Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New From Scientific American ("The Nuclear Renaissance")

Recent years have seen a revival of interest in nuclear energy due to rising oil prices, fears of fossil fuel scarcity and the interest in atomic power as a way of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. This has extended to a flurry of applications, orders and announcements all around the world, both in the developed countries of North America, Western Europe and East Asia, and the developing world (particularly China and India, but also dozens of countries in regions where there has been very little use of nuclear energy to date, like the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America).

This new article from Scientific American, which reports on an update this year of a 2003 study undertaken at MIT (which had focused on nuclear power as a way of alleviating climate change), holds that the "renaissance" has to date seen little of practical consequence (e.g., completed, operational reactors) outside of Asia (again, concentrated mainly in China, India, Russia and Korea). In the U.S. and Western Europe, plans to get new plants online have been severely behind scheduled and overbudget.

In addition to noting this state of affairs, the study's update discusses an important factor in this-namely, that the per-kilowatt price of nuclear power having seen sharp rises in recent years, and presently estimated to be nearly twice that of coal- and five times that of natural gas-supplied power ($4,000 vs. $2,300 and $850, respectively), and acknowledges that many of the thorny issues raised by nuclear power have not been resolved (or even seen significant progress), particularly the waste management issue and the risk of proliferation (so that the study's authors are no more given to recommending fuel reprocessing than they were six years ago).

The Scientific American article also quotes (and misspells the name of) University of Greenwich professor Stephen Thomas, who included in his recent comments to reporters the argument that the slowness of the U.S. to move on nuclear power may actually represent an opportunity-to make more practical progress on the problems of energy scarcity and environmental policy with investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy production.

In my article on "The Next Wave of Nuclear Proliferation" in the Winter 2008-09 issue of Parameters (which considered a much larger expansion of nuclear power than is considered in the MIT study, and focused on the relation of such a development both to fossil fuel scarcity and nuclear proliferation), I made a similar recommendation, arguing for the international promotion of energy efficiency and renewable energy as preferable to the looming global rush on nuclear power.

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