Nuclear Energy and Its Role in Clean Energy

By Seap Bhardwaj

Problem – Nuclear Energy is Not Given Enough Credit

Nuclear energy, when compared to other nonrenewable sources of energy, is a clean and sustainable source. Compared to coal, oil, and gas, nuclear energy cuts out harmful negative externalities such as carbon dioxide and pollution, making it a source of energy that can completely change the energy market, as well as our environment, when fully utilized. Nuclear energy, however, is not given enough credit and has a bad reputation. While there are serious concerns with nuclear energy, relating to its safety and expense, it is the only form of dispatchable low carbon energy. The benefits nuclear energy can bring to the energy market, especially through our existing reactor fleet, are immense and worth considering. 

Nuclear Energy: What it is And How it Compares to Other Non-Renewable Source

Nuclear energy is made in nuclear power plants, and these plants generate electricity just like any other type of power plant. The main difference is what is being used: simply put, instead of coal, oil or gas burning to heat the water and create electricity, heat (and thus, electricity) is created through a self-sustaining chain reaction in uranium atoms. This cuts out harmful negative externalities such as carbon dioxide and pollution that other non-renewable energy sources create.

Nuclear energy presents many positive benefits for society. When utilized it can completely change the energy market, as well as our environment, for the better. Nuclear energy is easily adjustable: if energy demand is high (for example, in a natural disaster), production can be easily increased. On the flip side, if nuclear generation is not needed (for example, if there are optimal conditions for renewable sources such as wind and sun), production can be slowed. Compared to other non-renewable sources, nuclear energy is a green source of electricity. Nuclear energy is created without the harmful byproducts that coal, oil, and natural gas emit, such as nitrogen oxide (NOx) and carbon dioxide (CO2). According to the National Energy Institute, without nuclear power, NOx and sulfur dioxide (SO2) would increase by more than 26 percent, and every year nuclear-generated electricity cuts out more than 528 million metric tons of CO2 (Nuclear Energy Institute).

Nuclear energy is also more efficient than fossil fuels. One kilogram of uranium-235 will produce about 2 to 3 million times more kilowatt-hours (kWh) of heat than one kilogram of coal (OVO Energy 2018). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), coal contributes 31 percent of all the CO2 in the atmosphere, making it the largest source of CO2. Coal mining is the second-highest emitter of methane (attributing to greenhouse gases) and coal mining releases more radiation than nuclear plants. According to one author, “the fly ash emitted by a power plant – a by-product from burning coal for electricity – carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy” (Hvistendahl 2007). Nuclear energy also has a higher capacity factor than natural gas, coal, hydropower, wind, and solar power. This means that nuclear plants produce “maximum power more than 92 percent of the time during the year,” which is one-and-a-half to two times more than natural gas and coal. This can be attributed to nuclear plants requiring less maintenance and being able to operate for longer periods before refueling, compared to natural gas and coal plants (World Nuclear Association 2020).

Current Policy

In the United States, the private sector is more involved in nuclear energy than in any other nation, but the federal government is involved through safety and environmental regulations, research and development funding, and setting energy goals (World Nuclear Association 2020). At the beginning of the 21st Century starting with the Bush administration, nuclear energy became more prevalent. This period consisted of attempting to build more nuclear power plants, passing more legislation and regulatory policies intended to grow the use of nuclear energy. Examples of this legislation are the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which promoted nuclear reactor construction. This was a time of proposed growth and movement towards more nuclear energy, but the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear incident in 2011 completely changed the worldwide perception of nuclear energy. 

With a greater emphasis on alternative sources of energy such as natural gas, as well as historical accidents, there has been a reduction of nuclear energy facilities and programs throughout the country in recent years. Many of the license applications and programs for new nuclear reactors have been suspended or canceled, and it is estimated that by 2025 the number of existing operational nuclear reactors will fall from 99 to 89 (Shellenberger 2018). These ten reactors closing would equal a loss of 23 percent more than all of the solar electricity generated in the United States in 2017 (Shellenberger 2018). This depletion would be disastrous for the energy market. Furthermore, if the loss of nuclear power were to continue, the use of fossil fuels would increase, causing further carbon emissions. Examples of loss of nuclear power leading to increased carbon emission abound. When the Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin closed in May of 2013, Wisconsin lost about 5 percent of its energy supply, and greenhouse gas emissions from an increase in fossil fuel usage rose to more than 50 million tons, marking their highest level in eight years for the state (Content 2014). Removing nuclear energy leads to severe consequences because renewable sources cannot keep up to meet the demand, therefore fossil fuels once again enter the equation. 


The reduction of nuclear energy facilities is concerning considering it is the cleanest non-renewable energy source. The costs of nuclear energy are another concern, considering that construction costs estimates for new nuclear power plants vary and have increased in recent years. In the years 2000-2002, the range of estimated total plant construction costs was between $2 and $4 billion per nuclear unit. By 2008, the range rose to $6 billion and $9 billion (Schlissel & Biwald 2008, 2). As expensive as it is to build a nuclear plant, it is also expensive to dismantle one. It is estimated that the cost range of decommissioning a US reactor is from $544 to $821 million (World Nuclear Association 2020). The Kewaunee plant in eastern Wisconsin anticipates decommission costs of nearly $1 billion and estimates that the deferred dismantling process will not be completed until 2073 (U.S. Energy Information Association 2017). Sustaining our current fleet of facilities, rather than focusing on building new plants, both makes sense economically and is of utmost importance in preserving our nuclear energy capacities. With this fact in mind, I recommend that the Office of Nuclear Energy creates a focus towards standardizing nuclear plants and that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency extends our existing plants’ operational licenses to 2040.

