The Future of Nuclear Energy – A Three-Part Series

No source of energy sparks as much debate as nuclear power. Heralded in the 1950s and 1960s as the way of the future—only to face growing concern in the 1970s and 1980s around ties to nuclear weapons proliferation, safety, and waste—interest in nuclear power plants has chilled. In a three-part series from the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, three sets of authors examine the future of nuclear energy in the United States and throughout the world. A brief outline of each paper (as described on the Columbia site) and a link to full text are found below.

I.  A Comparison of Advanced Nuclear Technologies

Author Dr. Andrew C. Kadak examines the range of emerging nuclear reactor designs that are being developed by the United States and other nations to provide decision-makers a better understanding of the options available given each technology’s safety risk, cost, waste management, regulation and nuclear proliferation risk. Although the study does not identify any one reactor to perfectly address all concerns, Kadak presents the following key findings:

  • Government and private sector support is needed for nuclear energy to play a significant role in dealing with climate change, to promote innovative reactor design development and to improve safety and efficiency of new plants.
  • A new regulatory system based on risk-informed requirements is needed to reduce costs and bring new designs to market without compromising safety.
  • Nonproliferation goals are best achieved through political solutions versus technical limitations.

II. The Role of Policy in Reviving and Expanding the US Global Nuclear Leadership 

Author Tim Frazier presents a historical perspective of nuclear energy in the United States, noting that the nation’s credibility as a global nuclear leader since the 1940s has been been negatively affected by more recent policy choices. The paper notes, however, that if the United States is to play a constructive role in the future worldwide expansion of nuclear power, it must revive its position. Frazier offers several policy options to achieve this aim, including:

  • Make a presidential policy statement on the United States’ commitment to nuclear leadership.
  • Develop world-class nuclear facilities for R&D and technology development.
  • Revive Yucca Mountain.
  • Reverse the decision to abandon the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility.
  • Loosen nonproliferation views on spent fuel reprocessing.

III. The Geopolitics of Nuclear Power and Technology 

Authors Dr. Nicola de Blasio and Richard Nephew examine geopolitical issues surrounding nuclear power and explain that, in order for it to play a constructive role in addressing the energy needs of the twenty first century, policy makers and the public need to determine how to better assess and balance the costs and benefits associated with nuclear power, they need to determine the responsibilities of the United States, Western Europe, and Eastern Asian countries and companies in producing nuclear power, and they must determine how to manage adequate private sector investment and participation.

The authors offer three recommendations to face the challenges presented to nuclear power today, with an approach to the geopolitical issues around nuclear energy includes the following elements:

  • Demystify the science around nuclear power and to ensure local communities and the public have an appropriate appreciation for the role nuclear energy can play.
  • Renew the global partnership to manage the risks of proliferation that combines political and technical factors, including cooperation among governments to reduce the risk of proliferation and to enhance export controls.
  • Improve government support for nuclear research and development through investment vehicles and private public partnerships as well as incentivizing the safe, economic, and reliable operation of the current fleet of nuclear reactors.

See more about the authors and findings of this remarkably comprehensive study at the Columbia SIPA | Center on Global Energy Policy, Future of Nuclear Energy – A Three-Part Series, March 31, 2017, led by Richard Nephew and Dr. NIcola De Blasio