G-8 Leaders Embrace Nuclear Energy, While U.S. Industry Flounders

Nuclear Reactor At this week’s G-8 summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on the need for an increased role for nuclear energy worldwide. The announcement of bilateral cooperation to allow Russian imports and storage of spent nuclear fuel from U.S.-supplied reactors around the world coincides with the one-year anniversary of a controversial U.S.-India pact for nuclear technology transfer. These events highlight the push to create a new era of nuclear power in the face of rising concerns about nuclear proliferation and the ability to achieve greenhouse gas reduction targets while meeting rising energy demand.

Several countries, including Japan, Ukraine, South Korea, and China, have completed new reactor construction in the past two years. And last week, the United Kingdom unveiled plans to introduce a new generation of nuclear plants to replace its aging fleet. But a statement on “Global Energy Security” released at the G-8 summit revealed rifts among members on the role for nuclear energy in addressing climate change. Environmental groups have sharply criticized the G-8 position, arguing that the nuclear option creates more problems than it solves.

In the United States, the nuclear construction boom of the 1970s came to a standstill following a series of developments that severely crippled the industry, including huge cost overruns in plant construction, lower-than-expected energy demand, and accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Chornobyl, Ukraine. Nearly all of the 103 nuclear reactors now operating nationwide are scheduled to go offline within the next few decades. But recently, the looming threat of global climate change has prompted some U.S. analysts to call for a resurgence of nuclear energy, which has split environmentalists on the issue. 

Industry leaders stress improvements in the performance and safety features of existing and planned nuclear reactors. Yet many of the hurdles that plagued previous generations of plants remain. Safety concerns coupled with extensive U.S. regulatory requirements introduce a high dose of uncertainty into nuclear energy ventures. Despite efforts to streamline the regulatory process, the economic prospects of investing in new plants are still dim. And in the context of heightened security concerns, further reducing safety requirements is not at the top of anyone’s agenda, particularly when the latest reports show that a majority of facilities tested failed security reviews.

Studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Congressional Research Service indicate that the viability of a new generation of nuclear energy hinges on external constraints such as the relative costs and capacities of coal, gas, and renewable energy sources. Moreover, investors, government regulators, and the general public remain concerned about the safety of new and untested technology and the potential for repeating the massive cost overruns of the past (not to mention the risks associated with nuclear waste and proliferation). Unless these numerous political and economic drawbacks are overcome in the near future, nuclear energy is likely to become a thing of the past—at least in the United States—even as President Bush and other world leaders press for its revival.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.