JPRI Working Paper No. 121 (October 2013)
“What the Fukushima! Reassessing the Future of Nuclear Power”
by Randy Willoughby

Seventy-five years after its conception, nuclear technology remains as androgynous as the Rocky Horror Picture Show and as untamed and unpredictable as the Wild Child. The building of nuclear weapons and constructing nuclear reactors have defied all expectations. The American nuclear arsenal now contains a few thousand tactical and strategic weapons. Hans Bethe, one of the brilliant designers of the hydrogen bomb, said he had never imagined we would make “so many.” Yet this number constitutes only a small percentage of the U.S. deployment in the 1960s of 30,000 nukes. Likewise, the American nuclear power industry operates around 100 reactors today, generating about 20 percent of U.S. electricity, but the expectation in the 1960s was for ten times as many, or 1000 reactors by the year 2000 in the United States alone. Glenn Seaborg, Nobel laureate in chemistry and one of the early nuclear enthusiasts on the Atomic Energy Commission, would have never imagined that there would be so few.

Surprises, some pleasant and some disturbing, have touched all sectors of nuclear technology— not only weapons and reactors but also the fuel cycle, diplomacy, and ideology. John F. Kennedy anticipated the proliferation of nuclear weapons to as many as 25 states within 25 years. Who would have imagined that there would only be 10 weapons states 50 years later, not to mention that one of them would be North Korea, a country that regularly experiences mass starvation? Who would have expected that Japan, the country with the second most ambitious power program on the planet, would at least temporarily downsize its network from 55 operating reactors to none over the course of one year? Who would have guessed that several key nuclear nations would have mountains of separated plutonium with no near term sense of purpose or obvious economic logic? Who would have speculated that the United States would undermine its nonproliferation obsession by negotiating a nuclear accord with India, and that in the end it would probably reward French and Russian but not American reactor vendors? And who would have anticipated that some of the most vociferous critics of nuclear power in the twentieth century would become its most determined supporters in the twenty-first century as Pandora’s Promise endeavors to supersede the China Syndrome?

This working paper concentrates on the power side of the nuclear dialectic, without ignoring the weapons connections, and tries to build a ten dimensional framework that might help us anticipate its future trajectory. Clearly the projections for a nuclear renaissance made in the five to ten years before Fukushima are no longer credible, and indeed look almost as exaggerated as the ones made fifty years ago when nuclear power competed with Wonder Bread in the American dream for building strong bodies and nations. The OECD Nuclear Energy Outlook in 2008 forecast low and high nuclear capacity scenarios of 600 to 1400 gigawatts (GW) for the year 2050, which would have represented growth by a factor of 1.5 to 3.5 from our current 400 GW. (An average reactor today is around one gigawatt, so 400 GW corresponds to roughly 400 reactors.) But in the aftermath of Fukushima, countries like Germany are moving entirely out of the business; Japan’s future is totally unclear in spite of the recent reinstatement of the nuclear godfather party, the LDP; French companies like EDF and Areva have experienced plunging share values and share prices; and American proposed reactor builds have dropped from 31 to 4 over the past four years, without counting this summer’s surprise shutdown of two California reactors that two years ago were assumed to continue operating for at least another twenty.

And yet—despite all the excesses in the “renaissance” forecasts and for all the continuing dangers and radiation leaks at Fukushima—nuclear power is not going to disappear anytime soon, and even a longer-term rollback should not necessarily be assumed. For better or worse, this summer’s U.S. Department of Energy forecast for global nuclear power still offers a high scenario of a near doubling of atomic capacity from under 400 GW to over 700 GW by the year 2040. That forecast presumes a geographic shift in nuclear construction, with 250 GW of the nuclear additions coming from four Asian countries (China, India, Russia, and South Korea), more than offsetting the slowdowns and phase out in the West. Likewise, this fall’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) annual report projected a 20 to 100 percent increase in nuclear power by the year 2030. Admittedly, the DOE and the IAEA have always been bewitched by the nuclear faith, and assumptions regarding South Korean and Chinese growth specifically might already be problematic given the magnitude of the ongoing safety and corruption scandal that now threatens Seoul’s ambitions and the abandonment of a major uranium processing plant in China following local protests in Guangdong. Still, these optimistic forecasts—developed more than two years after the Fukushima tsunami and five years after the unconventional gas revolution, not to mention unrelenting cost overruns in the nuclear industry—represent a major challenge to nuclear critics who assume that nuclear electricity is facing slow but sure extinction. Different countries around the world will ship out or shape up their nuclear power futures differently, but that decision making process will be much more complicated in the wake of Fukushima.

