Nuclear energy is energy used in making of military weapons and generation of electricity. This form of energy is generated from either nuclear fission or fusion. Today, the United States is one of the industrialized countries with a highly developed nuclear energy sector. Initially, the country used nuclear energy to make military weapons. However, today, a significant proportion of electricity used in the country is generated from nuclear energy. Nevertheless, the kind of energy has its benefits and its disadvantages. As a source of electricity, nuclear energy provides sufficient base load energy for power grids. On the contrary the nuclear energy industry is filled with secrets that may pave a way for illegal trade that will compromise the safety of Americans. The primary aim of this essay is to evaluate the status, pros and cons of the nuclear energy in the United States.
Status of Nuclear Energy in the US
The increasing demand for electricity and fluctuating prices and coal and natural gas in the United States accounted for extensive use of nuclear energy as from the late 1950s. Between mid and late 1880s, the Americans embarked on exploiting technological developments to generate electricity for the increasing domestic and industrial customers. As electrification extended from major cities to other parts of the country, demand for electricity increased. As such, production depended on coal, hydropower resources, oil, and gas for peak-time generation (Stoker & Baker). As from the 1950s, increasing population and high rates of industrialization increased the demand for electricity significantly. On the contrary, the United States gas producers reverted to less demanding conventional reserves as the country’s gas reserves were located in shale rocks that were hard to reach. With the falling production of natural gas, their prices became unstable and price of electricity increased. Additionally, increasing prices of coal increased the price of electricity; paving a way for the development and high use of nuclear power (Stoker & Baker).
The late 1950s marked the beginning of commercial production of electricity from nuclear energy in the United States. Early in the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission embarked on proving that nuclear energy was not only for making military weapons, but also other uses (Stoker & Baker). In 1953, the AEC introduced the civil nuclear power program that also enabled access to the country’s nuclear fuels. Between 1957 and 1963, both the General Electric and Westinghouse adopted the use of light water reactor technology to generate electricity. With the increased competition between the two companies, General Electric developed the Boiled Water Reactor technology and used the resulting steam to turbines that generated electricity. As a result, AEC began to export nuclear reactors from France and Germany to continue with the production of electricity from nuclear energy (Stoker & Baker). Nuclear energy accounts for a significant proportion of electricity generated in the United States today. By the end of 2017, the number of nuclear reactors in the United States increased to 61 nuclear power plants that operated over 90 commercial nuclear reactors. Currently, nuclear developers use advanced technology to modify nuclear power reactors to maintain consistent power generation capacity. Today, the 99 operational nuclear reactors produce 20% of the country’s annual electricity equivalent to the amount produced in 1990s, despite shutting six nuclear reactors since 2013. The government attributes this consistency to the shortened length of reactor offline time for refueling (US Energy Information Administration Paras. 1-2).
Nuclear energy is highly beneficial. First, nuclear power provides constant minimum power that a power grid requires to economically supply power that satisfies minimum demands. Typically, nuclear reactors are independent; hence natural factors, such as wind and extreme sunshine do not affect their activities. Furthermore, they operate throughout the 24 hours in a day and generate about 90% of the power required for industrial and domestic use in a country (Fox 104). Such a power capacity supersedes that of wind and solar, which experts approximate to be 33% and 25% respectively. With the high power capacity, nuclear reactors have long-term average power output. This means that during the time of operation, nuclear reactors generate sufficient power to sustain power demands at the time of reactor downtime (Fox 104). Moreover, unlike solar and wind energy, nuclear energy is highly predictable. Such is the case as experts schedule downtime ahead of time to change fuel used in nuclear reactors. Therefore, with the reactors ability to operate at 100% capacity, nuclear energy reduces dependency on coal and natural gas to provide base load energy for power grids (Fox 104).
Nuclear power reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emissions, which increases the volume of greenhouse gases circulating in the atmosphere. According to Michael Fox, coal produces about 960-1,300g/kWh of carbon dioxide. Production of nuclear power uses advanced technologies, which reduce carbon dioxide emission to two percent of the volume emitted from coal. The experts also predict that in future, new technologies will be used to improve nuclear processes that use uranium. Such a step will lower carbon dioxide emissions significantly from nuclear fuel cycles (Fox 105).
Nuclear power eradicates the need for new power transmission lines that are environmentally damaging. In the United States, nuclear reactors are located in highly populated eastern parts of the country. Such a location means easy supply of power to the people through the existing transmission lines (Fox 106). Furthermore, nuclear reactors use highly concentrated energy from splitting uranium to generate power. In this case, a nuclear plant uses less than half a square mile to generate multiple gigawatts of electricity. Such a small footprint supersedes 50 square miles of solar panels and almost 500 square miles of wind turbines that generate similar amount of power (Fox 106). Therefore, with the small footprint and without a need for new power transmission lines, nuclear power is suitable for urban areas to reduce negative impacts on the landscape and environment.
