Nuclear power in the United States

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NRC regions and locations of nuclear reactors, 2008
Net electrical generation from US nuclear power plants 1949-2011
Nuclear power compared to other sources of electricity in the US, 1949-2011

Nuclear power in the United States is provided by 100 commercial reactors (65 pressurized water reactors and 35 boiling water reactors) licensed to operate at 62 nuclear power plants, producing a total of 790 TWh of electricity, which was 19.4% of the nation's total electric energy generation in 2013.[1][2] The United States is the world's largest supplier of commercial nuclear power.

All US nuclear power plants, and almost all reactors, began construction by 1974; following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and changing economics, many planned projects were canceled. More than a 100 orders for nuclear power reactors, many already under construction, were canceled in the 1970s and 1980s, bankrupting some companies. Of the 100 reactors now operating in the U.S., ground was broken on all of them in 1977 or earlier.[3][4][5]

There has been no ground-breaking on new nuclear plants in the United States since 1974. Up until 2013, there had also been no ground-breaking on new nuclear reactors at existing power plants since 1977. Then in 2012, the NRC approved construction of four new reactors at existing nuclear plants. Construction of the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station Units 2 and 3 began on March 9, 2013. A few days later, on March 12, construction began on the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant Units 3 and 4. In addition, TVA's new reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station is at an advanced stage, after construction was resumed after being halted in 1988.[6]

There was a revival of interest in nuclear power in the 2000s, with talk of a "nuclear renaissance", supported particularly by the Nuclear Power 2010 Program. A number of applications were made, but facing economic challenges, and later in the wake of the 2011 Japanese nuclear accidents, most of these projects have been canceled, and as of 2012, "nuclear industry officials say they expect five new reactors to enter service by 2020 – Southern's two Vogtle reactors, two at Summer in South Carolina and one at Watts Bar in Tennessee";[7] these are all at existing plants. As of August 2013, there are construction delays at Vogtle and Summer.[8]

In 2013, four aging reactors were permanently closed before their licenses expired because of high maintenance and repair costs at a time when natural gas prices have fallen: San Onofre 2 and 3 in California, Crystal River 3 in Florida, and Kewaunee in Wisconsin.[9][10] The state of Vermont is trying to close Vermont Yankee, in Vernon. New York State is seeking to close Indian Point in Buchanan, 30 miles from New York City.[10] Loss of nuclear generating capacity is expected to be offset by the five new nuclear reactors currently under construction, with a proposed combined capacity of more than 5,000 MW.[11]

As of December 2013, planned additions to US nuclear power amounted to 7,700 MW of summer generating capacity, while planned retirements of nuclear facilities equaled 1,200 MW.[12]

History[edit]

Emergence[edit]

See also: Atomic Age
The Shippingport reactor was the first full-scale PWR nuclear power plant in the United States.
President Jimmy Carter leaving Three Mile Island for Middletown, Pennsylvania, April 1, 1979

Unexpectedly high costs in the Second World War nuclear weapons program created "...pressure on federal officials to develop a civilian nuclear power industry that could help justify the government's considerable expenditures".[13] Research into the peaceful uses of nuclear materials began in the United States under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission, created by the United States Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Medical scientists were interested in the effect of radiation upon the fast-growing cells of cancer, and materials were given to them, while the military services led research into other peaceful uses.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 encouraged private corporations to build nuclear reactors and a significant learning phase followed with many early partial core meltdowns and accidents at experimental reactors and research facilities.[14] This led to the introduction of the Price-Anderson Act in 1957, which was, "...an implicit admission that nuclear power provided risks that producers were unwilling to assume without federal backing."[14] The Price-Anderson Act "...shields nuclear utilities, vendors and suppliers against liability claims in the event of a catastrophic accident by imposing an upper limit on private sector liability." Without such protection, private companies were unwilling to become involved. No other technology in the history of American industry has enjoyed such continuing blanket protection.[13]

Power reactor research[edit]

Argonne National Laboratory was assigned by the United States Atomic Energy Commission the lead role in developing commercial nuclear energy beginning in the 1940s. Between then and the turn of the 20th to 21st century, Argonne designed, built, and operated fourteen reactors[15] at its site southwest of Chicago, and another fourteen reactors[15] at the National Reactors Testing Station in Idaho.[16] These reactors included initial experiments and test reactors that were the progenitors of today’s pressurized water reactors (including naval reactors), boiling water reactors, heavy water reactors, graphite-moderated reactors, and liquid-metal cooled fast reactors, one of which[17] was the first reactor in the world to generate electricity. Argonne and a number of other AEC contractors built a total of 52 reactors at the National Reactor Testing Station. Two were never operated; except for the Neutron Radiography Facility, all the other reactors were shut down by 2000.

In the early afternoon of December 20, 1951, Argonne director Walter Zinn and fifteen other Argonne staff members witnessed a row of four light bulbs light up in a nondescript brick building in the eastern Idaho desert. Electricity from a generator connected to Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) flowed through them. This was the first time that a usable amount of electrical power had ever been generated from nuclear fission. Only days afterward, the reactor produced all the electricity needed for the entire EBR complex.[18] One ton of natural uranium can produce more than 40 million kilowatt-hours of electricity — this is equivalent to burning 16,000 tons of coal or 80,000 barrels of oil.[19] More central to EBR-I’s purpose than just generating electricity, however, was its role in proving that a reactor could create more nuclear fuel as a byproduct than it consumed during operation. In 1953, tests verified that this was the case.[20]

The US Navy took the lead, seeing the opportunity to have ships that could steam around the world at high speeds without refueling as being necessary for several decades, and the possibility of turning submarines into true full-time underwater vehicles. So, the Navy sent their "man in Engineering", then Captain Hyman Rickover, well known for his great technical talents in electrical engineering and propulsion systems in addition to his skill in project management, to the AEC to start the Naval Reactors project. Rickover's work with the AEC led to the development of the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), the first naval model of which was installed in the submarine USS Nautilus. This made the boat capable of operating under water full-time - demonstrating this ability by reaching the North Pole and surfacing through the Polar ice cap.

