After several decades of disappointing growth, nuclear energy seems poised for a comeback. Talk of a “nuclear renaissance” includes perhaps a doubling or tripling of nuclear capacity by 2050, spreading nuclear power to new markets in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and developing new kinds of reactors and fuel-reprocessing techniques. But the reality of nuclear energy’s future is more complicated. Without major changes in government policies and aggressive financial support, nuclear power is actually likely to account for a declining percentage of global electricity generation.
Projections for growth assume that government support will compensate for nuclear power’s market liabilities and that perennial issues such as waste, safety, and proliferation will not be serious hurdles. Before embarking on such a path, policy makers need to achieve greater certainty across a wide range of issues. In the meantime, all possible efforts should be made to minimize the risks of any nuclear expansion that might occur. These include strengthening the rules of nuclear commerce and transparency, deemphasizing the element of national prestige with respect to nuclear energy, undertaking clear-eyed assessments of all available options for generating electricity, and limiting the acquisition of sensitive nuclear technologies like uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing.