Editor's note: This Q&A is a part of a survey conducted by Scientific American of executives at companies engaged in developing and implementing non–fossil fuel energy technologies.

What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of nuclear fission? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?
It's important to understand that nuclear fission is a mature technology and has been in commercial use for over 50 years. The technical challenge of safely splitting an atom, harnessing that energy and converting it to electricity is well-understood throughout the world.

For example, 440 operating nuclear power plants produce 16 percent of all of the electricity generated in the world. The 104 plants in the U.S. generate 20 percent. Elsewhere, France's 58 nuclear power plants generate approximately 85 percent of that country's electricity while other countries like Belgium, Lithuania and Slovakia derive more than half of their electric power from nuclear power plants.

Additionally, scores of new plants are either under construction or consideration throughout the world. In the last four years alone, Westinghouse has received inquiries from no less than 40 countries regarding possible new nuclear power plants. We have four of our AP1000 nuclear power plants under construction in China, and we have been identified as the technology of choice for no less than 14 new plants announced in the U.S., including six for which we have signed engineering, procurement and construction contracts.

Like all industries, though, we do face some challenges. Fortunately, we at Westinghouse, and others in our industry, are making great progress in overcoming them.

For example, there is a clear need to bring new, young talent into the industry, both to replace employees who have or will soon reach retirement eligibility and to prepare for the growth referenced above.
At Westinghouse, we began to address this issue in the mid-1990s when we rebuilt our college recruiting infrastructure. Our effort has been successful, as we have hired more than 4,000 new employees over the last few years, and we project to hire between 500 and 750 new employees each year for the foreseeable future.
We are also working to strengthen and enlarge the worldwide nuclear supply chain, and to establish partnerships with our suppliers and customers that will help ensure that we have not only the people but the high-quality products and technologies necessary for the nuclear renaissance to be both real and long-term.

Can the existing energy infrastructure handle growth in nuclear? Or does that, too, need further modification?
The U.S. electricity grid is large and well established, and clearly able to absorb the first new base-load plants, be they coal or nuclear, that will be coming online over the next decade. Longer term, the grid will certainly need to be expanded and strengthened both to meet long-term projected load growth and to improve the security, reliability and efficiency of our overall energy infrastructure. We should as a nation be proactive in this area, and we are encouraged that the Department of Energy, the private sector and a range of industry organizations are now developing ways to modernize the grid.

In other parts of the world, however, the requirements for distributing nuclear-powered electricity to end users is considerably different. If you look at where the future growth in global electricity demand is greatest, you'll find that many developing countries in Africa and Asia are in the greatest need and are already looking to nuclear power to meet their forecasted demand in the years ahead.

But many of these countries have localized population centers, defined by large cities and largely undeveloped rural land. In situations like this, a 300-400 megawatt (MW) nuclear generating station can supply the needs of a large population center with a dedicated transmission line, unlike that of the U.S. and parts of Europe, which require 1,000–1,200 MW plants and a vast transmission infrastructure to distribute power to densely populated and developed suburban areas.

Given the current economic crisis, can your industry get the necessary capital (from public or private sources) to adequately finance its growth?
The consensus opinion is that in order to meet growing demand, the U.S. electric power industry needs to invest between $750 billion and $1 trillion in new generating capacity, new transmission and distribution infrastructure, and environmental controls over the next decade.

Anticipating this problem and the huge financial burden it would place on the industry, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was amended to provide limited investment stimulus for construction of new base-load power plants, including tax credits, debt insurance, and federal loan guarantees for up to 80 percent of the total project cost.

Additionally, construction of new generating capacity in regulated states enables the utility to build the cost of construction into the rate base, further easing the debt burden in capital projects of this magnitude.

From a strategic standpoint, which is the bigger competitor for nuclear: incumbent coal, oil and gas technologies or other alternative energy technologies?
We're in a new era of energy production in the U.S.; it's no longer a question of which energy technology will prevail. The real question is: how quickly can the U.S. become energy independent and meet the needs of economic growth with the lowest possible environmental impact?

Consequently, the notion of a "competitor" for nuclear power is inconsequential. There's no longer any debate that America needs more energy from nuclear power. At the same time, however, there's also no debate that we need more energy from solar, wind, hydro, clean coal, natural gas and other domestic sources, along with realizing greater gains in energy conservation.

The fact is that coal and nuclear power are the only sources of base-load generating capacity in the U.S. today, and will continue to be for the near and intermediate term.

Nuclear power is the only readily available energy technology that can meet America's growing demand for electricity in the near term, and at the same time release no carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases or other pollutants to the environment.