Start of commercial nuclear power[edit]

From the successful naval reactor program, plans were quickly developed for the use of reactor steam to drive turbines turning generators. On May 26, 1958 the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States, Shippingport Atomic Power Station, was opened by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as part of his Atoms for Peace program. As nuclear power continued to grow throughout the 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission anticipated that more than 1,000 reactors would be operating in the United States by 2000.[21] As the industry continued to expand, the Atomic Energy Commission's development and regulatory functions were separated in 1974; the Department of Energy absorbed research and development, while the regulatory branch was spun off and turned into an independent commission known as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC or simply NRC).

Opposition to nuclear power[edit]

There has been considerable anti-nuclear opposition to the use of nuclear power in the U.S. The first U.S. reactor to face public opposition was Fermi 1 in 1957. It was built approximately 30 miles from Detroit and there was opposition from the United Auto Workers Union.[22] Pacific Gas & Electric planned to build the first commercially viable nuclear power plant in the USA at Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco. The proposal was controversial and conflict with local citizens began in 1958.[23] The conflict ended in 1964, with the forced abandonment of plans for the power plant. Historian Thomas Wellock traces the birth of the anti-nuclear movement to the controversy over Bodega Bay.[23] Attempts to build a nuclear power plant in Malibu were similar to those at Bodega Bay and were also abandoned.[23]

Nuclear accidents continued into the 1960s with a small test reactor exploding at the Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number One in Idaho Falls in January 1961 and a partial meltdown at the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station in Michigan in 1966.[24] In his 1963 book Change, Hope and the Bomb, David Lilienthal criticized nuclear developments, particularly the nuclear industry's failure to address the nuclear waste question.[25] J. Samuel Walker, in his book Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective, explains that the growth of the nuclear industry in the U.S. occurred in the 1970s as the environmental movement was being formed. Environmentalists saw the advantages of nuclear power in reducing air pollution, but were critical of nuclear technology on other grounds.[26] They were concerned about nuclear accidents, nuclear proliferation, high cost of nuclear power plants, nuclear terrorism and radioactive waste disposal.[27]

Over-commitment and cancellations[edit]

Net summer electrical generation capacity of US nuclear power plants, 1949-2011
Average capacity factor of US nuclear power plants, 1957-2011

By the mid-1970s it became clear that nuclear power would not grow nearly as quickly as once believed. Cost overruns were sometimes a factor of ten above original industry estimates, and became a major problem. For the 75 nuclear power reactors built from 1966 to 1977, cost overruns averaged 207 percent. Opposition and problems were galvanized by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.[28]

Over-commitment to nuclear power brought about the financial collapse of the Washington Public Power Supply System, a public agency which undertook to build five large nuclear power plants in the 1970s. By 1983, cost overruns and delays, along with a slowing of electricity demand growth, led to cancellation of two WPPSS plants and a construction halt on two others. Moreover, WPPSS defaulted on $2.25 billion of municipal bonds, which is still the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history. The court case that followed took nearly a decade to resolve.[29][30][31]

Eventually, more than 120 reactor orders were cancelled,[32] and the construction of new reactors ground to a halt. Al Gore has commented on the historical record and reliability of nuclear power in the United States:

Of the 253 nuclear power reactors originally ordered in the United States from 1953 to 2008, 48 percent were canceled, 11 percent were prematurely shut down, 14 percent experienced at least a one-year-or-more outage, and 27 percent are operating without having a year-plus outage. Thus, only about one fourth of those ordered, or about half of those completed, are still operating and have proved relatively reliable.[33]

Amory Lovins has also commented on the historical record of nuclear power in the United States:

Of all 132 U.S. nuclear plants built (52% of the 253 originally ordered), 21% were permanently and prematurely closed due to reliability or cost problems, while another 27% have completely failed for a year or more at least once. The surviving U.S. nuclear plants produce ~90% of their full-time full-load potential, but even they are not fully dependable. Even reliably operating nuclear plants must shut down, on average, for 39 days every 17 months for refueling and maintenance, and unexpected failures do occur too.[34]

A cover story in the February 11, 1985, issue of Forbes magazine commented on the overall management of the nuclear power program in the United States:

The failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale … only the blind, or the biased, can now think that the money has been well spent. It is a defeat for the U.S. consumer and for the competitiveness of U.S. industry, for the utilities that undertook the program and for the private enterprise system that made it possible.[35]

Three Mile Island and after[edit]

The NRC reported "(...the Three Mile Island accident...) was the most serious in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, even though it led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the nearby community."[36] The World Nuclear Association reports that "...more than a dozen major, independent studies have assessed the radiation releases and possible effects on the people and the environment around TMI since the 1979 accident at TMI-2. The most recent was a 13-year study on 32,000 people. None has found any adverse health effects such as cancers which might be linked to the accident."[37] Other nuclear power incidents within the US (defined as safety-related events in civil nuclear power facilities between INES Levels 1 and 3[38]) include those at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant, which was the source of two of the top five highest conditional core damage frequency nuclear incidents in the United States since 1979, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.[39]

Despite the concerns which arose among the public after the Three Mile Island incident, the accident highlights the success of the reactor's safety systems. The radioactivity released as a result of the accident was almost entirely confined within the reinforced concrete containment structure. These containment structures, found at all nuclear power plants, were designed to successfully trap radioactive material in the event of a melt down or accident. At Three Mile Island, the containment structures operated exactly as it was designed to do, emerging successful in containing any radioactive energy. The low levels of radioactivity released post incident is considered harmless, resulting in zero injuries and deaths of residents living in proximity to the plant.

