Nuclear Energy Past, Present and Future

Nuclear Energy Past, Present and Future
December 1, 2009

Jay Lehr, Ph.D.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ( is science director at The Heartland Institute, an... (read full bio)

Unlike some applications of nuclear technology, the process of generating electricity in a nuclear power plant is not rocket science.

Uranium-235, a naturally occurring element, is one of the few materials on Earth that can be forced to undergo fission--its atoms can be forced to split, releasing prodigious amounts of energy. In a nuclear power plant, uranium pellets arranged in rods are collected into bundles and submerged in water. Induced fission heats the water and turns it into steam, which drives a steam turbine, which spins a generator to produce power.

According to Marshall Brain, whose essay “How Nuclear Power Works” appears on the HowStuffWorks Web site (, “a pound of highly enriched uranium ... is equal to something on the order of a million gallons of gasoline. When you consider that a pound of uranium is smaller than a baseball, and a million gallons of gasoline would fill a cube 50 feet per side (50 feet is as tall as a five-story building), you can get an idea of the amount of energy available in just a little bit of U-235.” One metric ton of nuclear fuel produces the energy equivalent of two to three million tons of fossil fuel.

Due to the abundance of radioactive minerals in the Earth’s crust, nuclear power offers a limitless supply of reasonably priced energy, so long as we safely contain the radioactive material.

History of Nuclear Power

The first experimental nuclear power apparatus was created in 1942 by Enrico Fermi and his graduate students at the University of Chicago. A product of naval propulsion research, nuclear power emerged in the United States as something other than an experiment in the 1950s.

A Pennsylvania utility, Duquesne Light, built the first commercial nuclear power reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1954. Nuclear power was commercially attractive because it offered the opportunity to generate power without the air pollution that accompanied the burning of fossil fuels.

Waste volumes are comparably scaled: Fossil fuel systems generate hundreds of thousands of metric tons of gaseous, particulate, and solid wastes. By contrast, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), boiling water nuclear power reactors produce between 50 and 150 metric tons of low-level waste per year, while pressurized water reactors produce between 20 and 75 metric tons. The volume and mass of the waste can be further reduced by 95% by reprocessing the spent rods.

Present Status of Nuclear Power

At present, 33 countries around the world host 444 operating commercial nuclear energy-fueled electric generating facilities. Those facilities have cumulatively recorded over 10,000  years of operation.

* The United States remains the largest single producer of nuclear energy in the world, with 104 plants that supply over 800 billion kilowatt (kW) hours.. In 1998, those plants supplied 674 billion kilowatt (kW) hours. The gains came as a result of improving equipment, procedures, and general efficiency--not a single new nuclear plant was built over that period. The increased efficiency and capacity of the nuclear fleet  means the industry added the equivalent of 26 new 1,000 MW reactors to the grid.

* France has the second largest number of nuclear power plants with 59, and three are under construction.

* Japan now has 55 nuclear power plants, followed by 35 in the United Kingdom. Russia follows with 29, and then Germany with 20. China currently has seven operational plants and 132 more planned by 2020.

Approximately 80 percent of France’s electricity demand is met by nuclear energy, while Britain uses nuclear energy to generate 23 percent of its electricity. Other countries fall in between: Spain, 29 percent; Germany and Finland, 32 percent; Sweden, 44 percent; and Belgium, 58 percent.

Unwarranted Fears

The truth about nuclear power is that it provides a viable and safe means for satisfying the world’s growing need for electricity.

The event at Three Mile Island occurred because faulty instrumentation gave false readings for the reactor environment. That led to a series of equipment failures and human error. As a result, the reactor core was compromised and underwent a partial melt. Radioactive water was released from the core and safely confined within the containment building structure. Very little radiation was released into the environment.

The Three Mile Island incident underscores the relative safety of nuclear power plants. The facility’s safety devices worked as designed, preventing injury to humans, animals, or the environment. The accident resulted in improved procedures, instrumentation, and safety systems, meaning nuclear reactor power plants in the U.S. today are substantially safer than they were in the past. Three Mile Island’s Unit One continues to operate with an impeccable record.


The worst nuclear power plant disaster in history occurred when the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine experienced a heat (not nuclear) explosion.

If such an explosion were to have occurred in a Western nuclear power plant, the explosion would have been safely contained. All Western plants are required to have a containment building: a solid structure of steel-reinforced concrete that encapsulates the nuclear reactor vessel.