This paper will consider ten different factors potentially relevant to the planet’s nuclear power future. We will see that three considerations are less significant than might commonly be assumed, that three factors will discourage atomic ambitions, and that four factors will encourage them. Countries and analysts will weigh these ten factors differently, of course. Our objective is only to delineate them in the hope of encouraging informed and serious debate.

1. Oil: A Slippery Connection

Fuels are not created equally. Oil is central to energy as a whole, and especially transportation, but it is marginal to electricity, unlike natural gas and coal. Since nuclear power specializes in the production of electricity, oil dynamics are largely disconnected from nuclear power futures. Admittedly, there was a connection before the Yom Kippur war when oil was widely used to generate power. The United States relied on oil for about 20 percent of its electricity market at the time, but today it accounts for only 2 percent, and the rest of the world is projected to emulate the U.S. drawdown to 2 percent by the year 2030. Saudi Arabia is one of the few remaining countries in the world generating substantial power from oil, but King Abdullah is now building a city designed around atomic and renewable energy (appropriately called KACARE) and in the kingdom as a whole he plans to construct 16 nuclear reactors by 2030. In France, oil was totally displaced as a source of electricity with the surge in nuclear power production, which represented only 10 percent of the nation’s electricity in 1973 but now represents as much as 80 percent (with most of the balance coming from hydropower). Nonetheless, the use of oil in the French transportation sector has increased from about 30 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe) to about 50 mtoe over this same time period, as the car fleet has expanded (and SUVs have replaced tiny Citroën deux chevaux), such that oil still accounts for about 50 per cent of French energy in spite of the nuclear takeover of the electricity sector.

Oil is not entirely decoupled from nuclear power, however, even in places like the United States. Imported oil increased in the U.S. energy portfolio as a share of total oil consumption from 30 percent in 1985 to 46 percent in 1990 to 55 percent in 1998, in spite of recurrent presidential commitments to energy independence. Even though most of the oil imported to the country comes from neighbors like Canada and Mexico, and secondarily from other non-Middle East sources like Venezuela and Nigeria—and furthermore while new and unconventional discoveries and techniques have totally changed the oil balance sheet for the United States over the past five years—there remains the political temptation to think of nuclear power as an insurance policy against high prices and supply shortages on the world market often emanating from instability in the Middle East. Global demand has indeed increased from 64 million barrels per day (mbd) in 1980 to 83 mbd in 2004 and is expected to reach 116 mbd in 2030 (reflecting in part China’s move from being a net oil exporter in the 1990s to an anticipated importer of 12 mbd in 2030.) And prices will remain high, as unconventional sources will require expensive processes and technologies. As a result, political support for nuclear power could help sustain the industry even though it is based on a mythological connection between nuclear power substituting for imported oil and enhancing national independence.

There is a second reason why oil is not totally decoupled from nuclear power, and it derives from the prospect that electric cars could become an important part of the transportation economy in the future. Of course, natural gas and biofuels will compete with electricity for increased shares of the new transportation economy, and forecasts vary wildly, but one anticipates 4 million electric vehicles just by the year 2020. The potential for growth in the U.S. market is especially significant given the way that until recently low oil prices froze momentum for better fuel efficiency, with average American car mileage remaining unchanged at 21 mpg throughout the 1990s. The Obama administration has resurrected the campaign to move away from an oil transportation economy by pressing for high-speed rail subsidies, fuel efficiency mandates, and electric car credits. Developing countries like China could conceivably transition even more swiftly into electric vehicles given the rapid expansion of their car fleets and the opportunity to leapfrog some steps in infrastructure development; China currently has 27 million automobiles and is expected to have over 400 million in 2030. In sum, if and when electric vehicles become more significant on the demand side, nuclear power could become more important on the supply side.