Despite many technical studies which asserted that the probability of a severe nuclear accident was low, numerous surveys showed that the public remained "very deeply distrustful and uneasy about nuclear power".[40] Some commentators have suggested that the public's consistently negative ratings of nuclear power are reflective of the industry's unique connection with nuclear weapons:[41]

[One] reason why nuclear power is seen differently to other technologies lies in its parentage and birth. Nuclear energy was conceived in secrecy, born of war, and first revealed to the world in horror. No matter how many proponents try to separate the peaceful atom from the weapon's atom, the connection is firmly embedded in the mind of the public.[41]

Several US nuclear power plants closed well before their design lifetimes, due to successful campaigns by anti-nuclear activist groups.[42] These include Rancho Seco in 1989 in California and Trojan in 1992 in Oregon. Humboldt Bay in California closed in 1976, 13 years after geologists discovered it was built on a fault (the Little Salmon Fault). Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant was completed but never operated commercially as an authorized Emergency Evacuation Plan could not be agreed on due the political climate after the Three Mile Island accident and Chernobyl disaster. The last permanent closure of a US nuclear power plant was in 1997.[1]

US nuclear reactors were originally licensed to operate for 40-year periods. In the 1980s, the NRC determined that there were no technical issues that would preclude longer service.[43] Over half of US nuclear reactors are over 30 years old and almost all are over twenty years old.[44] As of 2011, more than 60 reactors have received 20-year extensions to their licensed lifetimes.[45] The average capacity factor for all US reactors has improved from below 60% in the 1970s and 1980s, to 92% in 2007,[46][47]

After the Three Mile Island accident, NRC-issued reactor construction permits, which had averaged more than 12 per year from 1967 through 1978, came to an abrupt halt; no permits were issued between 1979 and 2012 (in 2012, four planned new reactors received construction permits). Many permitted reactors were never built, or the projects were abandoned. Those that were completed after Three Mile island experienced a much longer time lag from construction permit to starting of operations. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself described its regulatory oversight of the long-delayed Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant as "a paradigm of fragmented and uncoordinated government decision making," and "a system strangling itself and the economy in red tape."[48] The number of operating power reactors in the US peaked at 112 in 1991, far fewer than the 177 that received construction permits. By 1998 the number of working reactors declined to 104, where it remains as of 2013. The loss of electrical generation from the eight fewer reactors since 1991 has been offset by power uprates of generating capacity at existing reactors.[49]

Despite the problems following Three Mile Island, output of nuclear-generated electricity in the US grew steadily, more than tripling over the next three decades: from 255 billion kilowatt-hours in 1979 (the year of the Three Mile Island accident), to 806 billion kilowatt-hours in 2007.[50] Part of the increase was due to the greater number of operating reactors, which increased by 51%: from 69 reactors in 1979, to 104 in 2007. Another cause was a large increase in the capacity factor over that period. In 1978, nuclear power plants generated electricity at only 64% of their rated output capacity. Performance suffered even further during and after Three Mile Island, as a series of new safety regulations from 1979 through the mid-1980s forced operators to repeatedly shut down reactors for required retrofits.[51] It was not until 1990 that the average capacity factor of US nuclear plants returned to the level of 1978. The capacity factor continued to rise, until 2001. Since 2001, US nuclear power plants have consistently delivered electric power at about 90% of their rated capacity.[52]

Effects of Fukushima[edit]

Following the 2011 Japanese nuclear accidents, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced it will launch a comprehensive safety review of the 104 nuclear power reactors across the United States, at the request of President Obama. A total of 45 groups and individuals had formally asking the NRC to suspend all licensing and other activities at 21 proposed nuclear reactor projects in 15 states until the NRC had completed a thorough post-Fukushima reactor crisis examination. The petitioners also asked the NRC to supplement its own investigation by establishing an independent commission comparable to that set up in the wake of the serious, though less severe, 1979 Three Mile Island accident.[53][54]

An industry observer noted that post-Fukushima costs were likely to go up for both current and new nuclear power plants, due to increased requirements for on-site spent fuel management and elevated design basis threats.[55][56] License extensions for existing reactors will face additional scrutiny, with outcomes depending on plants meeting new requirements, and some extensions already granted for more than 60 of the 104 operating U.S. reactors could be revisited. On-site storage, consolidated long-term storage, and geological disposal of spent fuel is "likely to be reevaluated in a new light because of the Fukushima storage pool experience".[55] Mark Cooper suggested that the cost of nuclear power, which already had risen sharply in 2010 and 2011, could "climb another 50 percent due to tighter safety oversight and regulatory delays in the wake of the reactor calamity in Japan".[57]

In 2011, London-based bank HSBC said: "With Three Mile Island and Fukushima as a backdrop, the US public may find it difficult to support major nuclear new build and we expect that no new plant extensions will be granted either. Thus we expect the clean energy standard under discussion in US legislative chambers will see a far greater emphasis on gas and renewables plus efficiency".[58]

The Obama administration "continues to support the expansion of nuclear power in the United States, despite the crisis in Japan".[59]

Safety and accidents[edit]

A clean-up crew working to remove radioactive contamination after the Three Mile Island accident.
Erosion of the 6-inch-thick (150 mm) carbon steel reactor head at Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant in 2002, caused by a persistent leak of borated water.

Regulation of nuclear power plants in the United States is done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which divides the nation into 4 administrative divisions.

