Nuclear Energy - Answer to Global Warming or Status Symbol? (update)

12/11/2009 12:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In the search for "green" alternatives to oil or coal, nuclear energy is expected to make a comeback - mainly in Russia, China, India and developing nations. But does the relatively cheap electricity and low carbon footprint justify construction costs, radioactive waste and proliferation dangers?

"If you look at countries like India and China...which are highly reliant on coal I really don't see us coming to grips with climate change at a global level without nuclear energy playing a role," said Yvo de Boer, the UN climate chief at the current climate conference in Copenhagen. But he told reporters that nuclear energy could only play a major role "if we can deal with issues of safety, if we can deal with issues of waste and if we can find people that actually want one of these things in their backyard."

(The slogan at the Copenhagen conference is "Seal the Deal" on reducing carbon emissions, a welcome change from "Drill Baby Drill")

Building new reactors in Western nations is challenging. In the United States, licenses have been obtained for 11 new reactors but cost overruns and delays are anticipated. The last nuclear construction boom ended after the accidents at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986). About 20 percent of US electricity comes from 104 reactors. Construction runs in the billions and is financed by the government or the consumer.

Yet US Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham are proposing more subsidies for nuclear power (as much as $100 billion) as well as offshore drilling in an effort to get support for a new bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The nuclear energy industry welcomed it but groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists said the money should go into safer and cleaner renewable technology.

Europe was more receptive to nuclear energy. France gets 80 percent of its power from its 58 reactors, the last one built in 1999. Nuclear power generates about 30 percent of electricity in the European Union as a whole. That was then. This is now. A majority of the European population opposes building any more reactors and Germany and Sweden want to phase out their plants over 20 years.

Boys and their Toys
Building a nuclear reactor attracts world attention and the potential for prestige on the nation and its leaders -- whether in North Korea and especially in Iran. Tehran says its plants are for energy uses only but refuses UN inspections of the entire complex.

"In some perverse way, Iran made (nuclear energy) attractive," said Mohamed ElBaradei, the recently retired director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The IAEA is not just the UN nuclear watchdog, responsible for safeguard agreements. But its mandate for decades has been the promotion of atomic energy, with or without proper safeguards.

Said ElBaradei at the Council on Foreign Relations: "A lot of countries -- we have 60 countries at the IAEA asking that they want to introduce nuclear power. Nuclear power, in many ways, got sexy, if you like....So, yes, nuclear could play a very important role, but with that comes a lot of responsibilities that countries need to shoulder .And, right now, we're still in the gray zone."

John Bolton, the former UN ambassador and the Bush administration's undersecretary of state for arms control, is not an opponent of nuclear energy but worries about its potential for proliferation.

"A number of countries have said they want civil nuclear power and are prepared to give up enrichment and reprocessing, such as the United Arab Emirates," Bolton told this reporter last month.

"But on the other hand a lot of other countries are watching the way Iran has been able to succeed in getting very close to a nuclear weapons capability. And if they do succeed much of the impetus for peaceful use under strict scrutiny will fade away. So the question whether you can really have broadly available peaceful civil nuclear power is right on the verge of being decided today."

Not all developing countries find nuclear energy appealing. In the Philippines, the presidential adviser of climate change, Heherson Alvarez, called the cost of construction "staggering" in an interview with Imelda Abano of BusinessMirror in Manila. He said safety and security risks outweighed the advantages, adding: "The Philippines is not ready for this."

But Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda wants nuclear energy. At a UN Security Council meeting on proliferation organized by President Obama in September, Museveni said that Africa was not interested in nuclear weapons but in nuclear energy, unless "it was scientifically proved that Africans do not need electricity." He compared the expense of solar energy per kilowatt hour (40 cents) to nuclear or hydropower energy (6 cents).

So perhaps someone can invent a cheaper way to harness solar energy - especially in sun-drenched nations?