Next Generation Nuclear Power

By By James A. Lake
Scientific America
January 2009

Rising electricity prices and last summer’s rolling blackouts in California have focused fresh attention on nuclear power’s key role in keeping America’s lights on. Today 103 nuclear plants crank out a fifth of the nation’s total electrical output. And despite residual public misgivings over Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the industry has learned its lessons and established a solid safety record during the past decade. Meanwhile the efficiency and reliability of nuclear plants have climbed to record levels. Now with the ongoing debate about reducing greenhouse gases to avoid the potential onset of global warming, more people are recognizing that nuclear reactors produce electricity without discharging into the air carbon dioxide or pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and smog-causing sulfur compounds. The world demand for energy is projected to rise by about 50 percent by 2030 and to nearly double by 2050. Clearly, the time seems right to reconsider the future of nuclear power.

No new nuclear plant has been ordered in the U.S. since 1978, nor has a plant been finished since 1995. Resumption of large-scale nuclear plant construction requires that challenging questions be addressed regarding the achievement of economic viability, improved operating safety, efficient waste management and resource utilization, as well as weapons nonproliferation, all of which are influenced by the design of the nuclear reactor system that is chosen.

Designers of new nuclear systems are adopting novel approaches in the attempt to attain success. First, they are embracing a system-wide view of the nuclear fuel cycle that encompasses all steps from the mining of ore through the management of wastes and the development of the infrastructure to support these steps. Second, they are evaluating systems in terms of their sustainabilityÑmeeting present needs without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to prosper. It is a strategy that helps to illuminate the relation between energy supplies and the needs of the environment and society. This emphasis on sustainability can lead to the development of nuclear energyÐderived products besides electrical power, such as hydrogen fuel for transportation. It also promotes the exploration of alternative reactor designs and nuclear fuelÐrecycling processes that could yield significant reductions in waste while recovering more of the energy contained in uranium.

We believe that wide-scale deployment of nuclear power technology offers substantial advantages over other energy sources yet faces significant challenges regarding the best way to make it fit into the future

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