Academic journal article Geopolitics, History and International Relations

Renewing Nuclear Power and Technology

Academic journal article Geopolitics, History and International Relations

Renewing Nuclear Power and Technology

Article excerpt

Introduction

Carbon-rich fuels - coal, petroleum, and natural gas - offer many advantages over other energy sources. They have a superior energy density relative to almost all other fuel sources,1 they have a wide range of use, and they are relatively easy to transport and to store. Often they are inexpensive relative to other fuels, particularly when existing infrastructure exists so that supply can meet demand. For these reasons, fossil fuels are expected to remain a significant part of the world energy mix for several decades to come. Indeed, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts fossil fuels will still account for about 78% of total world energy consumption in 2040.2

At the same time, fossil fuels present some downsides, particularly related to the environment and climate change. These well reported issues, taken in combination with the persistent desire on the part of countries around the world for more stable and more secure energy supplies, have sparked interest in alternative forms of energy production. Energy efficiency will play an important role in reducing the salience of fossil fuels, but advances in efficiency alone probably cannot make up what would be lost if fossil fuels were to be phased out. This is particularly true since some applications, such as transportation and petrochemicals, are still likely to be heavily dependent on fossil fuels for the near future. Renewable sources (such as solar or wind power) hold future potential, but given the requirements of the modern global economy, challenges of intermittency, and renewable sources' relative inferior energy density, other energy sources might also be needed. Nuclear power - with its high energy density and low carbon footprint - is a source with which the international community has decades of experience. However, the challenges that come along with the technology have kept it from becoming a more dominant factor in the global energy mix. Geopolitical issues lie at the center of many of these challenges.

Nuclear energy began in war. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Leo Szilard (1898-1964) first prompted the US government to pursue the promise of nuclear energy by appealing to then President Franklin D. Roosevelt to consider the possibility of Nazi Germany possessing an atomic bomb. Nuclear technology - both for weapons and for civilian applications - was then spurred on during the Cold War as a means of deterring war among the superpowers and their politically aligned blocs of states. It was also a means of providing development assistance to countries emerging from centuries of poverty and colonization. Even with the end of the Cold War, nuclear issues continue to play a significant role in global affairs. Concerns surrounding nuclear proliferation have been the cause of at least one war in the past fifteen years and have the potential to spark others. Competition among the exporters of civil nuclear technology has helped reduce the costs of nuclear power to consumers. However, it has also brought into question whether international regulations surrounding the construction, use, and export of nuclear technology are sufficient to ensure nuclear power is safe, secure, and proliferation resistant. While global climate change objectives have prompted a resurgence of interest in nuclear power as a potential source of carbon-neutral electricity, safety and waste management issues remain, and these chill interest. Even if countries forswear nuclear power, the poor safety practices of a state can spill across borders and threaten other entire regions.

To manage these issues, nuclear technology has understandably been swept up in a web of restrictions, regulations, and international conventions.3 Science still proceeds but with some degree of due caution and no small amount of red tape. These issues, combined with intrinsic problems in technological development and, for the United States, the need to re-create a nuclear supply chain that has withered in recent decades, have resulted in much higher costs and longer construction times than many expected at the dawn of the nuclear age. …

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