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Nuclear power is harnessing the energy that results from the splitting of atoms. Among all the developed countries in the world, nuclear power accounts for almost a quarter of electricity generation and Kenya is in the process of building its first nuclear plant after relevant feasibility studies have been carried out.

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The Case for Nuclear Power

First, it is free from some of the serious air pollution problems that can accompany coal-fired and, to a lesser extent, natural gas-fired electricity generation. This includes both conventional pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides—and mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals present in coal. Much more importantly, nuclear power is carbon-free.

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That is, unlike coal, natural gas, and petroleum, it does not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process of generating electricity. At a time when there is growing concern about the link between carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases on the one hand and the warming of our planet on the other, this advantage of nuclear power has begun to loom larger.

There is a second attraction to nuclear power, though it currently pertains only to those plants that are already in operation— once built and paid for, these plants are extremely inexpensive to operate. Indeed, the incremental cost of generating electricity from an existing nuclear plant is on the order of 1.5 cents for each kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity generated. This compares with about 2 cents/kWh for a conventional coal plant and, at current natural gas prices, about 3.5 cents/kWh for a natural gas plant.

The Case Against

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First and perhaps foremost, although nuclear plants are cheap to operate once they are up and running, they are by far the most expensive to build.

Based on recent construction costs in Japan and Korea, a new 1,000-megawatt (MW) nuclear power plant would cost on the order of $2 billion and take five years to build. By contrast, a new 1,000-MW pulverized coal plant would cost $1.2 billion and take three to four years to build, and a new clean coal plant (one in which the coal is first converted to cleaner burning natural gas) would cost about $1.4 billion and take four years.

Illustrating why natural gas has been the fuel of choice for most of the recent growth in electricity generation, a new 1,000-MW combined-cycle gas turbine can be built in less than two years at a cost of $500 million.

The longer construction time and higher capital cost of a new nuclear plant currently more than offset its operating cost advantage. According to a recent report by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the “all-in” costs (capital plus operating) of electricity from a new nuclear plant operating for 40 years at 85 percent capacity would be 6.7 cents/kWh.

This compares with 4.2 cents/kWh for a coal plant and 4–5.6 cents/kWh for a new gas turbine, depending on the assumed price for natural gas. Even if it faced no other obstacles, then, nuclear power would have a formidable economic challenge to overcome.

Opponents of nuclear power also point to the risk that the spent fuel from nuclear plants could be stolen and diverted to the production of so-called dirty bombs or even thermonuclear weapons.One example is Iran, which has vast natural gas reserves that could be used for electricity generation, but which has elected not only to build nuclear power plants, but also to do so using a fuel cycle providing easier access to the plutonium required for nuclear weapons.

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Concerns, are also now emerging as aging nuclear power plants reach retirement age, and electric utilities confront the task of deconstruction, or decommissioning, nuclear power stations. Decommissioning is a long, complex, costly process, with $400 million regarded as the bargain basement price tag for cleaning up a single reactor.

The final challenge associated with nuclear power has also to do with spent wastes—namely, where in the world they will be stored.

Currently, almost all the wastes that result from nuclear- powered electricity generation are being stored on the grounds of the power plants. No one believes this is the best place for these wastes, and at some plants storage capacity has been or soon will be exceeded. In the United States for example the federal government committed long ago to build and open a high- level nuclear waste repository. Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was chosen as its site, and the repository has now been completed, at an eventual cost to the public of $50 billion, perhaps more. There’s just one problem. Nevadans had no interest in being home to these wastes and have been successful in preventing the first shipments to Yucca Mountain, aided by a recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency erred in establishing a safety standard Congress had directed it to set.

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I however think the government could step aside and let hydro-power battle with coal, natural gas, wind, biomass, solar, geothermal and any other means of power production one could think up instead of going nuclear.