Game Changers for Nuclear Energy


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Kate Marvel and Michael M. May
Global Nuclear Future

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.


1. This paper is based in part on a workshop held at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) on August 26–27, 2010, in collaboration with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Workshop participants are listed at the end of this volume, and some of the workshop presentations are available at 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.

2. See, for example, “The Power to Reduce CO2 Emissions: The Full Portfolio–2009 Technical Report,” EPRI Report 1019539 (Palo Alto, Calif.: Electric Power Research Institute, October 2009); “Prism/MERGE Analyses: 2009 Update,” EPRI Report 1020389 (Palo Alto, Calif.: Electric Power Research Institute, July 2009); Leon Clarke and John Weyant, “Introduction,” in “International, U.S. and E.U. Climate Change Control Scenarios: Results from EMF 22,” ed. Leon Clarke, Christoph Bohringer, Tom F. Rutherford, special issue of Energy Economics 31 (supp. 2) (2009): S63; Nuclear Power and Climate Change (Nuclear Energy Agency/Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 1998); Nuclear Energy Outlook (Nuclear Energy Agency/Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2008); Nuclear Energy in Perspective (Nuclear Energy Agency/Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, November 2010).