2. Politics: The Party Is Over

Nuclear power is relatively uninfluenced by political partisanship. Antinuclear politics animate small parties, local constituencies, and broad public opinion, but atomic opposition has not captured any major parties, even if some might be tempted to go antinuclear for tactical reasons when under political pressure or in the political wilderness. In France, the socialist party promised a nuclear great debate in the late 1970s under Mitterrand, shut down the Superphenix project in the late 1990s under Jospin, and promised a substantial reduction in nuclear electricity under Hollande (from 75 to 50 per cent of electricity by 2025). But the pace of new reactor construction continued at the rate of about six reactors per year into the 1980s, the abandonment of the breeder program did not spillover into the mainstream reactor domain or even into the realm of reprocessing, and few if any antinuclear advocates believe that Hollande will actually pursue his promise of atomic subtractions over the next few years. He has so far shut down only one troubled and old reactor out of roughly 60 and appears eager to sell French reactors in new markets like Saudi Arabia and India, not to mention protect uranium mines in Africa.

What about other countries? In the United States, Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama have been among the industry’s most enthusiastic promoters: the former promoting a fast track process for nuclear construction and the latter tripling the amount of federal credits (to over 50 billion dollars) for new nuclear reactor orders. In Germany, the proposal to construct a massive nuclear complex at Gorleben was made by Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt, although even more remarkably, the decision to phase out the nuclear industry by 2022, beginning with the immediate shutdown of 7 reactors in 2011, was made by Christian Democrat Angela Merkl. She had initially reversed the nuclear phase out that she had inherited, only to reverse course again after the double punch of Fukushima earthquake and Baden Wurtenberg elections, where the Green party received over 25 percent of the vote and displaced over 50 years of Christian Democratic leadership. In Turkey, the Erdogan government has ordered four reactors for the Mediterranean coast and is about to order another four for the Black Sea, completing an ambition that has been shared by every party in power since the 1970s and not in the least implicated by the widespread protests this past summer, which began with an environmental spark. And finally, in India, the economic promise of the U.S. nuclear accord for American companies has been undermined by the Indian insistence that foreign vendors retain liability in the event of an accident like the nonnuclear one at Bhopal, but not because of opposition to nuclear power. Admittedly, the Indian communist party is wary of undue foreign influence and nuclear weapons enthusiasts are also concerned about the implications of the deal, but none of these reservations reflect anti-nuclear sentiment. In sum, with an occasional exception like Germany, where the combination of election rules favoring small parties and postwar-antiwar sentiment have produced an antinuclear formula, partisan politics are unlikely to play a significant role in determining the future course of nuclear power.

3. Natural Gas: Invisible, Odorless, and Ambiguous

Even before the unconventional gas revolution began around five years ago, gas consumption was expected to increase. Global consumption had already nearly doubled from 1980 to 2004 (from 1512 to 2784 billion cubic meters) and was projected to nearly double again by 2030 (to 4663 bcm). Unconventional natural gas discovery and production have now skyrocketed, especially in the United States, and as a result prices have collapsed from around 13 to around 4 dollars per million British thermal units (mmbtu or mbtu). Unlike oil, natural gas is a significant source of electrical generation, and is projected to be the fastest growing source of electricity, especially because gas plants can be constructed quickly and economically and operated flexibly and cleanly. The U.S. Department of Energy’s 2013 International Energy Outlook expects gas- generated electricity to more than double from 4.5 trillion kilowatt hours (tkwh) in 2010 to 9.4 tkwh in 2040. Consequently, natural gas has emerged as a compelling substitute for nuclear power, especially in the United States. Exelon, the country’s largest nuclear utility, has not only abandoned new nuclear orders, but even nuclear upgrades, citing long term plunging prices for natural gas.