The Chernobyl plant did not have this fundamental safety structure. The explosion blew the top off of the reactor building, spewing radiation and reactor core pieces into the air. The graphite reactor burned ferociously--which would not have happened if the facility had a containment building from which oxygen could be excluded.

The design of the Chernobyl plant was inferior in other ways as well. Unlike the Chernobyl reactor, Western power plant nuclear reactors are designed to have negative power coefficients of reactivity that make such runaway accidents impossible: When control of the reaction is lost, the reaction slows down rather than speeds up.

The flawed Chernobyl nuclear power plant would never have been licensed to operate in the U.S. or any other Western country. The accident that occurred at Chernobyl could not occur elsewhere.

Health impacts of Chernobyl

The circumstances surrounding the Chernobyl accident were in many ways the worst possible, with an exposed reactor core and an open building. Thirty-one plant workers and firemen died directly from radiation exposure as a result of the Chernobyl accident.

In September 2000, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published its Report to the General Assembly with Scientific Annexes, a document of some 1,220 pages in two volumes. According to the UNSCEAR report and subsequent discussions, roughly 1,800 thyroid cancer cases in children and some adults might reasonably be attributed to radiation exposure after the Chernobyl incident. More than 99 percent of those cancers were cured.

Beyond the thyroid cancers, reported UNSCEAR, there is no evidence of any major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure after the Chernobyl accident.

Waste Disposal

In the United States, nuclear waste disposal is a political problem because of widespread fears disproportionate to the risk reality. Waste disposal is not an engineering problem - it is a political problem engendered largely by the no-nukes activists aided and abetted by a media addicted to fomenting crises.

Spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste have been accumulating in the United States for nearly 60 years, when nuclear materials were first used to produce electricity and to develop nuclear weapons.

No Reuse of Fuel Pellets

Nuclear fuel has been used in 104 nuclear power plants in the United States and nearly 200 of the nation’s nuclear naval vessels. The fuel is solid, in the form of ceramic/uranium pellets the size of a pencil eraser. After a few years in a reactor, the uranium pellets in the fuel assembly are no longer efficient for producing electricity. At this point the used, or “spent,” fuel assembly is removed from the reactor and placed in a pool of water to cool.

In most other countries where nuclear power is generated, these fuel rods are chemically reprocessed\ for additional use. In the United States, however, President Jimmy Carter outlawed this procedure in 1977. Although President Ronald Reagan rescinded Carter’s executive order, no power plants in the nation have initiated such a recycling program.

Thus, without a central disposal site, our 60 years of nuclear waste remains in on-site water pools or sealed above-ground in metal canisters within concrete bunkers. Waste that was planned for disposal at the Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada resides instead in temporary storage at 121 sites in 39 states.

After decades of scientific study, it is clear no legitimate safety issues preclude opening Yucca Mountain for the storage of spent nuclear fuel. Few scientists question the safety of the site, which has been studied for nearly two decades, while few environmental zealots will ever accept any site. For the time being US President Barach Obama has announced that no work will go forward on the completion of Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuclear Waste Repository during his term in office.

Recycling Opportunities

If U.S. nuclear power plants were to begin reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, as is done in France and other nations, only 2 to 3 percent of the material now scheduled to be stored at the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository would have to be stored there, and the whole nuclear waste problem would disappear. After reprocessing, the total unusable portion of three full years of nuclear power production can be stored indefinitely in a dry cask about four times the size of a telephone booth.

The stated rationale for not reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is the concern that reprocessing nuclear fuel produces weapons-grade plutonium that could in theory be smuggled to undesirable entities. What is not commonly recognized, however, is that the plutonium in spent fuel rods is not weapons-grade material. It consists of four different isotopes, which essentially pollutes the plutonium 239 necessary to make nuclear weapons.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Sam Nunn (D-GA) negotiated a remarkable deal with the Russian government under which we are purchasing enriched uranium from their stockpile of disassembled weapons and recycling it through American power plants as fuel. One of every 10 light bulbs in America is now lit by a former Soviet weapon, because 20 percent of our electricity is produced by nuclear power and half of the fuel is Russian.

The important thing to remember is that the technology currently exists and is being utilized in other countries to virtually eliminate nuclear waste through the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Reprocessing will become more efficient and economical as technology continues to advance. Thus it is entirely possible, utilizing existing technology, to produce nuclear power without spreading any dangerous chemicals or materials into the environment. Also, the spent nuclear fuel that currently exists is all sitting in one place waiting to be recycled.

