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Nuclear Power Will Not Play Major Near-Term Role in Countering Climate Change, Concludes New Council Report

Author: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
April 18, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations

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CFR Communications: 212-434-9888, communications@cfr.org

Nuclear energy is unlikely to play a major role in the coming decades in countering the harmful effects of climate change or in strengthening energy security, concludes a new Council Special Report authored by Charles D. Ferguson, Council fellow for science and technology.

To significantly combat climate change in the near term, 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,” says the report.

There are currently 103 nuclear reactors operating in the United States. Even with twenty-year extensions of their planned lifespan, all existing reactors will likely need to be decommissioned by the middle of the century. To replace them, the United States would have to build a new reactor every four to five months over the next forty years. “However, based on the past thirty years, in which reactor orders and construction ground to a halt, this replacement rate faces daunting challenges. For this reason alone, nuclear energy is not a major part of the solution to U.S. energy insecurity for at least the next fifty years,” says the report, Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks.

Ferguson also argues against the United States increasing funding and subsidies for nuclear energy. While it is true that nuclear energy emits fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the conventional wisdom “oversells the contribution nuclear energy can make to reduce global warming and strengthen energy security while downplaying the dangers associated with this energy source,” he says.

The report further warns that “the United States and its partners face the daunting challenge of preventing the diversion of nuclear explosive materials into weapons programs and controlling the spread of potentially dangerous nuclear fuel-making technologies and materials.” Nuclear waste is a particular cause for concern. “If nuclear power production expands substantially in the coming decades, the amount of waste requiring safe and secure disposal will also significantly increase,” says Ferguson, noting that “no country has begun to store waste from commercial power plants in permanent repositories.”

Nonetheless, because “nuclear energy produces one-fifth of U.S. electricity and one-sixth of global electricity…the United States and its partners have a vested interest in ensuring safe and secure operation of the world’s nuclear industry,” says the report.

Ferguson outlines steps the United States could take to level the economic playing field for all energy sectors, which, over the long run, would encourage the construction of new nuclear reactors (if only to replace existing ones that will need to be retired) and help reduce global warming.

Among the recommendations:

  • “The United States should impose a fee on greenhouse gas emissions to leverage market forces in order to counter global warming.”
  • “Industry should devote adequate resources to cover safety and security costs.”
  • “To complement the safety assessments done by the World Association of Nuclear Operators, the nuclear industry in all advanced countries should set up a fund that would support developing best regulatory practices for both safety and security in all countries that use or want to use nuclear power.”
  • “To further improve security, the nuclear industry should transfer as much spent fuel as possible into dry storage casks that are hardened against attack while the United States moves forward with development of a permanent nuclear waste repository.”

Internationally, “the United States should work with partner governments to develop and implement rules that would apply equally to all countries and, thus, would move toward a less discriminatory nonproliferation system.” Such rules could include:

  • “Requiring any country in noncompliance with safeguards commitments to suspend suspect activities until the problem is resolved.”
  • “Encouraging any country seeking a nuclear fuel facility to consider the economic soundness of this activity before building the facility. An economic test would be whether the proposed nuclear project could secure financing by private capital.”
  • “Urging any country wanting to develop nuclear power programs to factor in all environmental, safety, and security costs as compared to other energy sources; to support these assessments, the IAEA and the International Energy Agency could work together to provide comprehensive energy analysis for any country, including all costs for each energy source.”
  • “Offering assured access to nuclear fuel based on competitive market prices as long as a country meets rigorous safeguards criteria and can secure private financial support for its civilian nuclear program.”

The report was produced in partnership with Washington and Lee University and was funded, in part, by generous support of the Lenfest Foundation. Additional funding was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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