Nuclear power produces about 20 percent of the electricity in the United States, and it’s an increasingly important part of the overall energy supply mix.
Still, the 2012 presidential candidates aren’t likely to mention it during their campaigns, according to Detlof von Winterfeldt, professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, who recently completed a three-year appointment as director of Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, which explores issues of nuclear power.
“If you take climate change seriously, meaning that you would like to keep the average temperature increase in the world to less than 2 degrees Celsius, nuclear power will have to grow as a major energy source over the next 40 years,” said von Winterfeldt during his talk, “The Future of Nuclear Power in the United States,” held last month at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center.
The event was part of Road to the White House: Politics, Media and Technology, a yearlong series of public conversations presented by USC Price’s Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy and the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Despite the need for nuclear power, von Winterfeldt discussed four obstacles to its future development: safety, waste disposal, weapons proliferation and cost.
Over the past 40 years, there have been several major nuclear accidents, including Browns Ferry in 1975, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.
“You could argue [we’ve had] five core melts because Fukushima could be counted as three core melts, and [we’ve had] two large off-site releases,” von Winterfeldt said. “These numbers are about 10 to 100 times larger than the risk analyses, so that is really something we need to worry about.”
Another serious concern surrounds nuclear waste, or spent fuel, which currently is scattered across the United States, creating danger of leakage and targets for terrorist attacks. In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy made plans for consolidation and chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for a single, deep geological nuclear waste repository. Subsequently, the site ran into problems ranging from the discovery of an earthquake fault to widespread political opposition, which culminated in the Obama administration shutting it down.
Nuclear proliferation poses another serious worry. The United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel already possess nuclear weapons capabilities, and South Africa, North Korea and Iran have come close. Many fear that if Iran or North Korea, in particular, were able to develop nuclear weapons, those nations might use or furnish them to terrorists.
“It’s actually scary to hear, but it’s quite easy to build a nuclear weapon,” said von Winterfeldt, who added that the most difficult part is obtaining enough plutonium or highly enriched uranium.
In addition, the initial investment costs for nuclear power hover at around $7 billion per plant, although the long-term operating costs are much cheaper than coal or gas.
On the flip side, nuclear power offers some important benefits: releasing no air pollutants, reducing reliance on oil and gas imports, having long-term available fuel and being cheaper than oil and gas in the long run.
The current U.S. administration has been promoting nuclear power as a means to produce energy without greenhouse gas emissions, even though it shut down Yucca Mountain.
The 2012 Republican presidential candidates also support nuclear energy, although they aren’t likely to mention it.
“They don’t want to wake up the sleeping dog,” von Winterfeldt said.