Power Surge: Renewed Interest in Nuclear Energy

By Holton, W. Conard | Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Power Surge: Renewed Interest in Nuclear Energy


Holton, W. Conard, Environmental Health Perspectives


Just past its 50th birthday, commercial nuclear energy is experiencing a tentative rejuvenation that could result in a greater role as a global source of electricity. Skeptics still harbor many of the objections that have slowed or stopped the construction of new nuclear power plants, but rising concerns about the cost and security of energy supplies and global climate change have reframed the debate in terms more favorable for nuclear power advocates.

As a result, the question of whether governments should encourage the construction of new nuclear power plants is no longer off the table in developed countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. For other developed countries such as France and Japan, and for countries with fast-growing economies such as China and India, nuclear energy has remained a central component of energy policy. For example, to achieve its goal of generating 4% of electricity from nuclear power, China plans to add more than 30 new nuclear plants by 2020 to the 11 currently in operation or under construction. India's goal is to supply 25% of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050.

Worldwide there are now 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 31 countries and producing a combined capacity of 367 gigawatts electric, or about 16% of the world's supply of electricity. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)--the agency of the United Nations chartered to promote cooperation on nuclear issues--estimates that at least 60 new nuclear plants will be constructed in the next 15 years. Given the world's growing demand for electricity, however, this added capacity will still account for only 17% of global electricity use.

Environmental Conundrum

One central issue facing policy makers and electric utilities is the question of how to meet the rapidly growing worldwide demand for electricity while not increasing global greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration tracks world energy trends and projects a 75% increase in global electricity use between 2000 and 2020. By 2050 a tripling of use is probable. Electricity production currently is responsible for an estimated one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.

In terms of human welfare, this growth in electricity usage is desirable as reflected in the strong correlation between electricity consumption per capita and the United Nations' human development index, which combines indicators of health, education, and economic prosperity. Overall energy consumption per capita in the developing world is less than one-fifth that in the developed world, and as developing countries industrialize, they will tend to seek the least expensive supply to meet their electricity needs. In most cases this means coal-fired plants, which produce significantly more greenhouse gases--primarily carbon dioxide--than other carbon-based sources such as natural gas-fired generators. Nuclear and noncarbon-based renewable sources such as wind and solar power do not directly create greenhouse gases.

Global climate change and the 2005 entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have spurred new thinking about the potential value of nuclear energy by both environmental groups and the nuclear energy industry. Recently, several prominent environmentalists have publicly supported nuclear energy, including former Anglican bishop Hugh Montefiore, a longtime trustee of Friends of the Earth, and Patrick Moore, cofounder of Greenpeace.

Their support has alienated them from many in their former organizations, but indicates a more nuanced challenge to nuclear energy by some environmental activists, who are perhaps more willing to consider the nuclear option but still do not think it's the wisest choice. Organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists now talk in terms of the proper role of government in energy policy and ensuring the safe operation of nuclear plants, rather than whether nuclear power should even be considered. …

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