On March 28, 1979, equipment failures and operator error contributed to loss of coolant and a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors, such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant's user interface.[60] The scope and complexity of the accident became clear over the course of five days, as employees of Met Ed, Pennsylvania state officials, and members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) tried to understand the problem, communicate the situation to the press and local community, decide whether the accident required an emergency evacuation, and ultimately end the crisis. The NRC's authorization of the release of 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste water directly in the Susquehanna River led to a loss of credibility with the press and community.[60]

The Three Mile Island accident inspired Perrow's book Normal Accidents, where a nuclear accident occurs, resulting from an unanticipated interaction of multiple failures in a complex system. TMI was an example of a normal accident because it was "unexpected, incomprehensible, uncontrollable and unavoidable".[61] The World Nuclear Association has stated that cleanup of the damaged nuclear reactor system at TMI-2 took nearly 12 years and cost approximately US $973 million.[62] Benjamin K. Sovacool, in his 2007 preliminary assessment of major energy accidents, estimated that the TMI accident caused a total of $2.4 billion in property damages.[63] The health effects of the Three Mile Island accident are widely, but not universally, agreed to be very low level.[62][64] The accident triggered protests around the world.[65]

The 1979 Three Mile Island accident was a pivotal event that led to questions about U.S. nuclear safety.[66] Earlier events had a similar effect, including a 1975 fire at Browns Ferry, the 1976 testimonials of three concerned GE nuclear engineers, the GE Three. In 1981, workers inadvertently reversed pipe restraints at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant reactors, compromising seismic protection systems, which further undermined confidence in nuclear safety. All of these well-publicised events, undermined public support for the U.S. nuclear industry in the 1970s and the 1980s.[66]

On March 5, 2002, maintenance workers discovered that corrosion had eaten a football-sized hole into the reactor vessel head of the Davis-Besse plant. Although the corrosion did not lead to an accident, this was considered to be a serious nuclear safety incident.[67][68] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission kept Davis-Besse shut down until March 2004, so that FirstEnergy was able to perform all the necessary maintenance for safe operations. The NRC imposed its largest fine ever—more than $5 million—against FirstEnergy for the actions that led to the corrosion. The company paid an additional $28 million in fines under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.[67]

The nuclear industry in the United States has maintained one of the best industrial safety records in the world with respect to all kinds of accidents. For 2008, the industry hit a new low of 0.13 industrial accidents per 200,000 worker-hours.[69] This is improved over 0.24 in 2005, which was still a factor of 14.6 less than the 3.5 number for all manufacturing industries.[70] Private industry has an accident rate of 1.3 per 200,000 worker hours.[71] However, more than a quarter of U.S. nuclear plant operators "have failed to properly tell regulators about equipment defects that could imperil reactor safety", according to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report.[72]

As of February 2009, the NRC requires that the design of new power plants ensures that the reactor containment would remain intact, cooling systems would continue to operate, and spent fuel pools would be protected, in the event of an aircraft crash. This is an issue that has gained attention since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The regulation does not apply to the 104 commercial reactors now operating.[73] However, the containment structures of nuclear power plants are among the strongest structures ever built by mankind; independent studies have shown that existing plants would easily survive the impact of a large commercial jetliner without loss of structural integrity.[74]

Recent concerns have been expressed about safety issues affecting a large part of the nuclear fleet of reactors. In 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists, which tracks ongoing safety issues at operating nuclear plants, found that "leakage of radioactive materials is a pervasive problem at almost 90 percent of all reactors, as are issues that pose a risk of nuclear accidents".[75] The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that radioactive tritium has leaked from 48 of the 65 nuclear sites in the United States.[76]

Following the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, according to Black & Veatch’s annual utility survey that took place after the disaster, of the 700 executives from the US electric utility industry that were surveyed, nuclear safety was the top concern.[77] There are likely to be increased requirements for on-site spent fuel management and elevated design basis threats at nuclear power plants.[55][56] License extensions for existing reactors will face additional scrutiny, with outcomes depending on the degree to which plants can meet new requirements, and some extensions already granted for more than 60 of the 104 operating U.S. reactors could be revisited. On-site storage, consolidated long-term storage, and geological disposal of spent fuel is "likely to be reevaluated in a new light because of the Fukushima storage pool experience".[55] In March 2011, nuclear experts told Congress that spent-fuel pools at US nuclear power plants are too full. They say the entire US spent-fuel policy should be overhauled in light of the Fukushima I nuclear accidents.[78]

David Lochbaum, chief nuclear safety officer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, has repeatedly questioned the safety of the Fukushima I Plant's General Electric Mark 1 reactor design, which is used in almost a quarter of the United States' nuclear fleet.[79]

About one third of reactors in the US are boiling water reactors, the same technology which was involved in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. There are also eight nuclear power plants located along the seismically active West coast. Twelve of the American reactors that are of the same vintage as the Fukushima Daiichi plant are in seismically active areas.[80] Earthquake risk is often measured by "Peak Ground Acceleration", or PGA, and the following nuclear power plants have a two percent or greater chance of having PGA over 0.15g in the next 50 years: Diablo Canyon, Calif.; San Onofre, Calif.; Sequoyah, Tenn.; H.B. Robinson, SC.; Watts Bar, Tenn.; Virgil C. Summer, SC.; Vogtle, GA.; Indian Point, NY.; Oconee, SC.; and Seabrook, NH.[80]

In January 2012, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was shutdown for refueling and heavy servicing when premature wear was found in the Steam Generators which had been replaced in 2010-2011.

Nuclear power plant accidents in the U.S. with more than US$140 million in property damage[81][82]
Date Plant Location Description Cost
(in millions
2006 $)
March 28, 1979 Three Mile Island Londonderry Township, Pennsylvania Loss of coolant and partial core meltdown, see Three Mile Island accident and Three Mile Island accident health effects US$2,400
March 9, 1985 Browns Ferry Athens, Alabama Instrumentation systems malfunction during startup, which led to suspension of operations at all three Units US$1,830
April 11, 1986 Pilgrim Plymouth, Massachusetts Recurring equipment problems force emergency shutdown of Boston Edison’s plant US$1,001
March 31, 1987 Peach Bottom Delta, Pennsylvania Units 2 and 3 shutdown due to cooling malfunctions and unexplained equipment problems US$400
December 19, 1987 Nine Mile Point Scriba, New York Malfunctions force Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation to shut down Unit 1 US$150
February 20, 1996 Millstone Waterford, Connecticut Leaking valve forces shutdown of Units 1 and 2, multiple equipment failures found US$254
September 2, 1996 Crystal River Crystal River, Florida Balance-of-plant equipment malfunction forces shutdown and extensive repairs US$384
February 1, 2010 Vermont Yankee Vernon, Vermont Deteriorating underground pipes leak radioactive tritium into groundwater supplies US$700

