Put yourself in an imaginary time machine and set the dial to around the year 2040. The exorbitant price of oil, now at $500 a barrel, has pushed a good chunk of the globe toward nuclear power.
If the world is on the cusp of such an era, will it result in weapons proliferation or accidents such as meltdowns? Or will a new way to harness energy emerge to compete with nuclear power?
Currently, more than 400 reactors in 30 countries supply about 16 percent of the world's electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association. Nuclear power is increasing steadily, with about 30 reactors under construction in 12 countries. Most reactors being ordered or planned are in Asia. And more than 40 developing countries have recently approached U.N. officials to express interest in starting nuclear power programs.
Nuclear energy advocates see the technology as a clean way to wean the world from expensive and environmentally damaging fossil fuels.
But for critics, the thought of a nuclearized world stirs controversy.
"The G8 countries can't even maintain adequate safety and security," said Paul Walker at Global Green USA, an environmental and arms control organization and affiliate of a group founded by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. "So the developing world presents a dangerous potential for terrorist attack or diversion of radioactive materials or major accident."
Experts are also concerned that the spread of nuclear power could spur weapons proliferation. Arab states could learn the wrong lessons from Iran, a nation that thumbs its nose at the West while it allegedly builds a nuclear weapons program, said Charles Ferguson, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Neighbors of the Persian giant could follow its lead in sidestepping full disclosure of its nuclear program, or repeat its argument that unfriendly relations with the few Western countries that supply nuclear fuel have forced it to build it's own enrichment program, Ferguson said. Most countries that rely on nuclear power have only small programs without the ability to produce highly enriched uranium, which can be used in bomb making, he added.
"Iran thinks of itself as a top dog in the region, and that can appear threatening to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states," Ferguson said.
Surrounding nations could establish nuclear programs with the intent of supplying electricity but could later flirt with the idea of nuclear weapons, Ferguson said. Fear of a dominant Iran could...