Nuclear energy has always been a controversial issue. With the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant this spring, increased concerns about climate change, and a global debate over the future of energy, this year is no exception.
Nuclear advocates argue that it is a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels that can provide more baseload power than renewables. Opponents respond that even if you resolve daunting radioactive waste, environmental risk and security issues, exorbitant construction costs remain. Studies by the California Energy Commission (PDF) and Mark Cooper (PDF), Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, have shown that the costs of building future nuclear capacity are even higher.
Despite buzz about a “nuclear renaissance,” the industry has had trouble attracting private investment, and relies almost exclusively on government subsidies and support. By contrast, the private renewables market has soared over the last several years, with the UN Environment Programme reporting that global investments in green energy topped $211 billion in 2010, up 32 percent from 2009, and a staggering 540 percent since 2004.
Meanwhile in the first quarter of 2011, renewable energy production in the U.S. surpassed nuclear for the first time. All signals point to significant growth in the solar and renewables markets over the next decade, while nuclear production has remained flat for years.
If new nuclear plants cannot compete on either cost or scale in today's private market, enormous government support will be required simply to maintain, let alone expand, nuclear capacity in the future. However, both the Japanese and German governments are responding to the Fukushima disaster by increasing their emphasis on renewables instead of nuclear. The Japanese just established a Feed-In Tariff to expand renewables, with a recent poll showing 77 percent supporting a nuclear phase out. The Germans are actively considering phasing out their nuclear program entirely.
Not all countries are halting their nuclear plans, however. In the fast-developing BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) the IAEA reports as of early August 2011, 45 new nuclear plants are under construction in BRIC nations. 27 are in China, followed by Russia (11), India (6), and Brazil (1).
But the nuclear industry needs to do more than build a few plants a year to be a true low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels. A hard look at the science of reducing atmospheric carbon to 350ppm shows why.
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