Gas, however, is not as easily transportable as oil, so trade tends to be regionally organized through pipelines unless it is liquefied, which is an expensive and risky process. As a result, countries other than the United States relying on imported natural gas might have to risk the repercussions of pipeline politics or pay high prices for liquefied natural gas (LNG). Several countries in Eastern Europe import 90 to 100 percent of their gas from Russia, and during the 2009 standoff between Russia and Ukraine that suspended gas deliveries, some of them considered restarting or delaying the retirement of Soviet era nuclear power stations in contravention of their EU accession agreements. The Nord Stream Pipeline constructed in the Baltic Sea connects Germany and Russia but circumvents Eastern Europe and has thereby reinforced the sense of vulnerability to gas manipulations in capitals like Warsaw and Bratislava. Meanwhile, Japan is now paying as much as 20 dollars per mmbtu for imported LNG in Fukushima with a halting effect on its economic recovery. The desire to escape natural gas pipeline dependency and the high cost of liquefied natural gas—not to mention the unresolved environmental issues regarding fracking unconventional gas and the safety and siting issues surrounding LNG—are likely to leave some space for competition from nuclear power, especially in countries outside the United States. Overall, the natural gas picture has mixed implications for nuclear power futures, constraining in some places and promoting in others.

4. Nuclear Safety: Fukushima—Fast, Furious, Fatal, and Unfinished

Nuclear fear has significantly dampened nuclear growth. While escalating costs had derailed plans for new reactor construction in the United States (even before Three Mile Island), the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents definitely changed the course of other national nuclear programs. Italy has the special distinction of having its nuclear industry shut down by both events, first abandoning an infrastructure of six reactors overnight following Chernobyl and then abandoning a plan to resurrect the industry following Fukushima. Fukushima has so far done less immediate physical damage than Chernobyl to the environment, although radiation leaks continue and large dangers remain, but it has arguably done more damage to the long-term future of the industry because it highlighted the fiction that only shoddy and unsheltered Communist- built reactors represented a catastrophic danger. In the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported 35 cases since the Three Mile Island accident of reactors that required more than one year of shut down to restore safe operating conditions, and has argued that the dangers of global warming do not justify nuclear power.

Reactor safety has received considerable public attention, but other portions of the nuclear infrastructure that have enjoyed a lower public profile may actually present more daunting safety challenges. Mining and converting uranium, storing and reprocessing spent fuel, making and burning mixed oxide fuel to manage plutonium supplies, transporting radioactive materials, and managing waste disposal are all complex operations. This complexity is compounded by the political fecklessness that allows reactors to proliferate while pushing back timelines for resolving backend fuel cycle issues like spent fuel storage and waste disposal. The Yucca Mountain site is no closer to completion today than it was 25 years ago, and spent fuel remains scattered in industrial scale jacuzzis and dry casks at reactor sites all over the United States. At Fukushima, thousands of spent fuel rods remain unsecured and could be the source of a catastrophic radiation release that would threaten large areas of the country including Tokyo.

Finally, the safety challenge to the nuclear industry might actually be less daunting than the security challenges, especially as reactors are designed with more safety features but spread to countries and regions of the world more prone to conflict and subversion than the United States and Western Europe. Although we may already be in the middle of a “Koyaanisqatsi” process of unbalancing the planet, so far man has been more successful taming nature than taming his human counterparts. Reactors have already been subject to air strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, although fortunately these three cases involved reactors that were still under construction and two of the three reactors were small in scale. During the Cold War, the American government was keen to keep confidential assessments showing that the radiation plumes from conventionally bombed reactors could be even more lethal than those from designed nuclear weapons. Countries with reactors must also be vigilant and effective against the insider threat. Greenpeace has undertaken a campaign of infiltrating French reactor sites to show the possibility of sabotage, and U.S. government internal security probes have also been less than reassuring. Of course, the weapons potential from nuclear energy programs represents the most powerful scenario for insecurity, but we will discuss this bomb connection below; it represents more driver than constraint on nuclear futures, in spite of the efforts of the nonproliferation lobby.

A discussion of nuclear safety would not be complete without one offsetting consideration. Non- nuclear power sources also have significant safety downsides. Global coal exploitation produces an enormous human toll due; annual coal miner deaths in the United States numbered in the thousands in the early twentieth century, and remain at that level in China today. Likewise, oil disasters have become all-too-common. The Deepwater Horizon accident is just one of at least a dozen major super spills over the past forty years. It killed a dozen workers, devastated large areas of the Gulf of Mexico, and is expected to cost British Petroleum 80 to 100 billion dollars. The leading power technologies each have their health and environmental downsides, and arguably part of the nuclear calculation involves weighing a low-risk, high-cost technology with higher-risk, lower-cost alternatives.

