The High and Hidden Costs of Nuclear Power

By Sokolski, Henry | Policy Review, August-September 2010 | Go to article overview

The High and Hidden Costs of Nuclear Power


Sokolski, Henry, Policy Review


When security and arms control analysts list what has helped keep nuclear weapons technologies from spreading further than they already have, energy economics is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Yet large civilian nuclear energy programs can--and have--brought states quite a way towards developing nuclear weapons, and it has been market economics, more than any other force, that has kept most states from completing the original plans. Since the early 1950s, every major government in the Western Hemisphere, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe has been drawn to atomic power's allure only to have market realities prevent most of their nuclear investment plans from being fully realized.

Adam Smith's "invisible hand," then, could well determine just how far civilian nuclear energy expands, and how much attention its attendant security risks deserve. Certainly, if nuclear power's economics remain negative, diplomats and policy makers could leverage this point, working to limit legitimate nuclear commerce to what is economically competitive and so gain a powerful tool to help limit nuclear proliferation. If nuclear power finally breaks from its past and becomes the cheapest of clean technologies, though, it is unlikely that diplomats and policymakers will be anywhere near as able or willing to prevent insecure or hostile states from developing nuclear energy programs even if they help them to make atomic weapons.

Nuclear's past, present, and projected future

IN the early 1950s, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss trumpeted the prospect of nuclear electricity "too cheap to meter." An international competition to develop commercial reactors, orchestrated under President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace Program, ensued between the U.S., Russia, India, Japan, and much of Western Europe. Several reactors and nuclear fuel plants were designed and built, endless amounts of technology declassified and shared worldwide with thousands of technicians, and numerous research reactors exported in the 1950s. Yet, ultimately, the relative cheapness and abundance of oil and coal assured that only a handful of large nuclear power plants were actually built.

The next drive for nuclear power came in the late 1960s, just before the energy "crisis" of the early 1970s. President Richard Nixon, in announcing his Project Independence, insisted that expanding commercial nuclear energy was crucial to reducing U.S. and allied dependence on Middle Eastern oil. France, Japan, and Germany, meanwhile, expanded their nuclear power construction programs in a similar push to establish energy independence. The U.S., Russia, Germany, and France also promoted nuclear power exports at the same time. Four thousand nuclear power plants were to be brought on line worldwide by the year 2000.

But, market forces--coupled with adverse nuclear power plant operating experience--pushed back. As nuclear power plant operations went awry (e.g., fuel cladding failures, cracking pipes, fires, and ultimately Three Mile Island), spiraling nuclear construction costs and delays, as well as the disastrous accident at Chernobyl, killed the dream. More than half the nuclear plant orders in the U.S. and almost 90 percent of the projected plants globally were canceled--including a surprisingly large number of proposed projects in the Middle East.

Today, however, a third wave of nuclear power promotion is underway, buoyed by international interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and national concerns in enhancing energy security, at least as measured in terms of reliance on oil. The nuclear industry in the U.S. has been lobbying Congress to finance the construction of more than $100 billion in reactors with federal loan guarantees. President Obama has responded by proposing $36 billion in new federal loan guarantees for nuclear power. Other governments have renewed their plans for reactor construction as well. Even Europe is reconsidering its post-Chernobyl ambivalence over nuclear power: Finland, France, Italy, and Eastern Europe are again either building or planning to build power reactor projects of their own. …

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