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he N L ICY
for t
ext Pres

October 2008

Nuclear Renaissance:
Is It Coming? Should It?
S h a r on S q u a ssoni
Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

S u m mary
n Expectations for nuclear energy have grown dramatically. More than thirty nations now have plans to build nuclear power
plants for the first time.
n A nuclear renaissance, however, is not a foregone conclusion. A major expansion would require significant policy and financial
support from governments.
n Key questions need solid answers beforehand: Can nuclear power help reduce dependence on foreign oil or contribute sig-
nificantly to needed reductions in carbon emissions? Is nuclear power economically competitive? Can safety be assured and is
an acceptable solution for nuclear waste at hand? Can nuclear power be expanded in such a way as to adequately control the
added risks of proliferation?
n To minimize some of the risks of nuclear expansion—whether related to economics, safety, security, or proliferation—the
United States should consider several actions: help strengthen the rules of nuclear commerce and transparency, deemphasize
the element of national prestige with respect to nuclear energy, help other countries undertake clear-eyed assessments of all
available options for generating electricity, and limit the acquisition of sensitive nuclear technologies like uranium enrichment
and spent-fuel reprocessing.

After several decades of disappointing growth, But the reality of nuclear energy’s future is more
nuclear energy seems poised for a comeback. complicated. Projections for growth assume that
Talk of a “nuclear renaissance” includes perhaps a government support will compensate for nuclear
doubling or tripling of nuclear capacity by 2050, power’s market liabilities and that perennial issues
spreading nuclear power to new markets in the such as waste, safety, and proliferation will not be
Middle East and Southeast Asia, and develop- serious hurdles. However, without major changes
ing new kinds of reactors and fuel-reprocessing in government policies and aggressive financial
techniques. During the George W. Bush admin- support, nuclear power is actually likely to account
istration, the United States has promoted nuclear for a declining percentage of global electricity gen-
energy both at home and abroad. Programs like eration. For example, the International Energy
the 2006 Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2007 projects that
and President Bush’s 2007 joint declaration with without policy changes, nuclear power’s share of
then–Russian president Vladimir Putin to facili- worldwide electricity generation will drop from 15
tate and support nuclear energy in developing percent in 2007 to 9 percent in 2030.
countries have helped to promote the notion of a Given the seriousness of these uncertainties, a
major worldwide nuclear revival. sound post-Bush foreign—and domestic—policy

