Keywords: sustainable development, nuclear energy, renewable energy, fossil fuels, environmental externalities, risk hedging, energy transition, global warming
The role of nuclear energy in establishing sustainable energy paths
Nuclear energy remains a controversial issue for public policies on energy and the environment because of arguments concerning radioactive waste, reactor accidents, nuclear proliferation and economic competitiveness. The issues of climate change and supply security have provided a new rationale for its reappearance on the international political agenda. Recent national policy directions in some countries show that such a comeback is not just wishful thinking by the nuclear establishment. Energy technologies ought to be considered in terms of their potential to contribute to goals of sustainability, including climate change prevention and supply security support. This implies a balanced judgement of their environmental, economic and social risks. Considering nuclear energy in terms of sustainability goals has so far been largely avoided, because many scientists and policy makers either exclude this option by definition or consider the nuclear issue outside their domain of competence, given the dominant role of public opinion. This article attempts to fill this hiatus by reframing the question of the sustainability of nuclear energy in a dynamic way. Clearly, nuclear energy possesses risk characteristics that are very distinctive from those of fossil fuels, and are much more apparent than they are for most renewables. We point out, however, that one of the reasons for the latter is that renewables have so far not yet been applied on any major global scale. We confirm that nuclear energy does not meet some essential requirements for establishing sustainable energy paths. Still, we point out how nuclear energy can play a transitional role towards establishing sustainable energy systems. During this transitional phase, some of nuclear's more problematic aspects might be rendered significantly more sustainable, giving nuclear energy a potential role beyond this transitional period.