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Why Nuclear Energy Isn’t the Great Green Hope

As the planet warms, leaders from Washington to Beijing are pushing nuclear power as a clean alternative to coal. But this new strategy for fighting climate change has a fatal flaw: It can’t possibly work.

JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images
Flowering power: Nuclear energy may be poised for a modest comeback, but it wont save the planet.

When U.S. President George W. Bush speaks of using technology to fix climate problems, he often focuses on nuclear energy. Last month he said that if were truly interested in cleaning up the environment, or interested in renewable sources of energy, the best way to do so is through safe nuclear power. While Bush is talking up nuclear energy, China and India are racing ahead to build dozens of new plants. Even many environmentalists, concerned about emissions from coal-fired power plants, have begun holding their noses and are coming out in reluctant support of a technology they once reviled. But their original instincts were right: Nuclear energy is not the silver-bullet solution to save us or the environment.

Today, nuclear energy produces 16 percent of the worlds electricity, compared with coal, which produces 39 percent and hydropower, which produces 19 percent. In the United States, the good news is that the nuclear industry has maintained its 20 percent share of the electricity market by increasing the power rating of many of its 104 nuclear power reactors while decreasing the time required for shutdown for refueling and maintenance.

JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images
Flowering power: Nuclear energy may be poised for a modest comeback, but it wont save the planet.

When U.S. President George W. Bush speaks of using technology to fix climate problems, he often focuses on nuclear energy. Last month he said that if were truly interested in cleaning up the environment, or interested in renewable sources of energy, the best way to do so is through safe nuclear power. While Bush is talking up nuclear energy, China and India are racing ahead to build dozens of new plants. Even many environmentalists, concerned about emissions from coal-fired power plants, have begun holding their noses and are coming out in reluctant support of a technology they once reviled. But their original instincts were right: Nuclear energy is not the silver-bullet solution to save us or the environment.

Today, nuclear energy produces 16 percent of the worlds electricity, compared with coal, which produces 39 percent and hydropower, which produces 19 percent. In the United States, the good news is that the nuclear industry has maintained its 20 percent share of the electricity market by increasing the power rating of many of its 104 nuclear power reactors while decreasing the time required for shutdown for refueling and maintenance.

But during the past 30 years, reactor construction stagnated in the United States because of large uncertainties in capital costs as well as red tape and legal challenges in obtaining a license to operate a reactor. Although legislative changes in 1992 and more recently in 2005 have tried to streamline the licensing process and create incentives to entice investors, the industry has not had an order for a new nuclear power plant since 1978, and that order was subsequently canceled. The last completed U.S. reactor was Watts Bar 1, which was ordered in 1970 and began operations in 1996. Although many U.S. reactors have received operating-license renewals for an additional 20 years of life, by 2030 the reactor fleet will be in serious disrepair if no further reactors are built. The United States hopes to build upward of 30 reactors in the next couple of decades. However, because the incentives in the 2005 legislation are limited, only a handful of new reactors will probably be built, but not many more than that.

China and India produce an even more modest share of their electricity from nuclear energy, only about 2 and 3 percent, respectively. Though they can realistically aim to boost this share up to 4 to 5 percent by 2030, both countries will continue to rely primarily on fossil fuels for electricity generation.

The truth is, its doubtful that nuclear energy, which produces its own unpleasant waste, can really be a major solution to climate changeor even the coming energy crunch, for that matter. Because worldwide electricity demand is predicted to grow by 85 percent by 2030, nuclear power would have to almost double its capacity just to maintain its current share of the energy mix. Even the most optimistic projections of nuclear power expansion do not foresee a much larger share for nuclear energy globally.

Nor will nuclear energy be a quick fix. If, as the scientists tell us, the deadline for turning around the level of greenhouse gases is truly a decade from now, then a nuclear renaissance will take too long to have a significant effect. Typically, U.S. nuclear plants have required around 10 to 12 years from start to finish. The industry predicts that future plants can be built in as little as four years, but the proof is in the actual construction.

Assuming the best estimates, a quick ramp-up of nuclear capacity will run into industrial bottlenecks; only a few companies in the world can now make reactor-quality steel, concrete, and other vital components. A rush to build could also create shortages in the skilled workers and qualified engineers needed to run plants safely. Not to mention that building nuclear plants at the rapid pace required would likely drive up capital costs, which are already higher than other electricity options, even given significant government subsidies.

Theres a better solution: energy efficiency. From an ideological standpoint, Bush seems convinced that increasing efficiency and reducing consumption are incompatible with economic growth. Yet, there is ample evidence that power generation in some countriesnotably China and India, which most observers believe will account for huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decadesis woefully inefficient now. According to Harold Feiveson, a senior research policy scientist at Princeton University, Chinas coal plants have an average efficiency of 23 percent. Improving the efficiency of Chinas coal plants could go a long way toward ameliorating environmental damage; Feiveson estimates that bringing Chinas coal plants up to 42 percent efficiency by 2030 could prevent the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as about 200 to 250 large nuclear reactors. Indian coal plants are slightly more efficient, but could similarly benefit from improvements.

Investments in more efficient power plants can pay off in growing the economy and shrinking the rate of greenhouse gas emissions. China and India, two major countries currently exempt from mandatory greenhouse gas reductions, could benefit from Western assistance in improving the efficiencies of their coal plants. These plants will provide a majority of China and Indias electrical generation in the coming decades despite the ambitious plans for a nuclear expansion. Much more cooperative work is urgently needed between the developed and the developing worlds to ensure that humanity has a better than substantial chance to counter climate change.

Charles Ferguson is the director of Inside Job, a documentary about the financial crisis currently in theaters nationwide. His previous film, No End In Sight, received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary in 2008.

Sharon Squassoni is a professor at the Elliot School of International Affairs. Twitter: @SquassoniSharon

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