Charles Forsberg suggests that nuclear energy holds the kernel of energy independence, that it can be a force for peace, and that it can remove “energy demands as a cause of war,” citing the West’s oil interests in the Middle East as a reason for military interventions.
If true, these would be reasons enough to heavily subsidize nuclear energy. Consider, however, that energy independence may not only be unattainable, but undesirable. The reason is cost. It is cheap energy that can help fuel economic growth. Most countries will choose affordable energy over independent energy. If they’re wise, they will seek mutually assured dependence with their suppliers and recipients — not independence. Countries like Japan and France are held up as models for those seeking to reduce dependence on oil through nuclear power, but neither has been able to do so: Their transportation still relies on oil. Arjun Makhijani points out that transportation electrification could reduce oil dependence, but he suggests a smart approach would allow electric cars to take advantage of renewable sources’ intermittences — implicitly suggesting that big demands on electricity don’t require resources like nuclear energy.
At the heart of Forsberg’s suggestion that nuclear energy could lead to energy independence is his assertion of the massive energy output of uranium. For now, uranium is a resource like coal, oil, or gas — geographically limited and its production is tied to cost and quality of recoverable resources. Depending on foreign supplies is a way of life in the nuclear business, from uranium to components to services. The United States, with the largest number of reactors in the world (104 of the 433 globally), for example, gets more than 90 percent of its uranium overseas without undue security risks. Some foreign dependence could diminish if uranium becomes economically recoverable from seawater. For true independence, however, the world would need to move to breeder reactors, which produce more plutonium than they burn. The proliferation implications of such a move are enormous.
Whether nuclear power can be a force for peace is debatable. Forsberg hints that if countries weaned from oil, Middle East interventions would be less necessary. However, more nuclear power plants may be built in the Middle East than in the United States in the next 20 years — the United Arab Emirates intends to build 10, and Saudi Arabia reportedly will build 16. Will those plants be a force for peace or targets for nuclear terrorism in a region noted for terrorist activity? Will burgeoning nuclear capabilities be viewed as hedging strategies for nuclear weapons?
The conventional wisdom is that nuclear power reactors aren’t proliferation risks — that we can monitor the fresh and spent fuel, that the plutonium produced isn’t good for weapons, and that proliferating states have chosen other paths to produce weapons. The real proliferation risks come from uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing. Forsberg suggests we can overcome these risks with fuel-leasing approaches.
Here are some other considerations:
If Fukushima has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t be complacent about risks we can’t imagine. We know something about the risks of renewable energy sources, but nuclear weapons don’t figure there.