Nuclear power industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Nuclear power provides an alternative to fossil fuels for delivering electric power. Plagued by some accidents, public fears of nuclear energy, and massive construction cost overruns, the industry has grown little since the 1980’s, although by the early twenty-first century there were some indications of a revival of the industry, as the United States sought a “clean” alternative to fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

The nuclear power industry originated during the 1950’s, as the United States began to investigate peaceful uses for nuclear energy to complement the military nuclear weapons program. In 1955, a research reactor provided some electric power for the town of Arco, Idaho, and in 1957, the first commercial nuclear power plant began operation in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. During the 1950’s and early 1960’s the Atomic Energy CommissionAtomic Energy Commission (AEC; the agency that had charge of civilian nuclear energy) investigated several types of reactors, such as the breeder reactor, sodium-graphite reactor, and pressurized water reactor. Ultimately, the AEC settled on the pressurized water reactor, which had been developed by the U.S. Navy for submarine use. The Shippingport and subsequent commercial reactors were all pressurized water reactors. Elsewhere, research continued, and nuclear power industries in some foreign countries, such as France, adopted different types of reactor design.Nuclear power industry

To induce private industry to participate in the development of nuclear power, Congress passed the Price-Anderson Indemnity Act in 1957 to protect reactor builders and operators from liability suits if accidents occurred. By the early 1960’s, several Electric power industryelectric utilities had contracted for the construction of nuclear reactors, reasoning that these plants would decrease their costs and enable them to expand their power generation capabilities. Nuclear power was often cited as the energy source of the future during the late 1950’s.

Safety and Fears of Accidents

Aware of the potential for major accidents at nuclear power plants, the nuclear industry adopted a policy of engineering EnvironmentSafety, consumer;nuclear power industrysafety mechanisms designed to prevent and contain any accident. All commercial nuclear reactors would be surrounded by massive containment buildings intended to contain any radioactive material emitted in an accident. Plants were designed with large margins of error to try to prevent any sort of operating accident from occurring. At every stage of operation, redundancies were built into safety mechanisms so that should one fail there would be others in place to prevent runaway chain reactions that could lead to the emission of radioactive material.

Companies that used nuclear reactors for power generation conducted extensive training of their personnel to further a process of safe operations. Many early nuclear power plants even provided tours for the public as a means of emphasizing the safety of their operations. The early strategies of the AEC had emphasized the containment of any radioactive material in the case of an accident. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the industry was plagued by construction cost overruns, and the AEC began to shift its strategy to prevention as a means of cutting construction costs yet maintaining safe operation. Spurred by ever-increasing demands for electric power, the electric power industry ordered larger and larger reactors, so by the early 1970’s, several reactors with 1,000-megawatt or higher capacities were being constructed in different parts of the country.

The initial support for nuclear power was, however, beginning to decline during the early 1970’s, as some Americans became quite concerned by the possibility of accidents and radiation leaks. From 1966 to 1976, the time required to obtain a permit to build a reactor increased from slightly over a year to nearly three and one-half years. Construction delays also increased. Some electric companies began to reconsider the feasibility of nuclear power and canceled orders for new reactors. The electric power industry ordered no new reactors after 1978, and some plants under construction were not completed.

A cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant looms behind an abandoned playground in March, 1979.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Already-declining support for nuclear power received a further shock in March, 1979, when an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island accidentThree Mile Island reactor outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Three Mile Island accident confirmed that the defense-in-depth strategy worked, as almost no radiation (15 curies) was released to the atmosphere. Nonetheless, the errors that occurred in dealing with the initial accident, such as shutting down the emergency cooling loop, led to severe criticism of the industry. The problems at Three Mile Island were primarily human failures rather than design problems, but the widespread negative publicity, coupled with the impact of the nuclear-safety-themed movie The China Syndrome (1979), led many Americans to doubt the safety of nuclear power.

The nuclear power industry received another black eye in April, 1986, with the major accident at the Soviet power reactor at Chernobyl. The Chernobyl accidentChernobyl accident occurred because of several design flaws in Soviet reactors, as well as numerous human errors. The Chernobyl accident released 100 million curies of radioactivity into the atmosphere, and several people died trying to cope with the accident. The Chernobyl reactor was a graphite reactor that suffered a runaway reaction–something that was not possible in American light-water reactors. In addition, the Soviet reactors did not have a full containment shield, unlike those in all Western countries. This flaw led to much of the radioactivity release. The Soviet operators deliberately ignored several warnings during a test that disabled the cooling mechanism for the reactor and kept the test running in spite of several warnings of danger.

Ironically, the Chernobyl accident helped confirm the strengths of U.S. reactor design and training. U.S. power reactors did not follow the Soviet design, and all had extensive containment mechanisms. American operators are unable to override the safety mechanisms as the Soviet operators had done. Nonetheless, the Chernobyl accident and its continuing environmental and health impacts confirmed the opinions of many Americans that nuclear power was an unsafe technology. Although American power companies did not shut down any of their reactors, the negative public opinion coupled to the enormous cost of completing the reactors they had under construction made it impossible to engage in any expansion of nuclear power capability.

