History of Nuclear Reactors in the US
Starting from 1958, electricity has been generated from commercial nuclear power plants. The number of nuclear reactors in operation rose rapidly but reached a peak in 1990 and followed a steady decline as old nuclear reactors were decommissioned and only one has been built in the last 20 years.
Nonetheless, nuclear energy continues to play an important part in energy generation in the US and the world. In 2021, nuclear generated 19.6% of the US's electricity.
Nuclear is the world's second-largest source of low-carbon power, next to hydroelectric.
Public Attitude toward Nuclear Energy
"While some advocates suggest that nuclear power – a source that emits no carbon – should have a more prominent role in the nation’s energy makeup, the public continues to express mixed views about it as an energy source."
"In fact, the public is about as likely to say the government should encourage oil and gas drilling as it is to say the government should encourage nuclear power production."
- Pew Research Center
1. Environmental Concerns
- Three Mile Island Accident (Level 5 scale from INES)
This was the most serious accident in commercial nuclear plant operations in the US. It began with a mechanical failure that prevented the main water pumps to send water to the generators and remove heat from the reactor. As a result, the core overheated and the reactor partially melted down. However, the level of radioactive release was very low after a comprehensive review.
- Fukushima (Level 7 scale from INES)
Following a major earthquake and a tsunami in March 2011, the power supply of three Fukushima reactors was disabled, thus causing three cores to be largely melted in the first three days. The impact of the core melt was significant: there were high radioactive releases, most of which have 30 + half-life that spread well beyond the plant site. Over $100,000 people were evacuated as a preventative measure and there've been 2,313 related deaths among evacuees.
2. Costs and Budget Constraints
Adding two reactors to Plant Vogtle in Georgia, which has been under construction since 2013 are billions of dollars over budget and there's no end in sight.
Declining Energy Generation Over Time
US nuclear electricity generation continues to decline as more reactors decline and only a few are under construction with no specific end date. In addition to fear and political activism, the economics of electricity that favors non-renewables, such as crude oil and natural gas is also a reason for nuclear's decline.
The share of energy in the US generated by crude oil and nuclear clearly demonstrates the shift in energy use in the past 20 years.
However, nuclear power could provide much-needed energy security, especially in the midst of global crises.
For example, Germany is delaying its exit from nuclear, a decision made by the government of Angela Merkel after the Fukushima accident. Plants that were scheduled to be decommissioned are in standby mode and could be turned online.
Nuclear is powerful, clean, and safe.
Now it's time to act!
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Leppert, Rebecca. “Americans Continue to Express Mixed Views about Nuclear Power.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 23 Mar. 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/03/23/americans-continue-to-express-mixed-views-about-nuclear-power/.
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Ritchie, Hannah. “What Are the Safest and Cleanest Sources of Energy?” Our World in Data, 10 Feb. 2020, https://ourworldindata.org/safest-sources-of-energy.
“Take Action.” Nuclear Energy Institute, https://www.nei.org/take-action.
US Energy Information Administration. Monthly Energy Review - September 2022 - Energy Information Administration. https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/mer.pdf.