Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks

In this Council Special Report, Charles D. Ferguson examines the benefits and limits of nuclear power, arguing that the United States and international partners must find effective ways to address risks if the use of nuclear energy is to be realistically expanded.

April 6, 2007

Teaching Notes

The Council Special Report (CSR) on Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks was designed, in part, to provide a tutorial on nuclear energy issues. The report is written at a level appropriate for collegiate classes and some advanced high school courses. The report is not designed as a stand-alone text for a course but instead can be a useful supplementary text. These teaching notes offer some suggestions for using the CSR in general courses on science, technology, and foreign policy; general courses on energy and environmental studies; specialized courses on nuclear energy studies; and specialized courses on nuclear nonproliferation.

Teaching Notes Components

General Courses on Science, Technology, and Foreign Policy

In this type of course, nuclear energy could serve as an important case study of the repercussions of a technology in international security and foreign policy. This case study approach could narrowly focus on one aspect of nuclear power such as nuclear weapons or energy security. Alternatively, the case study could take a comprehensive look at the interconnected issues with nuclear energy use including pride, prestige, energy security, and latent nuclear weapons programs. Whether narrowly or broadly focused, the case study's methodology could borrow from the ideas and discussion questions outlined in the course on energy and environmental studies, nuclear energy studies, and nonproliferation studies.


Pride and Prestige Issues

More on:


Nuclear Energy

  1. Why is nuclear power—a technology that has been used for more than fifty years—still considered by many countries to be a hallmark of technological advancement?
  2. How does nuclear energy relate to other energy technologies in terms of symbolic perception and national pride?

Incentives and Disincentives to Exploit Nuclear Technology

  1. More than forty countries could conceivably use their nuclear and industrial wherewithal to make nuclear weapons. But why have only a relatively small number of countries used nuclear technologies to make the bomb?
  2. What are the roles of the political and technical factors in a government's decision to build or not build nuclear bombs?

General Courses on Energy and Environmental Studies

Worldwide concerns are increasing about the potential for catastrophic effects from climate change. While climate change is an important and growing global concern, energy usage has other environmental effects. For example, burning coal that has a high-sulfur content can damage the environment through production of acid rain in the absence of methods to capture the emissions that contribute to this effect. Coal also results in large amounts of waste. Although the waste from nuclear power is much smaller by volume than coal, proper disposal is required to safely handle the highly radioactive content of nuclear waste. In addition to environmental effects, countries will make decisions on what energy sources to use based on access to energy supplies and the economic costs.

This type of course would feature nuclear energy as one case in the study of how energy use affects the environment and meets people's needs for reliable electricity, heating, and transportation. Such a course would compare nuclear to other energy sources. The CSR briefly examines nuclear energy's contributions to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and to reducing reliance on foreign sources of oil and natural gas. Ideally, the course would provide other opportunities for students to delve deeper into these issues.


Nuclear Energy's Contribution to Countering Climate Change

Although nuclear power plants do not themselves emit greenhouse gases, other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, such as mining and milling, do.

More on:


Nuclear Energy

  1. What are the parts of the nuclear fuel cycle? How much total greenhouse gas does the cycle emit?
  2. What are the environmental effects of uranium mining?
  3. What countries have operating uranium mines?
  4. How much uranium could these mines supply based on current and projected market demands?
  5. Does it make economic and environmental sense to extract/reprocess plutonium from spent nuclear fuel to reuse the plutonium in new fuel?
  6. What countries are involved in plutonium reprocessing?
  7. Will the world run out of uranium? If so, how soon before that would happen?
  8. What would be the effect of mandatory greenhouse gas controls on the growth of nuclear energy? Would a carbon tax or carbon cap-and-trade system stimulate huge expansion of nuclear power production?

Nuclear Energy's Contribution to Strengthening Energy Security

  1. How much can nuclear power displace the use of imported oil and natural gas?
  2. Is it feasible for nuclear energy to power cars and trucks through hydrogen-powered fuel cells or electric vehicles? If so, how much could nuclear power contribute to the transportation sector? How quickly could this happen?
  3. Uranium ore is unevenly distributed in the world. How many countries could have a completely indigenous nuclear industry from mining all of their own uranium to manufacturing their own nuclear fuel to building their own reactors? Are there concerns about maintaining access to supplies of uranium and fuel? If so, how can those concerns be mitigated?

Specialized Courses on Nuclear Energy Studies

Nuclear energy stands out from other energy technologies because of its connection to nuclear weapons—considered by many experts to be the only true weapon of mass destruction—and because of the safety measures required to guard against radioactive contamination of the environment. To address the former concern, this type of course can borrow from material explored below in the section on specialized courses on nuclear nonproliferation. Addressing the latter concern about safety involves understanding the technologies of nuclear reactors and radioactive waste handling and disposal, the economic costs of these technologies, and the policy decisions related to determining how safe the technologies need to be and who will pay the high costs associated with implementing and enforcing such safety standards. In addition to safety, security requirements at nuclear power plants and other facilities such as spent nuclear fuel pools tend to be and, many experts argue, should be, more rigorous than in other energy industries. The CSR discusses the roles of government and industry in developing best safety and security practices.


