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The Devil We Know

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change
March 21, 2011
Slate

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It is too early to judge the final outcome of the nuclear crisis that continues to unfold in Japan. It is already clear, though, that people around the world are taking a second look at nuclear power. Germany has moved quickly to shutter several plants at least temporarily, while China has announced a pause so that it can revamp regulations. The disaster's ultimate effect on American energy policy is uncertain, but it's entirely possible that it will cause Congress to make significant adjustments. What would backpedaling on nuclear power mean for the United States?

The United States is home to 104 nuclear reactors that currently provide 20 percent of our electricity. No new reactors have broken ground in decades, but interest from utilities has ticked up, with several proposing new plants in recent years. To what degree the interest will translate into real, functioning plants is still uncertain: As of last year, the Department of Energy projected that only six plants would come online by 2035, primarily because of high costs.

A domestic backlash against nuclear power could stall these projects indefinitely. Some skeptical policymakers would also like to retire our older (and, they worry, riskier) plants. If regulators require all plants to shut down after 60 years in operation, analysts predict that U.S. nuclear generation in 2035 would be one-third lower than what it would have been otherwise; more draconian measures would result in steeper declines unless replacement plants were built. (If, on the other hand, policymakers decided to boost nuclear power with the loan guarantees, subsidies, or broad-based climate rules that have been much debated in recent years, nuclear generation could more than double.) What would one-third less nuclear energy mean for Americans?

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