Nuclear power as an alternative to coal

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's focus on the fallout of nuclear "spin."

Nuclear power is power (generally electrical) produced from controlled nuclear reactions. Commercial plants in use to date use nuclear fission reactions. Electric utility reactors heat water to produce steam, which is then used to generate electricity. About 15% of the world's electricity comes from nuclear power, despite concerns about safety and radioactive waste management.[1]


As of 2005, nuclear power provided 2.1% of the world's energy and 15% of the world's electricity, with the U.S., France, and Japan together accounting for 56.5% of nuclear generated electricity.[2] In 2007, the International Energy Agency reported there were 439 nuclear power reactors in operation in the world, operating in 31 countries.[3]

The United States produces the most nuclear energy, with nuclear power providing 19% of the electricity it consumes, while France produces the highest percentage of its electrical energy from nuclear reactors—80% as of 2006. In the European Union as a whole, nuclear energy provides 30% of the electricity. Nuclear energy policy differs between European Union countries, and some, such as Austria, Estonia, and Ireland, have no active nuclear power stations. In comparison, France has a large number of these plants, with 16 multi-unit stations in current use.[2]


Installed nuclear capacity initially rose relatively quickly, rising from less than 1 gigawatt (GW) in 1960 to 100 GW in the late 1970s, and 300 GW in the late 1980s. Since the late 1980s worldwide capacity has risen much more slowly, reaching 366 GW in 2005. Between around 1970 and 1990, more than 50 GW of capacity was under construction (peaking at over 150 GW in the late 70s and early 80s) — in 2005, around 25 GW of new capacity was planned. More than two-thirds of all nuclear plants ordered after January 1970 were eventually cancelled. A total of 63 nuclear units were canceled in the USA between 1975 and 1980.[4]

During the 1970s and 1980s rising economic costs (related to extended construction times largely due to regulatory changes and pressure-group litigation) and falling fossil fuel prices made nuclear power plants then under construction less attractive. In the 1980s (U.S.) and 1990s (Europe), flat load growth and electricity liberalization also made the addition of large new baseload capacity unattractive. The 1973 oil crisis had a significant effect on countries, such as France and Japan, which had relied more heavily on oil for electric generation (39% and 73% respectively) to invest in nuclear power. Today, nuclear power supplies about 80% and 30% of the electricity in those countries, respectively.[5]

A general movement against nuclear power arose during the last third of the 20th century, based on the fear of a possible nuclear accident as well as the history of accidents, fears of radiation as well as the history of radiation of the public, nuclear proliferation, and on the opposition to nuclear waste production, transport and lack of any final storage plans. Perceived risks on the citizens' health and safety, the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster played a part in stopping new plant construction in many countries, although the public policy organization Brookings Institution suggests that new nuclear units have not been ordered in the U.S. because the Institution's research concludes they cost 15–30% more over their lifetime than conventional coal and natural gas fired plants.[6]

Unlike the Three Mile Island accident, the much more serious Chernobyl accident did not increase regulations affecting Western reactors since the Chernobyl reactors were of the problematic RBMK design only used in the Soviet Union, for example lacking "robust" containment buildings. Many of these reactors are still in use today. However, changes were made in both the reactors themselves (use of low enriched uranium) and in the control system (prevention of disabling safety systems) to reduce the possibility of a duplicate accident.[7]

Opposition in Ireland, and Poland prevented nuclear programs there, while Austria (1978), Sweden (1980) and Italy (1987) (influenced by Chernobyl) voted in referendums to oppose or phase out nuclear power. In July 2009, the Italian Parliament passed a law that canceled the results of an earlier referendum and allowed the immediate start of the Italian nuclear program.[8]

Nuclear reactor technology

Just as many conventional thermal power stations generate electricity by harnessing the thermal energy released from burning fossil fuels, nuclear power plants convert the energy released from the nucleus of an atom, typically via nuclear fission.[9]