Safety Considerations

The memories of the 1979Three Mile Islandand 1986Chernobylnuclear power plant accidents still cast a shadow over the nuclear industry. While these accidents contributed, in part, to a slow down in the 1980s and into the 1990s in nuclear power plant construction, these events sparked the industry to take action to improve power plant safety. One way the industry improved safety was to implement confidential peer-reviews of nuclear power plants.

  1. How safe is safe enough? What more should the industry do?
  2. Are nuclear regulatory agencies doing enough to ensure plant safety? Are these agencies independent enough from the influence of industry? The industry has also been designing new power plants using enhanced safety features. What are these new safety features? Will these safety systems help nuclear energy gain wider acceptance?

Security Considerations

Nuclear power plants are symbolic of a country's technological and industrial accomplishments. According to security analysts, the symbolic nature of nuclear plants makes them a main target for terrorist attacks or sabotage. The 9/11 Commission, for example, mentioned in its report that Mohammed Atta, one of the terrorist leaders on 9/11, had considered attacking a nuclear power plant. While there have been few known incidents involving terrorists wanting to harm a nuclear plant, many experts remain concerned that terrorists' interests in such attacks will grow, especially if more countries in particularly unstable parts of the world acquire nuclear plants.

  1. What is the evidence for terrorists' interests in these attacks?
  2. What are the known security vulnerabilities to nuclear plants? What security measures have the industry employed? What additional security enhancements, if any, are required? What are the costs for current and proposed security improvements?

Specialized Courses on Nuclear Proliferation

As physics Nobel laureate Hannes Alfvén said many years ago, "Atoms for peace and atoms for war are Siamese twins." This image captures the inseparable, dual-use nature of nuclear fuel making technologies, including uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower began the Atoms for Peace program to provide the benefits of civilian nuclear science to the world while establishing the International Atomic Energy Agency to safeguard nuclear technologies, raising the barrier to their use in military programs. More than fifty years after the start of the Atoms for Peace program, the debate continues about whether the program helped or harmed efforts to prevent countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. The program did strengthen international norm against proliferation. On the other hand, it trained thousands of technicians in the use of nuclear fuel making technologies.

In the 1960s, theUnited States, theSoviet Union, and other countries joined together to negotiate and enact the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT established two grand bargains: one in which the nuclear-weapon-states (NWS) agreed to help non-nuclear-weapon-states (NNWS) obtain access to peaceful nuclear technologies as long as the NNWS maintained adequate safeguards on their nuclear programs, and the other in which the NWS agreed to pursue nuclear disarmament and the NNWS pledged to refrain from acquiring nuclear explosives. Like the Atoms for Peace program, the NPT has its champions and critics. The champions say that the NPT enhanced a crucial international norm against the spread of nuclear weapons, and they point to the many countries that dropped weapons programs in exchange for the multilateral assurance represented in their neighbors' ratification of the treaty. In contrast, the critics point to loopholes in the treaty that can allow countries to acquire bomb-making technologies under the guise of civilian nuclear programs. Overarching this debate is the double standard between the nuclear haves and have-nots and whether this discrimination can be resolved or whether it will stimulate more countries to acquire the bomb or at least the latent capability to make nuclear bombs.

As long as countries will use nuclear energy, there will be the need for strong international efforts to control the use of nuclear technologies. And as political dynamics change, there will always be the need for innovative thinking on how to more effectively prevent proliferation. The CSR proposes development of a less discriminatory nonproliferation system in which those who benefit the most from nuclear energy should pay the most to ensure adequate safeguards are in place.


Controlling the Spread of Nuclear Bomb Technologies

  1. The first proposal to control nuclear technologies was presented to the United Nations in 1946 as the Baruch plan. What was the Baruch plan? Why did it fail? How did theUnited Statesaround the time of the Baruch plan change its laws to prevent sharing of nuclear information and technologies even with trusted allies?
  2. Why did President Eisenhower launch the Atoms for Peace program? How did this program result in theUnited Statesamending its atomic energy law to allow sharing of some nuclear information and technologies? Was the Atoms for Peace program, on balance, positive or negative for limiting proliferation?
  3. Has the NPT been successful at limiting proliferation? Should the NPT be improved? If so, how? What other national and international mechanisms are used to prevent proliferation? What additional mechanisms should be developed?

Making Nuclear Technologies More Proliferation Resistant

In 2006, the Bush administration launched the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which is intended, in part, to develop proliferation-resistant methods of reprocessing plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. This plutonium would then be recycled into new fuel. In addition to this partnership, there are other government programs designed to develop nuclear technologies that are more proliferation-resistant. Experts acknowledge that no technology is proliferation proof.

  1. How would GNEP and other programs develop proliferation-resistant technologies?
  2. What are the views of independent, nongovernmental scientists on the merits of these technologies?
  3. What has the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) been doing to improve its technical and analytic abilities to improve safeguards on civilian nuclear programs? What more could the IAEA do in this area?
  4. Who should pay for improved safeguards and enhanced proliferation-resistant technologies?

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