This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard U.S. Country Manager Nathan Holman
Generation of electricity is the second largest producer of greenhouse gases in the United States. Combating climate change will inevitably require cleaner methods of generating power. Although slightly controversial, nuclear power provides a clear answer as it is the only zero-emission form of energy production that can be available 24/7.
The United States has been relying on nuclear energy since the 1960s. Each year since 1990, commercial nuclear power plants have supplied approximately 20% of the energy used in the country. In 2020, nuclear power plants produced 790 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Nuclear power is also the largest source of clean energy in the country—accounting for 52% of the total.
The United States hosts 95 nuclear reactors in total and 56 nuclear power plants. The first commercial nuclear reactor began operating in 1958 but has since been decommissioned. The oldest operating reactor, Nine Mile Point Unit 1, began operating in 1969 and is 51 years old. The newest, Watts Bar Unit 2, began operating in 2016 and is only five years old. Altogether, the average age of currently operating reactors is 39 years old.
More information on America’s nuclear power plants, including locations and dates of operation, can be found here: https://www.nrc.gov/info-finder/reactors/index.html.
What is the plan for nuclear power?
The United States does not have an articulated plan for growth or reduction of nuclear power generation. Before he was elected, President Biden’s climate plan stated that he, “will support a research agenda through [Advanced Research Projects Agency for Climate (ARPA-C)] to look at issues, ranging from cost to safety to waste disposal systems, that remain an ongoing challenge with nuclear power today.”
Biden’s American Jobs Plan refers to nuclear power as part of an overall plan to increase reliance on clean energy, however no specific plan has been announced regarding nuclear itself.
Interestingly, nuclear energy does not tend to be a particularly partisan issue. Although there is no clear plan for growth of nuclear power generation, it is safe to say that production will not decrease anytime soon, so long as the current attitude toward nuclear remains.
Who is responsible for safety?
Nuclear power generation is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Issues of safety and security are dealt with primarily by the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards (NMSS), and the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response (NSIR).
The NMSS ensures nuclear power generation is safe by implementing regulatory programs concerning the safe and secure decommissioning of reactors and sites, as well as the safe storage, transportation, and disposal of waste. These programs involve licensing, inspection, performance assessment, and enforcement.
The NSIR works alongside the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community, law enforcement, the Department of Energy and other agencies. This office develops policies and regulations concerning emergency preparedness and manages incident response.
How is nuclear waste disposed?
Currently, nuclear waste is stored on-site at each facility. The waste is put into concrete containers called “dry casks” built to withstand natural disasters or attacks. The NRC has been working for decades for permission to create a nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Due to controversy and political skepticism around storage of radioactive waste, the project has never been started. More information on the NRC’s activity at Yucca Mountain can be found here: https://www.nrc.gov/waste/hlw-disposal.html
Yucca Mountain, Nevada
Incidents at nuclear power plants have garnered significant media attention in the past. However, as a clean energy source that does not rely on wind or sunlight, nuclear energy could be an important part of mitigating climate change. The role of nuclear energy in America’s approach to climate is not yet clear but many advocates suggest it is a necessity. Bill Gates, a known supporter of nuclear, writes that “the problems with today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, can be solved through innovation. The United States is uniquely suited to create these advances with its world-class scientists, entrepreneurs, and investment capital.”
Main Image: Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant