Quick Study: The Facts on Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is on the front burner again. Here's what you need to know.

By Lisa Goff from Reader's Digest | August 2008

Get the stats, learn the acronyms and key definitions and read about the pros and cons of nuclear and other energy sources.

63% Americans favor use of nuclear energy as one way to provide electricity

19.4% amount of US electricity generated by nuclear plants

104 nuclear reactors now operating in the US

1 number of times the NRC has ordered a nuclear plant shut down until safety problems were resolved, since Three Mile Island

64 number of nuclear plants canceled after meltdown at Three Mile Island

9 number of applications for new reactors in pipeline

6 or less number of new nuclear reactors that could be approved in next 3-4 years

51 metric tons amount of nuclear waste currently stored in ‘the DOE’s 121 temporary storage facilities.

161 million number of Americans who live within 75 miles of ‘the DOE’s nuclear waste storage sites nationwide.

360 millirems Amount of radiation absorbed per year by the average American

20 millirems Total extra radiation neighbors of Yucca Mountain would receive over the 24-year projected lifespan of the facility

The Acronyms

IAEA—International Atomic Energy Agency. Set up as the world’s “Atoms for Peace” organization in 1957 within the United Nations to promote safe and secure use of nuclear energy.

NRC—Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Federal agency that licenses nuclear power plants.

NEI—Nuclear Energy Institute. Trade group for the nuclear industry in 15 countries.

INPO—Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. Voluntary self-regulating industry group formed in 1979, in the wake of Three Mile Island disaster.

NWF—Nuclear Waste Fund. Established 1982 to fund a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, by requiring utilities to pay one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour of nuclear energy they generate. Now $21 billion and mired in lawsuits.

The Glossary Advanced burner reactor—A new type of nuclear reactor that uses recycled nuclear fuel, and consumes more radioactive elements than it creates

Dry casks—Sealed metal cylinders used to store nuclear waste. An alternative, first used in 1986, to storing spent fuel in steel-lined water pools adjacent to nuclear plants.

Geologic repository—Subterranean holding tank, such as that planned for Yucca Mountain, that isolates high level radioactive nuclear waste from the biosphere while it safely decays.

Low-level radioactive waste—Nuclear waste with a relatively low level of radioactivity, such as that produced in hospitals, that remains dangerous for a short period of time

Millirems—Unit of measurement for radiation. A flight from New York to Los Angeles equals 2.5 millirems; the US annual average is 360.

Spent nuclear fuel—Nuclear fuel that is used in a reactor for a number of years, during which its uranium is “spent” making electricity. Generates high-level radioactive waste.

Energy Sources: Pros and Cons

Method: Coal Share of U.S. Market: 49% Process: Combustible rock mined from the ground, then burned. Pros/Cons: Plentiful but hazardous to extract: mine accidents have claimed 171 American lives since 2003. Plants emit CO2, mercury and sulfur dioxide, contributing to global warming and acid rain. The federal government is backing away from funding coal plants, and Congress is considering legislation that would prevent construction of coal plants with nocontrols on their global warming emissions.

Method: Natural Gas Share of U.S. Market: 20% Process: Extracted from reservoirs and refined; transported via pipelines. Pros/Cons: Ample and clean-burning. Demand has outstripped supply, how-ever, driving prices up. Cheap to produce but costly to transport, and highly flammable. Pipelines frequently leak.

Method: Nuclear Share of U.S. Market: 19% Process: Nuclear reactors split uranium and plutonium atoms (nuclear fission) Pros/Cons: Carbon footprint equals zero, but storage of radioactive waste—toxic for centuries— is complicated technically and politically. Terrorism and proliferation risks. Plants are cheap to operate but expensive to build.

Method: Hydroelectric Share of U.S. Market: 7% Process: Dams create reservoirs, trapped water falls onto blades of turbines. Pros/Cons: Dams are expensive to build, cheap to run, efficient and don’t pollute the atmosphere. But reservoirs, often sited in small canyons and valleys, destroy natural habitats. And most of the best reservoir sites are already dammed.

Method: Solar and Wind Share of U.S. Market: 2.4% Process: Windturbines, photovoltaic panels, and solar thermal plants Pros/Cons: Sunshine and stiff breezes are the ultimate in renewable sources, but critics say they can’t possibly meet US demand. Towering industrial turbines chew up migrating bats and birds, and take up huge tracts of land. Fights over wind farms are heating up in a half-dozen states from Massachusetts to Washington.

A Look at Indian Point Energy Center

About 40 miles north of New York City, two nuclear reactors hug the east bank of the Hudson River at a power plant called Indian Point. In March the state joined Westchester County and several environmental groups in asking the NRC to deny Indian Point’s request for license renewal, which would allow the reactors to operate for another 20 years. The state’s official objections don’t include the guard who was found napping at Indian Point in the summer of 2007, or the contractor who showed up for work with alcohol in his system this winter. The generator leak, the flooded building, the time the backup batteries died: bygones.

Rather, the state cites “common sense issues,” like an allegedly inadequate evacuation plan for the area’s 20 million residents, and the “exposed and unsecured” radioactive waste languishing in water pools at the 40-year-old facility. The debate is now working its way through the courts. Whatever the outcome, the Indian Point saga points to one of the last nuclear plant license approved in the US.

Who’s Who Old nukes

The construction permits for the 104 nuclear reactors in the US were all approved before the 1979 Three Mile Island debacle. All have different designs, which complicates inspection by the NRC. The last one hooked up to the power grid in 1996.

New nukes Since TMI the industry has formed a voluntary self-policing body (INPO),wrangled construction loan guarantees out of Congress, and limited designs for new reactors to a handful of “off-the-shelf” blueprints that mirror pioneering designs from France and Japan, where nuclear energy rules. Many of the applications now before the NRC r represent designs owned by foreign companies.

For more information, visit How Stuff Works for an explanation and video about nuclear power.

Plus, watch a recent NBC news report about rethinking nuclear energy.