Going Nuclear (Again)?

The atomic industry is poised for a comeback. But can it solve our energy problems? And at what cost?

| Thu Nov. 11, 2004 3:00 AM EST

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that, with President Bush's re-election over and done with, the nuclear power industry was staging a comeback. Indeed, with the president's energy bill likely to pass in the upcoming months—it was defeated in 2003 by only a handful of Senate votes—the atomic industry will receive the subsidies and regulatory support it needs to start building reactors again, for the first time since demand petered out in the early 1980s.

Opponents of nuclear power have argued that, because the industry cannot exist without heavy government funding, it should not exist at all. As Michael Scherer reported in Mother Jones last year, private investors won't touch atomic energy (the capital costs are too high), and the subsidies exist only because of the efforts of pork-minded Congressmen like Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NJ) and Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID). In the conservative National Review, Navin Nayak and Jeffrey Taylor decried this state of affairs, writing that nuclear power "simply does not make economic sense."

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Even so, some scientists and energy experts are taking another look at expanding nuclear power—which already generates one-fifth of the electricity in the United States—as a viable option for the future. At issue is the fact that, at the moment, there are very few other options for decreasing carbon dioxide emissions and increasing energy independence in the U.S. As Paul Roberts recently argued in Mother Jones, replacing our current hydrocarbon-based energy infrastructure with "clean" technologies and fuels will take many years, and will involve far more publicly-funded research and investment than has yet been proposed. In the meantime, nuclear energy cannot be ruled out categorically, according to the authors of a recent Belfer Center report entitled The Future of Nuclear Power (PDF).

The benefits of nuclear power are fairly straightforward. Nuclear plants, on the aggregate, are cleaner than hydrocarbon-based energy plants, producing less carbon dioxide and particulates than coal plants. A recent Brookings report noted that, owing to nuclear power plants, "carbon emissions by the OECD countries are about one-third lower than they otherwise would be." Increased reliance on atomic power would also no doubt reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil.

Yet even those who think nuclear power may be a realistic option point out that the current nuclear regime is inadequate. Matthew Bunn, a Senior Research Associate at the Belfer Center, has written that any expansion of atomic power will require improvements in three key areas: 1) avoiding accidents or theft of nuclear material; 2) "technologies that address complexity, cost, safety, waste management, and proliferation concerns"; and 3) "transparency in nuclear decision-making".

The Belfer Center report notes that no existing nuclear technology can satisfy all of those concerns. The conventional "once-through" design, in which discharged fuel is sent directly to disposal, is the most effective in terms of cost, preventing proliferation, and safety. The main problem there is the considerable amount of nuclear waste generated. More recent reactor designs have tried to solve the waste problem by allowing for reprocessing and recycling of spent fuel—basically a scaled-down version of the reprocessing technology that the military uses to make weapons-grade plutonium.

So which method is best? Science writer Michael Levi has warned against the risks in using reprocessing. Such methods, claims Levi, does little to reduce the space required to store spent fuel. But more distressingly, rogue states such as Iran or North Korea could easily modify civilian reprocessing plants for military purposes. As such, many scientists recommend sticking with conventional designs. The Belfer Center reports that "waste management considerations" do not outweigh "the attendant safety, environmental, and security risks and economic costs" of newer, closed-fuel cycle plants. With public attention focused especially on proliferation threats and the possibility of nuclear terrorism, that argument could carry the day.

Still, waste management remains a serious issue. Current nuclear power plants have produced over 40,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in the last 40 years, scattered in temporary, on-site storage facilities. The federal government has selected Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository for the waste, which has become a matter of contention over the years. Environmentalists contend that Yucca is too unstable to hold all that material, and that transporting the waste by rail is unsafe.

Recently in the New Republic Michael Crowley took on those concerns, noting that Yucca was "the closest thing to a permanent solution man can devise." Even if Yucca proves to be a viable option, however, it won't be nearly sufficient to manage all the waste of an expanded nuclear industry. For these reasons, the Belfer Center report recommends the creation of a "long-term waste management R&D program", as well as a "network of centralized facilities for storing spent fuel… in the U.S. and internationally."

Safety is another concern. At the president's request, Congress recently renewed the Price-Anderson Act, which caps liabilities on nuclear accidents, and limits the amount of insurance that plant owners need to carry. Consumer advocacy groups like Public Citizen have argued that the support is unnecessary, and causes plant owners and insurers to worry less about nuclear safety than they otherwise would. Whatever the merits of the Bush administration's nuclear policy, it is clear that it will need to spend far more on research on safety and security issues.

With all the necessary research that needs to be undertaken over the next few years, is it possible that nuclear power can ever be economically viable? Possibly. According to a Brookings Institution study, entitled "The Political Economy of Nuclear Energy in the United States," the country has only turned away from nuclear power because gas-fired technology is comparatively quicker and easier to install, and because there is " little economic incentive to retire the nation's vast coal-burning infrastructure." If the current energy regime was ever upset—say, by carbon taxes or a "cap and trade" system for emissions—nuclear power would become more competitive. The upside is certainly high. But the country has not yet taken the hard steps needed to reduce all the downsides.

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