When a relatively large fissile atomic nucleus (usually uranium-235 or plutonium-239) absorbs a neutron, a fission of the atom often results. Fission splits the atom into two or more smaller nuclei with kinetic energy (known as fission products) and also releases gamma radiation and free neutrons. A portion of these neutrons may later be absorbed by other fissile atoms and create more fissions, which release more neutrons, and so on.[9]

This nuclear chain reaction can be controlled by using neutron poisons and neutron moderators to change the portion of neutrons that will go on to cause more fissions.[9] Nuclear reactors generally have automatic and manual systems to shut the fission reaction down if unsafe conditions are detected.[10]

A cooling system removes heat from the reactor core and transports it to another area of the plant, where the thermal energy can be harnessed to produce electricity or to do other useful work. Typically the hot coolant will be used as a heat source for a boiler, and the pressurized steam from that boiler will power one or more steam turbine driven electrical generators.[11]

Many existing nuclear plants use uranium, requiring uranium mining. The uranium ore is extracted, usually converted into a stable and compact form such as yellowcake, and then transported to a processing facility. Here, the yellowcake is converted to uranium hexafluoride, which is then enriched using various techniques. At this point, the enriched uranium, containing more than the natural 0.7% U-235, is used to make rods of the proper composition and geometry for the particular reactor that the fuel is destined for. The fuel rods will spend about 3 operational cycles (typically 6 years total now) inside the reactor, generally until about 3% of their uranium has been fissioned, then they will be moved to a spent fuel pool where the short lived isotopes generated by fission can decay away. After about 5 years in a cooling pond, the spent fuel is radioactively and thermally cool enough to handle, and it can be moved to dry storage casks or reprocessed.[12]

Most nuclear power plants use Uranium as fuel but it is also possible to use Plutonium. These plants are rare, however, since Plutonium is extremely toxic, both chemically and radioactively, and can be used to build nuclear weapons.[13]

First to Fourth Generation Nuclear Reactors

First Generation reactors refer to the early prototype and power reactors of the 1950-70s, such as Shippingport, Magnox, Fermi 1, and Dresden. First-generation systems have been retired.[14]

Second generation refers to the class of commercial reactors built through the 1990s. Prototypical second generation reactors include the PWR, CANDU, BWR, AGR, and VVER.[14]

Third generation reactors are a development of any of the second generation nuclear reactor designs, and current reactors in operation around the world are generally considered second- or third-generation systems. Third generation reactors were deployed in the 1990s and primarily built in East Asia. They incorporate technological improvements such as improved fuel technology, better thermal efficiency, passive safety systems, and standardized design for reduced maintenance and capital costs, which can result in a longer operational life and less core damage frequencies. New designs are expected to be deployed by 2010-2030.[15]

Fourth Generation reactors (Gen IV) are a set of theoretical nuclear reactor designs currently being researched. Most of these designs are generally not expected to be available for commercial construction before 2030, with the exception of a version of the Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR) called the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). The NGNP is to be completed by 2021. The VHTR is a gas cooled reactor design that would produce both electricity and hydrogen. The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) is sponsoring the development of the project.[16]

Research into these reactor types was officially started by the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) based on eight technology goals, the primary goals being to improve nuclear safety, improve proliferation resistance, minimize waste and natural resource utilization, and to decrease the cost to build and run such plants.[16]

Fusion reactors, which create energy by fusing two light atomic nuclei together, diminishes some of the risks associated with nuclear fission, although there are debates about when nuclear fusion as an energy source will be feasible.[17]

Existing and proposed reactors


As of June 2013, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has received applications for 24 more reactors, to add to the 104 already running. But according to analysts, none is likely to be built soon, due to the declining costs of natural gas. Of the 24 reactors proposed, only two reactors adding to the existing Vogtle power plant in Georgia (owned 46% by Southern Company) and two reactors across the river in South Carolina by SCE&G are being built. Many proposals have been stalled or withdrawn.[18]

