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Fission for Answers

Prepared by: Lee Hudson Teslik
Updated: April 19, 2007

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While ethanol captures the imagination of energy officials in the Western Hemisphere, a familiar fuel source—nuclear power—appears to be stirring excitement on an even broader scale. Take Asia, where eighteen new plants are under construction and about 110 more are planned (Uranium Information Center), due in part to voracious demand from China, India, Japan, and South Korea. Or take the Middle East, where Iran's pursuit of a nuclear program has spurred oil titan Saudi Arabia to launch its own system (NYT) of nuclear reactors that would span the Persian Gulf region. Egypt also wants to tap nuclear energy (BBC), as do Turkey and Jordan. “The rules have changed (Haaretz) on the nuclear subject,” said Jordan’s King Abdullah in a recent interview. “Everybody's going for nuclear programs.”

Of course, nuclear energy is also back in favor in the United States. “A secure energy future for America must include more nuclear power,” said President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address. At the time of the president’s speech, no new reactor had been built in the United States since 1996. Now one decommissioned nuclear reactor is being brought back into operation, and electrical utility companies are considering twenty three additional possible reactor projects (FT).

A confluence of factors has made nuclear power suddenly more popular. Leading the list is Bush’s goal of energy independence, which requires reducing oil imports. No less significant is the drive to counteract global warming and cut back on energy sources that produce carbon gas. A new report from the Center for Naval Analyses points out that these goals can be interrelated, noting that climate change may well present a serious national security threat. More basically, the world faces a severe energy crunch. Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs writes in a May 2007 Scientific American article that the size of the world economy must increase by a factor of four to six by 2050 to accommodate population growth. At the same time, Sachs says, “global emissions of greenhouse gases will have to remain steady or decline to prevent dangerous changes to the climate.”

Nuclear power promises to factor into this tricky equation, but it’s no magic bullet. Far from it, argues a new Council Special Report. The report says nuclear energy is unlikely to play a major role either in bolstering U.S. energy security or countering climate change. In fact, the report argues, expanding U.S. nuclear facilities fast enough to stem climate change would undermine energy security: “To realistically address global warming, the nuclear industry would have to expand at such a rapid rate as to pose serious concerns for how the industry would ensure an adequate supply of reasonably inexpensive reactor-grade construction materials, well-trained technicians, and rigorous safety and security measures.” Testifying before Congress on April 18, CFR's President Richard N. Haass said the United States faces major “hurdles to maintaining, much less increasing” the percentage of American electricity produced by nuclear power plants.

Similar concerns are echoed in a 2003 MIT study on nuclear energy’s prospects. The study concludes nuclear energy faces four major competitive obstacles: high costs; perceived safety, environmental, and health effects; the security risks of proliferation; and unanswered questions about managing nuclear waste. These factors in mind, a special report from the Economist makes the case that governments should not fund nuclear projects, but rather should let the market decide.

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