“We are quite aware of the potential benefits of clean, safe and inexpensive nuclear power – low, to zero, carbon emissions (depending on how you count the lifecycle costs) and domestic energy security,” Nathan Hultman of Georgetown University, US, and the University of Oxford, UK, told environmentalresearchweb. “However, in a radically different energy landscape, where renewables in particular are absolutely competitive, fossil resources are again costly, and many more options exist. Countries have many choices as to how they allocate scarce R&D funding in the energy arena.”

Hultman and colleague Jonathan Koomey, of Stanford University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, say their work suggests that while nuclear still holds the 1960s ' promise of clean and cheap baseload power, the risks of ending up with another set of costly nuclear reactors seem not to have been vetted well against the historical experience. “Yes, the evolutionary and next-generation designs are likely to be improvements, but we are not convinced that this will mitigate the risk of high-cost reactors,” added Hultman.

The pair ask whether the US should be spending as much on nuclear R&D as on other, smaller-scale and less economically risky technologies. “I don't think we've answered that question yet, but it's a debate that we think absolutely needs to happen,” said Hultman. “Our research also highlights the risks in recent legislative initiatives, like the loan guarantees for nuclear construction in the recent US Senate energy bill.”

The researchers examined ways of incorporating the “over-confidence” arising from the optimistic bias of communities of experts into public decision making. They suggest that it’s important to include the uncertainty in the distribution of possible costs in any model of future energy technology.

Hultman and Koomey now hope to acquire data on the benefits of standardization in nuclear energy. “In particular, a comparative study with the French experience would help illuminate the benefits of standardization and could answer one of our biggest questions about next-generation nuclear power,” said Hultman.