  1. Recommendation One: To reduce costs and increase efficiency, the Office of Nuclear Energy should work towards standardizing the designs and construction of future reactors, as well as operations and training in the current fleet of nuclear reactors. 

On June 27th, 2019 the U.S. Department of Energy announced $49.3 million in “nuclear energy research, facility access, crosscutting technology development, and infrastructure awards for 58 advanced nuclear technology products in 25 states” (Office of Nuclear Energy 2019). Investment in research and development is necessary for nuclear innovation and finding new and economically efficient methods of producing nuclear energy. 

Even with this investment, however, nuclear energy plants are still closing and new production has been stalled because of costs. Compared to building a combined cycle gas plant and a coal plant, building a nuclear reactor takes on average four to seven more years (Berthelemy & Rangel 2015, 119). While investment in research and development is necessary to grow our nuclear energy capabilities, there should also be more of a focus towards standardizing methods to reduce construction time and costs. By first focusing on our current fleet and standardizing practices, we can then address the issue of adding new reactors. 

A significant concern in the United States regarding our ability to continue nuclear energy use is the “perversity of the ‘customization’” of our nuclear power plants (David & Rothwell 1996, 190). From the beginning, nuclear reactors in the U.S. have been diverse but as time went on they have diversified further and become more complex which has affected both the monetary and time costs of building plants. For example, average times to complete construction doubled from one year in 1968 to two years in 1980; today it can take up to 7 years to construct a nuclear plant (David & Rothwell 1996, 190). This may very well be due to the complexity of reactor designs which have driven up costs as well as the regulatory review process. 

A simple comparison can be made between the United States and France’s nuclear industry, and how standardization has affected the latter. In a study by two French economists examining the causes of nuclear plant cost escalations in France and the United States, the authors concluded that the “standardization strategy adopted in France was successful in reducing construction costs and avoiding the longer lead-times” experienced in the U.S. (Berthelemy & Rangel 2015, 119). Contrary to patterns seen in other energy technologies (specifically competing low carbon technologies), these economists also suggested that the innovative practices and research into nuclear power increase construction costs (Berthelemy & Rangel 2015, 129). A specific example of France’s standardization is its nuclear Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) program, considered the “most successful scaling-up of a complex and capital-intensive energy technology system in the recent history of industrialized countries” (Grubler 2010, 5174). This can be attributed to France’s “central planning model”, with regulatory stability and a nationalized principal agent, compared to the United State’s decentralized, market-oriented and multi-layered regulatory system (Grubler 2010, 5185). By standardizing the designs and construction of future reactors, as well as operations and training in the current fleet of nuclear reactors, the U.S. can reduce construction time and costs for nuclear power plants. 

  1. Recommendation Two: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission should conduct second license renewals for the existing nuclear fleet to extend the current fleet’s Operational Licenses to 2040. 

Nuclear plants in the United States are licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). These licenses expire after 40 years, but plants can extend these licenses for 20 years at a time. The license renewal process is designed to ensure the safety of every plant in question. The NRC makes sure that each plant requesting renewal operates safely by subjecting the plant to inspections, environmental impact reviews, and safety testing as well as risk assessments. These evaluations are made to ensure that the plant is up to code. Once this is established, the plant can receive a license renewal (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission 2018).

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, over the next 20 years over 50 nuclear plants’ operational licenses will expire: “if even half of these plants are forced to retire and are replaced with fossil fuel power plants, we’d lose one-quarter of the environmental benefits already gained” (Nuclear Energy Institute). The NRC’s involvement is imperative for these nuclear facilities to obtain their renewal licenses and stay afloat for 20 years after this expiration. To see how standardization could affect nuclear energy capabilities, we need more time and concentration on routine practices. Renewing these licenses would accomplish this and allow for the possibilities of economies of scale for nuclear energy reactors, thereby reducing costs and allowing nuclear energy to become competitive with natural gas. 

An Important Note

There are some concerns regarding nuclear energy and its ability to compete with other sources of energy. While nuclear power is the only form of dispatchable low carbon energy,  it competes with much cheaper and simpler renewable energy such as wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy, many of which are already subsidized by the federal government. It seems it will be difficult for nuclear energy to keep up without some kind of further subsidy from the federal government. For example, the wind and solar power industries have argued that the “markets will fail to build and operate wind and solar power capacity without support from tax credits, mandates, and other support” (Szilard, et al. 2016). It is questionable, therefore, whether nuclear energy can survive without this kind of government intervention in the future. Our current nuclear fleet, even with extended operational licenses, may not be able to hold for another 20 years while competing with other government-secured sources in our ever-changing energy market. Some ideas to attack the market failure being experienced in the nuclear industry are tax credits, direct compensation to the plants, or mandates (Szilard, et al. 2016, 14). These are meant to address the positive externalities nuclear energy brings while making it economically feasible. 

Government bailouts, however, can only last so long. Nuclear energy can fulfill our energy needs in a clean and low-carbon way but the industry needs to find a way to decrease costs and increase efficiencies on its own, or at least without continuous government intervention. Nuclear energy, with the recommendations listed above, could prove to be a necessary component in our energy market. It could also, due to economies of scale from overall standardization, become competitive with other sources. Costs must come down, and I believe standardizing our current fleet is the best way to achieve this. 


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Grubler, Arnulf. 2010. “The Costs of the French Nuclear Scale-up: A Case of Negative Learning by Doing.” Energy Policy 38, no. 9 (January 9, 2010): 5174–88.

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