Security and deliberate attacks[edit]

The United States 9/11 Commission has said that nuclear power plants were potential targets originally considered for the September 11, 2001 attacks. If terrorist groups could sufficiently damage safety systems to cause a core meltdown at a nuclear power plant, and/or sufficiently damage spent fuel pools, such an attack could lead to widespread radioactive contamination. The research scientist Harold Feiveson has written that nuclear facilities should be made extremely safe from attacks that could release massive quantities of radioactivity into the community. New reactor designs have features of passive safety, which may help. In the United States, the NRC carries out "Force on Force" (FOF) exercises at all Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) sites at least once every three years.[28]

Fuel cycle[edit]

Sources of uranium fuel for the US commercial nuclear power industry in 2012 (US Energy Information Administration)

Uranium mining[edit]

The United States has the 4th largest uranium reserves in the world.[83] The U.S. has its most prominent uranium reserves in New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming. The U.S. Department of Energy has approximated there to be at least 300 million pounds of uranium in these areas.[84] Domestic production increased until 1980, after which it declined sharply due to low uranium prices. In 2012 the United States mined 17% of the uranium consumed by its nuclear power plants. The remainder was imported, principally from Canada, Russia and Australia.[85] Uranium is mined using several methods including open-pit mining, underground mining, and in-situ leaching.[86]

Uranium enrichment[edit]

Location of nuclear reactor fuel processing facilities in the United States (US NRC)

The United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) performs enrichment using the gaseous diffusion process for U.S. commercial nuclear plants, using 11.3 million SWUs per year at its Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, Paducah, Kentucky.

There is one gas centrifuge enrichment plant currently in commercial operation in the US. The National Enrichment Facility, operated by URENCO east of Eunice, New Mexico, was the first uranium enrichment plant in 30 years to be built in the US. The plant started enriching uranium in 2010.[87] Two additional gas centrifuge plants have been licensed by the NRC, but are not operating. The American Centrifuge Plant in Piketown, Ohio broke ground in 2007, but stopped construction in 2009. The Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility in Bonneville County, Idaho was licensed in 2011, but construction is on hold.[88]

Currently, demonstration activities are underway in Oak Ridge, Tennessee for a future centrifugal enrichment plant. The new plant will be called the American Centrifuge Plant, which has an estimate cost of 2.3 billion USD.[89]

Reprocessing[edit]

Nuclear reprocessing has been politically controversial because of the potential to contribute to nuclear proliferation, the potential vulnerability to nuclear terrorism, the political challenges of repository siting, and because of its high cost compared to the once-through fuel cycle.[90] The Obama administration has disallowed reprocessing of nuclear waste, citing nuclear proliferation concerns.[91] Critics of reprocessing worry that the recycled materials will be used for weapons. However, it is unlikely that reprocessed plutonium would be used for nuclear weapons, because it is not weapons-grade.[92] Nonetheless, it is possible that terrorists could steal these materials, because the reprocessed plutonium is less radiotoxic than spent fuel and therefore much easier to steal. Nuclear power plants may not even notice if plutonium was stolen. It is difficult for plants to measure within even tens of kilograms, because making measurements at that accuracy is very time-consuming; consequently, it is likely that smaller amounts of plutonium could be stolen without detection.[93] Additionally, reprocessing is more expensive when compared with spent fuel storage. One study by the Boston Consulting Group estimated that reprocessing is six percent more expensive than spent fuel storage while another study by the Kennedy School of Government stated that reprocessing is 100 percent more expensive.[94]

Waste disposal[edit]

Recently, as plants continue to age, many on-site spent fuel pools have come near capacity, prompting creation of dry cask storage facilities as well. Several lawsuits between utilities and the government have transpired over the cost of these facilities, because by law the government is required to foot the bill for actions that go beyond the spent fuel pool.

There are some 65,000 tons of nuclear waste now in temporary storage throughout the U.S.[95] Since 1987, Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, had been the proposed site for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, but the project was shelved in 2009 following years of controversy and legal wrangling.[95][96] An alternative plan has not been proffered.[97]

At places like Maine Yankee, Connecticut Yankee and Rancho Seco, reactors no longer operate, but the spent fuel remains in small concrete-and-steel silos that require maintenance and monitoring by a guard force. Sometimes the presence of nuclear waste prevents re-use of the sites by industry.[98]

Without a long-term solution to store nuclear waste, a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. remains unlikely. Nine states have "explicit moratoria on new nuclear power until a storage solution emerges".[99][100]

Some nuclear power advocates argue that the United States should develop factories and reactors that will recycle some spent fuel. But the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future said in 2012 that "no existing technology was adequate for that purpose, given cost considerations and the risk of nuclear proliferation".[100]

There is an "international consensus on the advisability of storing nuclear waste in deep underground repositories",[101] but no country in the world has yet opened such a site.[101][102][103][104][105][106] The Obama administration has disallowed reprocessing of nuclear waste, citing nuclear proliferation concerns.[91]

Water use in nuclear power production[edit]

U.S. 2013 Electricity Generation By Type.[107]

Once-through cooling systems, while once common, have come under attack for the possibility of damage to the environment. Wildlife can become trapped inside the cooling systems and killed, and the increased water temperature of the returning water can impact local ecosystems. US EPA regulations favors recirculating systems, even forcing some older power plants to replace existing once-through cooling systems with new recirculating systems.[citation needed]

A 2008 study by the Associated Press found that of the 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S., "... 24 are in areas experiencing the most severe levels of drought. All but two are built on the shores of lakes and rivers and rely on submerged intake pipes to draw billions of gallons of water for use in cooling and condensing steam after it has turned the plants’ turbines,"[108] much like all Rankine cycle power plants. During the 2008 southeast drought, reactor output was reduced to lower operating power or forced to shut down for safety.[108]

