Balancing Risks: Nuclear Energy & Climate Change

In Balancing Risks: Nuclear Energy & Climate Change, Socolow and Glaser discuss the concept of stabilization wedges, which are defined as strategies motivated by climate change and designed to prevent its full impact by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. A major focus of the paper are energy efficiency wedges, of which approximately 8 would be required to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The authors look specifically at nuclear power as a potentially effective wedge that would, if used throughout the world by 2050 at a much higher rate than at the present, contribute 25% of total global electric power in a much more efficient manner than alternatives like coal. There are clearly advantages to nuclear power, namely that it is time-tested, has small physical flows, and minimal carbon emissions. However, there are also real and imagined disadvantages or risks.

What disadvantages do you see to the widespread use of nuclear power as part of a solution to climate change? Are risks like plants being considered military targets or the problem of storing nuclear waste legitimate hazards?

The article mentions declining public opinion on nuclear power in the developed world. Does this pose an issue for widespread adoption? Is it reasonable?

Finally, the authors ask: “Can nuclear power be decoupled from nuclear weapons?” Given what you’ve read in the paper and learned in class, how would you answer this question? — Sebastian

18 thoughts on “Balancing Risks: Nuclear Energy & Climate Change

  1. Sebastian, thanks for kicking off the discussion. I really enjoyed this paper because it gives simple “back of the envelope” calculations that allow policy makers to really dive in and be able to talk about the impact of nuclear energy and climate change. One risk not mentioned in your response but worth discussing though, is the converting of civilian nuclear power in military nuclear power.

    Given that from the outset the authors agree that the world is not yet safe for the global expansion of nuclear energy, I do not believe the world should immediately begin nuclear power adoption. At the same time, we are running out of time to do much else to mitigate climate change given that 3,000 billion tons of C02 are currently in the atmosphere (800 billion more than 200 years ago) and merely 5,000 billion tons away from dangerous levels. The danger is present but I doubt enough to overcome the political unfeasibility of spreading nuclear power to offset carbon emissions.

    You are correct that there is a declining public opinion on nuclear power – politicians easily can point to reactor meltdowns like in Japan and its associated dangers to scare the public. Though people want to stop burning coal, they’re also scared of the word nuclear. Because of the declining public opinion and gridlock politics of the developed world, as the authors of this paper mention, we are likely looking to turn to developing nations to start creating nuclear power. The graph on page 4 indicates that about 40% of nuclear power must be produced in developing countries to reach the needed 1,500 GWe.

    Developing nations, such as Iran, should not be trusted to create civilian nuclear power because it would be highly difficult to monitor. As we can see in the guide on The Iran Nuclear Deal, it is feasible to monitor two or three declared sites but not much else. In a scenario where of the 700 needed nuclear plants, 280 (40%) of the plants will be in developing countries and need constant and costly monitoring, I doubt that enough oversight could be done to ensure that in these plants or in undisclosed sites no weaponization would occur. Look even to current news to see that the UAE is flirting with ignoring their accord with the US to protect themselves from “civilian nuclear using” Iran.

    I very much think that plants being covertly turned into nuclear weapons is a risk worth considering given the need for 280 nuclear plants to be put in developing countries.

  2. This post raises a number of interesting questions about nuclear power and its ability to reduce global climate change. Personally, I believe that nuclear power should be expanded in order to replace fossil fuels. However, in order for this plan to be effective, many developing countries would have to start utilizing nuclear energy. After all, according to Socolow and Glaser, “at midcentury the OECD could contribute only one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions,” meaning three quarters of global emissions will come from developing nations (Socolow and Glaser, 3).

    This is problematic for numerous reasons. First, many developing nations cannot currently be trusted with nuclear energy because “nuclear power is coupled to nuclear weapons” (Socolow and Glaser, 6). For example, although Iran has claimed for many years that their nuclear program is only meant to produce energy, virtually no one believes that they are telling the truth. Second, many developing nations do not have the capacity to transition to nuclear energy. According to a report from MIT, by 2050, “three fifths of the nuclear capacity… [will be] located in the OECD” (Socolow and Glaser, 3-4). Many of the developing countries that are interested in nuclear power lack the necessary scientific knowledge, skilled professionals, GDP, energy demand, grid capacity, or regulation to handle such a project (Socolow and Glaser, 4-5).

