[SERI COLUMN]Nuclear energy is a powerful alternativeNuclear power is getting a fresh look. Regarded for decades as a “dirty” source of energy, nuclear power is finally making a comeback in the United States and elsewhere.
It may sound insensitive to tout nuclear energy, given that April 26 was the 20-year anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion that killed 60 and caused lingering health problems for tens of thousands across Ukraine and neighboring countries, including Europe.
It is also inopportune because of the latest announcement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that his country is in possession of enriched uranium, the base material for building nuclear bombs. The biggest boost for fission energy came when U.S. President George W. Bush declared in his State of the Union address in January that America was addicted to oil and one of the best ways to break this addiction was, among other things, “clean, safe nuclear energy.” He kick-started the discussion on nuclear revival last year by signing a bill to authorize more than $3 billion in subsidies to the long-struggling nuclear energy industry.
Although Mr. Bush’s categorization of the technology as clean and safe may appear to some skeptics an oxymoron, it is indeed clean, albeit not the safest energy technology available in the world, at least not now.
Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, in an opinion piece for the Washington Post (“Going Nuclear: A Green Makes the Case,” April 16, 2006), wrote that the 600-plus coal-fired electric power plants in the United States spew out 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year, equivalent to exhaust from 300 million cars, or 36% of total U.S. emissions. Meanwhile, the 103 nuclear plants in the United States effectively prevent the release of 700 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, he said.
How nice would it be if more nuclear power plants were built, thereby preventing climate change and associated natural disasters?
Yes, it is true that nuclear technology is not safe as yet. However, there are many other modern technologies more dangerous than nuclear fission but still in widespread use. For example, gas explosions abound but we don’t outlaw the use of gas.
As for concerns about nuclear proliferation, as shown by the current case in Iran, the same counterargument can be put forward. That is, the possibility that a technology can be diverted to dreadful purposes doesn’t justify its ban.
There are other issues to think about before fully embracing nuclear energy. It will take thousands of years for nuclear waste to disintegrate. That’s why in so many communities, including Buan County in Korea and Yucca Mountain in Nevada, residents are repelled by the prospect of breathing radioactive air for generations.
Nuclear energy is also more expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, and alternative energy sources including wind and solar power are still impractical. This is, in fact, the most serious problem for power companies reluctant about going nuclear.
That’s where technology comes in. With new types of reactors, proponents say, spent fuel can be recycled to make less waste needing disposal. Innovations in reactor designs, combined with the right mix of government prodding and financial assistance, can also bring down the cost of producing electricity from nuclear sources. The findings of a 2003 report titled “The Future of Nuclear Power” by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lends support to this view. The report concluded that although electricity generated by nuclear plants was the most expensive, it could become more competitive if new reactor designs went onstream and governments imposed a carbon emissions tax.
What does it all mean for Korea? The $800 billion economy, with few energy-resource endowments, had to import $67 billion worth of energy last year, of which 80% was crude oil. Given that oil prices are now topping a record $75 a barrel, it is desperate to find alternative energy sources to sustain the economy.
Fortunately, Korea has pursued a policy of energy independence since the 1970s by building four nuclear power plants, which today meet 40% of its total electricity needs. In terms of the amount of electric power generated, Korea is ranked sixth in the world.
In addition to helping wean the economy from fossil-fuel dependency, it is also well positioned to take advantage of emerging business opportunities in China, whose government plans to build 25 to 35 nuclear power plants within the next 20 years. Korea’s expertise in power plant building and operations will come in handy as demand materializes in short order. The primary reason for Toshiba Corp.’s $5.4 billion acquisition of Westinghouse Electric in February was also to capitalize on the Chinese demand.
Admittedly, nuclear energy is still beset by technical problems and political challenges. But we have to at least give it the benefit of the doubt. It could become the great hope for overcoming the next energy crisis and, possibly, global warming.
* The writer is managing editor of SERIworld, Samsung Economic Research Institute’s English-language Web site.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not represent those of Samsung Economic Research Institute.
by Chung Sang-ho