When the topic is energy and the environment, no topic brings more debate than the debate over nuclear power. From the citing of nuclear waste disposal sites to the importation and/or recycling of spent nuclear fuel, to the use of depleted uranium on the battlefield, it’s hard to read a media source without coming across a nuclear related story.
Nuclear power stories fit into their own niche. 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.
Nuclear Power Advantages
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.
Nuclear power advantages are consistently talked up by their proponents, for example, typically discussions on nuclear power advantages start with a climate change theme. The world needs 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 Disadvantages
Nuclear power disadvantages are pointed out by opponents. They 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.
Nuclear power disadvantages also include potential national security issues. 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.
Nuclear Power By Country
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) keeps an accurate list of nuclear power by country. According to the IAEA, in 2013 there were 434 nuclear power plants operating in 30 different state
Close to two-thirds of all currently operating nuclear reactors, 274 and 63% of the total are Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) that use a two step process to heat water in the core and consequently create a steam flow to drive electricity generating turbines in an area separate from the core.
Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) work roughly on the same principle, although in BWR, boiling water generates the steam flow for turbines, and the entire process takes place within the core. The 81 BWR account for another 19% of the total operating nuclear generators. Both designs use enriched uranium as a fuel source.
Heavy Water Pressure Reactors (HWPR) account for 48 or 11% of the world’s operating reactors. Their ability to operate on non-enriched uranium allows for cost savings associated with skipping the uranium enrichment process.
The remaining reactors consists of 15 Gas Cooled Reactors (GCR), 15 Light Water Graphite Reactors (LWGR) and 2 Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR).
The following statistics emphasis the state with the most reactors along with he states most dependent on nuclear generated electricity.
Top 5 States – Operating Nuclear Reactors
- United States – 100 operating nuclear reactors
- France – 58 total operating PRW reactors
- Japan – 48 total (24 PRW and 24 BWR)
- Russia – 33 total (17 PRW, 15 LWGR and 1 FBR)
- South Korea – 23 total (19 PRW and 4 PHWR)
China is set to crack the top five operating reactors. The IAEA reported that during 2013, China had 28 PRW and 1 HTGR reactor under construction. Together they are estimated to have the capacity to produce 29GW of electricity.
Top 5 States – % of Electricity from Nuclear
- France – 73% of its electricity from nuclear.
- Belgium – 52% of its electricity from nuclear.
- Slovokia – 51.7% of its electricity from nuclear.
- Hungary – 50.7% of its electricity from nuclear.
- Ukraine – 43.6% of its electricity from nuclear.
France’s prominent place at the top of both lists reflects their deliberate strategy to move full steam ahead with nuclear generated electricity in the immediate aftermath of the 1970s twin oil price hikes. Recently the French Government announced a long term energy transition plan whereby the state would gradually decrease its dependence on nuclear generated electricity in favor of renewable energy.
Commenting on nuclear power in Russia, the United States Energy Information Agency (EIA) reports,
Russia has an installed nuclear capacity of 23.6 gigawatts, distributed across 33 operational nuclear reactors at 10 locations. Nine plants are located west of the Ural Mountains. The only exception is the Bilibino plant. Russia’s nuclear power facilities are aging. Nine of the country’s 33 nuclear reactors use the RBMK design employed in Ukraine’s Chernobyl plant. The working life of a reactor is considered to be 30 years, and 16 of Russia’s nuclear reactors are 30 or more years old. Russia has an active life extension program; the period for extension is established by the government as 15 years. Construction on Russia’s newest reactor, the 950-MW Kalinin 4 reactor, was completed in September 2012, and it commenced commercial operation in December 2012.