    Fortunately, there are solutions to these problems. Because nuclear power should be viewed as one “wedge” to mitigate climate change, it does not have to be the only solution but instead can be implemented along with other strategies (e.g. renewable energy, carbon capture technology, etc.) (Socolow and Glaser, 2). For this reason, we can be more judicious about which nations receive assistance to develop nuclear energy.

    Developing nations that are viewed as being unstable/threatening or that are located in a particularly dangerous region should be forced to employ other alternatives to counter climate change. This significantly reduces the risk of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands or nuclear energy facilities being targeted during wartime. Moreover, “fuel-cycle facilities under multinational ownership and control” could also help mitigate these risks (Socolow and Glaser, 9). Countries will not be able to secretly develop nuclear weapons if other nations are operating the facilities with them and keeping them accountable (Socolow and Glaser, 9). Furthermore, if a conflict breaks out, a nation is going to be more hesitant to destroy a nuclear facility owned by many other countries because that could harm them diplomatically.

    In my opinion, opposition to nuclear energy in the developed world is not grounded in facts. Nuclear accidents are very rare; however, individually, they can be very dangerous which makes people more apprehensive. Although nuclear energy today is much safer than it was decades (or even years) ago, memories of Chernobyl still stick in people’s minds. Finally, as Socolow and Glaser mention, “the dissonance arises among a political constituency, particularly powerful in Europe, for which mitigating climate change is seen as an opportunity for pursuing deep changes in social and economic structures and in values” (Socolow and Glaser, 2-3). In my opinion, throwing out a perfectly good source of alternative energy because it does not fulfill one’s crusade for social justice is ridiculous.

    As people become more serious about dealing with the effects of climate change, they will look at nuclear energy in a more objective light, and public opinion will rise again.

  3. The question of what constitutes “legitimate hazards” is particularly interesting in this context. I was struck by Socolow and Glaser’s assertion that the risks associated with global expansion of nuclear power are “worse than the hazard of slowing the attack on climate change” (11). While it is clear that the availability of nuclear power contributes to proliferation and “breakout” scenarios, nuclear warfare is by no means a definite result of these potential problems. Put another way, nuclear risks will not definitely translate to nuclear disasters – but climate change will definitely cause significant environmental and social disasters if it continues on its current path (IPCC Synthesis Report). Which hazard, then, is more legitimate? Without ignoring the very concerning coupling of nuclear plants and nuclear weapons, I would argue that policymakers should prioritize efforts to address climate change. As you mentioned, nuclear plants are important wedges toward mitigating climate risks, and I think they can be used effectively if controlled by additional regulations and oversight (such as coming to an international consensus on the spent fuel problem).

  4. I think the question presented by Socolow and Glaser of balancing the risk of using nuclear energy and the risk of climate change is an intriguing game theory question. As pointed out in lecture, both issues are individually a Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the case of nuclear energy, there is always the risk that individual actors will renege their commitment to nuclear disarmament, a choice made easier if we are to support the use of nuclear power plants. In the case of climate change, there is unfortunately an incentive for countries to fail to contribute their share of the work and free-ride—thus allowing themselves to enjoy the benefits of lower emissions while other countries pay for it. However, it is an entirely new question when you overlay the two issues—what happens when possessing and maintaining a nuclear power plant becomes beneficial to the public good? It becomes cheaper to contribute to the greater good for most countries—although there are costs to constructing the nuclear power plants, the nuclear power plants provide an extremely easy way to lower your carbon emissions without having to manage with less energy output. However, while this makes cooperation within climate change’s prisoner’s dilemma easier, it makes reneging in nuclear disarmament’s prisoner dilemma much easier. I think the assertion of the two authors that nuclear energy should only be considered in a world with more complete nuclear disarmament is fair; else, there would be too much motivation for individuals to renege and use their nuclear capabilities to produce weapons. However, in such a world, the use of nuclear deterrence to prevent nuclear war is also vastly diminished, increasing the benefits to a country that does renege. While the paper suggests placing the nuclear energy plants in the hands of the international community, I’m not so certain that this step would fully resolve the inherent risk of re-appropriation of the technology. There needs to be some method for heavily increasing the risk of reneging the nuclear disarmament agreement in order to make nuclear energy a viable solution for climate change.

