A technology that for years suffered ignominiously in scientific purgatory has been resurrected. Its virtues have been heralded by the likes of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the famed scientist Sir James Lovelock and even a few renegade environmental activists. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the horrific meltdown at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986 have become distant memories. Now, facing rising costs of oil on world markets and real-time global warming, nuclear technology has been given a public relations face-lift and is touted, by some, as the energy of choice in a post-oil era. However, before we let our enthusiasm run away from us, we ought to take a sober look at the consequences of re-nuclearizing the world.
First, nuclear power is unaffordable. With a minimum price tag of $2 billion each, new-generation nuclear power plants are 50% more expensive than putting coal-fired power plants online, and they are far more expensive than new gas-fired power plants. The cost of doubling nuclear power's share of U.S. electricity generation — which currently produces 20% of our electricity — could exceed half a trillion dollars. In a country facing record consumer and government debt, where is the money going to come from? Consumers would pay the price in terms of higher taxes to support government subsidies and higher electricity bills.
Second, 60 years into the nuclear era, our scientists still don't know how to safely transport, dispose of or store nuclear waste. Spent nuclear rods are piling up all over the world. In the United States, the federal government spent more than $8 billion and 20 years building what was supposed to be an airtight, underground burial tomb dug deep into Yucca Mountain in Nevada to hold radioactive material. The vault was designed to be leak-free for 10,000 years. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency concedes that the underground storage facility will leak.
Third, according to a study conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2001, known uranium resources could fail to meet demand, possibly as early as 2026. Of course, new deposits could be discovered, and it is possible that new technological breakthroughs could reduce uranium requirements, but that remains purely speculative.
Finally, nuclear power represents the kind of highly centralized, clunky technology of a bygone era. In an age when distributed technologies are undermining hierarchies, decentralizing power and giving rise to networks and open-source economic models, nuclear power seems strangely old-fashioned and obsolete. To a great extent, nuclear power was a Cold War creation. It represented massive concentration of power and reflected the geopolitics of a post-World War II era. Today, however, new technologies are giving people the tools they need to become active participants in an interconnected world. Nuclear power, by contrast, is elite power, controlled by the few. Its resurrection would be a step backward.
Instead, we should pursue an aggressive effort to bring the full range of decentralized renewable technologies online: solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and biomass. And we should establish a hydrogen storage infrastructure to ensure a steady, uninterrupted supply of power for our electricity needs and for transportation.
Our common energy future lies with the sun, not with uranium.