What Is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy is derived from an atom’s core. All matter is made up of atoms, including the
gadget you’re reading this on, the surface it’s on, and the air you’re breathing. A nucleus is a tightly
packed core within each atom that keeps protons and neutrons bonded together by a strong nuclear
force. When a neutron collides with the nucleus of some atoms—for example, uranium—the
atomic core can split apart, unleashing massive amounts of energy in the form of heat and radiation.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is made possible by the energy released during nuclear fission. Fuel components
are fissioned in the core of a nuclear reactor. The majority of nuclear power plants use uranium as
a fuel source to generate energy. Because its atoms are more easily torn apart in nuclear reactors,
this fuel has more of a specific type (or isotope) of uranium, U-235, than is found in nature. The
neutrons released by one atomic fission are transferred to other fission nuclei, resulting in heat,
radiation, and radioactive waste. If left unchecked, the chain reaction could generate so much heat
that the core melts and releases hazardous radiation. Controlling the chain reaction in nuclear
power plants is done mainly through “control rods,” which absorb part of the released neutrons
and prevent them from triggering more fissions.

The fission of uranium atoms releases energy, which is used to heat water and create steam. The
steam is then used to spin turbines, which in turn drive generators to generate energy. It’s the same
basic principle that’s employed in coal-fired power plants to generate steam.

There are 59 commercially operating nuclear power facilities in the United States, with 95 nuclear
reactors in 29 states. (Most power plants have several reactors.) Several reactors, including the
final one at Indian Point in New York, will be shut down during the next few years (in large part
due to safety concerns). The Diablo Canyon Power Plant, California’s final nuclear reactor, will be
shut down in 2025. However, Florida’s Turkey Point nuclear power station recently received a
final federal license to operate until 2053. NRDC is challenging the adequacy of the environmental
review of this decision in court.

What Is the Purpose of Nuclear Power?

Nuclear power is mainly used to generate energy. The United States is the world’s leading nuclear
energy producer, accounting for more than 30% of global nuclear electricity generation. Nuclear
power generates one-fifth of the country’s electricity. While the energy generated by a nuclear
reactor may theoretically be used in various industrial and chemical processes, this has not been
done (save in a few isolated circumstances) due to safety and security issues.

Future nuclear power has been hailed as one of the few technologies that can help reduce
greenhouse gas emissions, decarbonize the economy and combat climate change as a low-carbon
energy source. New nuclear power plant designs, on the other hand, have yet to be proven to be
safe, reliable, or economically feasible, and hence are not a realistic short-term solution to the
climate challenge. Government resources and policy should favor solar, wind, and energy
efficiency technology to combat climate change.

Nuclear Power is Expensive.

Compared to many fossil fuel facilities, existing nuclear reactors have comparatively low
operation, maintenance, and fuel expenses; yet, these routine expenditures still make nuclear
power commercially uncompetitive compared to natural gas, wind, and solar.

New nuclear power plants are a different story; their high construction costs continue to render
them uneconomical. According to a 2009 research by the Union of Concerned Scientists, cost
projections for new nuclear plant development jumped from $2 billion to $4 billion per unit to $9
billion per unit between 2002 and 2008. Even those astronomical estimates have been surpassed
in reality.

The two new units at Georgia’s Vogtle Plant, the country’s only new nuclear power plant, are now
years behind schedule and are expected to cost more than twice their original $14 billion budget.
Similarly, Duke Energy’s projected Levy County Nuclear Power Plant in Florida was estimated to
cost $5 billion but ended up costing $22 billion. Duke Energy decided to focus on solar energy
expansion instead of the project scrapped in 2017.

Reactors are also notorious for taking a long time to plan, license, and construct. According to the
2019 World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR), the average construction time for nuclear
reactors has been just under ten years since 2009.

According to the WSINR analysis, the cost of producing nuclear energy ranges from $112 to $189
per megawatt-hour (MWh), while solar power costs between $36 and $44 and onshore wind power
cost between $29 and $56.

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