  5. With his week’s Socolow and Glaser reading effectively bringing us up to speed on the concept of stabilization wedges and their possible benefits in the reduction and prevention of climate change, I was quite intrigued to discover the true efficiency of nuclear power and the role it could possibly play in producing electric power for our world down the road. However, as you prompted us in one of your questions, there are certainly some risks involved in going down this route of nuclear power. One of the biggest risks, in my opinion, would be how important nuclear power plants would become. Understanding that this is where the nuclear power would be generated, the possibility of them being military targets like you suggested is very real. Additionally, improper handling of nuclear waste and human exposure to this waste could cause serious environmental and health concerns. With regards to your question on widespread adoption, I believe that declining public opinion on nuclear power in the developed world certainly comes into play. After all, it would be these developed nations that would have to be the leaders in creating a global nuclear power system, so if some key players wish not to be involved there could be issues in getting a more profound system into place. Lastly, in response to your question about the decoupling of nuclear power from nuclear weapons, I believe there are two ways to look at things. On one hand, I say yes- it can be decoupled because in a technical sense, we see some extreme benefits of nuclear power and how it could help our world, and there is no reason for the dangers of nuclear weaponry to overshadow these benefits. However, on the other hand we have to consider the fact that we already have genuine fear about nuclear war breaking out, and if the world were to increase its use and development of nuclear power, it would lead me to believe that the odds of increased production of nuclear weapons would also increase, giving us a greater risk of nuclear war. As we can see, we have a lot to consider before choosing whether or not the nuclear power route is the way for the world to go.

  6. The probable effects of climate change on Earth’s geography and crop patterns in the next half century or less are quite scary. Yet, equally as frightening are the threats to global security leveraged by the development of nuclear power plants throughout the world.

    As Sebastian notes, nuclear energy has many positive qualities that one might argue make it a substantial alternative to current energy sources such as coal. As with other substitutes for emission-heavy forms of energy, nuclear energy’s pros are accompanied by costly cons. Unlike these alternatives, however, the issues with the production process of nuclear energy are potentially catastrophic. In order for nuclear energy to serve as a wedge in climate change mitigation, it would need to be “deployed widely — including in regions that are politically unstable” (Socolow and Glaser, 2009, 5). Putting such a high-risk technology in the hands of unreliable states assuages one threat while exacerbating another.

    The need for widespread use of nuclear weapons is, to me, the technology’s greatest disadvantage. If managed responsibly, nuclear energy would be a better form of energy production than fossil-fuel heavy forms. Yet, once a country has the capacity to produce fissile materials, there is the possibility that it might use the materials in a dangerous, and irresponsible way. Even if nuclear energy production is “solely” commercial, the recycling of fuels and the harnessing of enrichment plants to produce plutonium or uranium, respectively, for nuclear weapons, is a serious possibility.

    Given that the IAEA has estimated that the implementation of a nuclear power plant for a developing state would be about 15 years, and considering that it is critical that action be taken in the coming decade, the potential of nuclear energy as a wedge for climate change is somewhat lessened. However, if we overlook this and still focus on nuclear energy, it is imperative that the international world begin to develop clear protocol for multinational ownership and control of the various parts of the nuclear energy production process. Otherwise, as developing countries with either dangerous or ambiguous priorities develop nuclear capabilities, situations like the one that is ongoing with Iran will continue to plague international relations. Setting a clear plan and figuring out a strategy for the future will lend more time to focusing on climate change and less on protecting ourselves from the horrifying possibility of nuclear war.

  7. Balancing Risks provides us with interesting exposure to stabilization wedges and the different strategies designed to remedy climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. However, widespread use of nuclear energy has several disadvantages. Aside from being military targets for combatants or terrorist organizations, nuclear power plants rely on non-renewable uranium as fuel. This scarce, hazardous resource produces radioactive waste, which can be harmful to the environment. Although numerous safety measures have been put in place, accidents, such as the ones in Fukushima and Chernobyl, are inevitable and detrimental. Additionally, nuclear power plants are expensive. The construction of a new nuclear power plant takes years to construct, along with millions of dollars in investments.

    Declining public opinion is justifiable; these plants are legitimate hazards to citizens living near them. Nuclear breeders produce harmful nuclear waste, which is extremely hazardous to the environment. These reactive radicals can contaminate the ground, air, and water, which can lead to dangerous and deadly complications. Consequently, I would imagine these inherent threats would pose an issue for widespread use. People are not volunteering their region to serve as a host for nuclear power plants due to the possible dangers associated with the plants.

