The Importance of Nuclear Power in Our Energy Mix

By Gary S. Was and Todd R. Allen

Access to power improves lives. People want their power to be increasingly less polluting, less expensive, and more reliable and resilient. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the world’s energy mix has become cleaner overall, and in particular, decarbonized.[1] Future energy production will continue to become cleaner and will minimize greenhouse gas (GHG) release into the atmosphere. Lowering the cost of energy to the consumer requires a lower cost of production and also a lower cost of transmission and distribution. Studies consistently show that the lowest energy production costs come through a mix of energy sources because energy costs rise dramatically if a single energy source supplies 100 percent of the demand. Different technologies bring different values. Combining values of different technologies lets us reach the lowest costs.[2] A mix of different energy sources also provides reliability and resilience. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation has specifically reported that loss of nuclear assets could adversely affect electricity delivery reliability.[3]

So what do the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; the Nature Conservancy; the Province of Ontario; countries such as France, China, and Finland; former presidential candidates Jay Inslee and Cory Booker; and James Hansen, the scientist who alerted us about global warming in 1988, all agree on? They agree that nuclear power is a necessary part of a clean, affordable, and reliable energy system. Yet, nuclear energy is likely the least under- stood energy source in the United States.

Just ninety-five nuclear power plants, spread over thirty states, provide almost one-fifth of America’s electricity. These plants have pro- vided reliable, affordable, and clean energy for decades. Yet, with the exception of two new plants being constructed in Georgia, we stopped building new nuclear plants about three decades ago. A combination of lowered energy demand growth in the United States, changes in markets that placed less value on very large, slow-to- build facilities, concerns over long-term disposal of the used fuel from nuclear plants, and anxiety generated by well-publicized nuclear accidents have stopped the construction of new nuclear energy in the United States.

Just ninety-five nuclear power plants, spread over thirty states, provide almost one-fifth of America’s electricity.

Clean Electricity
Nuclear energy is low-carbon. Considering the total carbon footprint over the full lifecycle, nuclear energy is the lowest of all electricity sources.[4] In the United States, nuclear plants produce roughly 20 percent of our total electricity demand, but account for more than 55 per- cent of our carbon-free electricity.[5] Worldwide, they produce 10 percent of the globe’s electricity, but are responsible for 20 percent of the carbon-free electricity.[6] Furthermore, U.S. plants operate at a capacity factor (percentage of the time that they are operating at full capacity) of 92 percent. That means that the ninety- five plants are generating full power over 90 percent of the time, far above any other electricity source. This reliable power source, when combined with renewable sources, actually provides the lowest overall system cost for a low-carbon system.[7] Those countries that have most successfully and rapidly decarbonized their electricity usage during the decade of scale-up (Sweden, France, Belgium) did so primarily with nuclear energy.[8]

. . . [N]uclear energy has provided the planet with a substantial decrease in GHG emissions for over a half-century!

Nuclear power is also good for your health. Most people would be surprised to learn that the World Health Organization estimates that around seven million people die from causes directly attributable to air pollution[9] and that as recently as 2015, an estimated two hundred thousand U.S. deaths were directly attributable to fossil-fired plants.[10] While U.S. deaths from coal represent an annual catastrophe, nuclear power has prevented an estimated 1.84 million air pollution–related deaths worldwide by the fossil fuels it displaces.[11] Natural gas plants, increasingly being constructed around the country, are cleaner than coal but still account for one-third of carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in the United States.[12] This is not to mention the illogical use of natural gas for electricity generation versus uses for which it is more uniquely suited, such as heating homes or powering vehicles. So nuclear energy has provided the planet with a substantial decrease in GHG emissions for over a half- century! That is a record to build upon—not to walk away from.

Land Use and Resource Utilization
The lure of nuclear energy has always been the incredible amount of energy available from a small amount of material (energy density). A single pellet of uranium dioxide (UO2) measuring 1 cm in diameter by 1 cm in length contains as much energy as 149 gallons of oil, 1,780 pounds of coal, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Seen another way, a utility-scale solar plant would take 3.2 minutes to generate enough power for an electric vehicle to make the 1,000- mile drive from New York City to Daytona Beach. It would take the average nuclear plant 1.4 seconds. But the footprint of those two plants differs significantly. A 1,000-megawatt electric nuclear plant requires about 1.3 square miles of land area. To provide the same amount of electricity to the grid, photovoltaic solar would require about 65 square miles or 50 times the land area, and wind about 320 square miles or almost 250 times the land area. To put these numbers into perspective, the island of Manhattan is 34 square miles.[13]

All energy production requires the use of natural resources. These resources are used in constructing the plant and also as fuel for its operation. Here, energy density is again important. For a nuclear plant, the amount of resources used as fuel and as materials for construction is very small compared with any other energy source. The argument goes that as long as there is an earth, the sun will always shine and the wind will always blow, so we will always have abundant, renewable fuel at no cost. But what is not often considered is that devices are required to convert the fuel to electricity. The amount of material used to build a nuclear plant is among the smallest of any energy source.[14[ And the high energy density means that the amount of uranium needed for fuel is small compared with fossil fuels. Nuclear energy is powered by the fission of uranium, thorium, or plutonium. There is enough uranium available for mining for hundreds of years of nuclear power at its present use rate.[15] If extraction from seawater becomes economical, the supply is multiplied to thousands or even millions of years. Advanced reactor concepts are being developed that could use thorium, which is three times more abundant than uranium in the earth’s crust. And fast spectrum reactors are capable of producing more fuel than they consume by transforming uranium-238 to plutonium-239 and using it for fuel. So here again, nuclear and renewables work well together with nuclear construction minimizing resource consumption and renewables reciprocating with the fuel.

