Why the World May Turn to Nuclear Power: Demand for Fossil Fuels May Decline, but Demand for Electric Power Will Soar. Nuclear Power, Resisted by Many, May Provide a Long-Term Solution, and It Has Come a Long Way since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl

Article excerpt

Within the next 10 years, the world's major economies will choose nuclear power as the clean, high-capacity baseload (i.e., primary) electricity. Nuclear power is experiencing a worldwide rebirth, with 12 countries building 45 new reactors. Nuclear power currently generates 16% of the world's electricity, but by 2030 it will approach 30%.

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The global warming situation is dire, and fossil fuels are a major cause: 90% of carbon-dioxide pollution comes from the fossil fuels that generate electricity and provide transportation. Solar energy and wind power are attractive, clean energy sources and will proliferate, but a high-capacity baseload energy is vital: The wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine all the time. Countries are already choosing nuclear, as a substitute for the fossil-fueled power plants that intensify the destructive climate changes related to global warming. They will continue to do so as years progress.

"We haven't got that much time on the atmosphere. The faster we can shut down every coal plant, the better," says Jim Dawson, science editor for the American Institute of Physics. "We need to get some more of these nuclear plants going, because this is the fastest way on a massive scale to reverse climate change."

At one time, the United States was the world leader in producing electricity with nuclear power, but today it ranks fourth behind France, Japan, and South Korea. Comparatively low-cost foreign oil, plentiful coal and natural gas reserves, and popular domestic opposition will retard the expansion of U.S. nuclear power until global warming is recognized as a major crisis and the cost of foreign oil skyrockets again. President Obama's elimination of funding in the 2010 budget for the state-of-the-art, nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which the U.S. government had been developing to be the primary site for storing spent fuel, makes it probable that construction of new nuclear power plants in the United States will be delayed another decade. But when brownouts occur and the U.S. energy system is forced to deliver more electricity with less carbon, there will be no practical choice other than nuclear power.

The Unsustainable Status Quo

Worldwide demand for electricity will rise sharply by 2030, driven principally by economic growth in developing countries and by increased use of electric car in industrialized countires. The United States is investing hundreds of billions of dollars to develop alternative energy sources, but these sources are decades away from being gigawatt providers of electricity.

Nuclear power critics, who include a diverse group of environmental protectionists, concerned scientists, and community activists, attack nu clear power on the basis of high cost, safety, and nuclear waste. The Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters are cited as examples of the safety vulnerabilities of nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an organization that opposes further development of nuclear energy and encourages more development of renewable energy sources instead, says that even strictly regulated storage sites will be subject to disasters, such as contamination of subterranean water supplies and terrorist attacks.

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Nuclear energy also is too costly, according to critics. Estimated construction costs have more than tripled since 2000, according to Standard & Poor's, because of production bottlenecks, increased material costs, and lack of trained workers. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates $1,500 per kilowatt in construction costs for basic reactor designs and $1,800 per kilowatt for advanced designs. Those figures suggest that an investment of more than $4 billion may be required to build each new nuclear reactor.

Increasing Demand for Electricity

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects worldwide energy consumption increasing by 33% between 2010 and 2030. …