Benefits of Current Nuclear Technology

  • The processes of running a Nuclear Power plant generates no CO2, although CO2 emissions arise from the construction of the plant, the mining and enrichment of uranium, its conversion into nuclear fuel, its final disposal, and the final plant decommissioning. A big 1,250 megawatt plant produces the equivalent of 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year during its life, much less than coal-fired power plants and natural-gas turbines, according to a life-cycle study by Uwe Fritsche, a researcher at the Öko Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. One University of Wisconsin life-cycle emissions study in 2003 found even lower carbon emissions for nuclear than for fossil fuels and even many renewables, although other studies find the carbon footprint of renewals to be comparable to or lower than nuclear. [19]
  • By not depending on fossil fuels, the cost of nuclear power isn't affected by fluctuations in oil and gas prices.[20]
  • Nuclear power generates a high amount of electrical energy in one single plant.[20]
  • A 2003 MIT study found that nuclear energy could be a more widely used, viable energy source if the following recommendations were implemented:[20]
  1. Placing increased emphasis on the once-through fuel cycle as best meeting the criteria of low costs and proliferation resistance;
  2. Offering a limited production tax-credit to 'first movers' - private sector investors who successfully build new nuclear plants. This tax credit is extendable to other carbon-free electricity technologies and is not paid unless the plant operates;
  3. Having government more fully develop the capabilities to analyze life-cycle health and safety impacts of fuel cycle facilities;
  4. Advancing a U.S. Department of Energy balanced long-term waste management R&D program.
  5. Urging DOE to establish a Nuclear System Modeling project that would collect the engineering data and perform the analysis necessary to evaluate alternative reactor concepts and fuel cycles using the criteria of cost, safety, waste, and proliferation resistance. Expensive development projects should be delayed pending the outcome of this multi-year effort.
  6. Giving countries that forego proliferation- risky enrichment and reprocessing activities a preferred position to receive nuclear fuel and waste management services from nations that operate the entire fuel cycle.

Problems with Current Nuclear technology


Solid waste

The safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste is a significant challenge and yet unresolved problem. The most important waste stream from nuclear power plants is spent fuel. A large nuclear reactor produces 3 cubic metres (25–30 tonnes) of spent fuel each year. It is primarily composed of unconverted uranium as well as significant quantities of transuranic actinides (plutonium and curium, mostly). In addition, about 3% of it is made of fission products. The actinides (uranium, plutonium, and curium) are responsible for the bulk of the long term radioactivity, whereas the fission products are responsible for the bulk of the short term radioactivity.[21]

High-level radioactive waste

Spent fuel is highly radioactive and needs to be handled with great care and forethought. However, spent nuclear fuel becomes less radioactive over the course of thousands of years of time. After about 5 percent of the rod has reacted the rod is no longer able to be used. Today, scientists are experimenting on how to recycle these rods to reduce waste. In the meantime, after 40 years, the radiation flux is 99.9% lower than it was the moment the spent fuel was removed, although still dangerously radioactive. Spent fuel rods are stored in shielded basins of water (spent fuel pools), usually located on-site. The water provides both cooling for the still-decaying fission products, and shielding from the continuing radioactivity. After a few decades some on-site storage involves moving the now cooler, less radioactive fuel to a dry-storage facility or dry cask storage, where the fuel is stored in steel and concrete containers until its radioactivity decreases naturally ("decays") to levels safe enough for other processing. This interim stage spans years or decades or millennia, depending on the type of fuel. Most U.S. waste is currently stored in temporary storage sites requiring oversight, while suitable permanent disposal methods are discussed.[22]

As of 2007, the United States had accumulated more than 50,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors.[23] Underground storage at Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in U.S. has been proposed as permanent storage, a proposition strongly opposed by nearby residents.[24]