A Large and Well-Educated Workforce
The nuclear power industry employs 70,323 people across the nation, with 60,916 in the electric power generation sector and an additional 9,406 who support nuclear fuels.[16] Sixty- six percent of nuclear generation employment is in utilities, followed by about two in ten workers in the professional service industry. Nuclear generation employs a relatively high proportion of women, with almost four in ten employees reported to be women. And the nuclear industry workforce is well educated. In 2019, the average salary of a BS nuclear engineer was $107,600, which ranked fifth on a list of the nineteen top- earning engineering disciplines.[17] More broadly, the Atlantic Council estimates the human capital value of the U.S. nuclear power complex to U.S. national security at $26.1 billion.[18]

Reliable, Long-Term, Base- Load Electricity Supply
Nuclear energy represents the most stable, reliable, cost-effective, base-load electricity supply available. As noted earlier, the ninety-five nuclear plants operate at full power 92 percent of the time, day and night, winter and summer, through hurricanes, tornados, floods, and pandemics. They can be sited and operated with equal effectiveness in any part of the country. As such, they are one of the most valuable and versatile sources of electricity.

Nuclear plants are licensed for forty years, a duration that was based on antitrust and economic factors and not on the limitations of nuclear technology. But licenses are renewable. Decades ago, the idea that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would be granting twenty-year license extensions to power plants was unheard of. Today, 75 percent of plants have received them.[19] This spring, a second plant obtained a license for eighty years of operation.[20] Now there is consideration of “life beyond 80” to, perhaps, 100 years of operation, in which case a plant would outlive the earth’s population at the time it was built.

Solid Waste Containment: Risk and Storage
The production of electricity, from any source, alters the environment. Coal and natural gas generate particulates, GHGs, and the like. In 2012, coal plants in the United States generated 110 million tons of coal ash.[21] Renewables produce waste from their manufacture and disposal. The production and disposal of solar panels produce waste. Nuclear plants produce waste in solid form. Nuclear waste is highly radioactive, yet extremely small in volume. All the used fuel ever produced by the commercial nuclear industry, if placed together, would cover a football field to a depth of less than ten yards.[22] In fact, the volume of uranium equivalent to the size of a lollipop will provide all the energy required by an individual over their lifetime and will result in solid waste the size of that same lollipop.

Nuclear waste is highly radioactive, yet extremely small in volume.

Safe storage of nuclear waste over the long term is well understood. We already dispose of materials with low levels of radioactivity that come from medical and industrial uses and from defense programs, and we possess the knowledge on how to handle them. Countries other than the United States, notably France and Finland, have plans in place for long-term disposal of fuel from their nuclear power stations. We also know how to dispose of these wastes. We see countries like Canada and Sweden, who use a consent-based process in selecting repository sites for used fuel, making progress toward selecting a waste repository site. Because the United States chose to use a “Decide-Announce- Defend” approach to the selection of its first planned repository for nuclear waste, and that approach did not get community acceptance, does not mean that disposing of nuclear fuel is not possible. While it is not seen as a long-term solution, in the meantime, the United States safely stores used fuel from power plants in steel and concrete casks.

Advanced Nuclear Industry: The Next Generation of Reactor Design

Source: Data courtesy of Third Way, 2019 (https://www.thirdway.org/graphic/2019-advanced-nuclear-map).

Nuclear energy is evolving and modernizing. The map shows that there are now approximately seventy-five privately funded companies developing new nuclear energy products, including TerraPower, a company funded by Bill Gates. New products include reactors that never need refueling, modular reactors that can be sized for the need and resized later, microreactors for small outlying communities, and reactors with even higher efficiency than those of today. Before this recent surge in creativity, nuclear energy was available only in a single product, very large electricity production. This advent of twenty- first century advanced nuclear energy products responds to changes in the way we are producing and distributing energy, where the electricity pro- duction, transmission, and distribution system has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. There are more opportunities for nuclear energy products than just very large-scale pro- duction of electricity, and businesses are responding. Opportunities include powering remote, off-grid communities or defense installations with microreactors, providing direct heat to industrial users or communities for district heating and providing an “always-on” part of a zero-carbon microgrid. These innovations support cleaner, affordable, and reliant energy systems and complement renewable energy by reaching places that are impractical for renewables.

. . . [T]he dependability and reliability of nuclear plants, the high energy density of nuclear fuels. . ., and the impactful contribution to the workforce make nuclear energy an essential element of humanity’s energy mix.

Taken together, the dependability and reliability of nuclear plants, the high energy density of nuclear fuels that minimizes the use of resources and land, and the impactful contribution to the workforce make nuclear energy an essential element of humanity’s energy mix. A surge in innovation of nuclear energy will pro- duce novel designs and capabilities that will provide benefits to communities and industry and will continue to complement renewables in the energy mix of the future.

Read here for Todd Larsen’s response to this article. 

The authors acknowledge Sara Norman (University of Michigan) for her work on the map and for background research on several topics in the paper.

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  22. https://www.nei.org/news/2019/nuclear-101-an-introduction-to-nuclear-energy.
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