In the era of $4-a-gallon gas, nuclear energy is getting new scrutiny. Depending on which side you listen to, nuclear power is either the fresh, young, can-do face of the future or the tired, old, ticking time bomb of the past. Although the United States gets almost 20 percent of its energy from nuclear power plants, no new reactors have been built since the meltdown at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1979.
The antinuke chorus hasn’t given up; in fact, it’s been joined by several states worried about the relicensing of old nuclear plants. But with the population surging, fossil fuel prices soaring, and climate change scaring just about everyone, the prospect of clean, cheap nuclear energy is clouding those meltdown memories. To critics’ cries of nuclear proliferation and radiation leaks, proponents gently whisper, “Zero carbon footprint.” Oddly, the nuclear rebirth comes when planet-friendly energy sources like the sun and wind are making strides of their own, advances that could make them competitive with nuclear energy.
The Time Line
1945 — United States drops nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II.
1950s — Desert tests in Nevada clear way for commercial nuclear industry. First U.S. reactor (Shippingport, in Pennsylvania) goes online, in 1957.
1979 — March 16 The China Syndrome (Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas), about lax safety at nuclear power plants, is released.
March 28 — Three Mile Island meltdown. No fatalities; studies show “negligible” health risk.
1983 — Silkwood (Cher, Meryl Streep), about nuclear skulduggery, is released.
1986 — Chernobyl disaster in the U.S.S.R. kills 31 and spews massive amounts of radioactive dust into the atmosphere. Ultimate death toll from cancer: 4,000 (estimate).
1987 — Congress authorizes national nuclear- waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, set to start in 1998.
1996 — Last reactor added to U.S. power grid (Watts Bar, in Tennessee).
1997 — Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) waylays plans to open Yucca Mountain in his state.
2005 — Energy Policy Act authorizes $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for clean energy plants, including nuclear ones.
2007 — First new application to build a nuclear reactor in 30 years.
2015 — Earliest date new nuclear reactor could be brought online.
2020 — Latest estimated opening of Yucca Mountain repository.
Sabotage or accidents — Spent fuel is now stored on-site at nuclear plants. If the containers holding this radioactive material were to lose their coolant, land could be contaminated for hundreds of miles. If an operating reactor lost its coolant, thousands could die from acute radiation within days or weeks, and tens of thousands could die from cancer in the long term. There are 161 million Americans living within 75 miles of the Department of Energy’s 121 nuclear-waste storage sites.
Meltdown — On March 28, 1979, the cooling system at Three Mile Island malfunctioned. Within hours, the core of the overheated plant essentially melted. Remarkably, no one was hurt.
Explosions — Chernobyl, the reactor in the then-Soviet Union (now Ukraine), experienced a power surge and explosions in April 1986. A botched test caused the accident that killed dozens and sentenced thousands to cancer after they were exposed to radiation.
Health — New research has linked living near a nuclear plant to childhood leukemia.
Nuclear holocaust — Critics fear that the countries now seeking nuclear energy capabilities, including Iran, are just looking for the back door to nuclear bombs. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in January that his country would bring a nuclear plant online by 2009. These same critics also point to the terrorist threat posed by transporting nuclear waste, now stored at dozens of sites, to a new centralized repository like the one planned for Yucca Mountain.
Snazzier reactors — The next generation of nuclear reactors are simpler and, according to the industry, less prone to meltdown because they rely on natural processes like gravity and evaporation instead of big valves and pumps manned by human beings. So far, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has certified four new reactor designs and is reviewing an additional four.
Recycling — A pipe dream in the United States even a few years ago, the goal of recycling spent nuclear fuel has today been embraced by the Bush Administration, which in 2006 made recycling the centerpiece of its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. GNEP countries would provide nuclear fuel to developing nations, who in return would promise not to generate their own. Spent fuel would be reprocessed so that weapons-grade plutonium is kept out of dangerous hands. The GNEP aims to advance recycling and reactor technologies.
Central dumping ground — Opponents of a centralized, underground repository for high-level nuclear waste argue that Yucca Mountain is too close to Las Vegas (90 miles) and an earthquake fault line. And transporting waste cross-country, they say, could create “mobile Chernobyls.”
Another way to store spent nuclear fuel: Dry casks on-site mean no transport.
Arguments for Nuclear Power
‘We’re in the early stages of a renaissance for nuclear energy. Just look at the numbers. Nuclear energy is reliable and affordable, and it’s a carbon-free energy source.’
Steven Kerekes, spokesman, Nuclear Energy Institute
“What the nuclear industry is selling as the ‘nuclear renaissance’ has the same problems that plagued the industry from the start: safety, security, no place to put radioactive waste, lack of skilled engineers and craft labor, cost of materials, weak supply chains, cost of capital, and lack of investors.”
Jon Block, formerly of the Union of Concerned Scientists
“Some environmentalists are still stuck in the 1970s, [when we feared] being fried by nuclear weapons. Nuclear energy is simply the only nonpolluting energy source that can replace fossil fuels. It’s a fairy tale that wind and solar can do the job.”
Patrick Moore, cochair, Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy) and cofounder of Greenpeace
“Today’s reactor designs are safer than before. But they’re costly, and we don’t have very good regulatory enforcement. We’re creating proliferation risks and kicking them down the road to our children.”
Arjun Makhijani, author and president, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.