The Economist [Printer-friendly version] September 6, 2007 EDITORIAL: NUCLEAR POWER'S NEW AGE A nuclear revival is welcome so long as the industry does not repeat its old mistakes In March 1986 this newspaper celebrated "The Charm of Nuclear Power" on its cover. The timing wasn't great. The following month, an accident at a reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine spread radioactivity over Europe and despair in the Western world's nuclear industry. Some countries never lost their enthusiasm for nuclear power. It provides three-quarters of French electricity. Developing countries have continued to build nuclear plants apace. But elsewhere in the West, Chernobyl, along with the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, sent the industry into a decline. The public got scared. The regulatory environment tightened, raising costs. Billions were spent bailing out lossmaking nuclear-power companies. The industry became a byword for mendacity, secrecy and profligacy with taxpayers' money. For two decades neither governments nor bankers wanted to touch it. Now nuclear power has a second chance. Its revival is most visible in America (see article), where power companies are preparing to flood the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with applications to build new plants. But the tide seems to be turning in other countries, too. Finland is building a reactor. The British government is preparing the way for new planning regulations. In Australia, which has plenty of uranium but no reactors, the prime minister, John Howard, says nuclear power is "inevitable". Managed properly, a nuclear revival could be a good thing. But the industry and the governments keen to promote it look like repeating some of the mistakes that gave it a bad name in the first place. It's going nuclear's way Geopolitics, technology (see article), economics and the environment are all changing in nuclear power's favour. Western governments are concerned that most of the world's oil and gas is in the hands of hostile or shaky governments. Much of the nuclear industry's raw material, uranium, by contrast, is conveniently located in friendly places such as Australia and Canada. Simpler designs cut maintenance and repair costs. Shut-downs are now far less frequent, so that a typical station in America is now online 90% of the time, up from less than 50% in the 1970s. New "passive safety" features can shut a reactor down in an emergency without the need for human intervention. Handling waste may get easier. America plans to embrace a new approach in which the most radioactive portion of the waste from conventional nuclear power stations is isolated and burned in "fast" reactors. Technology has thus improved nuclear's economics. So has the squeeze on fossil fuels. Nuclear power stations are hugely expensive to build but very cheap to run. Gas-fired power stations -- the bulk of new build in the 1980s and 1990s -- are the reverse. Since gas provides the extra power needed when demand rises, the gas price sets the electricity price. Costly gas has therefore made existing nuclear plants tremendously profitable. The latest boost to nuclear has come from climate change. Nuclear power offers the possibility of large quantities of baseload electricity that is cleaner than coal, more secure than gas and more reliable than wind. And if cars switch from oil to electricity, the demand for power generated from carbon-free sources will increase still further. The industry's image is thus turning from black to green. Nuclear power's moral makeover has divided its enemies. Some environmentalists retain their antipathy to it, but green gurus such as James Lovelock, Stewart Brand and Patrick Moore have changed their minds and embraced it. Public opinion, confused about how best to save the planet, seems to be coming round. A recent British poll showed 30% of the population against nuclear power, compared with 60% three years ago. An American poll in March this year showed 50% in favour of expanding nuclear power, up from 44% in 2001. Fear of fission Yet the economics of nuclear still look uncertain. That's partly because its green virtues do not show up in its costs, since fossil- fuel power generation does not pay for the environmental damage it does. But it is also because nuclear combines huge fixed costs with political risk. Companies fear that, after they have invested billions in a plant, the political tide will turn once more and bankrupt them. Investors therefore remain nervous. How, then, to get new plants built? America's solution is to lard the industry with money. That is the wrong answer. Nuclear and other clean energy sources do indeed deserve a hand from governments -- but through a carbon tax which reflects the benefits of clean energy, not through subsidies to cover political risk. Exposure to public nervousness is a cost of doing business in the nuclear industry, just as exposure to volatile prices is a cost in the gas industry. It may be that fears of nuclear power are overblown: after all, the UN figure of around 4,000 eventual deaths as a result of the Chernobyl accident is lower than the official annual death-rate in Chinese coal mines. Yet there are good reasons for public concern. Nuclear waste is difficult to dispose of. More civil nuclear technology around the world increases the chance of weapons proliferation. Terrorists could attack plants or steal nuclear fuel. Voters will support nuclear power only if they believe that governments and the nuclear industry are doing their best to limit those risks, and that such risks are small enough to be worth taking in the interests of cheap, clean energy. One of the reasons why the public turned against nuclear power last time round is that it found itself bailing the industry out. It would be wrong, not just for taxpayers but also for the industry, to set up another lot of cosy deals with governments. The nuclear industry needs to persuade people that it is clean, cheap and safe enough to rely on without a government crutch. If it can't, it doesn't deserve a second chance.