Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change

The political economy of nuclear energy

Journal Article


Despite a history of problems, nuclear power is being discussed as a potentially useful and appropriate electricity source for both developed and developing countries. For example, expanding nuclear power's share of electricity portfolios could reduce, relative to a fossil‐intensive baseline, greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change. Moreover, nuclear power has long been advocated as a route to energy security and indeed, for many of the nuclear nations, it could decrease dependence on oil imports under certain technological scenarios, such as an increased use of plug‐in hybrid vehicles. The nuclear industry argues that a new generation of reactors, representing a refinement of existing technology, will enable this expansion. Because of these new motivations, some advocates have applied the term ‘nuclear renaissance’ to the possibility of a rapid expansion of nuclear power to satisfy a projected growing global electricity demand, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This article outlines the primary challenges that this unique energy source presents for such a renaissance. Like other technologies, nuclear is situated in a social and political–economic matrix that influences its evolution. After reviewing the basic aspects of the technology, I discuss the history of the existing nuclear fleet, then address the prospects for advanced and next‐generation nuclear technologies. I review the economics of nuclear power as it is currently deployed and the potential changes to these economics under potential future development. In examining future scenarios, I explore the effects of national and international policies on nuclear energy. WIREs Clim Change 2011 2 397–411 DOI: 10.1002/wcc.113

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