Nuclear Power in the United States

In the area of energy and the environment, no topic brings more debate than a renewal of nuclear power in the United States.

In fact, since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident, US nuclear power statistics remain fairly flatlined.

The Energy Information Agency (EIA) reports that currently 100 commercial nuclear reactors are operating at 65 nuclear power plants in 31 states. All but four of the plants are located east of the Rocky Mountains. In 1979, a total of 69 reactors were operating and by 1990 the number of operating reactors reached a 112 high. In 2013, four reactors were shut down.

Since 1990, the amount of nuclear generated electricity continues to remain stable, ranging from 18% to 20% of the total amount of electricity generated in the United States. While the United States continues to lead the world in number of operational nuclear reactors, it falls on the lower end of the spectrum with respect to its dependence on nuclear generated electricity. Recent trends in the use of natural gas extraction for use in electricity production have contribute to the flatlinig of nuclear energy.

No new nuclear plants have been constructed since 1996, when the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Watts Bar 1 went into service. An additional reactor at the Watts Bar facility is scheduled to start up in the near future.

Apart from the most recent natural gas extraction trends, debate on the use of nuclear power also influenced the course of nuclear power over the past thirty plus years. Proponents and opponents of nuclear power follow some general talking points when supporting their positions.

Today's proponents, for example, typically discuss the need for nuclear power as a carbon neutral energy source, in order to address the issue of climate change.

Increased reactor safety along with the need for U.S. corporate competitiveness in the global nuclear power market often get cited as secondary claims in support of more nuclear power.

Nuclear power opponents typically cite the cost of constructing and operating a nuclear power plant, up to three times the average price of electricity, as its primary drawback. Those costs do not include nuclear waste storage costs.

While nuclear power opponents generally acknowledge that newer nuclear plant designs may be more safe that previous designs, they also note that the human factor involved in promoting safe nuclear power has not changed.

Opponents also note that the creation of new nuclear power plants increases the number of available terrorism targets across the United States. Additionally, they note that an expansion of nuclear power creates a need for a greater nuclear knowledge base around the world, thus opening the door for the nuclear knowledge base to spread to those interested in a world of nuclear weaponry.

Finally, nuclear opponents point to the continuing drop in the cost of renewable energy sources. The recent introduction of commercial utility scale solar thermal plants, along with improvements in solar storage technology provide a path for the creation of a reliable renewable energy economy, capable of providing electricity even when the sun is not shining.

© 2011-2014. Patricia A. Michaels