Nuclear power is an established technology that could meet a significant portion of the world's energy needs. France obtains roughly 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources and Japan obtains 27 percent (EIA, 2007). About 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from nuclear reactors, by far the largest source of GHG-free energy (EIA, 2009).6 The reliability of U.S. reactors has increased dramatically over the past several decades, but no nuclear power plants had been ordered for over 30 years, largely because of high costs, uncertain markets, and public opposition. Improved availability and upgrades have kept nuclear power's share of generation constant at 20 percent despite the growth of other generation technologies. A nuclear revival has been initiated recently, largely because of concerns over limiting the magnitude of climate change. The U.S. government is providing loan guarantees for the first set of plants now being planned to compensate for uncertainties in costs and regulation. If these plants are successful in coming online at reasonable cost, their numbers could grow rapidly.
While nuclear power does not emit GHGs, there are other serious concerns associated with its production, including radioactive wastes (especially long-term storage of certain isotopes), safety, and security concerns related to the proliferation of nuclear
6 Total generation of electricity from nuclear power in the United States is greater than in France or Japan.
weapons (MIT, 2003). The absence of a policy solution for the disposal of long-lived nuclear wastes, while not technically an impediment to the expansion of nuclear power, is still a concern for decision makers. New reactor construction has been barred in 13 U.S. states as a result, although several of these states are reconsidering their bans. Safety concerns stem from the potential for radioactive releases from the reactor core or spent fuel pool following an accident or terrorist attack. Nuclear reactors include extensive safeguards against such releases, and the probability of one happening appears to be very low. Nevertheless, the possibility cannot be ruled out, and such concerns are important factors in public acceptance of nuclear power. Proliferation of nuclear weapons is a related concern, but after 40 years of debate, there is no consensus as to whether U.S. nuclear power in any way contributes to potential weapons proliferation. A critical question is whether there are multilateral approaches that can successfully decouple nuclear power from nuclear weapons (Socolow and Glaser, 2009). Finally, public opinion is less skeptical of nuclear power in the abstract than it once was, but a majority of Americans oppose the location of nuclear (and coal or natural gas) power plants near them (Ansolabere and Konisky, 2009; Rosa, 2007). Some evidence suggests that the lack of support for nuclear power is based in part on a lack of trust in the nuclear industry and federal regulators (Whitfield et al., 2009).
Current U.S. nuclear power plants were built with technology developed in the 1960s and 1970s. In the intervening decades, ways to make better use of existing plants have been developed, along with new technologies that improve safety and security, decrease costs, and reduce the amount of generated waste—especially high-level waste. These technological innovations include improvements or modification of existing plants, alternative new plant designs (e.g., thermal neutron reactor and fast neutron reactor designs), and the use of alternative (closed) nuclear fuel cycles. The new technologies under development may allay some of the concerns noted above, but it will be necessary to determine the functionality, safety, and economics of those technologies through demonstration and testing.
Finally, research on nuclear fusion has been funded at several hundred million dollars per year since the 1970s. Fusion promises essentially unlimited, non-GHG energy, but harnessing it has proved to be extremely difficult. Most research addresses magnetic confinement (e.g., Tokamak reactors), but laser fusion (inertial confinement) also has promise. While fusion research and development is still worthwhile, it is uncertain whether a workable, cost-effective, power-producing reactor can be developed.
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