on nuclear energy should be based not on hope but plants are very efficient at converting primary en-
on solid answers to six questions: ergy into electricity and also cheap to build, com-
n Can nuclear power significantly enhance energy pared with coal- and nuclear-fired plants. Nuclear
security? energy could displace natural gas for electricity
production and improve some countries’ stability
n Can nuclear power contribute significantly to of energy supply.
needed reductions in carbon emissions? Ultimately, however, countries may be trading
n Is nuclear power economically competitive? one form of energy dependence for another. Given
n Can safety be assured for a greatly expanded num- the structure of the nuclear industry and uranium
ber of nuclear reactors and associated facilities? resource distribution, most countries will need to
import fuel, technology, and reactor components,
n Is an acceptable solution for nuclear waste in
Sharon Squassoni is a senior as well as fuel services. This means that few coun-
associate in the Nonproliferation
place or soon to be available? tries can expect more than interdependence, even
program at the Carnegie Endow- n Can nuclear power be expanded in such a way as when it comes to nuclear power.
ment and has been analyzing to adequately control the added risks of pro-
nonproliferation, arms control, liferation? Can Nuclear Power Contribute to
and national security issues for Controlling Climate Change?
two decades. Her research focuses Can Nuclear Power Nuclear power is not a near-term solution to the
on nuclear nonproliferation and Enhance Energy Security? challenge of climate change. The need to imme-
national security. Squassoni came Rising prices of oil and natural gas have had a cas- diately and dramatically reduce carbon emissions
to Carnegie from the Congres-
cading effect on countries’ concerns about energy calls for approaches that can be implemented more
sional Research Service (CRS).
security. Price disputes have resulted in temporary quickly than building nuclear reactors. It also calls
As a specialist in weapons of
cutoffs of natural gas supplies in Europe in the past for actions that span all energy applications, not
mass destruction proliferation,
few years. But most countries will not be able to just electricity. Improved efficiency in residential
she provided expert analyses on
reduce their dependence on foreign oil by building and commercial buildings, industry, and transport
proliferation trends and expert
nuclear power plants. Nuclear power—because it is the first choice among all options in virtually
advice on policy and legislation
currently only provides electricity—is inherently all analyses of the problem. Nuclear energy will
to members of Congress. Prior to
limited in its ability to reduce this dependence. In remain an option among efforts to control climate
joining CRS, she served for nine
years in the executive branch,
the United States, for example, 40 percent of the change, but given the maximum rate at which new
beginning her government career
energy consumed comes from oil, yet oil produces reactors can be built, much new construction will
as a nuclear safeguards expert in only 1.6 percent of electricity. And even though simply offset the retirement of nuclear reactors
the Arms Control and Disarma- France and Japan rely heavily on nuclear energy, built decades ago.
ment Agency. Her last position at they have been unable to reduce their dependence For nuclear energy to make a larger difference
the State Department was direc- on foreign oil because of oil’s importance for trans- in meeting the challenge of climate change, the
tor of Policy Coordination in the portation and industry. industry would need to add capacity exceeding re-
Nonproliferation Bureau. Squas- Worldwide, the picture is similar. Oil accounts placement levels. According to a 2007 study by the
soni has contributed to journals, for about 7 percent of power generation globally, Keystone Center, this would require “the industry
magazines, and books on nuclear a share that is expected to decline to 3 percent by to return immediately to the most rapid period of
proliferation and defense. Her 2030. Only in the Middle East, where countries growth experienced in the past (1981–1990) and
most recent publications include: rely on oil for about 30 percent of their electricity sustain this rate of growth for 50 years.” This would
“The Iranian Nuclear Program,” a generation, could substitution of nuclear power for mean completing twenty-one to twenty-five new,
chapter in the forthcoming book, oil make a significant difference. Until transporta- large (1,000 megawatts electric) plants each year
Combating Weapons of Mass tion switches to electricity as its fuel, nuclear en- through 2050.
Destruction: The Future of Inter- ergy largely will not displace oil. Yet the global nuclear construction industry has
national Nonproliferation Policy The situation is different for natural gas. shrunk. In the past twenty years, there have been
(University of Georgia Press, Although natural gas also has industrial and heat- fewer than ten new reactor construction starts
2009) and “Risks 
and Realities:
ing uses, it produces about one-fifth of electric- worldwide in any given year. Today there are al-
The ‘New Nuclear Revival,’” Arms
ity worldwide. Natural gas is attractive as a way ready bottlenecks in the global supply chain, in-
Control Today, May 2007.
to produce electricity because gas-fired generating cluding ultra-heavy forgings, large manufactured
Nuclear Renaissance: Is It Coming? Should It? 3

components, engineering, craft labor, and skilled Because data from the past unfortunately pro-
construction labor. All these constraints have been vide little help in assessing future costs, the real
exacerbated by the lack of recent experience in costs of new nuclear power plants may not be
building nuclear plants and by aging labor forces. known for years. In fact, Moody’s stated in a spe-
In addition to the major nuclear reactor ven- cial October 2007 report that “the ultimate costs
dors, supporting industries will also either need to associated with building new nuclear generation
be rebuilt or recertified to nuclear standards. In the do not exist today—and that the current cost es-
United States, there has been a significant decline timates represent best estimates, which are subject
of supporting industries. In the 1980s, the United to change.” Figure 1 shows one assessment of how
States had 400 nuclear suppliers and 900 holders nuclear energy might compare with its alternatives
of N-stamp certificates from the American Society in terms of electricity-generating costs.
of Mechanical Engineers. Today, there are just 80 The current economic crisis could make financ-
suppliers and 200 N-stamp holders. In countries ing nuclear power plants particularly difficult.
that have never had nuclear power plants, qualified Financing costs account for between 25 and 80
subcontractors and labor would have to be trained percent of the total cost of construction because
and certified. nuclear power plants take much longer to build
than alternatives (for example, wind plants require
Will New Nuclear Power Plants eighteen months to build, combined-cycle gas tur-
Be Economically Competitive? bines need thirty-six months, and nuclear power
The economic competitiveness of nuclear power is a plants take at least sixty months). A global tight-
subject of much debate. Nuclear power plants are ening of risk management standards in the wake
expensive to build but relatively inexpensive to of the current economic crisis could imperil the
operate, because their fuel costs are low compared
with alternatives. For example, the price of natural
Figure 1 n Comparative Costs for Generating Electricity
gas accounts for 85 percent of the variable cost of a
kilowatt-hour, whereas nuclear fuel accounts for 27
percent. This means that as the cost of fossil fuels 7 Capital
Operation & Maintenance
rise, either due to short supply or because carbon 6 Fuel
dioxide emissions may in the future be regulated, 28%–32% capacity factor
US cents per kWh