Nuclear reactors are cost-saving as they reduce the cost of replacing power generating equipment. According to Fox, the United States recognizes the lifetime of nuclear reactors as 40 years. However, after inspection, the Nuclear Energy Regulation can extend the lifetime to 60 years depending on the safety status of the reactors (Fox 106). On the contrary, solar panels have an average life of 20 years. Unlike the nuclear reactors, the power production efficiency of solar panels decreases by approximately one percent per year. This means that they will have lost 20% of the power output by the end of the 20 years. Additionally, wind turbines have a similar lifetime as solar panels (Fox 106). As such, a person investing in solar panels and wind turbines will incur the replacement cost twice compared to an investor in nuclear reactors, which do not need replacement in a period of 40 years.
Nuclear power plants attract high initial investment costs leading to a high cost of the generated electricity. According to Fox, each reactor requires about $6 billion to $8 billion to install. In 2005, the federal government enacted the Energy Policy Act that recognized the provision of construction loan guarantees for nuclear plants. However, the loans do not exceed 80% of a reactor’s cost. Furthermore, a significant proportion of investors cannot afford remaining 20% required to complete a single nuclear power project. Additionally, the law requires nuclear power developers to fully pay the cost of loan guarantee and the cost of administering such loan programs. Consequently, the plan discourages private financiers from financing private projects, especially when the nuclear developers fail to meet the loan guarantee obligations and to complete their projects within a particular period and budget (Fox 109). With the high initial investment cost, nuclear developers will increase the price of power per unit; making it expensive, especially for domestic users. As a result, people will revert to other cheaper sources of power. Additionally, the federal government provides different incentives for investment in energy. However, of the total incentives, nine percent goes to research and development in nuclear power (Fox 110). This means that nuclear developers have to shoulder a high cost for the construction of nuclear reactors. Therefore, the market may not sustain nuclear power in the long-run due to its high initial investment.
Political leaders highly interfere with the operations of nuclear developers. Consequently, they make decisions that increase the risks and uncertainties of nuclear power. According to George Gonzales, majority of the leaders tailor their politics to suite interests of the local businesses. Failing to align their political interests to those of the nuclear developers creates uncertainties in the local economic climate. Such a move discourages new nuclear developers from investing in the locality. Furthermore, political interferences force nuclear developers to shut their operations in a state prior to the end of their projects’ lifetime. For example, the state government of New York accuses the management of Oyster Creek nuclear plant of unwillingness to comply with the state’s safety measures. Consequently, Oyster Creek’s management has decided to shut the plant in 2019,10 years before the planned time (Gonzales 3). In such a case, it is likely that the nuclear developer will hurriedly cease operations without considering proper disposure of their waste products. Consequently, Gonzales points out that nuclear waste can be mined to make nuclear weapons (Gonzales 4). Therefore, it is clear that political decisions compromise proper handling of civilian nuclear technology; thus increasing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.
Monopolization of the nuclear power sector can compromise people’s safety as the nuclear developers focus on maximizing output and profits. According to Gonzales, high initial investment attracts few investors. As a result, they dominate and monopolize the nuclear energy sector due to lack of high competition. In the United States, Westinghouse and General Electric are the dominant builders of nuclear reactors. With such monopoly, it is easy for investors to concentrate on increasing output to increase their earnings from nuclear power. As a result, they are likely to produce beyond their capacity and cause nuclear accidents, such as the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl reactor accidents of 1979 and 1986 respectively (Gonzales 3-4). Gerry Stoker and Keith Baker add that the nuclear industry in the United States is highly suspicious. Such is the case as the industry is secretive; creating a loophole for the investors to engage in secretive transactions that may compromise people’s safety (Stoker & Baker Chapter 6).
Nuclear energy is of significant use in the United States. Initially, nuclear power was used for military purposes. With time, advanced technology was used to generate electricity from nuclear energy. Today, electricity from nuclear power accounts for about 20% of the United States’ total electricity produced each year. Among its benefits, nuclear power eradicates the need for new power transmission lines that are environmentally damaging and reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emission. Conversely, monopolization of the nuclear power sector can compromise people’s safety as the nuclear developers focus on maximizing output and profits. Moreover, nuclear power plants attract a high initial investment cost leading to a high cost of the generated electricity. Therefore, the federal government and private nuclear developers should invent ways of minimizing the cons, especially the safety concerns.
Baker, Keith, and Stoker, Gerry. Nuclear Power and Energy Policy: The Limits to Governance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.
Fox, Michael, H. Why We Need Nuclear Power: The Environmental Case. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.
Gonzalez, George, A. Energy and Empire: The Politics of Nuclear and Solar Power in the United States. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012. Print.
US Energy Information Administration. Nuclear explained: US nuclear industry. May 1, 2018. Retrieved from [Web] June 25, 2018. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=nuclear_use