Risks and Realities: The "New Nuclear Energy Revival"

By Squassoni, Sharon | Arms Control Today, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Risks and Realities: The "New Nuclear Energy Revival"


Squassoni, Sharon, Arms Control Today


The headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sits in the suburbs of Vienna, in the northeast corner of a country that has outlawed nuclear power plants since 1978. The irony of this situation masks deeper divisions in the nuclear energy debate, which recent assertions of a nuclear renaissance have papered over.

Concern about greenhouse gas emissions and energy security combined with forecasts of strong growth in electricity demand has awakened dormant interest in nuclear energy. Yet, the industry has not yet fully addressed the issues that have kept global nuclear energy capacity roughly the same for the last two decades. Although nuclear safety has improved significantly, nuclear energy's inherent vulnerabilities regarding waste disposal, economic competitiveness, and proliferation remain. Moreover, nuclear security concerns have increased since the September 11,2001 terrorist attacks.

Nuclear energy's revival depends strongly on public sector support and financial backing. Even if it were true that nuclear energy emits no carbon dioxide, that it is renewable, and that it will provide energy independence-all selling points made by President George W. Bush-the fact would remain that nuclear energy is more expensive than alternative sources of electricity.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has repeatedly cautioned that "nuclear energy alone is not a panacea, but it is likely in the near future to have an increasing role as part of the global energy mix."1 Such reticence from the agency tasked with promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy contrasts with the strong enthusiasm of business and media.2 Yet here too, divisions are evident. Op-eds have swung between cautious optimism about nuclear expansion and growing pessimism about the proliferation-sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle technologies: uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing that could provide the essential fissile material for nuclear weapons. Such concern increased after the 2004 revelations of a black market network for uranium-enrichment technology led by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and the continuing refusal of Iran to halt enrichment-related activities.

The IAEA is at the forefront of efforts to manage future development of states' fuel cycles so that access to weapons-usable fissile material-highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium-is limited, if not eliminated. As in the past, proposals likely to succeed are those that provide incentives to forgo sensitive fuel-cycle technologies rather than those that impose restrictions.3 Even with such fuel supply assurances, however, any significant expansion of nuclear power is likely to prompt additional states to join the nuclear fuel haves. Already, Argentina, Australia, Canada, and South Africa have expressed interest in developing commercial uranium-enrichment capabilities. Ukraine is seeking cooperation with foreign partners "to obtain the full cycle of enrichment and production of nuclear fuel" to counter uncertain gas supplies from Russia.4 Additional capacity in these states may not cause alarm, but it will make it increasingly difficult to justify why other states should not develop such capabilities.

Nuclear Power Today

Global nuclear energy capacity is currently about 368 gigawatts, with approximately 435 nuclear power reactors operating in 30 states. Three countries account for one-half of all nuclear power reactors: the United States (103), France (59), and Japan (SS).5 Most of the growth in nuclear energy occurred following the oil shocks of the 1970s. The low cost of uranium also helped make nuclear energy attractive. New nuclear energy development, however, started to slow after the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chemobyl accidents (1986) and after a drop in natural gas prices in the 1990s made gas-powered turbines more attractive than nuclear alternatives in Europe and the United States. Nonetheless, nuclear energy has been able to increase its share of electricity generation largely through better efficiency. …

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Risks and Realities: The "New Nuclear Energy Revival"
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