Is The Us Getting Rid Of Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear power has played a significant role in electricity generation in the United States since the first commercial nuclear reactor opened in 1969. As of 2021, nuclear energy accounted for about 20% of total U.S. electricity generation, with 93 operating reactors at 55 plants. In 2020, nuclear generation in the U.S. totaled 809 billion kWh, which was more electricity than was produced by any other source except natural gas (U.S. EIA).

Proponents of nuclear energy argue it provides steady, reliable baseload power without producing any greenhouse gas emissions. They also point to the improved safety of new reactor designs. Critics argue that nuclear power comes with risks like accidents and radioactive waste disposal. High costs and slower construction of new plants have also hindered growth recently (World Nuclear Association). Overall the debate continues around the risks and benefits of nuclear power for America’s energy future.

Safety Concerns

There have been three major nuclear accidents in the history of civil nuclear power – Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011. The Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania was the most serious nuclear accident in U.S. history. It resulted in the reactor’s core overheating and a partial meltdown, releasing small amounts of radioactive gases ([1]). The Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine was the worst nuclear accident in history, resulting in a steam explosion and graphite fire that spread radioactive contamination across northern and western Europe. Over 30 workers and emergency personnel died as a direct result of the accident ([2]). The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan occurred after the plant was hit by a tsunami caused by the Tohoku earthquake, leading to three nuclear meltdowns and the release of radioactive contamination. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from the area ([3]). While many nuclear supporters argue these incidents represent an acceptable level of risk, critics argue they demonstrate the severe dangers of nuclear accidents.

There are also concerns about nuclear facilities as potential terrorist targets. An attack could potentially cause widespread radioactive contamination. Proper security is essential at nuclear plants and waste storage facilities. Related to this are fears about nuclear proliferation and the spread of nuclear materials and technology to nations or groups that may misuse them ([1]).

Another major concern is the accumulation of highly radioactive spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors. These dangerous waste products must be safely stored for thousands of years. There is still no consensus on the best long-term storage method. Many anti-nuclear activists cite this as an unacceptable risk that current generations are passing to future ones ([2]).

the debate continues whether nuclear power provides reliable low carbon energy despite risks like accidents and waste disposal

High Costs

Nuclear power plants require very high upfront capital costs compared to other energy sources. Building a new nuclear reactor can cost $6,000-$9,000 per kilowatt of capacity, which means a large 1,000 MW reactor could cost between $6 billion and $9 billion [1]. These high initial costs have increased over time due to enhanced safety features and more stringent regulations. Cost overruns are also common during construction, which can make nuclear even more expensive than initial estimates.

By comparison, natural gas power plants can be built for around $1,000 per kilowatt, making nuclear 5-9 times more capital intensive. Even renewable energy sources like solar and onshore wind typically have lower upfront costs per kilowatt than nuclear power. This makes other sources more financially appealing, especially since nuclear reactors can take over 5 years to build while gas and renewables can be constructed more quickly.

In terms of operating costs, nuclear is competitive with fossil fuels. However, the high initial investment means financing costs are a larger proportion of total nuclear electricity costs. With other energy sources being cheaper to construct, nuclear is facing increasing economic pressure despite its reliable electricity output.

Low Carbon

Nuclear energy plays an important role in low-carbon electricity generation. Nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gas emissions during operation. Over the entire lifecycle, including construction, mining, and fuel processing, the emissions from nuclear energy are very low per unit of electricity generated. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified nuclear energy as one of the technologies that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet climate goals. According to the World Nuclear Association, the lifecycle emissions from nuclear energy are comparable to wind and solar power.

Existing Reactors

The majority of nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States are aging and nearing the end of their original 40-year operating licenses. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average age of the 93 nuclear reactors in the U.S. is around 42 years old [1]. Many plants are applying for license renewals to extend their lifespan to 60 years. However, the high costs of necessary upgrades and maintenance work to keep old reactors running safely has led some nuclear plant owners to decide to retire reactors early instead.

Extending the operating life of a nuclear plant involves costly system replacements and component upgrades that require significant capital investment [2]. Safety regulations have also become more stringent over time. Meeting new NRC requirements often necessitates major facility modifications. In some cases, the amount of work and expenses needed to keep older reactors compliant makes continued operation uneconomical.

New Reactor Construction

The newest nuclear reactor to enter service in the U.S. is Vogtle Unit 3 in Georgia, which began commercial operation in July 2022 after years of delays and cost overruns [1]. Vogtle Unit 3 is the first new nuclear reactor built in the U.S. since 2016. The project has faced major setbacks, with the original cost estimate of $14 billion rising to over $30 billion [2].

High-profile new nuclear builds like Vogtle have struggled with construction problems and skyrocketing costs. No new nuclear reactor orders have been placed in the U.S. for decades, as cheaper alternatives like natural gas and renewables have made nuclear less economically viable. The huge upfront costs and long construction timelines create uncertainty for utilities and investors.

Early Retirements

In recent years, economic factors have led some nuclear power plant owners to decide to retire reactors earlier than their full licensed lifetimes. Low natural gas prices and increasing competition from renewable energy have reduced revenues for many nuclear plants, making them uneconomical to continue operating (Source). Since 2013, twelve nuclear reactors in the U.S. have been permanently shut down, representing 10,500 megawatts of generating capacity. The average age of these retired reactors was around 45 years.

State policies favoring renewable energy have also impacted nuclear economics. Some states provide subsidies for wind and solar power while not offering similar incentives for existing nuclear plants. This distorts electricity markets against nuclear. For example, Exelon announced plans to retire its Byron and Dresden nuclear plants in Illinois after the state legislature failed to adopt policy reforms to fairly compensate nuclear for its carbon-free attributes (Source).

Relicensing and Lifespan Extensions

Many nuclear plants were initially licensed to operate for 40 years, but regulators have the ability to renew those licenses for an additional 20 years. The process for renewing licenses involves a comprehensive safety and environmental review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to ensure continued safe operation.

According to the NRC, “Nuclear power plant licensees may apply to renew their licenses as early as 20 years before the license expires” ( As of 2022, the licenses of 94 reactors have been renewed by the NRC, allowing those plants to operate for a total of 60 years.

The process of relicensing involves detailed analysis and modifications to aging plant components, at significant cost. According to NEI, “Licensees project spending between $500 to $750 million per plant over the five to seven years it takes to complete the license renewal process” ( However, this investment is worthwhile for utilities, as it allows billions in additional revenue from continued operation.

The Alternatives

The declining costs of renewables like wind and solar have made them more economically competitive with nuclear power. According to the EPA, the average cost of renewable energy certificates for wind and solar reached around $60 per megawatt-hour in 2021, cheaper than building new nuclear reactors.

Many states have enacted policies to encourage growth of renewable energy like tax incentives and renewable portfolio standards. These policies have supported large expansions of wind and solar capacity.

Cheap, abundant natural gas has also made nuclear less competitive. Natural gas power plants are faster and cheaper to build than nuclear plants. With low natural gas prices in recent years, running existing natural gas plants has been less expensive than nuclear energy in some markets.


The Future

Projections for nuclear power growth over the next decades vary. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), global nuclear capacity could more than double to 873 gigawatts by 2050 under a high case scenario, driven by climate and energy security concerns (IAEA). However, growth depends heavily on policy and regulation. For example, some U.S. states provide subsidies or have clean energy standards that benefit existing nuclear plants. At the federal level, tax credits for new reactors were introduced in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.

Advanced nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors and next generation designs, could also play a role. These innovations aim for enhanced safety, efficiency, and flexibility compared to traditional large light-water reactors. However, development and commercialization timelines remain uncertain.

Similar Posts