Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future

  • AuthorInterAcademies Council
  • Release Date1 October 2007
  • Copyright2007
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5.5 Conclusion
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As a low-carbon resource, nuclear power can continue to make a significant contribution to the world’s energy portfolio in the future, but only if major concerns related to capital cost, safety, and weapons proliferation are addressed.

Nuclear power plants generate no carbon dioxide or conventional air pollutant emissions during operation, use a relatively abundant fuel feedstock, and involve orders-of-magnitude smaller mass flows, relative to fossil fuels. Nuclear’s potential, however, is currently limited by concerns related to cost, waste management, proliferation risks, and plant safety (including concerns about vulnerability to acts of terrorism and concerns about the impact of neutron damage on plant materials in the case of life extensions). A sustained role for nuclear power will require addressing these hurdles.

Recommendations

    Replace the current fleet of aging reactors with plants that incorporate improved intrinsic (passive) safety features.
    Address cost issues by pursuing the development of standardized reactor designs.
    Understand the impact of long-term aging on nuclear reactor systems (e.g., neutron damage to materials) and provide for the safe and economic decommissioning of existing plants.
    Develop safe, retrievable waste management solutions based on dry cask storage as longer term disposal options are explored. While long-term disposal in stable geological repositories is technically feasible, finding socially acceptable pathways to implementing this solution remains a significant challenge.
    Address the risk that civilian nuclear materials and knowledge will be diverted to weapons applications through continued research on proliferation-resistant uranium enrichment and fuel-recycling capability and on safe, fast neutron reactors that can burn down waste generated from thermal neutron reactors and through efforts to remedy shortcomings in existing international frameworks and governance mechanisms.
    Undertake a transparent and objective re-examination of the issues surrounding nuclear power and their potential solutions. The results of such a re-examination should be used to educate the public and policymakers.

Needed actions

    Given the controversy over the future of nuclear power worldwide, the United Nations should commission—as soon as possible—a transparent and objective re-examination of the issues that surround nuclear power and their potential solutions. It is essential that the general public be informed about the outcome of this re-examination.
    The private sector and the S&T community should continue research and development efforts targeted at improving reactor safety and developing safe waste management solutions.
    Governments should facilitate the replacement of the current fleet of aging reactors with modern, safer plants. Governments and intergovernmental organizations should enhance their efforts to remedy shortcomings in existing international frameworks and governance mechanisms.

Document Date: October 1, 2007
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