The Future of Nuclear Energy in the U.S.?

By Tavish McNulty | February 24, 2022

From wind and water mills to steam engines to splitting the atom, humanity has come up with many ways of using the world’s energy resources to make our lives easier. Here in the U.S., we get energy from approximately 60% fossil fuels, 20% renewables, and 20% nuclear energy. In the U.S., there are over 3,400 fossil fuel plants in the, over 2,500 solar electricity generating plants, over 57,000 wind turbines. Meanwhile, there are about 60 nuclear power plants commercially operated in the United States. If you’re unfamiliar with nuclear energy and find these statistics odd, the reason why we aren’t 100% nuclear currently is because of the risk that comes with these reactors. Statistically, reactor failures are highly unlikely, about 1 in 3704 years of reactor’s operation, according to a study by Thomas Rose and Trevor Sweeting in the bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. However, the inevitable problem with reactors is the waste it produces, particularly plutonium, also known as “the world’s most dangerous element to mankind.” When a company invests in a nuclear power plant, it must account for the fact that the plutonium produced from the plant cannot be transported. So, eventually, the plant will have too much waste to safely operate. This problem creates high costs and longevity problems for nuclear plants. The dome that is seen in many nuclear plants is the area of the structure that will be completely encased in concrete when a reactor shuts down to contain nuclear waste. This process is so costly that it is in fact more expensive to close a reactor than to build one. On average, these reactors last about 39 years. Since about the year 2000, the nuclear production in the U.S. has been relatively stagnant. Despite the issues and problems surrounding nuclear power, it is the greatest tool we have in reducing carbon emissions as well as powering a fifth of our nation’s energy. Henceforth, it should be alarming that most reactors in the U.S. were built between 1970 and 1990. This means that, at the very best, the majority of our nuclear energy will be out of commission by 2029. The current nuclear sector relies heavily on subsidies such as the 6 billion dollars in last year’s Infrastructure Bill passed by Congress last year that is going to nuclear power plants. However, the money is only available for existing nuclear plants. Another policy under consideration is a tax credit for nuclear power production in the Build Back Better Bill. Despite these remedies, more is needed to be done in preserving our nuclear sector. A new company that just recently split from Exelon called Constellation Energy Corporation has large plans on investment in the nuclear sector. Constellation, already with a strong foundation being previously purchased by Exelon in 2012, has the largest array of nuclear power plants in the country, quite the start. Investment in corporations like these and more subsidies are essential in maintaining our nuclear sector. This doesn’t go without saying that nuclear reactors are not undesirable for their possible radiation and disasters. However, in a planet at risk, we need to reduce our carbon emissions. Therefore, I encourage all to look at nuclear energy not as the end but as a means to an end in a safe sustainable energy future as we continue to research new technologies.

Edited by Joseph Barbieri