Nuclear Freeze

Why Nuclear Power Stalled -- and How to Restart It

Atomic opportunity: the Temelin nuclear plant, Czech Republic, March 2011.
Atomic opportunity: the Temelin nuclear plant, Czech Republic, March 2011. (Petr Josek / Courtesy Reuters)

These days, the long-term role that nuclear power will play in the global energy market remains uncertain. That would have come as a surprise to the scientists and engineers who, during the 1950s and 1960s, pioneered the study of nuclear fission, built test reactors, and designed nuclear-powered airplanes and rockets. They would also have been surprised, and likely dismayed, that the light-water reactor -- the technology that powered the first nuclear submarine, in 1954 -- remains the dominant commercial technology for producing fission energy. The glacial rate of change in nuclear technology over the last 60 or so years is why many energy analysts characterize current nuclear reactor technologies as “mature.”

Other highly regulated U.S. industries, such as biotechnology, commercial aviation, and even commercial space launch, have enjoyed far faster rates of innovation than nuclear energy. The slow pace of nuclear innovation results primarily from the high costs and risks the industry presents to would-be first movers: even before they begin the time-consuming process of building a new plant, utility companies and the firms that manufacture reactors must invest a great deal of capital and then wait a long time to acquire licenses from the U.S. government. And in the last few years, utilities have lost interest in building new reactors in the United States thanks to the boom in the domestic production of shale gas, which has made natural gas the preferred fuel for new U.S. power plants.

But cheap U.S. shale gas is no long-term solution for the economic and environmental costs of global energy production. Natural gas prices are historically quite volatile, and although U.S. shale gas is certainly cleaner than coal, it is nevertheless a fossil fuel, and burning it still produces harmful levels of carbon dioxide. Nuclear power remains the best way to reliably produce electricity for homes and businesses on a large scale. That is why the continuing deficit in nuclear innovation is so troubling -- and why Washington needs to seek additional strategies to incentivize and support nuclear innovation.

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