    Finally, I do not think that nuclear power can be completely decoupled from nuclear weapons. There are numerous systems and legalities in lace that attempt to control nuclear weapons and separate them from nuclear power. However, I believe that it is impossible to completely decouple nuclear weapons from nuclear power.

  8. This week’s reading by Socolow and Glaser does a good job of simply and directly explaining the complexity of expanding nuclear power as a reaction and solution to climate change. Using nuclear power as one of the eight needed stabilization wedges makes sense on many levels as explained by Socolow and Glaser. However, as discussed in the readings and in the other replies, there are many disadvantages and risks that must be properly assessed and confronted by the international community at large. One great disadvantage that was mentioned by the reading is the concept that all plants are mutual hostages. “One major future accident could overnight nullify the resources and time invested in nuclear power made up to that point”. One only needs to look at Fukushima in Japan to see the true implication of this constraint on nuclear power. One accident led to a significant decrease of nuclear energy use in Japan. Fear of accidents and safety issues worry many people across the world and add to the declining popular support in developed nations. Without the support of the public, building more nuclear plants in developed nations cannot be an option, which adds to another great disadvantage (at least for current nuclear states) which would be the implementation of nuclear energy in currently “unstable” countries.

    This issue of declining public opinion is very important because it will force nuclear states to abandon the idea that only they can peacefully harness nuclear energy. Developing nations will have to, at the minimum, host a number of nuclear power plants. In today’s world, tension and mistrust between “supplier states” and “user states” would not allow for this expansion to happen. In my opinion, the only way for expansion of nuclear power to happen in a way that would create a nuclear wedge is to first implement nuclear disarmament. If nuclear weapons exist and if the world does not decouple weapons from energy, nuclear energy expansion is simply not worth it. Once nuclear weapons are gone, countries will have a starting place to have real discussions on creating multinational owned/managed power plants. Current nuclear states will have to commit to disarmament, especially in a world where it would be difficult to build more power plants in developed nations. Disarmament would lead to an increase in confidence among nation and decoupling energy from weapons would decrease many of the fears that come with allowing developing nations to have power plants.

    While I truly believe that with disarmament, the international community could have a real conversation about expanding nuclear energy programs, the fact of the matter is that we may not have enough time. The next decade is so crucial and if real policy change is not directed at decoupling energy from weapons, nuclear expansion may not be the safest route for the world.

  9. Thanks Sebastian for starting this thread – I think one policy recommendation that was very interesting and offers a potential solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem brought up by Victoria is the use of multinational facilities and multinational enrichment facilities as a potential avenue for cooperation to solve the truly global challenge – climate change.

    Given that the increase in CO2 levels will have varying effects for everyone on Earth in a variety of ways (rising sea levels, varied climates, changing of biomes) it only makes sense that the solutions be truly global or at least super-national in nature. Utilizing the IAEA, UN and the IPCC are potential avenues in studying the feasibility of nuclear cooperation and shared/joint facilities growth. As evidenced by Socolow and Glaeser, there are at least 50 countries which have shown interest in civilian nuclear use. Setting up regional hubs of nuclear development modeled around current regional alliances (AU, ASEAN etc.) are natural synergies that could facilitate regional power projects. Not only do they make breakout more costly politically but they also are confidence-building measures that strengthen ties rather than causing ill-will between neighbors.

    Most importantly, they immediately address the concerns illustrated the paper: grid capacity, electricity demand and GDP. By collectively pooling resources, not only will the cost of nuclear go down but creating a reactor in a common-border area between nations with cordial relations is a positive step to realizing nuclear energy as a wedge in combating climate change.

  10. Thanks to everyone for an illuminating discussion and to Sebastian for starting this thread! I too found Glaser and Socolow’s article to be quite interesting, especially the final assertion that the risks of nuclear power expansion likely outweigh the benefits vis-a-vis fighting global warming. I’m personally of a mixed opinion on the matter: on one hand, it is clear that the risks of nuclear proliferation truly are dire (and perhaps underconsidered), in a way that dwarfs even catastrophic climate change. However, fighting global warming will require us to make hard choices and difficult tradeoffs, and it is difficult to see how the world might accommodate an increasing demand for energy without resorting to nuclear power, unless more exotic energy sources become viable in the near future. From many of the analyses that I’ve seen, only coal and nuclear are truly capable of meeting this demand. Additionally, one thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that continuing to burn fossil fuels–especially ones like coal–has deleterious effects on the environment and health than global warming, and these damages should also be factored into our energy calculus.

