The energy debates continue to rage inside the beltway. Experts regularly weigh in with conflicting reports on the benefits and pitfalls of oil, coal, wind, and other energy sources. Yet, we already have an energy source so powerful that it is able to meet bulk-energy demands. We have abundant reserves of it, and minimal land is required to support it. Moreover, this energy source meets our needs without emissions of potentially harmful pollutants (like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides), and particulate matter, and without emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Indeed, we can meet much of America’s growing energy needs with a reliable, affordable, low-emission energy source. That source is nuclear energy.
One-Fifth of U.S. Electricity
Many Americans are unfamiliar with nuclear energy, perhaps because politicians and the media give it little attention. In many political and social circles, the mere mention of nuclear power is taboo. Unfounded fears and misinformation have led many to believe that nuclear power is inherently dangerous, or even evil.
Accordingly, Americans are often surprised to learn that, for years, nuclear power has safely and reliably met a large portion of our energy needs. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the U.S. is home to 104 commercial nuclear power reactors, which are licensed to operate at 65 sites in 31 states. In 2008, nuclear power generated 19.6 percent of our nation’s electricity. Through April, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) at the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear power has generated just over 21 percent of total output in 2009.
In other words, nuclear power currently generates one-fifth of our nation’s electricity. By comparison, renewables like wind power and solar power have generated 7 and 3.67 percent, respectively, of our electricity supply through April.
A Baseload Resource
Unlike wind energy, solar energy, and other renewables, which provide only supplemental power generation, nuclear energy is a “baseload” resource—meaning it can meet bulk-power demands. Moreover, unlike wind and solar energy, nuclear reactors generate electricity regardless of whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.
Nuclear power is also an extremely efficient and productive energy source. The EIA has confirmed this by comparing nuclear power’s average capacity factor (ACF)—the amount of time an energy source produces power, as a percentage of the maximum output of the source—with other sources. In 2007, nuclear energy had the highest ACF, at 91.8 percent. Coal was the second highest at 73.6 percent, while non-hydropower renewables, hydroelectric power, and petroleum stood at ACFs of 40.1, 36.3, and 13.4 percent, respectively.
Efficiency translates to lower costs. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the percentage of operating costs attributable to fuel production is lower for nuclear-power generators than for plants using coal, natural gas, or petroleum. This, in turn, makes nuclear power less vulnerable to the price volatility of commodities.
The Carbon Question
Even while meeting large portions of our energy demand, nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, or nitrogen oxides, helping to lower the overall emissions that result from power production. Indeed, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), from 1995 to 2008, nuclear power can be credited for the avoidance of 19.83 million short tons of nitrogen oxides, 49.84 million short tons of sulfur dioxide, and 9,406.93 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Again, wind and solar power have a hard time keeping up with nuclear power. Last year alone, nuclear power generated 72.3 percent of our nation’s carbon-free electricity, while hydropower and non-hydropower renewables accounted for 21.7 and 6.1 percent respectively.
As with all energy sources, it’s not all positive with nuclear power.
For one, most of the uranium that fuels America’s commercial nuclear-power plants is imported. In 2008, according to the EIA, U.S. civil nuclear power plants purchased 45.6 million pounds of U3O8 (a uranium-like material) from foreign suppliers, while just 7.7 million pounds of uranium purchased originated in the U.S. In addition to importing large amounts of uranium from Australia and Canada, the U.S. imports heavily from Russia and former Soviet republics, under a deal known as the U.S.-Russian Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement, signed in 1993.
But, with the HEU Purchase Agreement expiring in 2013, the U.S. will need to import and/or domestically mine new reserves in order to maintain current nuclear-power production levels. Fortunately, we will continue to have access to a global uranium market rich in supply and sizeable reserves right here at home. However, particularly in light of the Department of the Interior’s restrictions on mining, it remains to be seen whether we will tap more of our uranium reserves (for example, a great deal of uranium can be mined in the state of Virginia).
There are other issues, too. Regardless of the means of extracting natural resources, there will always be economic, environmental, and even geopolitical consequences. This is a fundamental reality, and nuclear energy is not immune from it. From the large initial capital costs required to get a nuclear power plant operational, to the question of what to do about the long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel, to the political challenges that stem from commonly-held misconceptions about the safety of nuclear power, many roadblocks stand in the way of a swift expansion of nuclear energy.
No Plans to Expand
But even taking into account these concerns, why is nuclear power still so low on the radar? If we have an energy source that can meet bulk-power demands without emitting carbon and harmful pollutants, then why aren’t we talking about it more? Why is large-scale expansion of nuclear power not on the table?
Since taking office, the Barack Obama Administration has been nearly silent on plans for more nuclear power. Meanwhile, it pulled the plug on plans for a long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, after years of effort and billions of dollars invested in the project. To the chagrin of nuclear power advocates, the Administration did not offer a single, substantive alternative. The Administration has also made one million acres of land in the areas surrounding the Grand Canyon off limits to uranium miners, putting the future of our natural uranium reserves in doubt.
The Obama Administration is not singularly to blame, however. The U.S. has not added a single new nuclear reactor to our commercial nuclear-power fleet for three decades. One plant is under construction in Tennessee, with a planned capacity of 1,165 megawatts, though the permit for the plant was issued in January 1973. There has not been a construction permit issued for a new reactor since January 1978.
All the while, our government has dawdled with fanciful notions of windmills and compact fluorescent light bulbs to save the planet and secure our energy future.
Global Nuclear Power
While we waste valuable time and treasure, other countries are moving full-speed ahead, ramping up nuclear power production.
China and India have ambitious plans for harnessing nuclear power. European nations like Italy are reversing course after banning nuclear energy. France has no plans to back away from the energy source that generates roughly 80 percent of its electricity. (France also safely reprocesses nuclear fuel, something the U.S. has not done since President Ford suspended reprocessing in 1976 and President Carter outlawed the practice in 1977.) Even the United Arab Emirates, a country flush with oil, is preparing to spend $41 billion in an effort to get 25 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
As of February 2009, 436 nuclear reactors generated electricity in 30 countries. And according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, there are currently another 45 new nuclear plants under construction in 14 countries.
Worldwide, nuclear power plants generated about 14 percent of all electricity produced in 2007, while in 16 countries, nuclear energy accounted for at least 25 percent of all electricity generated. The following chart, generated by the NEI, provides a snapshot of the countries generating the largest percentage of their electricity from nuclear energy in 2007:
One Question Remains
In terms of sheer volume, the United States is far and away the largest nuclear power generator. In 2008, the United States generated 806.2 billion kilowatt hours, easily ahead of France, the world’s second largest generator, at 418.3 billion kilowatt hours (Japan is third, at 240.5 billion kwh).
As the developing world increasingly embraces nuclear power to meet its growing energy needs, will the United States accelerate, maintain, or scale back production? If we intend to meet our growing energy needs—and do so with environmental protection in mind—then nuclear power has to be part of the answer.
Drew Thornley, an independent policy analyst and licensed attorney, is an adjunct professor of business law at Concordia University in Austin, Texas.