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Face-Off: The Nuclear Non-Starter

Persistent economic and political issues continue to prevent the expansion of nuclear power.
Fortnightly Magazine - June 15 2003

push the nuclear power advocates on this issue." Furthermore, von Hippel says the environmental movement has been counterproductive by focusing attention on radioactive waste disposal instead of the more serious proliferation threat.

The magnitude of this threat is difficult to estimate. In principle, expanding nuclear power globally could increase risks by disseminating technology and materials that could be diverted for nefarious purposes. But in practical terms, a commercial power plant is not a very logical platform for building nuclear weapons.

"There is no such thing as a proliferation-proof reactor," Vine says. "In the hands of someone dedicated to using materials in the wrong way, you could process nuclear fuel to make a bomb, although there are much easier ways. There is no reactor design that would totally prevent it. What is needed is safeguards to prevent it, and that's why the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is involved."

As recent experience in North Korea demonstrates, however, IAEA involvement will not prevent peaceful nuclear power plants from being used to fabricate materials for weapons. "There is a clear connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, and what the United States does sets the stage overseas," Macfarlane says. "The industry has to try harder on this issue."

Nuclear Standoff

Given the array of issues it faces, the nuclear industry will be hard pressed to muster a significant renaissance any time soon. In order for nuclear power to emerge as the economic winner for new construction, three major developments must occur:

  1. carbon taxes that make fossil-fired plants less competitive must be instituted;
  2. capital costs must fall by 25 percent or more; and
  3. natural gas prices must rise dramatically and permanently.

When the uncertainty of such developments is combined with the real political and security issues regarding waste disposal and proliferation, a nuclear renaissance in the United States seems improbable.

As Dominion's Capps said, "It is too much risk. It is not economical. You would have billions of dollars out there for years, not earning a return, and that is just not good."

Helpful Links

© American Physical Society outlook on nuclear power

© EPRI aircraft-crash impact analysis 200212.pdf

© Press release on Princeton/MIT et. al. terrorist-attack risk study

© Natural Resources Defense Council's nuclear site

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