Report - International Panel on Fissile Materials

The Uncertain Future of Nuclear Energy

  • Frank N. von Hippel
  • Anatoli Diakov
  • Ming Ding
  • Tadahiro Katsuta
  • Charles McCombie
  • M.V. Ramana
  • Tatsujiro Suzuki
  • Susan Voss
  • Suyuan Yu
| September 2010


In the 1970s, nuclear energy was expected to quickly become the dominant generator of electrical power. Its fuel costs are remarkably low because a million times more energy is released per unit weight by fission than by combustion. But its capital costs have proven to be high. Safety requires redundant cooling and control systems, massive leak-tight containment structures, very conservative seismic design and extremely stringent quality control.

The routine health risks and greenhouse-gas emissions from fission power are small relative to those associated with coal, but there are catastrophic risks: nuclear-weapon proliferation and the possibility of over-heated fuel releasing massive quantities of fission products to the human environment. The public is sensitive to these risks. The 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl accidents, along with high capital costs, ended the rapid growth of global nuclear-power capacity

Today, there are hopes for a "nuclear renaissance" but nuclear energy in Western Europe and North America, which together account for 63 percent of current global capacity, is being dogged again by high capital costs and it is not yet clear that new construction will offset the retirement of old capacity. Cost escalation is more contained in East Asia, where the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expects 42 to 75 percent of global nuclear capacity expansion by 2030 to occur — mostly in China. China's top nuclear safety regulator has raised concerns, however, about "construction quality and operational safety" [New York Times, 16 Dec. 2009] and, even for its high-nuclear-growth projection, the IAEA does not expect nuclear power to significantly increase its current share of about 15 percent of global electric-power generation.

The most important danger from fission is that its technology or materials may be used to make nuclear weapons. Of the thirty-one nations that have nuclear power today, seven are nuclear-weapon states1and almost all the others have their nonweapon status stabilized by either being part of the European Union and NATO or another close alliance to the United States. Such stabilizing arrangements do not exist for the majority of the countries that have expressed an interest in acquiring their first nuclear power plants. Of these, some are suspected of having mixed motives for their interest in fission technology.

The dominant nuclear power reactor type today, the light-water reactor (LWR), is relatively proliferation resistant when operated on a "once-through" fuel cycle. It is fueled with low-enriched uranium (LEU), which cannot be used to make nuclear weapons without further enrichment. Its spent fuel contains about one percent plutonium but it is mixed with highly radioactive fission products that make it inaccessible except by "reprocessing" with remotely controlled apparatus behind thick radiation shielding. There is no good economic or waste-management reason today to separate out this plutonium.

Much of the leadership of the global nuclear-energy establishment, however, continues to promote the uranium-conservation and waste-reduction benefits of recovering plutonium from the spent fuel and recycling it. This provided cover for India's nuclear-weapon program, which used plutonium separated under the international "Atoms for Peace" program to make its first nuclear explosion in 1974 and also for the weapons dimensions of at least seven other national nuclear programs.2 Plutonium recycle is not expected to become economic for the foreseeable future, however, and reprocessing and plutonium recycle in LWR fuel, as practiced today in France, does not reduce the problem of radioactive waste.

The other route to nuclear weapons is enrichment of uranium to a level above 20 percent uranium-235 (typically, to more than 90 percent). Historically, acquiring this capability required a massive investment in a gaseous-diffusion plant, with thousands of stages of compression of an ever smaller stream of corrosive uranium-hexafluoride gas through porous barriers. Today, however, the dominant enrichment technology is the gas centrifuge, which, as Brazil, India, Iran and Pakistan have demonstrated, can be deployed in affordable plants that can begin operating on a scale smaller even than required to fuel a single gigawatt-scale LWR. Unfortunately, such plants can easily be used or reconfigured to produce weapon-grade uranium and a plant sized to fuel a single 1-gigawatt electric (GWe) LWR could produce enough material for 25 nuclear weapons a year. Today, much of the attention of the nonproliferation community is being devoted to preventing the spread of small national centrifuge enrichment plants.

The final issue that contributes to the uncertainty of the future of nuclear energy is persistent public opposition. As memories of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents fade and concerns about the consequences of global warming increase, the trend has been toward public opinion that is more favorable. Continuing public concern about radioactive waste and "not-in-my-backyard" opposition to the siting of central spent-fuel storage sites have, however, helped keep reprocessing plants alive as alternative destinations for spent fuel, despite their poor economics and proliferation dangers.

In the 1970s, nuclear-power boosters expected that by now nuclear power would produce perhaps 80 to 90 percent of all electrical energy globally. Today, the official high-growth projection of the Organization for Economic Co‑operation and Developments (OECD) Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) estimates that nuclear power plants will generate about 20 percent of all electrical energy in 2050. Thus, nuclear power could make a significant contribution to the global electricity supply. Or it could be phased out — especially if there is another accidental or a terrorist-caused Chernobyl-scale release of radioactivity. If the spread of nuclear energy cannot be decoupled from the spread of nuclear weapons, it should be phased out.

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1 In historical order: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India and Pakistan. Israel and North Korea have nuclear weapons but do not have nuclear power plants.

2 Argentina, Brazil, France, South Korea, Pakistan, Sweden and Taiwan. Fortunately, all but France and Pakistan abandoned their nuclear-weapon programs.

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For Academic Citation: Frank von Hippel, ed. “The Uncertain Future of Nuclear Energy.” Edited by Frank N. von Hippel. International Panel on Fissile Materials, September 2010.

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