IPCC and (Kyoto Protocol talks) to duck the nuclear issue, but they will not be able to duck it forever," said Malcolm Grimston, a nuclear policy expert and associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House.
The arguments against nuclear energy have changed little since the heyday of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s, with environmental groups such as Greenpeace and WWF labelling it unsafe and unclean.
Stephan Singer, WWF's European head of climate and energy policy, told AFP on the sidelines of the IPCC conference that his group did not consider it a sustainable or cost effective alternative to fossil fuels.
Greenpeace also maintains that nuclear is never an option, but boundaries have recently blurred between nuclear friends and foes.
A number of gurus of the environmental movement, including Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore and James Lovelock, one of the best-known figures of the green movement, have come out in favour of nuclear power.
"There are some very important people who are now speaking positively about nuclear energy, so I think the debate is at a different place (from where it was) three or four years ago," said Richard Tarasofsky, head of the energy, environment and development programme at Chatham House.
This debate may be played out behind the closed doors of the IPCC meeting, where scientists and diplomats are likely to argue their governments' corners.
An early draft of the report's summary seen by AFP lists nuclear power as one of a range of technologies available to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Greenpeace says there are currently 441 nuclear power reactors in 31 countries, and leading the pack in developing or using nuclear energy are the United States, France and Japan -- with India and China close behind.
China has said it plans to build as many as three nuclear power plants a year over the next decade, while India last year reached an initial agreement with the United States, giving it access to US nuclear fuel and technology.
Poorer countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Egypt are also pondering going nuclear as the demand for energy increases, but analysts say there remain many unresolved issues, not least the cost.
"Traditionally nuclear energy has had to receive major subsidies from governments in order to be financially viable," said Tarasofsky.
Disposing of nuclear waste also remains a problem.
"We do not have a single depository for radioactive toxic waste which is accepted by geologists in the world," WWF's Singer said.
The nuclear power debate is not limited to the environment.
Charles Ferguson, science and technology fellow at Washington-based think tank the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the administration of US president George W. Bush was pushing nuclear as one solution to climate change.
But at the same time it denounces Iran and North Korea over claims that they are using civilian nuclear programmes as a cover for developing weapons, leaving the US open to accusations of double standards.
"The White House wants to play favourites in defining some countries as 'good guys' who are allowed the full access to nuclear technologies... and others as 'bad guys' who are denied access to all of those technologies," Ferguson told AFP by email.
IPCC delegates said that although nuclear power would be discussed, they insisted it was merely one piece of the climate change puzzle.
"The message that comes out here is that there is not a silver bullet, (but) a whole range of different methodologies and technologies," David Warrilow, head of the UK delegation, told AFP here.
Copyright © 2007 AFP.