The amount of waste can be reduced in several ways, particularly reprocessing. Even so, the remaining waste will be substantially radioactive for at least 300 years even if the actinides are removed, and for up to thousands of years if the actinides are left in. Even with separation of all actinides, and using fast breeder reactors to destroy by transmutation some of the longer-lived non-actinides as well, the waste must be segregated from the environment for one to a few hundred years, and therefore this is properly categorized as a long-term problem. Subcritical reactors or fusion reactors could also reduce the time the waste has to be stored.[25]

According to a 2007 story broadcast on 60 Minutes, nuclear power gives France the cleanest air of any industrialized country, and the cheapest electricity in all of Europe. France reprocesses its nuclear waste to reduce its mass and make more energy. However, the article continues, "Today we stock containers of waste because currently scientists don't know how to reduce or eliminate the toxicity, but maybe in 100 years perhaps scientists will... Nuclear waste is an enormously difficult political problem which to date no country has solved. It is, in a sense, the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry... If France is unable to solve this issue, says Mandil, then 'I do not see how we can continue our nuclear program.'"[26]

Low-level radioactive waste

The nuclear industry also produces a huge volume of low-level radioactive waste in the form of contaminated items like clothing, hand tools, water purifier resins, and (upon decommissioning) the materials of which the reactor itself is built. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has repeatedly attempted to allow low-level materials to be handled as normal waste: landfilled, recycled into consumer items, etc. Most low-level waste releases very low levels of radioactivity and is only considered radioactive waste because of its history.[27]

Comparing radioactive waste to industrial toxic waste

In countries with nuclear power, radioactive wastes comprise less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes, which remain hazardous indefinitely unless they decompose or are treated so that they are less toxic or, ideally, completely non-toxic.[28] Overall, nuclear power produces far less waste material than fossil-fuel based power plants. Coal-burning plants are particularly noted for producing large amounts of toxic and mildly radioactive ash due to concentrating naturally occurring metals and radioactive material from the coal.[29]

Recent reports claim that coal power actually results in more radioactive waste being released into the environment than nuclear power, and that the population effective dose equivalent from radiation from coal plants is 100 times as much as nuclear plants.[30] However, others argue that coal ash is not more radioactive than nuclear waste, and the differences in exposure lie in the fact that nuclear plants use heavy shielding to protect the environment from the heavily irradiated reactor vessel, fuel rods, and any radioactive waste on site.[31]


High Initial Investment

Nuclear power requires high initial investment to construct a plant. In 2009, estimates for the cost of a new plant in the U.S. ranged from $6 to $10 billion. Thus there is a high-cost of failure, with each nuclear plant an investment risk for financing. It is therefore usually more economical to run them as long as possible, or construct additional reactor blocks in existing facilities. In 2008, new nuclear power plant construction costs were rising faster than the costs of other types of power plants. Due to the high costs, analysis by the Keystone Institute and Jim Harding suggests that nuclear power costs range from $0.094 to $0.122 per KWh, making nuclear almost as expensive as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle and Carbon Capture and Storage plants.[32]

Large Government Subsidies

Nuclear energy has a history of large government funding, which has crowded out finding for renewables. Consultants suggest that total nuclear energy subsidies have totaled about $63 billion in the United States. Before 1973, OECD governments spent over $150 billion (adjusted to current costs) in researching and developing nuclear energy, and practically nothing for renewable energy. Between 1974 and 1992, $168 billion was spent on nuclear energy and only $22 billion on renewables.[32]

Given the economic and political risks associated with nuclear energy, federal loan guarantees and incentives have been offered, including the 2005 Energy Bill provided loan incentives, production tax credits, and federal risk Insurance for builders of new nuclear plants, and the Nuclear Power 2010 Initiative, a $1.1 Billion Partnership Between The U.S. Government And Industry To Facilitate New nuclear Plant Orders. By way of comparison, the 2005 energy bill offered a total of $150 million for all solar technology research and development. Many environmentalists argue that if solar or enhanced geothermal got the same backing as nuclear energy did, the technologies would be far more developed and widespread.[32]

