The Pardee Papers, No. 3, November 2008

Does Nuclear Energy Have a Future?Does Nuclear Energy Have a Future?

By Moeed Yusuf


September 2008 (56 pages)
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Nuclear energy optimists suggest that a nuclear renaissance is under way. However, beyond such claims there is little objective analysis that corroborates the positive outlook. In fact, literature on nuclear energy is highly polarized, with much of the debate being situated within the ideological and normative realms. This paper moves away from the what should to the what is likely in order to present a realistic projection of the potential for the increased development of nuclear energy over the next two to three decades. It examines the relative importance of the key determinant factors likely to affect the future of nuclear power in a cost-benefit framework. The factors examined include economic competitiveness, concern for climate change, safety and security issues related to nuclear technology, public perception about the energy source, and the quest for energy security. This analysis suggests that nuclear energy is likely to remain economically uncompetitive and investment-starved over the projected period. Public perceptions, both in the developed and developing world, are also likely to become increasingly wary. Measures required to improve the popular sentiment–better safety and security–would increase costs substantially without guaranteeing positive transformation in the outlook. This is especially true as the proliferation risks present a virtually insurmountable barrier. These impediments would overshadow nuclear power’s merit in terms of carbon emission reductions as well as its partial attractiveness in terms of reducing energy vulnerability of countries.

Moeed Yusuf is a Research Fellow at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University and a doctoral candidate and Teaching Fellow in the BU Political Science Department. He is also a Research Fellow at Strategic and Economic Policy Research, Pakistan. His research interests focus on strategic and development issues related to South Asia. This paper was inspired by his recent research (for the Brookings Institution) that documented the trend in projections about nuclear proliferation since the beginning of the Cold War.