WASHINGTON, Oct 29—Despite talk of a renaissance, nuclear power will account for a declining percentage of global electricity generation without aggressive financial support and significant policy changes. Before committing to a rapid expansion of nuclear energy, the next U.S. administration must address critical questions about the feasibility and safety of nuclear expansion, and act to minimize current proliferation risks, concludes a new report by Sharon Squassoni.

The Limits of Nuclear Energy:

  • Nuclear power is inherently limited in its ability to reduce dependence on foreign oil because it only provides electricity. Oil accounts for only 1.6 percent of U.S. electricity production.
  • Most countries will need to import fuel, technology, and reactor components for nuclear power plants—leading to greater energy interdependence, not independence.
  • Nuclear power won’t significantly help combat climate change. Huge reductions in emissions are needed now, and the nuclear industry will not be able to build the large number of new nuclear reactors—25 each year until 2050—necessary to make an impact on carbon emissions. New nuclear power plants will mostly help offset the retirement of nuclear reactors built decades ago.
  • The cost for constructing new nuclear power plants is uncertain, and historical costs provide little guidance. The United States has not licensed a new nuclear reactor for thirty years. The current economic crisis could make financing nuclear power plants particularly difficult.
  • In the more than fifty years since the first nuclear reactor generated electricity, no country has opened a permanent site for nuclear waste. Recycling the waste reduces the volume, but produces separated plutonium, a nuclear weapons fuel and proliferation risk.

Recommendations for the next U.S. president:

  1. Reduce the perceived prestige associated with nuclear power and cooperation. Nuclear energy should not be viewed as a symbol of national prowess but simply as a means to produce electricity.
  2. Adopt the IAEA’s Model Additional Protocol—which strengthens the international system for inspecting nuclear material and facilities and improves the IAEA’s ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities—as a condition for nuclear supply.
  3. Ensure that manufacturers of nuclear reactors and their components supply technologies responsibly and tighten restrictions on sensitive technologies.
  4. Utilize the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to prioritize funding for proliferation-resistant reactors—new sea-based reactors are more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
  5. Require some fuel-cycle facilities, including enrichment plants, to be multinationally owned and operated to ease detection of clandestine activities.

Squassoni concludes:

“A nuclear renaissance would require significant changes by both governments and multinational agencies and aggressive financial support. Before embarking on such a path, policy makers need to achieve greater certainty across the range of issues raised here. In the meantime, all possible efforts should be made to minimize the risks of any nuclear expansion that might occur. These include strengthening the rules of nuclear commerce and transparency, deemphasizing the element of national prestige with respect to nuclear energy, undertaking clear-eyed assessments of all available options for generating electricity, and limiting the acquisition of sensitive nuclear technologies like uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing.”

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bulletNOTES

  • Sharon Squassoni is a senior associate in the Nonproliferation Program. Her research focuses on nuclear nonproliferation and national security. Before joining Carnegie, she served fourteen years in the Congressional Research Service, State Department, and Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
  • The Carnegie Nonproliferation Program is an internationally recognized source of knowledge and policy thinking on efforts to curb the spread and use of nuclear weapons. Carnegie’s analysis consistently stays at the forefront of proliferation developments and nonproliferation policy debates.
  • The Carnegie Energy and Climate Program aims to provide leadership in global energy and climate policy. The Program integrates thinking on energy technology, environmental science, and political economy to reduce risks stemming from global change and competition for scarce resources.