The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station is located in a desert and purchases reclaimed wastewater for cooling.[109]

Plant decommissioning[edit]

The price of energy inputs and the environmental costs of every nuclear power plant continue long after the facility has finished generating its last useful electricity. Both nuclear reactors and uranium enrichment facilities must be decommissioned, returning the facility and its parts to a safe enough level to be entrusted for other uses. After a cooling-off period that may last as long as a century, reactors must be dismantled and cut into small pieces to be packed in containers for final disposal. The process is very expensive, time-consuming, dangerous for workers, hazardous to the natural environment, and presents new opportunities for human error, accidents or sabotage.[110]

The total energy required for decommissioning can be as much as 50% more than the energy needed for the original construction. In most cases, the decommissioning process costs between US $300 million to US$5.6 billion. Decommissioning at nuclear sites which have experienced a serious accident are the most expensive and time-consuming. In the U.S. there are 13 reactors that have permanently shut down and are in some phase of decommissioning, but none of them have completed the process.[110]

Organizations[edit]

Fuel vendors[edit]

The following companies have active Nuclear fuel fabrication facilities in the United States.[111] These are all light water fuel fabrication facilities because only LWRs are operating in the US. The US currently has no MOX fuel fabrication facilities, though Duke Energy has expressed intent of building one of a relatively small capacity.[112]

Areva (formerly Areva NP) runs fabrication facilities in Lynchburg, Virginia and Richland, Washington. It also has a Generation III+ plant design, EPR (formerly the Evolutionary Power Reactor), which it plans to market in the US.[113]
Westinghouse operates a fuel fabrication facility in Columbia, South Carolina,[114] which processes 1,600 metric tons Uranium (MTU) per year. It previously operated a nuclear fuel plant in Hematite, Missouri but has since closed it down.
GE pioneered the BWR technology that has become widely used throughout the world. It formed the Global Nuclear Fuel joint venture in 1999 with Hitachi and Toshiba and later restructured into GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy. It operates the fuel fabrication facility in Wilmington, North Carolina, with a capacity of 1,200 MTU per year.

Industry and academic[edit]

The American Nuclear Society (ANS) scientific and educational organization that has academic and industry members. The organization publishes a large amount of literature on nuclear technology in several journals. The ANS also has some offshoot organizations such as North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NA-YGN).

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) is an industry group whose activities include lobbying, experience sharing between companies and plants, and provides data on the industry to a number of outfits.

Anti-nuclear power groups[edit]

Anti-nuclear protest, USA, 1977

Some sixty anti-nuclear power groups are operating, or have operated, in the United States. These include: Abalone Alliance, Clamshell Alliance, Greenpeace USA, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Musicians United for Safe Energy, Nuclear Control Institute, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Public Citizen Energy Program, Shad Alliance, and the Sierra Club.

In 1992, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that "his agency had been pushed in the right direction on safety issues because of the pleas and protests of nuclear watchdog groups".[115]

Debate about nuclear power in the U.S.[edit]

There has been considerable public and scientific debate about the use of nuclear power in the United States, mainly from the 1960s to the late 1980s, but also since about 2001 when talk of a nuclear renaissance began. There has been debate about issues such as nuclear accidents, radioactive waste disposal, nuclear proliferation, nuclear economics, and nuclear terrorism.[27]

Some scientists and engineers have expressed reservations about nuclear power, including: Barry Commoner, S. David Freeman, John Gofman, Arnold Gundersen, Mark Z. Jacobson, Amory Lovins, Arjun Makhijani, Gregory Minor, and Joseph Romm. Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has said: "If our nation wants to reduce global warming, air pollution and energy instability, we should invest only in the best energy options. Nuclear energy isn't one of them".[116] Arnold Gundersen, chief engineer of Fairewinds Associates and a former nuclear power industry executive, has questioned the safety of the Westinghouse AP1000, a proposed third-generation nuclear reactor.[117] John Gofman, a nuclear chemist and doctor, raised concerns about exposure to low-level radiation in the 1960s and argued against commercial nuclear power in the U.S.[118] In “Nuclear Power: Climate Fix or Folly,” Amory Lovins, a physicist with the Rocky Mountain Institute, argued that expanded nuclear power "does not represent a cost-effective solution to global warming and that investors would shun it were it not for generous government subsidies lubricated by intensive lobbying efforts".[119]

Environmentalist Patrick Moore spoke out against nuclear power in 1976,[120] but today he supports it, along with renewable energy sources.[121][122][123] In Australian newspaper The Age, he writes "Greenpeace is wrong — we must consider nuclear power".[124] He argues that any realistic plan to reduce reliance on fossil fuels or greenhouse gas emissions need increased use of nuclear energy.[121] Phil Radford, Executive Director of Greenpeace US responded that nuclear energy is too risky, takes to long to build to address climate change, and by showing that the can U.S. shift to nearly 100% renewable energy while phasing out nuclear power by 2050.[125][126]

Environmentalist Stewart Brand wrote the book Whole Earth Discipline, which examines how nuclear power and some other technologies can be used as tools to address global warming.[127] Bernard Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Pittsburgh, calculates that nuclear power is many times safer than other forms of power generation.[128]

President Obama early on included nuclear power as part of his “all of the above” energy strategy.[129] In a speech to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 2010, he demonstrated his commitment to nuclear power by announcing his approval of an $8 billion loan guarantee to pave the way for construction of the first new US nuclear power plant in nearly 30 years.[130][131] Then in 2012, his first post-Fukishima state-of-the-union address, Barack Obama said that America needs “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy,” yet pointedly omitted any mention of nuclear power.[132] But in February 2014, Energy secretary Ernest Moriz announced $6.5 billion in federal loan guarantees to enable construction of two new nuclear reactors, the first in the US since 1996.[133]

