Thursday, September 22, 2005

Foreign Policy: Think Again: Nuclear Energy

Foreign Policy: Think Again: Nuclear Energy
Think Again: Nuclear Energy

By Benjamin K. Sovacool

Posted September 2005

With worldwide demand for energy soaring along with oil prices, nuclear energy is increasingly seen as the answer to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. Even committed greens are warming to nuclear energy. Unfortunately, nuclear power plants are not the answer to our energy needs, and they’re not as eco-friendly as they appear.

“Nuclear Power Is Dead”

False. Although most U.S. nuclear power plants are more than 20 years old, concern about climate change is reviving the nuclear power industry. The Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force for 141 countries this year, aims to cut back on global greenhouse gas emissions. This pressure has driven interest in nuclear reactors, which many erroneously consider a “zero carbon dioxide emission” technology. Judith M. Greenwald of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change has noted that “the imperative to decarbonize the future world energy economy to mitigate climate change provides strong motivation to keep the nuclear power option open.” Three large U.S. utilities—Exelon, Entergy, and Dominion—have filed early site permits with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the construction of new nuclear plants in Illinois, Mississippi, and Virginia, respectively. For its part, the energy bill recently passed by congress provides significant support to the nuclear industry. The legislation extends liability limits for nuclear accidents for another 20 years, authorizes the construction of new Department of Energy (DOE) research reactors, and establishes hefty loan and insurance programs to make the construction of new nuclear reactors more attractive.

Worldwide, a total of 25 reactors are currently under construction in 10 countries. China has nine fully operational nuclear reactors, and it plans to build another 30 within the next five years. New nuclear plants are also on drawing boards in India, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Russia.

“Nuclear Power Will Decrease Dependence on Oil”

Not really. Oil generates only around 3 percent of U.S. electricity (the rest comes primarily from coal, nuclear, natural gas, and hydropower sources). Gains in electricity generation from nuclear power do not automatically translate into decreased oil dependence. Nuclear power’s ability to reduce oil dependence may grow as Americans purchase more hybrid vehicles that could use either the electricity generated by nuclear power plants or hydrogen harvested from nuclear reactions. But the day most cars and trucks run on electricity or hydrogen is still distant. The transition to a hybrid or hydrogen economy is at least 20 to 30 years away, due to the difficulty of developing cost-effective fuel cells and the infrastructure to extract, compress, and store hydrogen. Because most of the research and development on hydrogen takes place in the United States, Europe, and industrialized Asia, the rest of the world is even farther from this future. Plus, many analysts believe that, at current consumption levels, there is only a 50-year supply of uranium, rendering social and economic investment in nuclear plants short sighted.

“Nuclear Power Is a Clean Form of Energy”

Unfortunately not. When President George W. Bush signed the energy bill in August, he remarked “only nuclear power plants can generate massive amounts of electricity without emitting an ounce of air pollution or greenhouse gases.” This claim is flat-out wrong. The reprocessing and enrichment of uranium often relies on fossil fuel generated electricity. Data from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and USEC, a uranium enrichment company, indicate that the enriched uranium needed to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity can require 5,500 megawatt hours of gas- and coal-fired electricity. Two of America’s most polluting coal plants in Ohio and Indiana produce electricity primarily for uranium enrichment. In this way, many nuclear power plants contribute indirectly but substantially to global warming, and fail to reduce U.S. dependence on petroleum and coal.

The mining and milling of uranium and the operation of nuclear reactors also present grave dangers to the environment. Abandoned mines in the developing world, for example, can pose radioactive risks for as long as 250,000 years after closure. Nuclear plants release toxic pollutants and gases, such as carbon-14, iodine-131, krypton, and xenon. They also produce prodigious amounts of waste that remain dangerously radioactive for more than 100,000 years. The DOE has relied upon on-site retrievable storage as a stop-gap solution. By 2003, more than 49,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel was scattered in dry casks and storage pools in 72 different U.S. locations, with the amount of waste expected to grow to 105,000 tons by 2035. Yucca Mountain—a federally funded permanent storage facility being built in Nevada—has only enough space for 70,000 tons. Put simply: We don’t yet have a lasting solution to the nuclear waste storage problem.

