Kate Marvel and Michael May
Anticipating the future is difficult in any situation, but assessing
the prospects for nuclear power in the next fifty years presents especially
complex challenges.1 The public perception
of nuclear power has changed and continues to change. Once viewed as a miracle of
modern technology, nuclear power came to be perceived by many as a potential catastrophe;
now it is viewed as a potential, albeit potentially still dangerous, source of green
power. Conventional wisdom in the 1960s held that nuclear power could dominate the
electricity sectors of developed countries, while less than twenty years later,
many predicted the complete demise of the U.S. nuclear industry following the Three
Mile Island accident in 1979. Yet neither attitude fully forecast the situation
today: a nuclear industry that is not dominant, but is far from dead. Indeed, the
history of long-range planning for nuclear power serves as a caution for anyone
wishing to make predictions about the state of the industry over the next half-century.
Nonetheless, it is critical to assess its role in the future energy mix: decisions
taken now will impact the energy sector for many years. This assessment requires
both a review of past planning strategies and a new approach that considers alternate
scenarios that may differ radically from business as usual.
While a number of studies have explored the future of nuclear power under various
circumstances,2 the purpose of this paper
is to consider game-changing events for nuclear energy. We take “the game”
to be the current no-surprise scenario for the next fifty years: that is, a
slow and uneven growth in nuclear power worldwide. Growth will be very strong in
China and India, significant in Japan, South Korea, and Russia, and sluggish
in the United States and Western Europe, where current plans call for replacing,
but not significantly expanding, the existing large fleets. This course
of events will be the result of planned investments and government decisions, coupled
with anticipated changes implemented over known horizons. Several variations on
this scenario are accepted possibilities. In this paper, we first devote a
brief section to the ongoing Fukushima disaster. We then revisit and discuss some
of the difficulties inherent in forecasting nuclear energy supply and usage.
We will also attempt to determine the reasonable boundaries of global nuclear energy
supply and demand over the next fifty years based on an assessment of the
most likely nuclear scenarios in major nuclear countries, as well as smaller nations.
We consider the resulting range of outcomes to be the no-surprise scenario. We also
examine the precursors to this range of scenarios in order to understand what occurrences
could potentially change their anticipated outcomes. We then devote the remainder
of our analysis to game changers.
http://stanford.edu/group/gamechangers/. The workshop was conducted
on a no-attribution basis. The authors are grateful to all workshop participants
and to the leaders of the American Academy’s Global Nuclear Future Initiative
for their involvement and support of this project.