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Rethinking Nuclear Power: A PubHub Reading List

March 15, 2011

(Kyoko Uchida manages PubHub, the Foundation Center's online catalog of foundation-sponsored publications. In her last post, she highlighted several reports that examine how women's roles, both inside and outside the family, are changing.)

With post-quake cooling system failures at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex threatening a potentially large-scale nuclear disaster, some are raising the specter of another Chernobyl, while others are questioning whether nuclear power plants in the United States are safe. Since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, nuclear power plant construction in the U.S. has all but stalled. Given rising oil prices and growing climate change fears, however, nuclear power has (re)emerged as an alternative to fossil fuels, especially in energy-starved China. Here are a few reports from our PubHub catalog that explore various aspects of the nuclear energy conundrum.

Common Challenge, Collaborative Response: A Roadmap for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change (58 pages, PDF), a 2009 report from the Asia Society and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, outlines the climate change and energy security challenges confronting both nations and proposes a comprehensive program of sustained, high-level collaboration to build low-carbon economies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. China, as the world knows, has been diversifying its coal-dominated energy supply with nuclear power, hydropower, and renewable energy; indeed, while nuclear power in China comprised just 1 percent of the country's energy mix in 2005, it is on a steady upward trajectory, boosted in part by a 2007 deal in which the U.S. Department of Energy approved an $8 billion contract for the sale to China of four 1,100-megawatt AP-1000 nuclear power plants, to be built between 2009 and 2015.

Ending the Energy Stalemate: A Bipartisan Strategy to Meet America's Energy Challenges (148 pages, PDF), a 2004 report from the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Commission on Energy Policy, provides detailed policy recommendations related to energy independence, climate change, natural gas supplies, the future of nuclear energy, and other long-term energy challenges. At the time of the report's publication, the 103 commercial nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. were responsible for generating about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, while worldwide some 440 nuclear reactors accounted for about a sixth of the global electricity supply and about half of the carbon-free electricity generation. Funded by the Packard, Energy, MacArthur, and Hewlett foundations as well as the Pew Charitable Trusts, the report calls for expanded use of nuclear energy and includes recommendations in the areas of safety, security, and cost; radioactive waste; and proliferation risks.

The Pew Center on Global Climate Change's U.S. Energy Scenarios for the 21st Century (88 pages, PDF) discusses three divergent paths for U.S. energy supply and use through 2035, as well as the effect of climate policy on energy scenarios in which: 1) abundant supplies of oil and natural gas remain available at low prices; 2) the commercialization of technologies to raise energy efficiency and lower emissions spurs economic growth; 3) the U.S. energy market remains vulnerable and economic growth slows. All three scenarios envision a slight decline in the share of nuclear power, given the high up-front costs for new plants and security concerns. In the third, however, nuclear electric output initially increases as new, smaller, advanced reactor designs are put into service until a terrorist incident deals a blow to public support. 

Needless to say, unchecked proliferation and nuclear terrorism are two of the biggest concerns associated with an increased reliance on nuclear power. The National Academy of Sciences’ 2008 report Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges (160 pages, HTML) presents the recommendations of U.S. and Russian experts vis-a-vis the internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle, including the provision of nuclear fuel to countries pursuing nuclear as a way of dissuading them from building their own uranium enrichment plants. The report was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

According to the 2010 PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians & the Environment (36 pages, PDF) from the Public Policy Institute of California, Californians are divided over building more nuclear power plants, with 44 percent in favor of the idea and 49 percent opposed. In terms of political affiliation, the survey found that 57 percent of Democrats were opposed to new plant construction, while 67 percent of Republicans and 51 percent of Independents were in favor.

What do you think? Is the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan likely to shape our views about the future of nuclear energy? And what are the implications for our energy security as well as alternatives to fossil fuel-dependent power generation?

Our thoughts, of course, are with those who have been affected by the quake and tsunami in Japan, as well as those working to contain and mitigate the nuclear crisis there. For more coverage of the relief and recovery efforts as well as updates on the fast-moving situation, click here.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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