The US and other industrialized countries are still using 19th Century electric power generation technologies in the 21st Century. In the US, only 4% of the nation’s electricity is generated by oil, compared with 52% bycoal, 15% by natural gas, 19% by nuclear reactors and less than 10% by renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, etc. Today, 103 nuclear power plants account for 19% of the US electric power supply. One half of the US uranium that powers those plants comes from recycled Russian nuclear weapons Cold War disarmaments. There are 430 nuclear power plants operating in 31 countries worldwide. The energy from one pound of uranium is equivalent to 1.3 million pounds of coal energy. Nuclear power produces none of the greenhouse gases associated with global warming.
The 1986 nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine spread radioactivity over Europe and despair in the Western world’s nuclear industry.However, some countries never lost their enthusiasm for nuclear power. Nuclear provides 80% of French electricity, and some developing countries have continued to build nuclear plants. But elsewhere in the West, Chernobyl, along with the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, sent the industry into a decline. The public got scared. The regulatory environment tightened, raising nuclear power costs. Billions were spent bailing out nuclear power companies. The industry became a metaphor for mendacity, secrecy and profligacy with taxpayer money. Fortwo decades neither governments nor bankers wanted to touch it. Now nuclear power has a second chance. Its revival is most visible in the US, where power companies are preparing to flood the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with applications to build new plants. And in other countries, Finland is building a reactor, the UK is preparing the way for new nuclear planning regulations. In Australia, which has plenty of uranium but no reactors, nuclear power is deemed inevitable.
Geopolitics, technology, economics and even environmentalists are moving toward nuclear power. Western governments are concerned that most ofthe world’s oil and gas is in the hands of hostile or unreliable governments. Much of the nuclear industry’s raw material, uranium, is conveniently located in friendly places such as Australia and Canada. Simpler reactor designs cut maintenance and repair costs. Shut-downs are now far less frequent, so that a typical US nuclear power plant operates 90% of the time, up from less than 50% in the 1970s.
New “passive safety” features can shut a reactor down in an emergency without the need for human intervention. The US plans to embrace a new approach in which the most radioactive portion of the reactor waste from conventional nuclear power plants is isolated and burned in “fast” reactors. Technology has thus improved nuclear power’s economics, as has the squeeze of fossil fuel price escalation. Nuclear power stations are expensive to build but very cheap to run. Conventional oil-bases power plants -- the bulk of which built in the 1980s and 1990s -- are the reverse. Since oil fuels provide the extra power needed when demand rises, the oil price sets the electricity price. Proposed carbon taxes or carbon trading (presently estimated at $20 to $40 per ton of carbon dioxide released) would significantly inflate the production costs of conventional coal and oil-based power plants, and make nuclear more viable. Costly oil has therefore made nuclear power not only competitive, but quite profitable. Any pricing of carbon emissions will cause a global re-structuring of public power facilities and a commensurate re-pricing in global energy markets.
The hyper interest in climate change and global warming has also made nuclear power attractive. Nuclear power offers the possibility of large quantities of baseload electricity that is cleaner than coal, more secure than gas, and more reliable than wind or solar energy alternatives. And if cars switch from oil-basedfuels to electricity, the demand for power generated from carbon-free nuclear sources will increase still further. The nuclear industry’s image is thus turning from black to green. A recent UK poll showed 30% of the population against nuclear power, compared with 60% three years ago. A US poll in 2007 showed 50% in favor of expanding nuclear power, up from 44% in 2001.