The Future of Nuclear Energy
The Future of Nuclear Energy

As the world reeled from Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster, global leaders initiated a moratorium on building nuclear plants and called for strengthening safety regulations.  Where does nuclear energy go from here?

While the extent of radiation damage remains unknown, India, China, and other energy hungry nations in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East reaffirmed their nuclear commitments albeit with heftier precautions while others, such as Germany, have all but abandoned them. Here’s TechCast’s Assessment of the situation in our normal format of PROS and CONS:

PROS  Trends Driving Nuclear Power
• Nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of electricity generation and provides energy security while being largely insensitive to fuel price fluctuations ( 3/9/11; ScientificAmerican 3/25/11).

• The World Nuclear Association estimates that “the world’s stock of 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years” ( 3/15/11).  

• In the US, 104 nuclear plants provide 20% of electricity, and the nation remains committed to nuclear as one component of its Clean Energy Standard plan, calling for 80% of electricity to come from clean sources by 2035 ( 3/14/11; 3/14/11). Upward of 40 US applications for new nuclear plants are being considered ( 3/2011). 

• China plans to add as many as 10 nuclear reactors a year during the next decade to satisfy consumption, growing at 12%/year. India is investing $150 B for dozens of reactors to help supply 25% of the country’s electricity by 2050. (NY 3/15/11).    

• Next-generation reactors will use a passive-cooling system, which doesn’t rely on external power, to reduce the chance of meltdowns ( 3/15/11).

• New designs like the pebble bed reactor are immune to meltdown and store waste in glass safely for 200,000 years. A "fast breeder" design recycles spent fuel to reduce radioactive waste from 95% to 1%, increasing efficiency and reducing the disposal problem. Other possible designs include the thorium reactor, sodium cooled fast reactor, and the high-temperature reactor (Discover June 2009).  

• Toshiba has developed a micro-sized reactor that is fail-safe to power individual buildings. (Next Energy News 12/17/07)   

CONS  Trends Opposing Nuclear Power
• In the wake of the Japan disaster, Germany abandoned its nuclear energy plan, shut down several reactors, and is proceeding with a nuclear phase-out and expanding renewable energy. ( 3/22/11).

• For the short run, the beneficiary of nuclear’s 2011 crisis is going to be fossil fuels. Renewable energy remains too expensive, too land-hungry, too unreliable and too small-scale to take up much slack, so cheap coal and newly abundant natural gas will do the job ( 3/19/11). Gas is about the most scalable, efficient, flexible, clean and lowish-carbon form of electricity available, so it is likely to prove economically and politically attractive ( 3/19/11).

• While a 2010 Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans favored nuclear, a March 2011 poll finds that only 44% favor construction of US nuclear power plants and 47% oppose it ( 3/16/11).

• Despite Europe's agreement to launch voluntary “stress tests” of reactors, this is only a “modest step toward centralized oversight” and critics contend the tests are not rigorous enough (NY 3/26/11).

• Critics dismiss safety claims of “next-generation” nuclear power plants. “It is completely unclear whether new designs would actually have significant benefits” in situations similar to the one in Japan, according to Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They’ve never been built and operated anywhere." ( 3/30/11)

• Building enough nuclear power stations to make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gases would cost $ trillions, create thousands of tons of lethal radioactive waste, contribute to proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, result in a Chernobyl-scale accident every decade, and waste resources needed to avert climate change ( 3/26/11).

  A 2009 MIT study estimates nuclear energy costs about 30% higher than coal or gas. Extensive regulatory approval processes can also boost plant developers’ costs, hindering investment ( 3/15/11).