International Security Studies

Events

U.S. Nuclear Energy Policy: Where Should It Head?

March 23, 2007 // 12:00pm1:00pm

This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's Division of International Security Studies and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.

Ferguson began his talk on the state of U.S. and international nuclear energy policy by stressing the importance of balancing the benefits and risks. Prominent among the benefits is the contribution nuclear energy can make to improving U.S. energy security, specifically U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Yet, said Ferguson, "substantial growth of nuclear energy will not significantly wane the U.S. off foreign sources of oil unless there is a major overhaul of the transportation sector."

Ferguson also singled out nuclear energy's contribution in reducing global warming. The debates over nuclear energy and global warming/climate change, he noted, were interlinked. The budding relationship between environmentalists and the nuclear industry is particularly significant, and the latter has now begun to promote nuclear energy as "clean and green."

While President Bush has to date opposed mandatory greenhouse gas reductions, Ferguson cited the President's 2007 State of the Union address in which he called for confronting the "serious challenge of global climate change" and "clean nuclear energy" as evidence that the administration's position may be changing on this issue. But continued pushback from the coal industry on greenhouse gas regulation initiatives like carbon-cap-and-trade programs and a carbon tax is likely to continue.

Always lurking in the background of any discussion on nuclear energy, however, is the problem of weapons useable technology. The dilemma here, Ferguson said, was how to trust the "good guys" while keeping the "bad guys" from getting the technology, all the while recognizing that "Today's good guys could become tomorrow's bad guys." An increase in the number of nuclear-capable states could eventually lead to a "nuclear 1914." Ferguson argued that the solution to the "break-out" problem, whereby a state uses a civil nuclear energy program to mask a clandestine weapons program, lies in strengthened safeguards and near real-time monitoring and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Although nuclear energy currently provides about 20 percent of all electricity in the U.S., the future of nuclear energy in this country remains in doubt, argued Ferguson. The average U.S. nuclear reactor has a lifespan of about 60 years. Assuming no new construction, the U.S. could experience a "precipitous falloff" in nuclear generated energy about twenty years from now. It is conceivable therefore, Ferguson said, that by 2055 the U.S. will have no nuclear energy plants in operation.

Even if the United States decided to rededicate itself to nuclear energy, it will face "daunting challenges" because of the steep replacement rate. To maintain the status quo of 103 reactors, the U.S. would have to replace a reactor every four to six months over the course of the foreseeable future. Yet the cost of doing so would be staggering given the high construction costs associated with nuclear plants.

Globally, however, Ferguson said, the picture looks different. Although the U.S. has the most reactors of any country, France leads in commercial production of nuclear energy. And unlike the U.S., several countries are taking steps to address increasing global electricity demand which is expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050. Among those countries planning to expand their nuclear infrastructure is Australia, which may build as many as 25 reactors over the next few years.




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