NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Think Again: Nuclear Power

October 21, 2011

After a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, many predicted dooming consequences for the use of nuclear power around the world.  In Japan, where support for nuclear power fell from two-thirds of the public to one-third after the meltdown, plans for 14 reactors slated for construction by 2030 were soon scrapped.  Fukushima also tipped the scales in Switzerland's decision to phase out nuclear power by 2034 and contributed to more than 94 percent of Italian voters rejecting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's June referendum on renewing nuclear power, says Charles D. Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists.

However, the rest of the nuclear-powered world seems bent on continuing to exploit its enormous power.  This is likely due to the numerous benefits that nuclear energy provides.

  • First, once the plant is built, nuclear reactors are capable of providing electricity that is comparable in cost to that produced by coal-firing plants.
  • Second, nuclear power limits the need to import energy resources from abroad, increasing domestic security from external supply shocks.
  • Finally, the emissions reduction advantage that nuclear plants have over coal power cannot be ignored.

Critics of nuclear power are quick to throw numerous arguments against its use, outside of accidents such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima most recently.  They allege that proliferation of nuclear power will undo efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons.  However, this fear can be checked by providing ample supply of nuclear fuel so that individual countries have no motivation to build their own enrichment facilities.  Critics also emphasize difficulties in storing nuclear waste, but in fact this problem is more political than scientific.  In the correct geological formation, nuclear waste can be safely stored for tens of thousands of years.

Perhaps what matters most in discussion of nuclear energy is that climate change must be addressed, and no other forms of alternative energy are technologically advanced enough to do so.  Despite exceptional growth, wind and solar energy comprise only 3 percent of the world's electricity production, and still require substantial government subsidies to achieve economies of scale (and even this is often not enough: see Solyndra).  Nuclear power offers a viable package of reliable electricity with fewer greenhouse gases.

Source: Charles D. Ferguson, "Think Again: Nuclear Power," Foreign Policy, November 2011.

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