    I like the above suggestions to internationalize nuclear power plants, both to disincentivize foul play and to mitigative cooperation/free rider problems. While some may argue that such cooperation is difficult to attain, it does appear necessary to fight global warming, and this scenario of cooperation seems easier to secure than what would likely be required to implement other “wedges”. It also seems to me that, to some extent, nuclear power plants could be built in such a way as to mitigate some of the security issues that could arise. Given the formidable cost and technical expertise necessary to build such plants, wealthier industrialized countries would be better equipped to take the lead on their construction. Fortuitously, such countries are also likelier to have more robust institutions (democratic and technical) that would monitor and enforce standards strictly separating civilian and military nuclear technology, and thus may pose less of a security threat with an expanded use of nuclear power. Such countries could also take the lead on decoupling nuclear energy from nuclear weapons, which would make further expansion to countries with relatively weaker monitoring mechanisms a more viable option.

    One interesting insight I wasn’t aware of from the article was the debate about reprocessing. I had considered reprocessing an environmentally friendly means of reducing uranium mining and containment of spent fuel, but was unaware of the security risks. Indeed, it appears that the radioactivity of spent fuel–a concern for some environmentalists–is in fact a benefit from a security standpoint, in that it makes it more difficult for a rogue actor to make fissile material out of conventional spent fuel. This again highlights the nature of the tradeoffs we must face when confronting global warming: ironically, it appears that what is beneficial for safely storing nuclear waste (i.e. reprocessing) is bad for proliferation concerns.

  11. I think that the expansion of nuclear power would be incredibly helpful in mitigating some of the harmful effects of climate change and decreasing our overall greenhouse gas emissions. One of the big challenges of spreading this type of power source, as Sebastian mentions, is the declining public opinion. Particularly after the Fukushima meltdown, many countries have faced public pressure to shut down nuclear reactors. However, many of the problems with the Fukushima disaster were a result of issues with the plant itself rather than general issues with nuclear power generation. I don’t think the threat of a military target would be enough to dissuade the use of nuclear power because essentially any big power generation source would be a potential target, but the problem of nuclear waste storage would definitely be a difficult problem to solve. No part of a country wants to contain nuclear waste so coming to a political agreement about a place to store nuclear waste is incredibly difficult. As to Sebastian’s last point, there is a significant difference between the level of enrichment required for energy purposes and that required for a nuclear weapon, yet without thorough monitoring, I’m not sure if there’s any real way to decouple nuclear power from the threat of a nuclear weapon. Many of these negative aspects don’t exist when power is generated by nuclear fission, so I think there should be high levels of funding for projects developing energy technology like fission.

  12. With regard to dramatically expanding nuclear power production, the key dilemma I see here is the political necessity to allow non-OECD countries to produce their own nuclear fuel, consume it in domestic plants, and then deal with the aftermath, which clashes with the security concerns of OECD (and other non-OECD) countries that think that these countries would either use the nuclear material for weapons, or be unable to secure the material and other folks would get their hands on the material for weapons.

    The dilemma is, then, both political and technical. This means it could be solved by either political means or technical means. Either a policy must be put in place that would significantly reduce the likelihood of misuse of nuclear fuel (i.e. its manufacture into weapons) or a technical solution must uncouple nuclear power from nuclear weapons.

    The political solution that makes the most sense in this article is multi-national enrichment, reactors, and/or storage.

    To be honest, the most ideal multi-national facilities would be between countries that distrust each other or have structural reasons to be suspicious of each other. If Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran shared nuclear enrichment, reactor, and waste storage facilities, there would be no concern about Iran’s civilian (“civilian”?) nuclear program. Of course, this sort of deal would be basically impossible to actually get into motion.

