What if you could generate all the electricity you could ever want at half the cost of coal, one quarter the cost of natural gas, a tenth the cost of oil and with negligible greenhouse gas emissions? What if it came with potentially expensive startup costs, rare, but spectacular, disasters and waste perfect for making weapons of mass destruction? Of course, we’re talking about nuclear power and for many countries, particularly European ones, the answer is, “Yes.”
According to Hans-Holger Rogner, Head of the Planning and Economic Studies Section of the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear plants “are expensive to build, but cheap to run.” Once built, he says, “They are money-printing machines.” Hard for poor countries to pass up.
But even well-off countries are taking a second look at nuclear power, in hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Nuclear power is not the solution to climate change,” says Rogner, “but it can make a contribution.”
Greenpeace analyst Jim Riccio disagrees. “Nuclear power takes too long to bring on line, it is prohibitively expensive and since you can actually get there with renewables and energy efficiency, things that don’t threaten our families, homes and communities and basically aren’t prohibitively expensive, why would you go the nuclear route?”
Because renewable doesn’t mean reliable. Clouds idle solar generators. Calm air stifles windmills. Even hydropower ebbs and flows with the seasons.
Nor are energy staples oil and gas steadfast. Rogner says that fluctuations in oil and gas markets can fling economies to their knees. But variations in the price of uranium barely register on the nuclear price tag, because fuel is only a small part of a reactor’s operating cost.
So what countries really love about nuclear power is its dependability. Sun or storm, wind or calm, nukes hum. According to Rogner, that makes nuclear perfect for providing a country’s “base electricity needs.”
What about the radioactive waste? While it piles up around nuclear plants, says Rogner, engineers argue over where to stash it. All agree on one point -- no one has come up with a long-term solution. Right now, every nuclear nation on earth uses the Scarlett O’Hara system to deal with the waste: I'll think about that tomorrow.
For thirty-one countries nuclear is the power of now. Let’s look at the IAEA’s top ten list of countries betting their economic lives on nuclear energy.