In summary, safety concerns will constrain nuclear futures, even if alternative power sources have safety liabilities too. Some of the reason for nuclear skepticism is the enormous loss of credibility by an industry that has regularly made overreaching claims about the unlikelihood of an accident, and that may have even foregone implementing enhanced safety features at nuclear plants because of its hubris. Upgrades to existing reactors and newer designs should offer safer nuclear power in the future, but safety improvements might be offset by security dangers. In a growth scenario, military attacks, terrorist sabotage, and the addition of more countries to the nuclear weapons club pose serious problems.

5. Nuclear Economics: The 64 Billion Dollar Question

Concern for the safety and nonproliferation downsides of nuclear power have been alleviated over the past generation because nuclear economics have already had such a substantial dampening effect on construction. The United Arab Emirates recently purchased four South Korean reactors for 20 billion dollars, or around five billion dollars per reactor. Likewise, Saudi Arabia’s plan to purchase 16 nuclear reactors by 2030 is expected to cost around 100 billion dollars, or about 6 billion dollars per reactor. This sticker price suggests a radical change in cost estimates given the well publicized claim that nuclear electricity would be “too cheap to meter.” The competitiveness of the U.S. nuclear industry degenerated in the 1970s and 1980s such that the 75 nuclear power plants built around that time ended up with average construction costs exceeding initial estimates by 200 percent. No one really knows what reactors would cost today in the United States because there has been no new construction in thirty years, but the recent American order for two reactors in Georgia has an initial price tag of $15 billion (although that package includes a variety of upgrades beyond the reactor costs). Reactors in the United States have always had a cost premium due to the variety of designs that have characterized the American market, not to mention the regulatory changes required while construction was in progress. France kept costs manageable by exploiting the economies of scale associated with a common reactor design, but today French new generation reactors at Flamanville and in Finland are running several billion dollars over budget and several years behind schedule.

One might argue that while nuclear reactors are expensive to build, they are cheap to run. And there is a chance nuclear energy generating costs will become comparatively more favorable than most have been in the past. Gas prices have been erratic over the past decade and are very uneven across regions; coal prices could change significantly if subjected to carbon penalties; and most renewable technologies remain very expensive and heavily dependent on government support. In the West, climate change legislation and regulatory reform allowing faster construction times could significantly improve the nuclear cost comparison with other sources of electricity; and in Asia, governments have adopted nuclear power as a strategic technology worthy of state protection, privilege, and promotion. However, the continuing absence of carbon penalties in the United States and the cost of additional safety precautions following Fukushima, in addition to cheap natural gas prices, mean the economic promise of nuclear power remains dismal in the United States and most other countries unless substantial credits, advance financing, favorable loans, or other kinds of developmental financing are provided. In summary, reactor economics, without even factoring in the costs associated with the fuel cycle, remain problematic in much of the world and will constrain future growth.

6. Nuclear Politics: The Rules of the Game

If nuclear power was born and raised with broad ideological and partisan support, as discussed above, political resistance has never the less grown and become more effective, especially by way of court rulings and “backyard” protest. In the past, nuclear power ambition has been frequently compromised by federal and republican structures; in the future, it appears that even nondemocratic governments might reduce their nuclear plans because of local opposition. In the United States, no sooner had environmentalists succeeded in popularizing the “tragedy of the commons” and institutionalizing top down environmental protections like the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 than they discovered that the local prerogatives inherent in federalism could exploit bottom up logic (notably, nimby) to derail controversial projects like nuclear power. In 1976, antinuclear lawyers produced clever legislation in California that banned new reactors by way of land use authority, having seen Minnesota’s attempt to enforce stricter radiation emissions overruled on the basis of federal preemption. Lawsuits at all levels not only produced additional review requirements for nuclear reactors but also had the effect of delaying construction schedules, which in turn strengthened the economic argument against nuclear competitiveness given the high cost of long term financing at the time. The French avoided these political barriers to nuclear ambition by way of a nationalized industry and a centralized state that conspires with the industry without any significant popular participation. Local communities hosting nuclear infrastructure in France are rewarded not only with employment but also with a variety of other benefits like country club style swimming pools and discounted electricity rates. The German national government in the 1970s had a nuclear agenda as ambitious as the French one, but its nuclear aspiration was rebuffed by Lander authority when the state of Lower Saxony refused to host the Gorleben project in 1979, even before the Green Party emerged as an electoral force in 1983.

