The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power

Joseph Romm outlines the reasons why nuclear power is unlikely to play a large role in efforts to reduce emissions and combat global warming.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, listens to a technician during his visit of the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility in 2008. (AP/ Iranian Presidents office)

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Nuclear power generates approximately 20 percent of all U.S. electricity. And because it is a low-carbon source of around-the-clock power, it has received renewed interest as concern grows over the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on our climate.

Yet nuclear power’s own myriad limitations will constrain its growth, especially in the near term. These include:

  • Prohibitively high, and escalating, capital costs ƒ
  • Production bottlenecks in key components needed to build plants ƒ
  • Very long construction times ƒ
  • Concerns about uranium supplies and importation issues ƒ
  • Unresolved problems with the availability and security of waste storage ƒ
  • Large-scale water use amid shortages ƒ
  • High electricity prices from new plants ƒ

Nuclear power is therefore unlikely to play a dominant—greater than 10 percent—role in the national or global effort to prevent the global temperatures from rising by more than 2°C above preindustrial levels.

The carbon-free power technologies that the nation and the world should focus on deploying right now at large scale are efficiency, wind power, geothermal power, and solar power. They are the lower-cost carbon-free strategies with minimal societal effects and the fewest production bottlenecks. They could easily meet all of U.S. demand for the next quarter -century, while substituting for some existing fossil fuel plants. In the medium-term (post-2020), other technologies, such as coal with carbon capture and storage or advanced geothermal, could be significant players, but only with a far greater development effort over the next decade.

Progressives must also focus on the issue of nuclear subsidies, or nuclear pork. Conservative politicians such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and other nuclear power advocates continue to insist that new climate legislation must include yet more large subsidies for nuclear power. Since nuclear power is a mature electricity generation technology with a large market share and is the beneficiary of some $100 billion in direct and indirect subsidies since 1948, it neither requires nor deserves significant subsidies in any future climate law.

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Joseph Romm

Senior Fellow