Nuclear power plants produce electricity by boiling water into steam. This steam then turns turbines to produce electricity. Where nuclear energy facilities differ from power plants that use fossil fuels is that nuclear plants do not burn anything to create the energy to boil the water, so they don’t pollute the air.
Instead, they use uranium fuel to produce energy through a process called fission. Fission entails the splitting of atoms of uranium inside a nuclear reactor that, in U.S. facilities, uses water to carry the heat that is converted into steam to turn the turbine/generators.
One of the great advantages of nuclear energy compared to other energy sources is the tremendous efficiency of uranium as a power source. One thumbnail-sized uranium fuel pellet provides as much energy as one ton of coal or 149 gallons of oil. This is why a typical reactor, operating at the industry’s standard reliability levels, can generate enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle or Boston for an entire year.
There are 104 reactors, operating in 31 states, that produce 20 percent of our nation’s total electricity supply.
Nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases during the production of electricity. In fact, it produces 70 percent of all emission-free electricity generation in the United States. Worldwide, more than 440 nuclear power plants provide about half of all carbon-free electricity generation.
Concerns about air quality and the need for reliable, low-cost power are among the factors driving interest in new nuclear energy facilities. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that the United States will need nearly 25 percent more electricity by 2035. Worldwide, the International Energy Agency reports that the global surge in the use of consumer electronics such as flat screen TVs, iPods and mobile phones will triple electricity consumption by 2030.
Scientists and notable environmentalists agree that nuclear energy has an important role to play in addressing this energy and environmental challenge. “Although nuclear energy is not a panacea for the climate [change] problem—there is no panacea—it could make a significant contribution if we could make it expandable again. It would be easier to solve the climate problem with the help of nuclear energy than without it,” said Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology.
President Obama has embraced an inclusive approach to meeting future electricity needs in a way that protects our environment: “By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all.”
The byproduct of electricity generation with nuclear energy is uranium fuel assemblies, which are radioactive and, therefore, must be safely isolated. Currently, when used fuel assemblies are removed from the reactor core after about six years of use, they cool in a water-filled vault at nuclear plants for five years or more. After five years of water cooling, they can be removed from these vaults and placed into concrete- and lead-lined storage containers, which the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has judged safe and secure for up to 120 years.
Because used fuel assemblies still have substantial energy content, they potentially can be recycled for re-use as reactor fuel. Recycling is done in many nations, such as France, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom, and may be part of the energy strategy in the United States in the decades to come.
Stewart Brand, a noted environmentalist and publisher and editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, noted on TED.com in 2009 that, “If all the electricity you used in your lifetime was nuclear, the amount of waste that would be added up would fit in a Coke can.”
Because nuclear power plants operate 24/7, they also play a key a role in stabilizing the nation’s electrical grid. The average capacity factor for U.S. nuclear plants—a measure of reliability—has stood very close to 90 percent every year for the past decade. This is significantly higher than other electricity sources, and helps keep the cost to produce electricity very low. The industry’s average electricity production cost in 2009 was about two cents per kilowatt-hour.
The coming decades will witness some of the most significant challenges the nation has ever faced in meeting the twin imperatives of providing for rising electricity demand and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. No single technology can accomplish these tasks alone, and they certainly cannot be accomplished overnight. But proven clean-energy sources like nuclear energy must play a key role.
Written by Scott Peterson, Nuclear Energy Institute