By the late 1980’s, questions were also being raised about nuclear waste. Reactor operation produces several types of nuclear waste, from slightly radioactive shop towels to spent fuel rods that remain radioactive for several thousand years. France followed a policy of reprocessing its fuel rods to extend their usable life. This process, however, also produces weapons-grade plutonium, adding a different hazard. Throughout the decade of the 1990’s, Congress debated what to do with nuclear waste, and a decision was reached late in the decade to bury most of the waste in geologically stable formations in the western United States. The facility for storage of spent control rods is not yet complete, so utilities store the material in special facilities on site. The questions concerning nuclear waste added support to the opponents of nuclear power.

The nuclear power industry remained moribund throughout the 1990’s and into the twenty-first century. Public fears and high construction costs ensured that no reactors were constructed. In some cases, additional safety and operating issues were raised by nuclear power opponents concerning existing reactors. Power reactors were initially permitted for twenty years, and these permits were extended for some reactors, raising potential safety concerns. Even so, the potential costs and hazards of dismantling an out-of-service reactor remain a troubling issue.

Energy Costs and Global Warming

During the 1990’s, energy prices began to rise at a steep rate in the United States, as oil and natural gas prices increased. Coal prices remained relatively low, but burning coal contributes significantly to global warming and other environmental problems such as acid rain. Reactor construction costs had made nuclear plants an uneconomical source of energy, but the increase in the prices for other sources of energy began to make nuclear power appear to be a somewhat better alternative. The increasing awareness of the atmospheric problems caused by burning coal and oil began to raise some tough environmental questions for these industries. Coal power remained quite cheap during the early twenty-first century, but its environmental costs became increasingly evident, making it a less desirable fuel. Initially, the fears of nuclear power accidents and questions concerning nuclear wastes were dominant, precluding any consideration of expanding nuclear power capacity. In some cases, fears of terrorism directed against reactors added to the force of these questions.

Gradually, critics of Global warmingglobal warming theories and advocates of American energy independence have begun to refocus their attention on nuclear energy. There is a good deal of uranium available in Canada and the Western United States, so obtaining fuel is less of a political concern than is obtaining oil from unstable countries in the Middle East and Asia. Several geologists have pointed out that supplies of oil and natural gas are limited and cannot be relied on far into the future.

Coal power remains the cheapest form of electric power. Coal industryCoal is readily available, U.S. energy companies have numerous coal plants already paid for, and construction of a new coal-fired plant is cheaper than constructing other types of power plants. The indirect costs of burning coal are steadily mounting. These include carbon emissions that constitute a major source of global warming, as well as various forms of acid rain. Although burning natural gas produces fewer environmental problems, burning oil produces many of the same environmental problems as burning coal. Some environmentalists as well as energy analysts have come to advocate nuclear power as a potential means of increasing energy supply in the United States. Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases or compounds that lead to acid rain. The available supply of uranium is large enough to supply American energy needs well into the future. The problems of high costs associated with construction and dealing with nuclear wastes will have to be addressed, however, before nuclear energy can compete with other forms of energy.

By late 2007, sixteen utilities had announced plans for potential reactor construction. Three had filed applications for early site permits to begin construction, and four had obtained a combined license to build and conditionally operate one or more commercial reactors (one of these had also obtained an early site permit). If all these reactors were constructed, approximately nineteen gigawatts of nuclear electric power capacity would be added to the power grid. None of these utilities has started construction, and some of these potential reactors may not be built. Nonetheless, the nuclear power industry appears to be making a resurgence, driven largely by environmental issues and a desire for energy independence.

Further Reading
  • Herbst, Alan M., and George W. Hopley. Nuclear Energy Now. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. Primarily an economic analysis that concludes that nuclear power is a better source of energy for the future of the United States.
  • Hore-Lacy, Ian. Nuclear Energy in the Twenty-first Century. Burlington, Mass.: Academic Press, 2006. Easily understood examination of the technical aspects of nuclear reactor operation worldwide. A good starting point for further reading.
  • Macfarlane, Allison M., and Rodney C. Ewing, eds. Uncertainty Underground. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. Essays from several different perspectives concerning the development of the repository for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
  • Morone, Joseph G., and Edward J. Woodhouse. The Demise of Nuclear Energy? New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. Good analysis of the early history of nuclear energy and its safety and economic problems.
  • Morris, Robert C. The Environmental Case for Nuclear Power. St. Paul: Paragon House, 2000. Analysis of environmental issues that argues that nuclear power is environmentally superior to other forms of energy.
  • Ramsay, Charles B., and Mohammad Modarres. Commercial Nuclear Power. New York: BookSurge, 1998. Extensive analysis of nuclear reactor operation and safety.

Coal industry

U.S. Department of Energy

Environmental movement

Petroleum industry

Public utilities

Tennessee Valley Authority

Three Mile Island accident

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