nuclear power will become relatively more competi-

tive. There is already evidence in the United States
that coal plants may become increasingly difficult to
build because of public awareness of their environ- 3
mental impact. U.S. nuclear industry executives
have suggested that a carbon-pricing framework
would be necessary to provide incentives for utilities to 1
build more than a handful of nuclear power plants.
A big uncertainty is the cost of constructing
Nuclear Nuclear CCGT Coal IGCC Wind
new nuclear power plants. As a general rule, about High Low Steam Onshore
two-thirds of a nuclear reactor’s cost stems from CCGT = combined cycle gas turbine
construction. Factors affecting this cost of con- IGCC = integrated gasification combined cycle
struction include the creditworthiness of the com-
panies involved in building the reactors, the cost of Note: The “nuclear high” case assumes a high construction cost of $2,500 per kilo-
watt, while the low case assumes a cost of $2,000 per kilowatt. Parameters for the low
capital (especially debt) over the next decade, the
discount rate are found in table 13.10 of World Energy Outlook 2006, but the real after-
risk of cost escalation due to construction delays tax-weighted average cost of capital is 6.7 percent. The high-discount scenario has a 9.6
and overruns, the need for additional generating percent rate, and in that scenario, nuclear costs are higher than all others.
capacity in a slowing economy, and the competi-
Reproduced with permission from the International Energy Agency.
tive advantage of both traditional and emerging ©2006 OECD/International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2006, figure13.7.
power generation technologies.

nuclear industry in particular, because a reactor recycle it, using a technique known as reprocess-
entails such a large investment (between $5 billion ing, which reduces the volume of waste that needs
and $10 billion per plant) relative to the typical fi- to be stored but produces separated plutonium, a
nancial resources of electric utilities. nuclear weapons fuel. More than fifty years since
Thus, new nuclear power plants will almost cer- the first reactor produced electricity, no country
tainly continue to be difficult to finance, particularly has yet opened a permanent site for nuclear waste
in the United States. In developing countries and (known as a geologic repository). Such a reposi-
other countries where public funding is likely, gov- tory is still needed, even if the recycling route is
ernments will need to assess whether nuclear energy taken, because there have been significant technical
is the least costly way to provide climate-friendly and, more important, political hurdles in finding
energy compared with possible alternatives. appropriate sites.
Whether nations are storing spent fuel or re-
cycled waste, adequate physical protection and
For nuclear energy to make a larger difference in
security against terrorist access are both essential.
meeting the challenge of climate change, fossil-fuels Even in fuel-leasing schemes, in which spent fuel
would have to be significantly more costly and would be shipped back to the original supplier,
the nuclear industry would need to add capacity new nuclear states will still require safe and secure
at exceptional speed and scale. interim storage for fuel as it cools.
A key question for the future of nuclear energy
is how many countries will choose to reprocess
Can Safety Be Assured? their fuel. Some states, such as South Korea, are
Concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants interested in reprocessing to reduce the volume
have played a major role in nuclear power’s stag- of their spent fuel. Japan has been reprocessing its
nation over the past two decades. Newer designs spent fuel to both reduce the volume and use the
are much simpler and have built-in passive safety plutonium for fuel as part of an effort to strengthen
measures. Yet a big expansion of nuclear power its energy security. Although there is much evi-
could lead to new safety concerns. New suppliers dence that the use of mixed fuel (plutonium and
from South Korea, China, and India could enter uranium) in reactors is uneconomical, some coun-
the field to meet expanded demand, and there is tries may use it anyway. This would vastly increase
some evidence that Chinese subcontractors for the quantities of nuclear weapons material avail-
U.S. reactors in China have not met some quality able around the world.
control standards.
In addition, countries that are new to nuclear Can Proliferation Risks Be
power must not only implement a complex set of Adequately Controlled?
regulations and laws but also foster the develop- Figure 2 shows the more than twenty-five states
ment of resilient safety and security cultures. This that have newly expressed interest in nuclear power.
could be quite challenging for some developing Some of these countries (shown in darker colors)
countries. Finally, in states with existing power have more detailed plans than others, but the
plants, the extension of reactor operations beyond International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has
their initial lives of thirty or forty years to sixty or cautioned that states just beginning to embark on
even eighty years could potentially result in new the path toward nuclear energy can expect at least
safety concerns if construction materials age in un- fifteen years to elapse before their first plant begins
anticipated ways. operation. They will need this time to develop the
necessary physical and intellectual infrastructures
Is an Acceptable Solution to run nuclear power plants safely and securely.
to Nuclear Waste at Hand? Many of the countries interested in nuclear
Nuclear reactors unavoidably generate radioactive power anticipate sizable growth in electricity de-
spent fuel as waste. Some states will opt to store mand. Others may simply be jumping on the
spent nuclear fuel indefinitely. Others may seek to nuclear bandwagon, either to make a national
Nuclear Renaissance: Is It Coming? Should It? 5