Then there is the risk of a government-sponsored bailout for any disasters from nuclear plants, as the Price-Anderson Act is a U.S. federal insurance policy indemnifying nuclear plants against liability claims from “nuclear incidents,” with any claims above $10 billion paid for by the federal government.[32]

High Decommissioning Costs

There are high decommissioning costs in shutting down a nuclear power plant. An S&P report noted that the “recent experience with Connecticut Yankee indicates that the cost of decommissioning could approach $1 billion in 2007 dollars.“[32]

2010 Report Finds Photovoltaics Cheaper than Nuclear

A 2010 report by NC Warn, Solar and Nuclear Costs — The Historic Crossover: Solar Energy is Now the Better Buy found that solar photovoltaic system costs have fallen steadily for decades and are projected to fall further over the next 10 years, while projected costs for construction of new nuclear plants have risen steadily over the last decade, and continue to rise. Looking at North Carolina, the report finds that electricity from new solar installations is cheaper than electricity from proposed new nuclear plants, making planned nuclear projects for N.C. an unwise decision. The report concludes that "Commercial nuclear power has been with us for more than forty years. If it is not a mature industry by now, consumers of electricity should ask whether it ever will be competitive without public subsidies. There are no projections that nuclear electricity costs will decline. Very few other states are still seriously considering new nuclear plants. Some have cancelled projects, citing continually rising costs with little sign of progress toward commencing construction. Many states with competitive electricity markets are developing their clean energy systems as rapidly as possible. North Carolina should be leading, not lagging, in the clean energy transition."[33]

Greenhouse Gases

While nuclear reactors themselves release few greenhouse gases, uranium enrichment releases significant amounts. For example, two uranium enrichment plants in Portsmouth, Ohio, and Paducah, Kentucky, released 818,000 pounds of CFC-114, a potent greenhouse gas, in 1999. This amounts to 88% of U.S. industrial sources, and an estimated 14% of all CFC-114 emissions worldwide. CFC-114 is used to cool equipment and uranium hexafluoride in the plants, and escapes to the atmosphere through leaks in piping.[34][35][36]

Water Use and Pollution

Reactors require huge amounts of cooling water, and those with cooling towers or ponds can use 28-30 million gallons of water per day.[37] Marine life and ecosystems can be harmed by the reactor cooling system, or from thermal pollution when wastewater is discharged at temperatures up to 25 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the water into which it flows.[38]

Potentially Limited Resources

Uranium, like coal and fossil fuels, is a finite resource. Uranium is a constituent of most rocks, dirt, and of the oceans. The fact that uranium is so spread out is a problem because mining uranium is only economically feasible where there is a large concentration. Reports suggest currently known conventional uranium resources are sufficient to last around 30-100 years at current levels of nuclear capacity. While new uranium deposits could be found, the quality of those uranium deposits is unknown. Poorer grades or uranium can lead to higher emissions of carbon dioxide from the nuclear life cycle. Today the average ore grade used by the industry is 0.15% - 1.5 grams of uranium oxide to 1kg of rock. At ore grades of between 0.01 and 0.02%, carbon emissions from nuclear power approach those of a gas-fired station, given all the energy required to mine and use it.[39]

Slow Implementation

The rate of implementation of nuclear plants is very slow – current generation nuclear technology (fission and fast breeder reactors) have project timelines in the region of 15 years from conception to energy generation, meaning a new nuclear plant proposed today would take anywhere from 10-15 years to come online.[32]

