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Is Nuclear Energy a Fuel with a Future?

Without a major breakthrough, it seems safe to say nuclear will never be cheaper than coal or natural gas; nor will it be as safe, clean, and attractive to consumers and investors as renewables.
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Nuclear energy has always been a controversial issue. With the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant this spring, increased concerns about climate change, and a global debate over the future of energy, this year is no exception.

Nuclear advocates argue that it is a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels that can provide more baseload power than renewables. Opponents respond that even if you resolve daunting radioactive waste, environmental risk and security issues, exorbitant construction costs remain. Studies by the California Energy Commission (PDF) and Mark Cooper (PDF), Senior Fellow at Yale University's Institute for Energy and the Environment, have shown that the costs of building future nuclear capacity are even higher.

Despite buzz about a "nuclear renaissance," the industry has had trouble attracting private investment, and relies almost exclusively on government subsidies and support. By contrast, the private renewables market has soared over the last several years, with the UN Environment Programme reporting that global investments in green energy topped $211 billion in 2010, up 32 percent from 2009, and a staggering 540 percent since 2004.

Meanwhile in the first quarter of 2011, renewable energy production in the U.S. surpassed nuclear for the first time. All signals point to significant growth in the solar and renewables markets over the next decade, while nuclear production has remained flat for years.

If new nuclear plants cannot compete on either cost or scale in today's private market, enormous government support will be required simply to maintain, let alone expand, nuclear capacity in the future. However, both the Japanese and German governments are responding to the Fukushima disaster by increasing their emphasis on renewables instead of nuclear. The Japanese just established a Feed-In Tariff to expand renewables, with a recent poll showing 77 percent supporting a nuclear phase out. The Germans are actively considering phasing out their nuclear program entirely.

Not all countries are halting their nuclear plans, however. In the fast-developing BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) the IAEA reports as of early August 2011, 45 new nuclear plants are under construction in BRIC nations. 27 are in China, followed by Russia (11), India (6), and Brazil (1).

But the nuclear industry needs to do more than build a few plants a year to be a true low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels. A hard look at the science of reducing atmospheric carbon to 350ppm shows why.

To get the world off coal, which produces roughly half of the world's power, would require 7-8 terawatts of energy. One nuclear power plant yields a gigawatt of power, meaning 8000 nuclear power plants would be needed to produce 8 terawatts. To do this by 2050, 200 plants would need to be built a year, which is roughly one every 1.5 days. Since nuclear plants only have a lifespan of 50 years, by the time the required amount is built, early plants would have to start being decommissioned. After that, new plants would need to keep being built at the same pace just to replace retiring ones.

So if the world goes nuclear, supplying half the power we need would require building a new plant every other day forever.

Even if this rate of growth were feasible, it is clearly unsustainable. Of course, no single strategy is going to wean us off coal in several decades. We will need a combination of carbon reduction strategies -- what Princeton researchers Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala call "stabilization wedges" that each reduce a billion tons a year for the next 50 years. The "wedges" include efficiency, renewables, carbon sequestration, reforestation, and replacing coal plants with natural gas. But even for nuclear to generate a single wedge would require tripling our current nuclear capacity.

The reality is global CO2 emissions are rising, not falling. And we can't build enough nuclear alone to stop them. As such, nuclear's benefits as a low-carbon alternative would only materialize in the context of a global war on carbon. Absent that, nuclear becomes just another low-carbon energy source competing on the open market with cleaner renewables and cheaper natural gas. Ironically, the current slow growth of nuclear and the possibility of an actual nuclear retreat after Fukushima could mean an acceleration in our rising CO2 emissions, cautions the International Energy Agency.

So we cannot build enough nuclear to solve our CO2 problem in the long term, but if we don't build more, it may get worse in the near term. Powerful industry lobbies in the U.S. and elsewhere will continue to support nuclear as a fuel source, of course, but even the industry recognizes that a major expansion is unlikely.

Speaking at an American Nuclear Society conference in August 2011, John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, the country's largest nuclear utility said 3 of the 4 conditions necessary for expanding nuclear cannot be met. While newer designs offer the right technology, Rowe argues that the government has not resolved waste disposal issues. Additionally, there is currently excess generation capacity because the economic recession has slowed energy consumption. While this will likely change as we retire more coal plants and the economy grows, the influx of cheap natural gas from shale has undercut nuclear's higher prices.

Today, nuclear cannot compete on cost with fossil fuels, and cannot compete on quality with renewables. Going forward, renewables offer rapid growth and innovation combined with falling costs, which will make it harder for nuclear to compete in the future. And as fossil fuel prices rise, they will also likely drive up nuclear's construction costs, offsetting any price advantage there.

Without a major breakthrough, it seems safe to say nuclear will never be cheaper than coal or natural gas; nor will it be as safe, clean, and attractive to consumers and investors as renewables. In the end, the most likely option for nuclear energy is neither renaissance nor retreat, but continued slow growth, with heated arguments on all sides.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of World Energy Monitor, a newsletter published by the United Nations' World Energy Forum. The newsletter includes a competing perspective from the World Nuclear Association, and international highlights on nuclear issues. It is currently being hosted at the Energy & Water Institute of NY.

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