Kate Marvel and Michael May: What is the future of nuclear energy?

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Cooling towers at the Limerick Generating Station in Pottstown, Penn.
Photo credit: 
Reuters

“Anticipating the future is difficult in any situation, but assessing the prospects for nuclear power in the next fifty years presents especially complex challenges," write Katherine D. Marvel and Michael M. May in a new paper published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

"The public perception of nuclear power has changed and continues to change. Once viewed as a miracle of modern technology, nuclear power came to be perceived by many as a potential catastrophe; now it is viewed as a potential, albeit potentially still dangerous, source of green power. Conventional wisdom in the 1960s held that nuclear power could dominate the electricity sectors of developed countries, while less than twenty years later, many predicted the complete demise of the U.S. nuclear industry following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Yet neither attitude fully forecast the situation today: a nuclear industry that is not dominant, but is far from dead. Indeed, the history of long-range planning for nuclear power serves as a caution for anyone wishing to make predictions about the state of the industry over the next half-century.

Nonetheless, it is critical to assess its role in the future energy mix: decisions taken now will impact the energy sector for many years. This assessment requires both a review of past planning strategies and a new approach that considers alternate scenarios hat may differ radically from business as usual. While a number of studies have explored the future of nuclear power under various circumstances, the purpose of this paper is to consider gamechanging events for nuclear energy.”