Risk of Nuclear Proliferaton

Exporting nuclear technology can lead to the spread of nuclear weapons, fissile material, and weapons-applicable nuclear technology and information. According to Friends of the Earth's Jim Green, even fourth generation nuclear reactors "can be used to produce weapon grade plutonium in the fuel (using a shorter-than-usual irradiation time) or by irradiating a uranium or depleted uranium ‘blanket’ or targets. Conventional PUREX reprocessing can be used to separate the plutonium. Another option is to separate reactor grade plutonium from Integral Fast Reactor fuel and to use that in weapons instead of weapon grade plutonium." This extends to reactors that use thorium instead of plutonium: "The use of thorium as a nuclear fuel doesn't solve the WMD proliferation problem. Irradiation of thorium (indirectly) produces uranium-233, a fissile material which can be used in nuclear weapons."[40]

Risk of Disaster


The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian SSR (now Ukraine). It is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, and it is the only one classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The disaster began during a systems test on 26 April 1986 at reactor number four of the Chernobyl plant, which is near the town of Pripyat. There was a sudden power output surge, and when an emergency shutdown was attempted, a more extreme spike in power output occurred, which led to a reactor vessel rupture and a series of explosions. This event exposed the graphite moderator components of the reactor to air, causing them to ignite. The resulting fire sent a plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area, including Pripyat. The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and Northern Europe. Large areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were evacuated, and over 336,000 people were resettled. According to official post-Soviet data, about 60% of the fallout landed in Belarus.[41][42]

Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have been burdened with the continuing and substantial decontamination and health care costs of the Chernobyl accident. More than fifty deaths are directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers. Estimates of the total number of deaths attributable to the accident vary enormously, from possibly 4,000 to close to one million.[43][44] Despite the accident, Ukraine continued to operate the remaining reactors at Chernobyl until 2000, when the last reactor at the site was closed down.[45]

Three Mile Island

On March 28, 1979, there was a cooling system malfunction that caused a partial melt-down of the reactor core at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (TMI), a civilian nuclear power plant located on Three Mile Island in the Susquehanna River, south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This loss-of-coolant accident resulted in the release of a significant amount of radioactivity, estimated at 43,000 curies (1.59 PBq) of radioactive krypton-85 gas (half life 10 yrs), but less than 20 curies (740 GBq) of the especially hazardous iodine-131 (half life 8 days), into the surrounding environment.[46]

The nuclear power industry claims that there were no deaths, injuries or adverse health effects from the accident,[47] and a report by Columbia University epidemiologist Maureen Hatch agrees with this finding.[48] Another study by Steven Wing of the University of North Carolina found that lung cancer and leukemia rates were 2 to 10 times higher downwind of TMI than upwind.[49] The Radiation and Public Health Project reported a spike in infant mortality in the downwind communities two years after the accident.[50][51]


Following the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, there was a series of ongoing equipment failures and releases of radiation at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The plant comprises six separate boiling water reactors maintained by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Reactors 4, 5 and 6 had been shut down prior to the earthquake for planned maintenance. The remaining reactors were reportedly shut down automatically after the earthquake, but the subsequent tsunami flooded the plant, knocking out emergency generators needed to run pumps which cool and control the reactors. The flooding and earthquake damage prevented assistance being brought from elsewhere.[52]

Over the following days there was evidence of partial nuclear meltdowns in reactors 1, 2 and 3; hydrogen explosions destroyed the upper cladding of the buildings housing reactors 1, 3 and 4; an explosion damaged reactor 2's containment; and multiple fires broke out at reactor 4. Fears of radiation leaks led to a 20 km (12-mile) radius evacuation around the plant. TEPCO employees and workers from other companies not involved in essential work were temporarily evacuated after an explosion was heard in the suppression chamber of reactor building 2.[53] Employees returned after it was confirmed that there had not been a containment breach, but evacuated again on March 16 following a spike in radiation.[54][55] Staff returned but the status of the reactors remained extremely hazardous.[56][57] On March 18, Japanese officials designated the magnitude of the danger at the site at level 5, two points below the Chernobyl disaster on the 7 point International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) and on the same level as the Three Mile Island accident.[58] Explosions and a fire have resulted in dangerous levels of radiation, sparking a stock market collapse and panic-buying in supermarkets.[59]

