Uranium production meets only 65 percent of the demand for fuel by nuclear power plants, according to Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at MIT's Center for International Studies. Much of the rest comes from existing stockpiles governed by deals such as the one between the U.S. and Russia under which the Russian government gives nuclear material from its warheads to use in power plants. (That deal will expire in 2013.)
As a result, a gap exists between the supplies of uranium that will be available in the foreseeable future and what the world may demand if various nations decide to expand the use of nuclear power. The shortfall is reflected in the prices utilities pay. Uranium has climbed from around $10 a pound to $85.
Safety concerns and strong unfavorable public opinion have kept a lid on nuclear plant construction for two decades. Global warming and rising oil prices, however, have prompted some to say that governments should reconsider the nuclear option, particularly as a way to start offsetting high-polluting coal as an energy source. Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman has written articles in favor of reconsidering nuclear.
The nuclear energy industry is attempting to frame this argument as "Oh, You don't want *Clean* Coal? Then nuclear is for you!" Here's what the Union of Concerned Scientists says:
While there are currently some global warming emissions associated with the nuclear fuel cycle and plant construction, when nuclear plants operate they do not produce carbon dioxide. This fact is used to support proposals for a large-scale expansion of nuclear power both in the United States and around the world.
It must be borne in mind that a large-scale expansion of nuclear power in the United States or worldwide under existing conditions would be accompanied by an increased risk of catastrophic events—a risk not associated with any of the non-nuclear means for reducing global warming. These catastrophic events include a massive release of radiation due to a power plant meltdown or terrorist attack, or the death of tens of thousands due to the detonation of a nuclear weapon made with materials obtained from a civilian—most likely non-U.S.—nuclear power system. Expansion of nuclear power would also produce large amounts of radioactive waste that would pose a serious hazard as long as there remain no facilities for safe long-term disposal.
In this context, the Union of Concerned Scientists contends that:
1. Prudence dictates that we develop as many options to reduce global warming emissions as possible, and begin by deploying those that achieve the largest reductions most quickly and with the lowest costs and risk. Nuclear power today does not meet these criteria.
2. Nuclear power is not the silver bullet for "solving" the global warming problem. Many other technologies will be needed to address global warming even if a major expansion of nuclear power were to occur.
3. A major expansion of nuclear power in the United States is not feasible in the near term. Even under an ambitious deployment scenario, new plants could not make a substantial contribution to reducing U.S. global warming emissions for at least two decades.
4. Until long-standing problems regarding the security of nuclear plants—from accidents and acts of terrorism—are fixed, the potential of nuclear power to play a significant role in addressing global warming will be held hostage to the industry's worst performers.
5. An expansion of nuclear power under effective regulations and an appropriate level of oversight should be considered as a longer-term option if other climate-neutral means for producing electricity prove inadequate. Nuclear energy research and development (R&D) should therefore continue, with a focus on enhancing safety, security, and waste disposal.