statement about capabilities or to take advantage bility. The possibility of nuclear reactors in Yemen
of what they may perceive as incentives from ad- would raise similar concerns. Regional dynamics
vanced nuclear states, particularly France, Russia, also play a role in increasing risks. Especially in the
and the United States. Recent official nuclear Middle East and Southeast Asia, some countries
cooperation agreements—between France and might worry about and respond to the possibility
Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and the United Arab that one of their neighbors was developing a weap-
Emirates; between the United States and India, ons program.
Jordan, Turkey, and, potentially, Bahrain; and Bearing in mind the risks that nuclear expan-
between Russia and Algeria, Armenia, Myanmar, sion could pose, and the number of currently
Venezuela, and Vietnam—have contributed to the unanswerable questions, the U.S. administration
increasingly widespread perception that nuclear needs to carefully consider its policy toward a rapid
power is attractive. expansion of nuclear power. Seven steps can mini-
In 2008, the International Security Advisory mize some of the risks:
Board of the U.S. Department of State concluded
that “the rise in nuclear power worldwide, and par- Compare All Energy Options,
ticularly within Third World countries, inevitably Including Efficiency
increases the risks of proliferation.” Only nuclear Because moving world energy use away from
energy, among all energy sources, requires interna- dependence on carbon-based fossil fuels will
tional inspections to ensure that material, equip- require enormous investments, it will be essen-
ment, facilities, and expertise are not misused for tial to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of all
weapons purposes. For those countries that do not possible solutions, including drastically improved
already have nuclear programs, developing the sci- efficiency. The only sensible approach to climate
entific, engineering, and technical base required for change is to prioritize investment in the lowest-
nuclear power would in itself heighten their prolif- carbon energy options with the biggest impact that
eration potential. Political instability in many cases can be deployed immediately. These three criteria
is a more prominent concern than weapons inten- should be applied to assessing where nuclear power
tions. For example, the Group of Eight states are fits in among states’ possible energy options. The
concerned about Nigeria’s plans to develop nuclear IAEA and the International Energy Agency could
power because of Nigeria’s history of political insta- collaborate on such an approach. Alternatively, a

