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Chernobyl and Nuclear Energy: No Easy Answers

by Eric Larson

April 26, 2010 is the 24th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, an accident that chilled nuclear power expansion in the United States and elsewhere for decades. But now, with growing evidence of climate change due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear energy is getting a fresh look as an option for generating electricity. Coinciding with the Chernobyl anniversary, Climate Central examines the many facets of nuclear power, including its potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

No new licenses for nuclear plant construction have been issued in the US since the 1970s, but that may change soon. Earlier this year the US Department of Energy awarded an $8.3 billion loan guarantee for two new reactors to be built in Georgia. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is deliberating over licensing the Georgia project, and has received applications for nearly 20 additional projects nationwide, mainly to expand existing plants.

Nuclear power tends to evoke strong opinions. Nuclear power proponents point to its low greenhouse gas emissions, its proven ability over the last 30 years to safely meet an important fraction of US electricity needs — about 20% today, and the readiness of the technology for an expansion.

Opponents point to risks with reactor safety, radioactive waste disposal, and nuclear weapons proliferation.

Interestingly, one issue that both proponents and opponents of nuclear power sometimes use to make their case concerns economics, with opponents pointing to a history of high costs and proponents pointing to expectations of lower costs in the future.

On reactor safety, it is probably not a stretch to say that another accident like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island would kill any expansion of the industry, regardless of the benefits. On the other hand, the world has been operating hundreds of nuclear reactors year in and year out since Chernobyl without any serious accident, suggesting that the lessons of Chernobyl have perhaps been well learned. And fossil-fuel use has safety problems, too, (in addition to those resulting from climate change), as exemplified by coal-mine and oil-rig accidents earlier this month.

Nuclear power presents multifaceted questions of risk versus benefits, with no easy answers.

Additional Information: Nuclear Energy Feature

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