WASHINGTON, Mar 26—Expectations for nuclear energy have grown dramatically. Scores of nations are now considering nuclear power to improve their energy security and reduce their carbon emissions. But nuclear energy is a costly detour if the goals are to mitigate climate change or reduce dependence on foreign oil, concludes Sharon Squassoni in a Carnegie report.

Serious expansion of nuclear capacity will happen too late and cost too much. Tripling or quadrupling power reactors globally—the scale needed to make a dent in carbon dioxide emissions—would also present safety, security, waste, and proliferation challenges. These challenges—often overlooked in the recent enthusiasm for nuclear power—deserve more attention by government and industry leaders if safe and secure nuclear energy is desirable.

Key points:

  • Nuclear power cannot significantly help combat climate change in the next two decades, when the biggest reductions in emissions will have the most impact.
  • Nuclear power cannot reduce dependence on foreign oil, since oil accounts for a small percentage of electricity production in most countries. The key to reducing oil dependence is transforming the transportation sector to rely on other fuels. States like France and Japan, which rely heavily on nuclear energy, are still overwhelmingly dependent on foreign oil in transportation.
  • To compete with alternatives, new nuclear plants need significant government subsidies. Like other low-carbon energy sources, nuclear power would also benefit from the imposition of a high price on carbon emissions.
  • The international community must act now to mitigate the proliferation risks of a potential expansion of nuclear energy. Key steps include strengthening the rules of nuclear commerce and transparency, reducing the prestige associated with nuclear power, and helping other countries undertake clear-eyed assessments of all available options for generating electricity.
  • Government and industry should also cooperate to phase out national uranium enrichment capabilities, preferably in a legally binding way. A treaty to halt fissile material production for weapons, with new impetus from the Obama administration, could require all new and existing fissile material production capabilities to have multi-national ownership within a decade.

Squassoni concludes:

“Projections for growth assume that government support will compensate for nuclear power’s market liabilities and that perennial issues such as nuclear waste, safety, and proliferation will not be serious hurdles. Before embarking on such a path, policy makers need to achieve greater certainty across a wide range of issues. The exigencies of energy security and climate change do not warrant racing ahead before institutional frameworks can ensure that any expansion makes sense, not just for energy needs, but for world security.”

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NOTES

  • Sharon Squassoni is a senior associate in the Carnegie Nonproliferation Program and has been analyzing nonproliferation, arms control, and national security issues for two decades. Previously a specialist in weapons of mass destruction proliferation at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Squassoni also served in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the State Department.
  • 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.
  • Carnegie Proliferation News provides synopses of top news stories related to preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons every Tuesday and Thursday as well as periodic issue briefs on the top news making issues.