The Fukushima “spring” appears to be producing a political effect as substantial as its environmental one, emboldening and empowering local opposition in countries where nuclear energy policy was previously monopolized by a technocratic elite. In Japan, local governors now have the confidence and popular support to defy pressures from Tokyo to block restarts, and experts there are now projecting that only around five to fifteen of the country’s 50 remaining reactors will be back on line by 2015. In South Korea, a shameless case of corruption affecting nuclear safety looks like it might compromise government aspirations to become one of the top five nuclear power countries on the planet. And in China, provincial protests in Guangdong resulted in the abandonment of a uranium processing plant in the summer of 2013, with national party leaders suggesting that local leaders erred in making decisions first and consulting the people second. China suspended nuclear construction for nine months for safety reviews, and now solicits public comments in its nuclear planning process. In summary, the more porous the political system, the more difficult the expansion of nuclear power, but now even countries with strong states and insulated elites can no longer disregard the local emotion. The damage done to the credibility of the nuclear mafias and the advent of political locomotion is especially significant in Asia because that is where nuclear power futures are expected to be strongest.

7. Electricity: From Earth, Wind, and Fire to Lady Gigawatt

While these safety, economic, and political considerations offer bad news for nuclear energy advocates, several countervailing factors point toward nuclear sustainability and even revival. The pro-nuclear argument begins with accelerating demand for electricity, especially in developing countries, as a function of demographic expansion and quest for a higher quality of life. The world is getting more and more “crowded,” with a global population growing from less than 3 billion in 1950 to a projected 9 billion in 2050. This demographic growth, the argument goes, will drive not only increases in energy demand, but disproportionate increases in electricity demand because of the clean, instantaneous, and versatile qualities of this noble form of power. In 2003, MIT constructed scenarios of electricity growth to 2050 using a “human development” assumption of 4000 kilowatt hours (kWh) per capita per year and a projection that developed countries would experience 1 percent growth per year while developing countries would experience up to 5 percent per year. Globally they concluded that a threefold increase in electricity use was “credible and indeed expected” between 2000 to 2050, with demand rising from 13 trillion kWh in 2000 to around 22 trillion in 2020 and to 38 trillion in 2050. More recently, in 2013, the Department of Energy forecasted world energy growth of 56 percent between 2010 and 2040 and world electricity growth of 93 percent. It expects nuclear reductions in Japan and in some countries in Europe, modest increases in the Americas and in Europe as a whole, and dramatic increases in China, India, Russia, and South Korea, with additions totaling 254 GW in these four countries alone. In sum, rapid growth in electricity demand gives nuclear power an opportunity to preserve and possible expand its supply niche.

8. Climate Change: Hot in Here

If electricity demand is the number one nuclear driver in developing countries, global warming competes for first place in the developed ones. Concern for global warming crossed a political threshold in 1988 when the UN established a panel to report on the science of warming, in 1990 when that panel reported the broad consensus that warming was occurring and that it was human induced, and in 1992 when 150 countries signed a Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio. More recently, measurements of increased sea levels (50 percent of the Arctic ice cap has melted in the past 50 years), global surface temperatures, and in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have been accompanied by warnings that global warming is a “weapon of mass destruction” and that carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced dramatically by 2050 to avert environmental catastrophe. The United States has come a long way in principle over the past 12 years: while the Clinton administration insisted at Kyoto on nothing more than stabilizing emissions, and the Bush administration was in climate change denial, the Obama administration entered office with a plan to implement a nation-wide cap and trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to their 1990 level by 2020 and then by an additional 80 percent by 2050. But U.S. policy reality has not matched the rhetoric. Europeans have been more ambitious, and now have a EU mandate of 20-20-20 (20 percent of power from renewables and 20 percent improvement in efficiency by the year 2020), but their cap and trade system has been disappointing and the German nuclear phase out has already led to an increase in national emissions.

