Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2007

Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks

Charles D. Ferguson

April 2007

Council on Foreign Relations


Increased concern over energy security and global climate change has led many people to take a fresh look at the benefits and risks of nuclear power for the United States and other countries. The debate surrounding nuclear energy also intersects with critical U.S. foreign policy issues such as nuclear proliferation and terrorism. This Council Special Report, produced in partnership with Washington and Lee University and written by the Council’s Fellow for Science and Technology Charles D. Ferguson, provides the factual and analytical background to inform this debate.

Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks is a sobering and authoritative look at nuclear power. Dr. Ferguson argues that nuclear energy, despite its attributes, is unlikely to play a major role in the coming decades in strengthening energy security or in countering the harmful effects of climate change. In particular, the rapid rate of nuclear reactor expansion required to make even a modest reduction in global warming would drive up construction costs and create shortages in building materials, trained personnel, and safety controls. There are also lingering questions over nuclear waste, as well as continued political opposition to siting new plants. Nonetheless, the report points out steps the United States could take—such as imposing a fee on greenhouse gas emissions—to level the economic playing field for all energy sectors, which over the long run would encourage the construction of new nuclear reactors (if only to replace existing ones that will need to be retired) and help reduce global warming.

Dr. Ferguson has written a fair and balanced report that brings the nuclear energy debate down from one of preferences and ideologies to one of reality. Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks is useful to anyone who wants to understand both the potential and the limits of nuclear power to enhance energy security and slow climate change.

Richard N. Haass
Council on Foreign Relations
April 2007