Figure 2 n Proposed New Nuclear States, 2008

Planned reactors—approvals, funding,

or construction

Proposed reactors­—clear proposals, but

without a firm commitment

Exploring the nuclear option—declared

interest, but proposals are incomplete

new global energy agency might be organized to mation about a state’s entire fuel-cycle, provisions
perform this task, among others, if needed. for short-notice inspections, and new monitoring
techniques—are essential to enhance the IAEA’s
Take the Glamour ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities.
Out of Nuclear Cooperation The Model Additional Protocol needs to become
Nuclear energy is often regarded by countries as a the new benchmark for nuclear supply within the
symbol of national prowess rather than simply as Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). This has been
a way to produce electricity. Because nations have under discussion for several years. But a few coun-
an inalienable right to pursue nuclear energy for tries that belong to the NSG, notably Argentina
peaceful purposes, part of the challenge in level- and Brazil, have not yet signed or ratified any such
ing the energy playing field will be addressing the protocols and are therefore hesitant to make this a
allure of nuclear power. condition of supply. All countries should incorpo-
rate a requirement for an additional protocol into
The only sensible approach to climate change their nuclear cooperation agreements as well as in
vendor contracts.
is to prioritize investment in the lowest-carbon
energy options with the biggest impact that Supply Nuclear Reactors and
can be deployed immediately. Their Components Responsibly
The nuclear industry understands its own inter-
In part, the glamour of nuclear power is en- dependence, particularly in the area of nuclear
hanced by the perceived prestige of nuclear coop- safety. The common refrain of “a nuclear accident
eration agreements. The recently approved United anywhere affects everyone everywhere” can be
States–India agreement illustrates the importance extended to nuclear security and to proliferation.
some states attach to nuclear cooperation, even Yet in an expanded nuclear world, there will be tre-
though the framework agreement in reality does mendous commercial pressures to supply nuclear
not guarantee any trade. Nonetheless, such agree- reactors and their components to states that may
ments are often seen as a symbol of close strate- not yet have all their regulatory, safety, and security
gic relationships between states. French president infrastructures in place. To mitigate risk in such
Nicolas Sarkozy’s high-profile trips to the Middle situations, vendors will need to agree on mini-
East to promote nuclear energy likewise have con- mum requirements for the sale of nuclear reactors
tributed to the glamour factor. and components and include these requirements
Some might argue that framework agreements as standard clauses in contracts. In this regard, it
provide the prestige that some states seek, even if will be important to reach beyond the NSG to
little nuclear trade results. However, this approach other potential suppliers, particularly in India and
is not sustainable over time. A more promising path Pakistan.
would be to subsume discussions about nuclear co-
operation under the broader rubric of energy coop- Increase Transparency in
eration, rather than pursuing them as technology- Cooperation and Tighten Restrictions
specific diplomatic initiatives. on Sensitive Technologies
Although U.S. agreements are a matter of public
Adopt the Model Additional record because of the requirement for congressio-
Protocol as a Requirement nal approval, this is not the case in other countries.
The IAEA’s Model Additional Protocol, which con- Sharing the texts of cooperation agreements could
tains measures to strengthen the international sys- help promote the standardization of nonprolifera-
tem of inspections on nuclear material and facili- tion requirements, including restrictions on sensi-
ties, was approved in 1997. However, because the tive technologies.
protocol’s adoption is not mandatory, 100 states do The NSG needs to make progress on tighten-
not yet have it in force. Its measures—which include ing restrictions on sensitive technologies—that is,
increased access for inspectors, a wider array of infor- uranium enrichment, spent-fuel reprocessing, and
Nuclear Renaissance: Is It Coming? Should It? 7