"Nuclear Power Is Inexpensive"

False. Even modern nuclear facilities are extremely capital intensive and take years to build. A typical 1,100 megawatt light-water reactor plant costs between $2 and $3 billion for licensing and construction. These costs soar even higher once the additional expenses of storing nuclear waste and decommissioning old plants are added. The capital intensity of nuclear projects complicates the process of balancing capacity with demand, meaning plants tend to overproduce electricity. These problems help explain nuclear power’s downturn in the 1980s. Moreover, such expenses are expected to increase along with the demand for uranium, the primary source of nuclear fuel. Experts say the cost of uranium could surpass $40 per pound in 2006, a nearly 300 percent increase since the 1990s. Fuel prices account for a small percentage of the overall expenses for a nuclear plant, but the costs can reach millions, as about 200 metric tons of natural uranium are required annually for a single 1,000 megawatt light-water reactor. It’s no surprise, then, that nuclear generators need massive government subsidies to attract investors. A 2003 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study recommended a host of government subsidies and a carbon tax of $200 per ton on conventional power plants in order to help make nuclear reactors cost competitive with existing technologies. Without heavy subsidies, it’s unlikely that the U.S. nuclear industry would survive, let alone expand.

"Nuclear Power Plants Are a Security Threat"

Yes. Domestically, nuclear plants increase the likelihood of a nuclear accident or terrorist attack. Stringent security regulations enacted after Sept. 11, 2001, have reduced the risk of forcible entry, car or truck bombings, cyberterrorism, and aerial bombardment to nuclear plants. Yet, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that 37 of 81 nuclear plants tested failed their 2003 Operational Safeguards Readiness Evaluation. And while the nuclear plant structures that house reactor fuel can withstand aircraft impact, multiple reports have cautioned that for too many plants, the vital control building—the building that, if hit, could lead to a meltdown—is still located outside protective structures and vulnerable to attack.

Globally, nuclear plants are vulnerable to theft of fissile material and may promote the spread of nuclear weapons. There is no shortage of terrorist groups eager to acquire the nuclear waste or fissile material needed to make a crude nuclear device, or a “dirty bomb.” Commercial nuclear reactors already create an amount of plutonium equal to the global military stockpile every four years. A modest growth in worldwide capacity from 350 gigawatts to 700 gigawatts would generate roughly 140 tons of weapons-grade plutonium annually. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, authorities have documented nearly 200 incidents of nuclear smuggling in France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Russia, and Turkey. A 2004 Jane’s Intelligence Review report concluded that a substantial increase in the number of new nuclear power plants worldwide would directly increase the risks associated with nuclear weapons proliferation. Existing safeguards are clearly not sufficient. After all, the International Atomic Energy Agency was unable to prevent India and Pakistan and—more recently—Iran and North Korea from using civilian reactors to launch weapons programs.

"Nuclear Power Is a Wise Choice for Future Energy Needs"

No. For the moment, the wisest energy strategy for the United States—in terms of cost, environmental benefits, and potential—would be to invest in long-term energy demand reduction through the increased deployment or improved performance of energy-efficient equipment. In New York state alone, for instance, efficiency policies have already saved more than 1,000 gigawatt hours of electricity and displaced 880 megawatts of peak demand. On the supply side, using smaller, decentralized units such as wind turbines, combined heat and power systems, biomass generators, and solar heating and photovoltaic systems is a much better strategy. Such technologies are quicker to construct, less fuel intensive, and more modular, meaning that almost any demand can be met, no matter how small, because they can generate smaller increments of electricity. It is these miniature generators—not mammoth and capital-intensive nuclear plants—that offer the best strategy for diversifying electrical generation in a competitive energy environment.

The drawbacks of nuclear power are even more severe in developing countries, which are less able to afford the capital investments nuclear technology requires. Poor countries also have more to lose when projects bog down or fail—especially because many of these countries pay higher interest rates on international loans. In addition, an expansion of nuclear power throughout Africa and parts of Asia would require the construction of an expansive transmission and distribution network, as well as expensive and difficult-to-secure facilities to store nuclear waste. Above all, countries pursuing nuclear power would become dependent on the West for the technical expertise and financial capital required to construct and maintain their facilities. In the end, expanding nuclear power only entrenches existing problems posed by the use of fossil fuels, and obscures better alternatives for a sustainable energy future.

Benjamin K. Sovacool is a doctoral candidate at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and a graduate fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of either of these institutions.


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