List of nuclear accidents through 2009

Nuclear power plant accidents with more than US$300 million in property damage, to 2009[60][61][62]
Date Location Description Cost
(in millions
2006 $)
December 7, 1975 Greifswald, East Germany Electrician's error causes fire in the main trough that destroys control lines and five main coolant pumps US$443
February 22, 1977 Jaslovské Bohunice, Czechoslovakia Severe corrosion of reactor and release of radioactivity into the plant area, necessitating total decommission US$1,700
March 28, 1979 Middletown, Pennsylvania, US 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 Athens, Alabama, US Instrumentation systems malfunction during startup, which led to suspension of operations at all three Browns Ferry Units - operations restarted in 1991 for unit 2, in 1995 for unit 3, and (after a $1.8 billion recommissioning operation) in 2007 for unit 3 US$1,830
April 11, 1986 Plymouth, Massachusetts, US Recurring equipment problems force emergency shutdown of Boston Edison's Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant US$1,001
April 26, 1986 Chernobyl, near the town of Pripyat, Ukraine Steam explosion and meltdown with 4,057 deaths (see Chernobyl disaster) necessitating the evacuation of 300,000 people from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, and dispersing radioactive material across Europe (see Chernobyl disaster effects) US$6,700
March 31, 1987 Delta, Pennsylvania, US Peach Bottom units 2 and 3 shutdown due to cooling malfunctions and unexplained equipment problems US$400
September 2, 1996 Crystal River, Florida, US Balance-of-plant equipment malfunction forces shutdown and extensive repairs at Crystal River Unit 3 US$384

James Hansen Advocates Third and Fourth Generation Nuclear Reactors

Third and fourth generation nuclear reactors are designed to deal with many of the above problems with nuclear power, including improved nuclear safety, minimized waste and natural resource utilization, and decreased cost to build and run such plants. The first generation III reactors were built in Japan, while several others have been approved for construction in Europe. Generation IV reactors will not be marketable for another 10 to 20 years.[15]

In a December 18, 2009 interview, NASA scientists Dr. James Hansen touted the potentials of these technologies as alternatives to fossil fuels:[63]

“Well, nuclear power -- the kind of nuclear power we have now is called second-generation nuclear power. It's comparable in cost to coal. Once you have the nuclear power plant, then the fuel is very inexpensive, so nuclear power is quite inexpensive. But it's difficult in the United States to get a nuclear power plant built, and it takes so many years that it drives the cost up. So now in England they've realized that they will need to have nuclear power in the future, so they've put a limit -- once a government commission decides on where the power plants will be built, the public will have one year to object to this and possibly get some changes. But they can't drag it out six or seven years, the way it happens in the United States, because that drives up the price tremendously.

"And there's also the possibility for fourth-generation nuclear power. That's a technology which allows you to burn all of the nuclear fuel. Presently, nuclear power plants burn less than 1 percent of the energy in the nuclear fuel. Fourth-generation nuclear power allows the neutrons to move faster, so it can burn all of the fuel. Furthermore, it can burn nuclear waste, so it can solve the nuclear waste problem. And the United States is still the technology leader in fourth-generation nuclear power. In 1994, Argonne National Laboratory, now called Idaho National Laboratory, was ready to build a fourth-generation nuclear power plant, but the Clinton-Gore administration canceled that research because of the antinuclear sentiments in the Democratic Party. Well, we still have the best expertise in that technology, and we should develop it because it's something we could also sell to China and India, because they're going to need nuclear power. They are not going to be able to get all of their energy from the sun and from the wind.”

