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See Inside September 2006

The Nuclear Option

A threefold expansion of nuclear power could contribute significantly to staving off climate change by avoiding one billion to two billion tons of carbon emissions annually

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Nuclear power supplies a sixth of the world's electricity. Along with hydropower (which supplies slightly more than a sixth), it is the major source of "carbon-free" energy today. The technology suffered growing pains, seared into the public's mind by the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents, but plants have demonstrated remarkable reliability and efficiency recently. The world's ample supply of uranium could fuel a much larger fleet of reactors than exists today throughout their 40- to 50-year life span.

With growing worries about global warming and the associated likelihood that greenhouse gas emissions will be regulated in some fashion, it is not surprising that governments and power providers in the U.S. and elsewhere are increasingly considering building a substantial number of additional nuclear power plants. The fossil-fuel alternatives have their drawbacks. Natural gas is attractive in a carbon-constrained world because it has lower carbon content relative to other fossil fuels and because advanced power plants have low capital costs. But the cost of the electricity produced is very sensitive to natural gas prices, which have become much higher and more volatile in recent years. In contrast, coal prices are relatively low and stable, but coal is the most carbon-intensive source of electricity. The capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide, which will add significantly to the cost, must be demonstrated and introduced on a large scale if coal-powered electricity is to expand significantly without emitting unacceptable quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. These concerns raise doubts about new investments in gas- or coal-powered plants.

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