Nuclear power is at a crossroads. 75 years ago, the Manhattan Project was started with a singular goal in mind: to develop a nuclear weapon option for the United States. Fast-forward to the present day, and nuclear technology finds itself embroiled in a battle of energy infrastructure. Nuclear power has proven itself useful as a military option, but thus far, the civilian applications have been lacking. So where does the nuclear option go from here?
Nuclear options are not currently cost competitive with coal, natural gas, and other energy options. However, this is an actively volatile market. The past few years have demonstrated the variability of oil prices, a growing environmental and cultural consciousness, and a general push towards more advanced technology. Although, there are plausible reductions that could be implemented by the industry to reduce capital costs, operation and maintenance costs, and construction time. While unlikely with the current administration, but if a carbon cap or other emissions tax is enacted, then nuclear power might find itself in an advantageous position.
Safety is still a warranted concern regarding nuclear power. Due to proprietary information and industry standards, there is very little that is known about the safety of the overall fuel cycle. Conversely, it is known that most modern reactor designs carry a very low risk of serious accidents, with one caveat: “best practices” in construction and operation are essential. Human error has been a main factor in many of the nuclear accidents of the past, and it is unclear whether safeguards have been built in to try to precipitate this error.
There is still an issue with the disposal of nuclear waste. Geological disposal is theoretically feasible, but executing that disposal has still yet to happen. There is still justified concern over the potential environmental impacts of nuclear waste disposal. Advanced, closed fuel cycles have the capability for long-term waste management as they can reprocess the spent fuel, a sort of recycling, but the short-term risks and costs are too great to motivate the industry.
The concern over nuclear proliferation has been renewed. The current international safeguards to protect against nuclear proliferation is inadequate to meet the security challenges of expanding nuclear armament. New recycling systems, like those used in Europe, Japan, and Russia that involves separation and recycling of plutonium presents unique proliferation risks as the plutonium is reintroduced to the environment.
The future of nuclear power is questionable. In the face of current concerns regarding costs, safety, disposal, and proliferation, there are still avenues in which nuclear power could overcome those concerns and become an effective part of the energy infrastructure.