Coal is by far the energy source most responsible for climate crime, emitting around a kilogram of CO2 for every kilowatt-hour of power generated. Surprisingly, this fossil fuel extraordinaire of the nineteenth century and poor and dirty cousin of oil and gas in the twentieth century is expected to play an even more central role in twenty-first-century electricity production— especially in China and India. Coal currently provides the most substantial share of electrical power in the world at around 40 percent (but around 75 per cent in India and China), and it is expected to provide around 45 percent in 2030. Although the development of “clean coal” technology is an article of faith for some engineers, technical solutions like coal carbon capture and storage (CCS) remain far from commercialized. The Obama stimulus package included $3.4 billion for CCS, but the U.S. Future Gen I project went from the spotlight technology scheduled to operate in 2012 to cancellation in 2008 after costs projections rose to an estimated $1.8 billion. Although Future Gen II is now underway in the United States and several projects are being successfully deployed in other countries, the high cost and environmental uncertainty surrounding these projects arguably keeps the technology a leap of faith.

Given the difficulty of de-carbonizing coal power, support for nuclear power, albeit reluctant, is already coming from some environmentalist quarters. Scientific American published a landmark article delineating possible “wedges” of global warming reductions, one of which involved doubling to tripling global nuclear capacity between now and 2054 to substitute for an equal amount of coal generated electricity. A Carnegie study made a similar calculation that reducing CO2 reductions could be accomplished by the expansion of nuclear power by a factor of 2.5 to 4.5 by 2050, with as many as 1871 GW of nuclear capacity. Although these plans are now outdated, the idea that nuclear power can rescue the planet from carbon catastrophe is not.

State controlled economies like China have substantial flexibility in pricing their technological preferences. But any significant shift from coal to nuclear in economies with an important private sector will require carbon disincentives. The landmark MIT nuclear study in 2003 laid out comparative costs of various forms of electricity as of 2002, with nuclear at 6.7 cents per kwh, coal at 4.2, and gas between 3.8 and 5.6 depending on the fuel price. Adding 50 to 200 dollars of taxes per ton of emission, however, changed the prices significantly—to 5.4 to 9.0 cents for coal and to 4.3 to 7.7 for gas, while remaining unchanged for nuclear. Nuclear power under these calculations would be cost competitive with coal assuming carbon penalties of 100 dollars a ton. More recently, but before Fukushima, the Congressional Budget Office produced figures that were even more favorable to nuclear generation, showing that a carbon charge as modest as 20 to 45 dollars per ton would make nuclear more cost effective than coal. For now, U.S. carbon legislation remains lost in space; but if it does come down to earth, nuclear could once again be a “cool” technology.

9. Renewables: Windmills in La Mancha

The aforementioned 2013 DOE report projects renewable sources of electricity to increase by 2.8 percent per year between 2010 and 2040, compared with 2.5 per cent for nuclear and natural gas and 1.8 per cent for coal. But renewable energy is starting from such a small base that even with impressive growth rates, absolute amounts remain modest. Furthermore, measuring capacity growth can be misleading because corresponding generation growth is often disappointing due to the intermittent and inefficient features of most renewables. Finally, the traditional hydropower share of renewables remains around 80 percent and thus still completely overwhelms techniques like wind and solar. Altogether, renewables other than hydropower face many challenges to a globally consequential future.

Their potential still demands attention. Several of the Scientific American wedges to avert one billion tons of carbon in the year 2054 involve deploying renewables on a massive scale: increasing wind capacity by a factor of 50, expanding solar capacity by a factor of 700, and increasing ethanol production by a factor of 50, all of which have mind boggling acreage requirements. Renewables were heavily disadvantaged in the past by governments privileging fossil fuels and nuclear over solar and wind; in the U.S. experience, subsidies were four times larger for fossil fuels than they were for renewables over the period 1972 to 1995. Significant subsidies have more recently been awarded to renewables by European governments, but countries like Spain have diminished or eliminated them since the economic crisis began in 2008.

Germany is an exception to the downsizing of subsidies and other forms of government support, and is now in the renewables spotlight following the decision to shut down the nuclear industry by 2022. Even before Fukushima, Germany had increased the share of renewable electricity in the country from 3 percent to 17 percent (including 25 percent of the world’s wind electricity), and is now committed to achieving renewable shares of 35 percent in 2020 and 80 percent in 2050 of total national electricity generation. This rapid switch in power sourcing has dramatically increased German household electricity prices, and the transmission technology required to coordinate new and different types of power has had a problematic start up, including strong local opposition to large high voltage stations. The government’s own price tag for the “energy makeover” was recently calculated at over $735 billion.

