Note: This page was updated in 2011 to address the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Read the update.
Nuclear energy is the largest low carbon emission power generation option in the U.S. It provides one-fifth of our electricity. There are 103 commercial nuclear reactors currently in operation in the U.S. The last commercial plant was commissioned in the 1970s after which the nuclear industry experienced major setbacks due to financial, regulatory and safety issues. More recent advances in nuclear technology, along with concerns over global warming, have set the stage for a possible revival of nuclear power.
Nuclear power was once famously described as “too cheap to meter”. After a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 and complete meltdown and release of radioactive material at Chernobyl in 1986, nuclear power suffered a major setback. New safety measures and designs were enacted. Costs rose considerably, making nuclear power now “too expensive to justify” in most countries. South Korea, Japan, and a handful of other countries continued to construct nuclear power plants, but at a much slower pace.
Today, proponents of nuclear power believe that technological risks have been largely addressed. And while it can be argued that the actual risks of nuclear power are far lower than the perceived risks, and that coal-fired power plants have killed a far greater number of people than nuclear energy, most communities do not want nuclear plants nearby. No country has solved the issue of long-term waste disposal, and new fears have emerged in the post-9/11 world that nuclear plants will become targets for terrorists.
Besides public opposition, the revival of nuclear power depends on its cost competitiveness with other energy options. The levelized cost of nuclear power today is difficult to estimate since few plants are being built, but a recent study by MIT put it at 6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, considerably higher then pulverized coal or natural gas plants. Still, nuclear power offers powerful carbon benefits and could become competitive with other options with a carbon value of $30 to $50 per ton of CO2 avoided.
Improved nuclear power technology is under development with U.S. government funding. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 contains incentives to support existing plants and promote R&D for new nuclear plants. But public concerns over plant siting, safe operation and waste disposal are probably the biggest barriers that the nuclear industry faces before this source of carbon free electricity sees a true revival.
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of lives, along with homes and entire villages. These dual natural disasters led to a third crisis: the breakdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant, including the collapse of several cooling systems and radiation leakage.
Beyond the human tragedy, this crisis is a stark reminder of the risks associated with many energy choices, particularly nuclear power. It also reinforces the reality that as much as society prepares for worst-case scenarios, we can never fully anticipate or eliminate risks, including from sudden disasters.
Since the text above was written in July 2007, three points have become even clearer:
While major accidents are infrequent, nuclear power generation holds the potential for high-impact risks for people and the environment. These risks demand that nuclear plants undergo regular reviews and monitoring, and the highest safety standards must be maintained.
In recent years, the U.S. government has offered loan-guarantees and other incentives to encourage the construction of new nuclear power plants. Even still, the cost of building new nuclear power plants in the United States has mostly proven to be prohibitively expensive compared with other energy options.
More low-cost renewable energy technologies have become available in recent years, offering a wider array of energy options. Government policies can have a significant influence on which energy sources come to scale and which fall behind. Especially in light of the Japan nuclear crisis, decisions about energy choices should be informed by cost, risk, and safety concerns, in addition to other factors, to protect people and the environment.