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists in March 2013 over one-third of U.S. nuclear power plants suffered safety-related incidents over the past three years, and nuclear regulators and plant operators need to improve inspections to prevent such events.[134]

Pandora's Promise is a 2013 documentary film, directed by Robert Stone. It presents an argument that nuclear energy, typically feared by environmentalists, is in fact the only feasible way of meeting humanity's growing need for energy while also addressing the serious problem of climate change. The movie features several notable individuals (some of whom were once vehemently opposed to nuclear power, but who now speak in support of it), including: Stewart Brand, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas, Richard Rhodes and Michael Shellenberger.[135] Anti-nuclear advocate Helen Caldicott appears briefly.[136]

As of 2014, the U.S. nuclear industry has began a new lobbying effort, hiring three former senators — Evan Bayh, a Democrat; Judd Gregg, a Republican; and Spencer Abraham, a Republican — as well as William M. Daley, a former staffer to President Obama. The initiative is called Nuclear Matters, and it has begun a newspaper advertising campaign.[137]

Public opinion[edit]

A series of ten Gallup polls from 1994 to 2012 found support for nuclear energy in the United States varying from 46% to 59%, with opposition ranging from 33% to 48%. In nine out of the ten polls, both a plurality and a majority favored nuclear power; the exception was a 2001 poll in which 46% favored, and 48% opposed nuclear power. Polls taken just before the Fukishima accident and a year after the accident found identical percentages of 57% favoring nuclear power.[138]

According to a CBS News poll, what had been growing acceptance of nuclear power in the United States was eroded sharply following the 2011 Japanese nuclear accidents, with support for building nuclear power plants in the U.S. dropping slightly lower than it was immediately after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.[139] Only 43 percent of those polled after the Fukushima nuclear emergency said they would approve building new power plants in the United States.[139] A Washington Post-ABC poll conducted in April 2011 found that 64 percent of Americans opposed the construction of new nuclear reactors.[140] A survey sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute, conducted in September 2011, found that "62 percent of respondents said they favor the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States, with 35 percent opposed".[141]

According to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, 44 percent of Americans favored and 49 percent opposed the promotion of increased use of nuclear power.[142]

A January 2014 Rasmussen poll found likely US voters split nearly evenly on whether to build more nuclear power plants, 39 percent in favor, versus 37 percent opposed, with an error margin of 3 percent.[143]

Prospects of a nuclear renaissance[edit]

US reactor construction permits issued and operating nuclear power reactors, 1955-2011 (data from US EIA)

In the 2000s there was a renewed interest in nuclear power in the US, spurred by anticipated government curbs on carbon emissions, and a belief that fossil fuels would become more costly.[144]

Signs of a revival[edit]

The federal government encouraged development of nuclear power through the Nuclear Power 2010 Program, which coordinates efforts for building new nuclear power plants,[145] and the Energy Policy Act which has provisions favorable to nuclear.[146][147] In February 2010, President Barack Obama announced loan guarantees for two new reactors at Georgia Power's Vogtle Electric Generating Plant.[148][149] The reactors are "just the first of what we hope will be many new nuclear projects," said Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy.

In 2008, it was reported that The Shaw Group and Westinghouse would construct a factory at the Port of Lake Charles at Lake Charles, Louisiana to build components for the Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor.[150] On October 23, 2008, it was reported that Northrop Grumman and Areva were planning to construct a factory in Newport News, Virginia to build nuclear reactors.[151]

As of March 2009, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had received applications for permission to construct 26 new nuclear power reactors[152] with applications for another 7 expected.[153][154] Six of these reactors have been ordered.[155] However not all the proposed new capacity will necessarily be built, with some applications being made to keep future options open and reserving places in a queue for government incentives available for up to the first three plants based on each innovative reactor design.[153]

In August 2011, the TVA board of directors voted to move forward with the construction of the unit one reactor at the Bellefonte Nuclear Generating Station.[156] In addition, the Tennessee Valley Authority petitioned to restart construction on the first two units at Bellefonte. But as of March 2012, many contractors have been laid off and the ultimate cost and timing for Bellefonte 1 will depend on work at another reactor TVA is completing - Watts Bar 2 in Tennessee. In February 2012, TVA said the Watts Bar 2 project was running over budget and behind schedule.[157]

In 2012, The NRC approved construction permits for four new nuclear reactor units at two exiting plants, the first permits in 34 years.[158] The first new permits, for two proposed reactors at the Vogtle plant, were approved in February 2012.[159] NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko cast the lone dissenting vote, citing safety concerns stemming from Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster: "I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened".[160]

The first two of the newly approved units were the Units 3 and 4 at the existing Vogtle Electric Generating Plant. As of December 2011, construction by Southern Company on the two new nuclear units had begun, and they are expected to be delivering commercial power by 2016 and 2017, respectively.[161][162] One week after Southern received the license to begin major construction on the two new reactors, a dozen environmental and anti-nuclear groups sued to stop the Plant Vogtle expansion project, saying "public safety and environmental problems since Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor accident have not been taken into account".[163] The lawsuit was dismissed in July, 2012.

