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The Future of Nuclear Energy


Two new reactors are currently under construction at the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, which will remain in service until 2040.

Nuclear power plants currently generate just under 20% of America’s electricity. However most of these 99 plants are aging; the average one is 34 years old. With a lifecycle of 40 years, the possibility of a 20 year extension, and just five new plants currently under construction, the next two decades portend a major shift in how the United States produces electricity. 

History of Nuclear Power in the United States

In 1958, the first Nuclear reactor came online in the United States. At the time, nuclear energy was seen as the ultimate solution to electricity production, with the Atomic Energy Commission estimating that by the year 2000, the United States would have more than one thousand reactors operating. However, reactors proved far more expensive than initial estimates, and the industry soon found itself beset by cost overruns—sometimes by as much as a factor of ten. 

In fact, of the 253 plants ordered from 1953 to 2008, 48% were canceled, more than 10% were shut down because of reliability or safety issues, and 15% experienced more than one-year outages, leaving only about a quarter of those ordered still operating reliably.

In addition to cost and reliability problems, the nuclear industry has also faced domestic civil society opposition. In particular, the Three Mile Island incident shook public confidence in the safety of nuclear power. After the 1979 incident, numerous reactor projects were abandoned or delayed, and capacity at existing reactors was often throttled, or interrupted for more frequent retrofits. 

Since the 1980’s, output at existing plants has continually increased, reaching 90% of possible capacity in 2001. This allowed the US to generate more energy from nuclear power than ever during the first decade of the 2000’s, even though it was operating fewer reactors than the peak of 112 that were in service in 1991. 

Challenges and Opportunities for Nuclear Power

Today, proponents of nuclear power argue that it can be done safely, and that it represents too big of a chunk of our energy mix to be cut back or replaced—especially if replaced with coal power plants, or other sources that are far dirtier and release far more CO2 than nuclear. Indeed, accounting for nearly 20% of US energy production, it would be difficult to replace nuclear power generation with anything if it were stopped tomorrow—least of all wind or solar. 

Opponents, on the other hand, charge that the costs of keeping nuclear power as a long term component of the energy mix and replacing the current aging nuclear fleet would be immense. Such a cost, they claim, would fall upon the government, given the historic reliance of the industry on public subsidies and government guaranteed loans. 

Regardless of whether nuclear power remains a major component of our future energy mix, the waste already produced poses its own unresolved problem. A permanent solution for dealing with spent fueling rods—colloquially knows as nuclear waste—has never been agreed upon. In 1987, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for the creation of a deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste. However, the site has been contested by Nevada residents for decades. While the US government disposes of its own waste at a deep underground site in New Mexico, the lack of a unified national plan has left non-government entities with waste stored on-site at various nuclear facilities around the country.

Site exploration at Yucca Mountain has cost $9 billion so far, with a total projected budget of around $90 billion. However, given the gridlock and opposition, the Obama Administration has been exploring other options. 

Though the challenges aren’t universal internationally, other countries are facing these same questions besides the United States. In France, for example, where nearly 80% of electricity generation is nuclear produced, and the average age of the nuclear fleet is 25, the state owned energy company Électricité de France (EDF) is planning €55 billion in investment to extend reactor lifespans by 20 years, to 60.

The Future of Nuclear in the US

Currently, low natural gas prices in the United States have continued to make nuclear economically unattractive to private investment. There are five new plants currently under construction, with the last new reactor having been opened in 1996. However, in order to maintain nuclear’s current share of the energy mix by 2040, the US would have to increase the number of plants in operation today by 20. 

Given the very few plants currently under construction, this is highly unlikely to happen. Nuclear plants are expensive and long-term construction projects, with a construction time of around 6 years (and add to that the potential for cost overruns and delays). This is two to three times longer than it takes to build a gas, wind, or solar power plant. The resulting higher capital costs per kilowatt are significant: $5,429 for nuclear, vs. $2,095 for gas (with carbon capture and sequestration), $2,213 for onshore wind, and $3,873 for solar photovoltaic. 

In fact, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that in 2040, nuclear will account for only 3% of electricity generation—about the same as coal. In its place, natural gas is expected to grow twenty-fold as a source for electricity generation. 

Of course, putting a price on carbon would change the cost calculations considerably, as nuclear plants lack of emissions would advantage them over more polluting gas power plants. But unless this happen, nuclear is likely to remain too expensive an option to draw enough private investment to maintain its current percentage of total US electricity generation into the mid-century.