The Current State of Nuclear Energy in the US

The Satsop Nuclear Power Plant in Washington, an incomplete nuclear facility.
Photo by Jakob Madsen via PixaBay.

A consistent source of energy is vital to the development and sustainability of any country. Without it, all other aspects of society are impacted. According to the Journal of Health, Population, and Nutrition, “Reliable basic infrastructure, particularly electricity, is a critical enabling factor in improving health systems and consequently achieving the health sustainable development goals.” There are currently many ways of generating electricity used by the U.S. today, including the burning of fossil fuels, coal, and natural gas. These methods of energy production can be incredibly expensive, dangerous to workers, and harmful to the Earth’s atmosphere. The use of solar panels and windmills have been cited as possible alternatives, but the energy production method that is discussed the least is nuclear.

Uranium (the chemical that is used to create nuclear reactions) creates electricity by splitting uranium atoms. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), there are currently 94 operating nuclear reactors in the U.S. Nuclear is known to be a highly efficient, safe way to create electricity when compared to coal and fossil fuels. Based on global data, nuclear had “99.8% fewer deaths than brown coal; 99.7% fewer than coal; 99.6% fewer than oil; and 97.5% fewer than gas,” (Sovacool et al. (2016); and Markandya, A., & Wilkinson, P. (200)). 

Nuclear fission energy is also highly efficient. The National Energy Institute (NEI) describes the power of nuclear energy; “One uranium fuel pellet—about the size of a gummy bear—creates as much energy as one ton of coal, 149 gallons of oil or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas” (this metric accounts for the lifetime of said uranium fuel pellet). Nuclear plants also operate 24/7 with little to no serious maintenance of the nuclear reactor’s stability needed. 

The U.S. is currently shutting down the operations of many nuclear power plants whose contracts are quickly expiring. California is shutting down its last nuclear power plant; the plant’s operating agreement will expire by 2024. Three other plants in California are in the process of being shut down, which will remove 9% of California’s annual electricity production. Since September of 2017, 39 nuclear facilities have been shut down across the U.S. Unlike other countries, namely China and France, the U.S. is actively declining in its total number of nuclear reactors.

Who makes decisions regarding the operations of nuclear plants, though? In short, it’s the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the United States Department of Energy (DOE). According to the NRC website, “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was created as an independent agency by Congress in 1974 to ensure the safe use of radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while protecting people and the environment.” The NRC is in charge of making sure nuclear waste contaminants do not reach large population centers or affect wildlife. The DOE, on the other hand, is currently the one responsible for the creation and management of nuclear weapons. If a private organization wishes to construct a nuclear facility in the U.S., the DOE is the organization they answer to; the companies that currently own and operate nuclear reactors in the United States are Exelon, PG&E, and FirstEnergy Corporation. 

The increased demand for alternatives to fossil fuels from private companies and governments alike has stemmed from environmental concerns, but more potently, the immediate overall effectiveness of the United State’s energy diet. Most recently, the Biden administration has put $6 billion dollars towards funding for “dying” nuclear facilities. Internal debates in government and public discussions regarding the safety, efficacy, and cost of nuclear energy are constant. The NEI will be holding a “Nuclear Energy Assembly” in Washington D.C. in June of this year. Its focus is to bring “young professionals, policymakers, innovators, supply-chain experts, and industry professionals,” together to discuss the current state of nuclear energy technology and policy. 

According to the WNA, the United States Congress voted to approve upwards of $6.15 billion dollars total for the use of nuclear research in the NRC. The DOE’s total budget for the 2021 financial year was about $45 billion dollars, the majority of which is dedicated solely to coal, natural gas, and oil subsidies. 

The main reason for nuclear facilities shutting down throughout the U.S. is because of their “design lives.” Their design lives are the time that nuclear energy plants have to operate safely, and in accordance with the DOE and NRC respectively. As it stands, most plants built at the beginning of the first usage of nuclear power are reaching the end of their design lives, and the DOE and NRC are making minimal efforts to extend the lives of the contracts involved with these plants.

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