Perhaps the barriers to a renewable future will be more easily surmounted than expected, and indeed over the past ten to fifteen years successes in solar and wind have in some cases been much more dramatic than anticipated. In 2000, the IEA projected 30 GW of windpower by 2010, only for 200 GW to be deployed over that time period. But other forecasts have been radically mistaken in the opposite direction. In 1980, forecasts for the solar niche ranged from 1.4 to 8 quads (quadrillion BTUs) for the year 2000 in the US alone, but solar ended up at only 0.1 quad, or about 40 times short of the median forecast. The German objective of 80 percent renewable electricity by the year 2050 is a daunting ambition.

In summary, the near- and medium-term hopes associated with renewables could be compromised by numerous issues: costs higher than expected and subsidies smaller than desired, enormous amount of land required for some renewables, long transmission lines from solar and wind generating sites to consumer end use, environmental downsides of some large hydro projects, unreliability of intermittent sources for baseload, and lack of storage capacity. The possibility that renewable developments and efficiency improvements will be unable to meet the full challenge of replacing conventional coal and gas in a warming world could offer an opportunity for nuclear power to fill another niche.

10. Nuclear Proliferation: Bombs Away

Every nuclear weapons program in the world since 1952 (following American, Soviet, and English development of the atomic bomb) began with a civilian program or pretense. This list now includes France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea, not to mention Iraq and Iran in the “wannabe” category. Turkey’s plan to order eight reactors and Saudi Arabia’s plan to procure sixteen are suspected by many to be insurance policies as Iran moves closer to a weapons option. The nonproliferation community in the United States is fighting a difficult battle with industry and government officials who either believe that bomb programs can be detected and discouraged by way of NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weaons) rules and procedures, or simply prioritize the sales and associated employment, trade, and diplomatic benefits from exporting nuclear reactors. The Bush administration decided to privilege a strategic relationship with India at the expense of the nonproliferation regime, and the Obama administration has made it clear that it will not insist on making reactor exports contingent on countries like Vietnam refraining from enriching uranium or separating plutonium, no matter how inefficient and uneconomical these fuel cycle facilities are for countries with modest reactor numbers. Reactors are of course much less relevant for a bomb program than the associated fuel cycle facilities. Japan already has the green light to engage in large scale reprocessing and stockpiling of separated plutonium, and South Korea is eagerly seeking permission to match those prerogatives in a new atomic agreement with the United States scheduled for signing in 2014. As in all politics, a diffuse collective norm like nonproliferation has trouble competing with concentrated benefits for vendors and diplomats in exporting countries and for strategic weapons ambitions for leaders in the importing countries, and so herein lies another driver for nuclear power programs.

Conclusion: Clashing Nuclear Futures—Should I Stay or Should I Go

Nuclear enthusiasts confront major challenges as they pursue even a modest revival of the industry: notably, concerns over safety and sabotage, uncompetitive cost structures, new sources of fossil fuels unleashed by “fracking” and other technological developments (especially in the United States), local political opposition, and nonproliferation diplomacy. But offsetting these constraints is a package of temptations relating to robust electricity demand (especially in Asia), climate change apprehension, natural gas supply manipulations and high LNG prices, barriers in the near and medium term to large scale expansion of renewables like wind and photovoltaics, and the desire for a nuclear weapons option. How these various obstacles and inducements conspire in different national calculations will determine the future of this dual technology and our resulting prosperity or peril.

RANDY WILLOUGHBY is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at University of San Diego. He has written on a variety of political and security issues, including European arms control, French nuclear testing, comparative nuclear proliferation, security and politics in the South Pacific, Latin American drug trafficking, Mexican immigration, the U.S. defense budget, and global energy futures. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley.


* I would like to thank Daniela Rocha, David Bales, Thomas Mallon, Joe McPherson, and Greg Serrao, students at the University of San Diego, for providing sources and suggestions for this paper. I would also like to thank Rodrigo Villamizar, Henry Sokolski, and Jim Coyle for sharing their “energetic” professional expertise with me, even if some of it might be lost in translation. [Return to Text]


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