    The technical solution that could make sense would be thorium reactors ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium-based_nuclear_power or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_fluoride_thorium_reactor ). Basically, these reactors would be far less prone to meltdown, and it would be much more difficult to reuse their waste products for warheads. There are some costs to them– in some ways the waste they produce is more dangerous (emits more gamma radiation). But the biggest cost is the start-up cost. We already know how to do “conventional” nuclear power (i.e. uranium-plutonium power) but only now is serious research into thorium being done.

    I’d personally like to see both solutions to this dilemma, the political and the technical, pursued. I’m obviously not a nuclear reactor design expert, but maybe in class someone who is could explain why thorium hasn’t become a thing yet.

  13. The price of natural gas is low. The cost of nuclear power is extremely high. Ultimately, the choice to move to nuclear power is a difficult one for many nations, even in the developed world.

    The United States, for example, has been using nuclear energy to produce electricity for more than half a century. Currently, 99 nuclear power plants generate approximately 19% of the country’s electricity. Most reactors, however, are more than 30 years old. While five new nuclear reactors are under construction, low gas prices diminish the possibility of future plants and reactors. A good number of reactors around the country are at risk of closure given the high costs to maintain and run. Ultimately, nuclear power comes with high costs. The desire to stray away from nuclear power and look to lower cost options is high and convincing.

    However, nuclear power can be seen as a solution to climate change — a way for us to approach a critical and looming global issue. However, the production of nuclear power for civil purposes lends itself to the possibility of nuclear power for military purposes. There is a fine line here and the danger of more nations with nuclear weapons is high. A nuclear armed world is neither necessary nor useful. In the previous comment, Jonathan argues that given the great cost and technical expertise necessary to build nuclear power plants, wealthier nations will be better equipped to take the lead and these nations are also likelier to have more robust institutions that would monitor and enforce standards separating civilian and military use. This is a bold assumption. I don’t think we can rely on the fact that many of the wealthier nations, more likely to invest in nuclear power, are also immune to the problems and dangers that may arise from the military use of nuclear power.

    Glaser and Socolow argue that the risk of nuclear power expansion outweigh the benefits i.e. fighting global warming. I would argue there are indeed clear harms to the development of nuclear power, however the benefits are enormous. We don’t take climate change seriously enough in the policy world. We need to. Here’s a way we can address it and its worth seriously considering. However, we can’t undermine the high costs and the real dangers that accompany the development of nuclear power.

  14. The problem that I see with rapidly growing our dependence on nuclear power is the amount of people and facilities that would be required in the short term. I have two friends who are currently working as nuclear engineers/techs for the US Navy, one on an aircraft carrier and one on a nuclear sub. When I ask them questions about nuclear power, one of the biggest things I get back from them is the lack of qualified and trained people in the field. For me, it seems that the people working in these roles should be both highly qualified well versed in the science, and I just have not gotten that vibe from them up to this point.

    Growing the nuclear sector is a great option in my mind, though there are obvious concerns, but I maintain some reservations about a quick rise in capacity due to lack of infrastructure (of physical structures and of human capital).

  15. Thanks for your post, Sebastian. Socolow and Glaser focus heavily on the threats of nuclear power plants as potential sources of weapons-grade fissile material. I do believe that nuclear power can be decoupled from nuclear weapons – but not easily. Part of the solution, as the authors argue, could come in the form of multilateral agreements and multinational plants. As Paarth commented above, these multinational plants would provide more transparency and security than national control over nuclear plants.

    However, as far as disadvantages go for nuclear power as a climate change mitigation strategy, I’d like to talk about the economic side of the issue. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the typical 1,000 MWe boiling water reactor (BWR) or pressurized water reactor (PWR) in the US runs on an 18-month refueling cycle, where the cost of refuel is $40 million. The cost of fuel makes up about 30% of the overall production cost at one such plant, and the average non-fuel cost is about 1.51 cents per kilowatt-hour. The cost of building a new plant varies internationally, but some estimate costs as high as $9 billion. A French electric company called EDF reported in 2014 that the cost of replacing France’s 58 operational reactors would triple the cost of uprating/life-extending them. However, uprating the plants would still cost around the same amount ($140 billion) as the initial construction.

    Building nuclear power plants is a significant investment. Management of the waste products adds another expense to the equation. And of course, we can’t forget about the dangers of weaponization or nuclear accidents.

