NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

THE RETURN OF THE MIGHTY ATOM

September 21, 2005

The threat of global warming may not have sparked a nuclear renaissance, but it is breathing new life into the debate over nuclear power. Skeptics, however, point out that it would take a huge leap in the pace of plant construction to maintain nuclear power's current global share of electric output -- about 17 percent -- let alone to increase it.

Consider:

  • Many aging U.S. and European reactors will have to be dismantled in the next couple of decades; even new ones remain more expensive than coal or gas-fired systems.
  • Governments are not imposing stiff taxes on carbon emissions, the one strategy some experts say would tip investment decisions toward nuclear power.

Even if economists were to favor nuclear power, two issues will continue to dog the industry, say observers: fear of nuclear weapons proliferation and disputes about how to dispose of high-level wastes.

Science magazine says the threat of global warming is perhaps the key factor in rethinking nuclear power. The nuclear industry, in particular, has seized on it as a reason to switch from fossil fuel to the atom. Some public leaders have also cited nuclear power as a way to reduce the impact of global warming -- and even some environmental advocates seem to agree:

  • U.K. ecologist James Lovelock published a broad appeal last year, asking his friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded opposition to nuclear energy; others, such as Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, have made similar statements.
  • Robert May, president of the Royal Society, U.K. says it is difficult to see how we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels without the help of nuclear power.

Source: Eliot Marshall, "Is the Friendly Atom Poised for a Comeback?" Science, Vol. 309, No. 5738, August 19, 2005.

For text (subscription required):

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/309/5738/1168

 

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