Introduction to Nuclear
Nuclear power plants operate by generating steam from the heat of nuclear fission. The steam then drives the turbines of a generator to produce electricity that is then sent through transmission lines to our homes and businesses.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), “in nuclear fission, atoms are split apart to form smaller atoms, releasing energy. Fission takes place inside the reactor of a nuclear power plant. At the center of the reactor is the core, which contains fuel. The uranium fuel is formed into ceramic pellets.” The ceramic pellets are then stacked together into sealed metal tubes called fuel rods. Within the reactor core of a nuclear power plant you can expect to see hundreds of rods, often called “fuel assemblies.” The energy in a single ceramic pellet is significant, equating to the amount of energy in roughly one-hundred and fifty gallons of oil.1U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – independent statistics and analysis. Nuclear power plants – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/nuclear-power-plants.php
The image above depicts a nuclear fuel assembly, that is composed of up to hundreds of fuel rods located at the center of the reactor within a nuclear power plant. Within each rod are ceramic pellets filled with uranium fuel, responsible for nuclear fission that generates steam to power a generator, producing electricity.
According to the EIA, the U.S. has the largest nuclear electricity generation capacity and generates more nuclear electricity than any other country, although nuclear’s share of the U.S. total electricity generation is only ~23% (for comparison, France produces ~70% of its electricity from nuclear).2U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – independent statistics and analysis. The nuclear fuel cycle – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/the-nuclear-fuel-cycle.php
Public Perception of Nuclear Power
Despite our consistent use there is still an overwhelming negative public perception of nuclear power, which could hinder any increase in nuclear power reliance in the future. Perhaps negative public views stem from the nuclear accidents that have occurred in history, including Three Mile Island, Cheronobyl, and Fukushima. Contrary to public fears, the World Nuclear Association stated in a recent article, “the evidence over six decades shows that nuclear power is a safe means of generating electricity. The risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining. The consequences of an accident or terrorist attack are minimal compared with other commonly accepted risks.”
Another reason for a lack of public support for nuclear power could be negative views related to the disposal of spent nuclear rods. Spent fuel assemblies (bundles of rods) are removed from the reactor and placed in a cooling pool for several years. Once the fuel rods are sufficiently cooled, the rods are placed in a dry cask, which is simply an air-tight container made of steel and concrete.3Hickman, H. (2019, November 19). What happens to nuclear waste in the U.S.? Nuclear Energy Institute. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.nei.org/news/2019/what-happens-nuclear-waste-us
How much spent nuclear fuel is produced and where is it stored?
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the United States has produced roughly 83,000 metric tons of used fuel since the 1950s—and all of it could fit on a single football field at a depth of less than 10 yards. This contradicts the typical public perception that nuclear waste is disposed of in the Yucca Mountains of Nevada. While the concept of Yucca Mountains as a disposal site has been around since the late 1980’s, no waste has been stored in the mountains due to the political controversy. Under President Joe Biden, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has stated that Yucca Mountain will not be part of the administration’s plans for nuclear-waste disposal.4Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors . Safety of Nuclear Reactors – World Nuclear Association. (2021, March). Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/safety-of-nuclear-power-reactors.aspx5Office of Nuclear Energy. (n.d.). 5 fast facts about spent nuclear fuel. Energy.gov. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/5-fast-facts-about-spent-nuclear-fuel Watch this video from the U.S. Department of Energy to understand more about spent nuclear fuel in the United States.
As we transition towards an all-electric world is it possible that we look towards nuclear power to satisfy this demand?
Nuclear Filling the Power Gap
Let’s begin by addressing how we might fill the power gap by examining the capability of nuclear power to fill the gap in the new all-electric world. First, let’s look at the table once more.
2020 Energy Consumption (Quads) Compared to a Potential 2040 Scenario6 https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/us-energy-facts/, Energy Information Agency (EIA). U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, Table 1.3 and 10.1, April 2021, preliminary data. Accessed: 11/22/2021.
U.S. energy consumption by source in 2020, with a potential scenario for 2040. Energy measured in quadrillion BTUs (quads). *Actual numbers reported by EIA may differ between publications as reports of actual consumption are updated. For this study please refer to the April 2021 EIA data. ** Sum of components on EIA publications may vary slightly due to independent rounding.
If nuclear were to fill the gap, how much total power would it need to provide, measured in quads?
As of September 1, 2021, there were 55 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 93 nuclear power reactors in 28 U.S. states. Of the currently operating nuclear power plants, 32 plants have two reactors and 3 plants have three reactors.7U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). How many nuclear power plants are in the United States, and where are they located? Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=207&t=3
The average age of U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors that were operational as of October 31, 2020, was about 39 years. The oldest operating reactor is in New York (December 1969). The newest reactor (2016) and the next-youngest operating reactor (1996) are both in Tennessee. There are two operating nuclear power plants in Texas. The South Texas Project (STP) is near Bay City, about 90 miles southwest of Houston. Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant is near Glen Rose, TX, about 40 miles south of Fort Worth.8The U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). How old are U.S. nuclear power plants, and when was the newest one built? Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=228&t=219U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – independent statistics and analysis. Table 2. Nuclear power plant data as of December 31, 2017. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/nuclear/spent_fuel/ussnftab2.php
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses U.S. commercial nuclear reactors for 40 years. Before termination of the original license, companies may apply to the NRC for 20-year license extensions.10The U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). How old are U.S. nuclear power plants, and when was the newest one built? Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=228&t=21
Nuclear is an energy source that provides a constant baseload, therefore the plants run on a twenty-four hour basis, currently producing 8.2 quads of energy per year. If nuclear were to fill the gap of 14.4 quads, the United States would need to increase its nuclear capacity by almost 200%.
The cost to build a single nuclear power plant is extremely high; however, the biggest impediment is the time it takes for a nuclear power plant project. Site design and licensing may take an average of five years; while the actual construction can take five or more years.11U.S. Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). Nuclear Explained U.S. Nuclear Industry. U.S. nuclear industry – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/us-nuclear-industry.php Given such a monumental undertaking, nuclear alone does not appear likely to fill the gap in the next 20 years.