    With all of these costs and risks associated with building and maintaining the plants, I think the growth of the renewable energy will seem a lot more attractive to investors. The World Nuclear Status Report in 2014 found that Spain, Brazil, China, Germany, India and Japan – a list that includes 3 of the world’s 4 largest economies – are now producing more energy from renewables than from nuclear power. Nuclear power represents 3% of global energy investment, compared to 57% for renewables.

    So as the growth of nuclear energy declines and the growth of renewables increases, I think that the possibility of nuclear energy being a realistic strategy for climate change mitigation is vanishing. And while some countries (several in Africa and Eastern Europe, the UAE, Bangladesh) are interested in developing nuclear power, I do not think at this point that widespread adoption will ever be embraced.

  16. I think the first question and its follow-up is apt. I do believe that the problem of storing nuclear waste is the most legitimate concern, if not in reality, at least in politics and public opinion. Nobody wants nuclear waste in his or her backyard. But in all honesty, the safe storage of nuclear waste is no more dangerous than climate change itself, or any of the other terrible things we do to our planet. In fact, it’s much less dangerous. But kind of like plane crashes, there’s more media coverage when there’s something gone wrong with nuclear waste, and there’s much more irrational public fear of something going wrong. It’s one of the more visible concerns that the public pays attention to in nuclear power.

    This segues well into the second question about public opinion. Governments have long instituted “greater good systems” against the majority’s will. There are things commonplace now that were entirely against the will of the public less than a century ago (take, for example, integrated public schools). I’m not sure that will happen with nuclear power, but it’s entirely a possibility.

    And for the final question: Can nuclear power be decoupled from nuclear weapons? No, not now, not in the public opinion. The memories of nuclear tests, the Cold War, and Nagasaki and Hiroshima are much too fresh in history for anything with the word “nuclear” in it to be decoupled from nuclear bombs. But time may solve that issue.

  17. Socolow and Glaser express doubt that nuclear energy innovation and proliferation can be divorced from their more sinister potential for weapon development. I agree with their doubt, and encourage it: even with the most stringent controls, as deployed through IAEA inspections and the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (nearly) universally-accepted ban on weapon acquisition, the potential for nuclear weapons means much more than their actual creation. If something were to go wrong, and countries felt threatened to the point of breaking the Treaty, little would prevent them from making use of their knowledge, and the knowledge itself is at once the most volatile and the indispensable ingredients of nuclear weapons. All our controls can only lure us into a false sense of security, which presupposes we can control and regulate the spread of ideas and the bounds of human curiosity, which, if past world history is any indicator, we can’t.

    However, the idea that the spread of nuclear ideas is something in the future, that will arise only if we continue on our path toward nuclear energy,seems to underestimate the current world nuclear situation. It seems, especially after reading the Feiveson et al. article from Unmaking the Bomb and generally from our course, that the nuclear age is already solidly upon us. We cannot unlearn knowledge; we cannot close that new frontier. True, public opinion is turning away from nuclear reactors as viable solutions for our current energy crisis, and true, many questions remain regarding long-term storage of used radioactive materials, especially once those reach sustained global quantities. All that being said, if in our struggle to find alternative energies, after weighing all our options, nuclear still seems like the best source of energy to pursue, we will not with that declaration be unleashing a beast. Instead, we will simply need to acknowledge the fact that the risks are already out there, and cannot truly be retracted. But the benefits complementing those risks have yet to be fully explored, and that is a direction in which nuclear energy could point us.

  18. As far as the question of whether nuclear energy can be decoupled from nuclear weapons to such an extent as to allow a widespread nuclear ‘cushion’ to climate change, I think that Socolow and Glaser suggest, and I agree, that we do not yet live in a world adequately prepared for such spread. Reaching acceptable terms for Iran to develop a nuclear program took years, and while it may provide a blueprint for future nuclear expansion terms, we have by no means adequately perfected guarantees against a civilian facility being converted for military use. However we do live in a rapidly warming world, and the issue of climate change needs immediate addressing. It would seem more productive to spend our technological and human resources pursuing more readily available wedges. In the long term future, however nuclear energy could certainly serve as a maintenance, ‘clean energy’ strategy. Socolow and Glaser mention multinational nuclear facilities, which would incentivize involved countries to keep their facilities clean and secure. This is certainly a strategy we could begin to look at and test among stable regions, and could perhaps alleviate some energy stress on other wedges, if it can’t serve as a wedge itself.

Leave a Reply