The Economics of Nuclear Energy

Global demand for energy is skyrocketing. This is largely due to the fact that countries such as China, India and Russia are developing rapidly and consequently need much more energy to sustain their economies. Meanwhile, developed nations in North America, Europe and Asia continue to consume large amounts of natural resources. This increase in consumption has led to an increase in demand for nuclear power.

International Atomic Energy Agency official Hans-Holger Rogner said “The IAEA is talking with 50-60 countries about the construction of nuclear power plants. There were only half as many just four years ago. That’s a sign of where the journey is headed.”

The Nuclear Energy Agency predicts that global nuclear power capacity will increase 66 percent by 2030 and could increase 375 percent by the middle of the century. Last year construction began on 10 new reactors, the highest number since the Chernobyl incident. In 2008, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission received 13 new plant license applications for 19 reactors. The British intend to build 11 additional nuclear power plants. Russia plans on constructing 26, almost doubling its current total of 31.

The rising costs of other sources of energy such as oil have made investing in nuclear power more economically viable. Oil prices reached an all-time high in 2008 and could go far beyond that in the future. If that happens, nuclear energy will be a cheaper alternative for power generation and profitable for those who own the plants as well as those who sell nuclear reactors and nuclear materials. Manufacturers like Areva and Westinghouse are already expanding into new markets such as China and India and entering into joint venture projects with other companies in traditional markets like the US and UK.

Developments in the automobile industry could affect the future of nuclear power. The increasing feasibility and popularity of electric vehicles may promote the use of nuclear energy because their batteries must be charged, a task that nuclear power could perform. Some believe that as battery costs come down electric cars will be much more efficient than gas-powered ones and sales of the former will increase dramatically.

Speaking about new electric vehicles, Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford Motor Co., said “We haven’t had a lot of revolutions, but boy are we now.”

PG&E CEO Peter Darbee claims that “The smart [electrical] grid will be the key enabling technology for the electric cars.”

David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, said “The electric car is our savior.”

Another key aspect of the nuclear sector is that it is widely seen as a source of employment and economic stimulus. The Obama administration and Democrats in Congress claim that investing in nuclear energy and other “green” forms of energy will create 5 million new jobs. NRC officials affirmed that more people will need to be recruited and trained as the nuclear industry expands. Some analysts believe that the installation of Westinghouse’s new AP1000 reactors in the UK could contribute $46 billion to that nation’s economy.

Nuclear energy could also prevent stagflation. Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, observed that access to affordable energy is critical for a sustainable global economy and that nuclear energy has the potential to meet a significant part of future demand while reducing tensions on hydrocarbon markets.

There is bipartisan support in Congress for advancing nuclear power. In May, the Senate approved $50 billion for an Energy Department program to provide loan guarantees for alternative energy projects.

While introducing a climate bill that includes efforts to promote nuclear energy, Democratic Representative Edward Markey said “The time for delay, denial and inaction has come to an end.”

Democratic Representative James Clyburn said “I have been unabashed in my support for nuclear energy.”

Republican Senator Richard Shelby said “We ought to go totally nuclear.”

Republican Senator John McCain said that nuclear power is “vital” for US energy needs.

However, Democrats and Republicans disagree about whether to promote the use of renewable energy by restricting carbon emissions via government mandates, carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs. Democrats in Congress generally favor regulatory measures such as implementing an international cap-and-trade system, but most Republicans oppose regulation because they claim it will be too costly to industry.

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