Also in 2012, Units 2 and 3 at the SCANA Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station in South Carolina were approved, and are scheduled to come online in 2017 and 2018, respectively.[158]

Continued problems and opposition[edit]

A number of other reactors were under consideration – a third reactor at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland, a third and fourth reactor at South Texas Nuclear Generating Station, together with two other reactors in Texas, four in Florida, and one in Missouri. However, these have all been postponed or canceled.[164] But, looking ahead, experts see continuing challenges that will make it very difficult for the nuclear power industry to expand beyond a small handful of reactor projects that "government agencies decide to subsidize by forcing taxpayers to assume the risk for the reactors and mandating that ratepayers pay for construction in advance".[57]

In May 2009, John Rowe, chairman of Exelon, which operates 17 nuclear reactors, said he would cancel or delay construction of two new reactors in Texas without federal loan guarantees.[102] Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, John Rowe, chair of Exelon (the largest nuclear power producer in the US), said that the nuclear renaissance was dead. Amory Lovins added that "market forces had killed it years earlier".[165]

In July 2009, the proposed Victoria County Nuclear Power Plant was delayed, as the project proved difficult to finance.[166] As of April 2009, AmerenUE has suspended plans to build its proposed plant in Missouri because the state Legislature would not allow it to charge consumers for some of the project's costs before the plant's completion. The New York Times has reported that without that "financial and regulatory certainty," the company has said it could not proceed.[167] Previously, MidAmerican Energy Company decided to "end its pursuit of a nuclear power plant in Payette County, Idaho." MidAmerican cited cost as the primary factor in their decision.[168]

In February 2010, the Vermont Senate voted 26 to 4 to block operation of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant after 2012, citing radioactive tritium leaks, misstatements in testimony by plant officials, a cooling tower collapse in 2007, and other problems. By state law, the renewal of the operating license must be approved by both houses of the legislature for the nuclear power plant to continue operation.[169]

In 2010, demand for nuclear power softened in America, and some companies withdrew their applications for licenses to build.[4][5] In September 2010, Matthew Wald from the New York Times reported that "the nuclear renaissance is looking small and slow at the moment".[164]

In the first quarter of 2011, renewable energy contributed 11.7 percent of total U.S. energy production (2.245 quadrillion BTUs of energy), surpassing energy production from nuclear power (2.125 quadrillion BTUs).[170] 2011 was the first year since 1997 that renewables exceeded nuclear in US total energy production.[171]

In August 2012, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the NRC's rules for the temporary storage and permanent disposal of nuclear waste stood in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, rendering the NRC legally unable to grant final licenses for any further new nuclear power plants.[172] This ruling was based on the fact that the Yucca Mountain waste repository had never received a license due to its license application being withdrawn by the DOE nor had any viable alternative waste repository been proposed. So long as this ruling stands and this impasse on waste disposal exists, no additional nuclear plants can ever be licensed for operation in the United States.

Economics[edit]

George W. Bush signing the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was designed to promote US nuclear reactor construction, through incentives and subsidies, including cost-overrun support up to a total of $2 billion for six new nuclear plants.[173]
US nuclear power plants, highlighting recently and soon-to-be retired plants, as of 2013 (US EIA).

The low price of natural gas in the US since 2008 has spurred construction of gas-fired power plants as an alternative to nuclear plants. In August 2011, the head of America's largest nuclear utility said that this was not the time to build new nuclear plants, not because of political opposition or the threat of cost overruns, but because of the low price of natural gas. John Rowe, head of Exelon, said “Shale [gas] is good for the country, bad for new nuclear development".[132]

In 2013, four older reactors were permanently closed: San Onofre 2 and 3 in California, Crystal River 3 in Florida, and Kewaunee in Wisconsin.[9][10] The state of Vermont is trying to close Vermont Yankee, in Vermont. New York State is seeking to close Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, in Buchanan, 30 miles from New York City, despite this reactor being the primary contributor to Vermont's green energy fund.[10][174]

The additional cancellation of five large reactor uprates (Prairie Island, 1 reactor, LaSalle, 2 reactors, and Limerick, 2 rectors), four by the largest nuclear company in the U.S., suggest that the nuclear industry faces "a broad range of operational and economic problems".[175]

In July 2013, economist Mark Cooper named some nuclear power plants that face particularly intense challenges to their continued operation:[175]

  • Palisades
  • Ft. Calhoun
  • Nine Mile Point
  • Fitzpatrick
  • Ginna
  • Oyster Creek
  • Vermont Yankee
  • Millstone
  • Clinton
  • Indian Point

Cooper said that the lesson for policy makers and economists is clear: "nuclear reactors are simply not competitive".[175]

In December 2010, The Economist reported that the demand for nuclear power is softening in America.[5] In recent years, utilities have shown an interest in about 30 new reactors, but the number with any serious prospect of being built as of the end of 2010 is now about a dozen, as some companies have withdrawn their applications for licenses to build.[4][176] Exelon has withdrawn its application for a license for a twin-unit nuclear plant in Victoria County, Texas, citing lower electricity demand projections. The decision has left the country’s largest nuclear operator without a direct role in what the nuclear industry hopes is a nuclear renaissance.[177] Ground has been broken on two new nuclear plants with a total of four reactors. The Obama administration is seeking the expansion of a loan guarantee program but as of December 2010 has been unable to commit all the loan guarantee money already approved by Congress. Since talk a few years ago of a “nuclear renaissance”, gas prices have fallen and old reactors are getting license extensions. The only reactor under construction in America, at Watts Bar, Tennessee, is an old unit, begun in 1973, whose construction was suspended in 1988, and was resumed in 2007.[178] It may be completed in 2012. Of the 104 reactors now operating in the U.S., ground was broken on all of them in 1974 or earlier.[4][5]

Experts see continuing challenges that will make it very difficult for the nuclear power industry to expand beyond a small handful of reactor projects that "government agencies decide to subsidize by forcing taxpayers to assume the risk for the reactors and mandating that ratepayers pay for construction in advance".[57]

In August 2012, Exelon stated that economic and market conditions, especially low natural gas prices, made the "construction of new merchant nuclear power plants in competitive markets uneconomical now and for the foreseeable future".[179] In early 2013 UBS noted that some smaller reactors operating in deregulated markets may become uneconomic to operate and maintain, due to competition from generators using low priced natural gas, and may be retired early.[180] The 556 MWe Kewaunee Power Station is being closed 20 years before license expiry for these economic reasons.[174][181][182] In February 2014 the Financial Times identified Pilgrim, Indian Point, Clinton and Quad Cities power stations as potentially at risk of premature closure for economic reasons.[183]

See also[edit]

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