heavy water production. The United States and one for states with limited fuel-cycles.
other NSG members missed an opportunity to ban One way of divorcing the element of national
the sale of these technologies to India when the pride from sensitive nuclear technologies is to
NSG approved an exemption for India from its ultimately “denationalize” these technologies.
rules. One outcome of negotiations with Congress Existing plants would need to be converted to
over the United States–India deal was a promise multinational ownership and, perhaps, operation.
by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to pursue Such an approach would face heavy resistance, but
further restrictions at the NSG’s November 2008 it could be broached within the context of a fissile
meeting. If this issue is not resolved at this meet- material production cutoff treaty (FMCT).
ing, it should be a top priority for the incoming An FMCT treaty could ban not just the produc-
U.S. administration. tion of fissile material for weapons, but also national
enrichment for any purpose. In addition to deflect-
Give Priority to Small, Proliferation- ing the element of national prestige, multinational
Resistant Reactor Designs enrichment facilities would raise the probability of
New emphasis and funding should be devoted detecting clandestine enrichment and hence sub-
to commercializing small, proliferation-resistant
reactor designs that incorporate passive safety More transparency is needed with respect to peaceful
features. Although Russian floating reactors have
nuclear cooperation agreements … Sharing the texts of
been touted as proliferation resistant because they
can be removed from a country once their opera- cooperation agreements could help promote the stan-
tional lives have ended, their potential vulnerabili- dardization of nonproliferation requirements, including
ties with respect to security and protection against restrictions on sensitive technologies.
terrorist attacks need to be assessed more carefully.
And other possible designs—like the Pebble Bed
Modular Reactor, under development by South stantially lower the risk of a national breakout from
Africa—should be internationally vetted against FMCT restrictions. Some countries, including the
safety and safeguards standards. United States, might need to alter laws or regula-
The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership could tions regarding foreign ownership of these sensitive
play a key role here, as the international forum technologies or plants.
known as Generation IV has in the technical de- A nuclear renaissance would require significant
velopment of the next generation of reactors. The changes by both governments and multinational
partnership should focus more directly on help- agencies and aggressive financial support. Before
ing commercialize the kinds of reactors that new embarking on such a path, policy makers need
nuclear states could deploy most profitably. to achieve greater certainty across the range of is-
sues raised here. In the meantime, all possible ef-
Phase Out National Enrichment forts should be made to minimize the risks of any
Capabilities Under a Fissile Material nuclear expansion that might occur. These include The Carnegie Endowment
Production Cutoff Treaty strengthening the rules of nuclear commerce and normally does not take
One of the most difficult aspects of restricting transparency, deemphasizing the element of national institutional positions on
access to sensitive nuclear technologies like enrich- prestige with respect to nuclear energy, undertaking public policy issues; the views
ment and reprocessing is the element of national clear-eyed assessments of all available options for presented here do not
prestige that is often attached to these high-profile generating electricity, and limiting the acquisition necessarily reflect the views of
projects. Many non–nuclear-weapon states have of sensitive nuclear technologies like uranium en- the Endowment, its officers,
rejected the idea that they should forgo sensitive richment and spent-fuel reprocessing. n staff, or trustees.
nuclear technologies, as President Bush recom-
mended in 2004, because they perceive this as © 2008 Carnegie Endowment
another discriminatory approach under the Non- for International Peace.
Proliferation Treaty. The Bush proposal would cre- All rights reserved.
ate one category for states with full fuel-cycles and

The Carnegie Endowment Visit for these and other publications.
for International Peace is a
Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks, Charles Ferguson (Council on Foreign Rela-
private, nonprofit organiza-
tions Report, 2007).
tion dedicated to advancing
cooperation between World Energy Outlook 2007 (International Energy Agency, 2007).
nations and promoting active Realities of Nuclear Expansion, Sharon Squassoni, Testimony Before House Select Commit-
international engagement by tee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, March 12, 2008.
the United States. Founded
Nuclear Power Joint Fact-Finding (Keystone Center, June 2007).
in 1910, Carnegie is nonparti-
san and dedicated to achiev- The Nuclear Illusion, Amory Lovins, forthcoming in 2009 from the Royal Swedish Academy
ing practical results. Building of Sciences journal, Ambio.
on the successful establish- Seven Myths of the Nuclear Renaissance, Jim Harding (paper presented at the Conference
ment of the Carnegie on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Euratom Treaty, Brussels, March 7–8, 2007), http://www.nirs.
Moscow Center, the Endow- org/nukerelapse/neconomics/jimharding382007.pdf.
ment has added operations
Reviving America’s Industrial Base, John A. Fees, NEI Nuclear Policy Outlook, October
in Beijing, Beirut, and Brus-
sels to its existing offices in
Washington and Moscow. New Nuclear Generation in the United States, Moody’s Corporate Finance, Special Com-
ment, October 2007.
World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2007, Mycle Schneider with Antony Froggatt, http://

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