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World Leaders To Debate Role Of Nuclear Power At U.N. Climate Summit


The climate change talks have raised questions about France's main energy source. About three quarters of its electricity comes from nuclear power. France went nuclear in response to the 1973 oil crisis, and after four decades and after the Fukushima disaster, people ask, does atomic power make sense anymore? We're going to put that question to Harvard University's Matthew Bunn.

Welcome to the program Professor Bunn.

MATTHEW BUNN: Pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: We hear a lot of advocacy of renewable energy, President Obama spoke specifically of solar energy. Is there any advocacy these days for nuclear power at, say, the talks in Paris?

BUNN: Oh, absolutely. Both the United States and quite a number of other countries are pushing nuclear hard as one of the clean energy options that are available. It doesn't - like wind or solar, it doesn't emit carbon and it also doesn't emit the local air pollution that can cause smoggy skies and deaths as you see in Beijing or New Delhi or the other cities of the developing world.

SIEGEL: In France, CO2 emissions per capita are significantly lower than ours - or Canada's, for that matter - and yet the French are trying to turn away a bit from nuclear power. Is that all about Fukushima?

BUNN: Not entirely. France is only turning away a little, but they're certainly not turning away on a large scale from nuclear power. There are countries that are. Germany has decided to phase out its nuclear power plants and a number of other - the smaller markets have done that as well. But after Fukushima, the big markets there are really building plants today - China, India, Russia, South Korea - took a pause, looked at their safety regulations, decided to strengthen them in a few places and then said, we're moving ahead.

SIEGEL: Even before the Fukushima accident, there were obviously concerns about disposing of nuclear waste. Has there been any progress over the past several decades about nuclear waste disposal?

BUNN: There has in other countries, not in the United States. In Finland, for example, they became the first country to cite a nuclear waste repository with the complete support of the community where it's going to be. In the United States, President Obama canceled the project for a nuclear waste repository in Nevada at a place called Yucca Mountain. He then appointed a commission to make recommendations about what we should do, and they came up with some very sensible ideas, including a more democratic process where you would not have a nuclear waste repository anywhere that didn't want it. But their recommendations require Congress to act, and Congress has not yet acted.

SIEGEL: How dependent on nuclear energy is the U.S.?

BUNN: The United States gets between 15 and 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, and the world gets about 15 percent, on average, of its electricity from nuclear energy. The key question with respect to climate is can nuclear energy grow enough to be an important part of the answer to climate change? But I think we should be doing everything we can to find answers to cutting its cost, to better financing of nuclear plants, to ensuring safety and security and managing the nuclear waste so that it can be an expandable answer.

SIEGEL: It's public resistance that's the limitation here, it's not the industrial capacity to build those power plants?

BUNN: It's not the industrial capacity but it's cost, and one very substantial part.

SIEGEL: What is it about a nuclear power plant that's so expensive?

BUNN: Well, of course, you need to build in safety and make sure that this intensely radioactive material that you're producing as the plant operates isn't going to accidentally be spread over the surrounding countryside as it was in the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan or the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union. And many of the countries that are thinking of building their first nuclear power plant unfortunately rate pretty low in estimates of their regulatory effectiveness or their ability to control corruption, and that's a worry when it comes to something like a nuclear power plant.

SIEGEL: Well, Matthew Bunn, thanks for talking with us once again.

BUNN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Matthew Bunn is nuclear and energy policy analyst and professor of practice at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.