In his book Storms of My Grandchildren Hansen argues that a new generation of fast reactors could return to the grid up to 99 percent of energy contained in uranium, and can use uranium already stored in abundance within the U.S. from nuclear weapons production and waste, offering a reliable and long-lasting source of baseload electricity generation.[64] An article in Reuters noted that the hazardous waste would still be there -- albeit less radioactive, less long-lasting, and in smaller quantities.[65]

Amory Lovins speaks out against expanded use of nuclear power

In a July 16, 2008 interview on Democracy Now, chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute Amory Lovins spoke out against federal calls for new nuclear plants, saying nuclear power, due to its high costs, does not attract private capital and therefore requires massive government subsidies, channeling money toward expensive, centralized power that would not come online for years rather than the cheaper, readily available, and more decentralized microgeneration power: small scale wind turbines, hydroelectric plants, photovoltaic solar systems, ground source heat pumps, and Micro Combined Heat and Power (MicroCHP) installations that can be used locally.[66]

According to Lovins: "if you buy more nuclear plants, you’re going to get about two to ten times less climate solution per dollar, and you’ll get it about twenty to forty times slower, than if you buy instead the cheaper, faster stuff that is walloping nuclear and coal and gas and all kinds of central plans in the marketplace. And those competitors are efficient use of electricity and what’s called micropower, which is both renewables, except big hydro, and making electricity and heat together."[66]

2010 report argues nuclear undermines efficiency and renewables

A March 2010 Heinrich Böll Foundation Report by Antony Froggatt with Mycle Schneider, "Systems for change: Nuclear power vs. energy efficiency+renewables?" argues that pursuing both nuclear plants and renewable energy and energy efficiency to tackle climate change is not complementary, because:[67]

  • There is competition for limited investment funds, with nuclear requiring large investments.
  • The overcapacity provided by nuclear power undermines energy efficiency incentives.
  • Increasing levels of renewable electricity sources will need flexible, medium-load complementary facilities, like microgeneration, and not the inflexible, large, baseload power plants of nuclear energy.
  • Future electricity grids will use smart metering, smart appliances and smart grids, whose logic is an entirely redesigned system where the user gets also a generation and storage function. This is radically different from the top-down centralized approach of nuclear.

Fusion Power

A different type of nuclear power known as nuclear fusion has been under research for decades but is still considered to be at least several decades away from commercial feasibility.[68] Fusion power would provide much more energy for a given weight of fuel than any technology currently in use, as the fuel itself (primarily deuterium) exists abundantly in the Earth's ocean: about 1 in 6500 hydrogen atoms in seawater is deuterium, which some experts estimate could supply the world's energy needs for millions of years.[69]

Despite optimism dating back to the 1950s about the wide-scale harnessing of fusion power, there are still significant barriers standing between current scientific understanding and technological capabilities and the practical realization of fusion as an energy source. Research, while making steady progress, has also continually thrown up new difficulties. Therefore it remains unclear that an economically viable fusion plant is possible. An editorial in New Scientist magazine opined that "if commercial fusion is viable, it may well be a century away."[70]

A recent paper, published January 2009 and part of the IAEA Fusion Conference Proceedings at Geneva last October, claims that small 50 MW Tokamak style reactors are feasible.[71]

On May 30, 2009, the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, primarily a weapons lab, announced the creation of a high-energy laser system, the National Ignition Facility, which can heat hydrogen atoms to temperatures only existing in nature in the cores of stars. The new laser is expected to have the ability to produce, for the first time, more energy from controlled, inertially-confined nuclear fusion than was required to initiate the reaction.[72]

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, addressing the use of fusion power, said that "after 60 years of research we are not yet close. The most optimistic researchers predict that maybe in 40 or 50 years, commercial energy sources based on nuclear fusion may become possible."[73]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. "Nuclear Power 101" Union of Concerned Scientists, accessed December 2009
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Key World Energy Statistics 2007" International Energy Agency, 2007
  3. "Nuclear Power Plants Information. Number of Reactors Operation Worldwide" International Atomic Energy Agency, accessed December 2009.
  4. "50 Years of Nuclear Energy" (PDF), International Atomic Energy Agency, accessed December 2009.
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External resources

Comparison of Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power:

External articles