All the high-level by-products from 50 years of nuclear fission in this country could be assembled 10 feet high on a single football field. The French store all their high-grade waste from 30 years of providing 75 percent of their nation’s electricity in a single room in La Hague.

Safety Record

It is indeed remarkable that the combination of human fallibility and mechanical failure over the last 40 years has resulted in a nuclear safety record unsurpassed by any other industrial activity. Commercial nuclear electricity in the United States has killed zero members of the public over that period. Conventional electric plants powered by coal, oil, and natural gas produce more than 200 accidental deaths per year, not to mention respiratory problems created by fossil fuels.

 Nuclear power plants also roam the world daily without any significant problems.  Every week, one or two nuclear power plants dock at a major port in America or somewhere else in the world. And these power plants have been doing so for half a century now. ... No accidents of any kind have ever marred these dockings, no leaks have cleared blocks of cities; no emergencies have been declared."

It is indeed amazing how thoroughly this nation has lost sight of the fabulous fleet of nuclear submarines that have operated below the radar these past 50 years, since Nautilus, our first nuclear powered submarine, was launched in 1954.

Since then, the Navy has launched more than 200 nuclear-powered ships, and 82 are currently in operation. Recently, the Navy was operating slightly more than 100 of these reactors; about the same number as those operating in civilian power stations across the country.
Nuclear ships are welcomed into 150 ports in 50 countries. They have traveled 128 million miles without a serious incident. Navy reactors have twice the operational hours of our civilian systems. This is a long record of safety, an achievement the public needs to understand.

The Future of Nuclear Plants

A new generation of nuclear power plants may use an innovative technique now under construction in South Africa called the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. This reactor encases the nuclear source material in ceramic spheres about the size of tennis balls and transfers the heat into helium gas which creates enough pressure to turn a turbine. The heat generated rises to about 900 degrees centigrade while it would take nearly 3000 degrees to actually melt the ceramic and release any radioactivity. Concurrently, the medium of helium dramatically reduces any potential impact on the environment, were a release to occur. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is thus far supportive of this innovation and appears willing to approve sites for small, 500 mega-watt plants.

Communications experts say that fear is the best way to get attention when you're trying to win an argument. Groups who oppose nuclear power have certainly mastered that technique by playing to economic, environmental, and safety fears.  Perhaps North America should fear that it is falling behind in advancing Nuclear Power. Will North America  be able to compete with countries that have cheap, clean, reliable nuclear power while we're stuck with a bunch of windmills and solar farms producing expensive, unreliable energy or, more likely, not much energy at all?  The prospect of North America ignoring this problem-solving technology that was invented here is scary. 

In  January 2006, Senator Lamarr Alexander of Tennessee said  the Chinese sent a delegation of nuclear scientists and administrators to the United States on a fact-finding mission. They toured the Idaho National Laboratory, the Argonne National Laboratory and visited GE and Westinghouse trying to decide which technology to choose for their nuclear program.

Perhaps surprisingly while  the US hasn't issued a construction permit to build a new reactor in the past thirty years, most countries  still look to us for leadership in this technology.

The Chinese eventually chose Westinghouse technology for their first reactors. At the time Westinghouse was an American company. In 2007, Toshiba bought Westinghouse so it is now a Japanese company.

By 2008 the Chinese had shovels in the ground. The first four Westinghouse reactors are scheduled for completion by 2011. They also bought a pair of Russian reactors, which should be finished around the same time. They started talking about building 60 reactors over the next 20 years and just recently raised it to 132. They're in the nuclear business.

What have we accomplished in the meantime? Senator Alexander says that people have been talking about a "nuclear renaissance" and finally in 2007, NRG, a New Jersey company, filed the first application to build a new reactor in 30 years.

The licensing  process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will take five years, after which opponents will file lawsuits and the whole thing will move to the courts. If they're lucky, they might have a reactor up-and-running by 2020.  Other companies have followed suit and there are now 34 proposals before the NRC, but nobody has yet broken ground. So it isn't likely the Chinese will be coming to us any time soon for more tips on how to build reactors.

Of the 34 proposals before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 20 are designed by Westinghouse, now a Japanese company and, nine are from Areva, the French giant. General Electric, the only American company left on the field, has partnered with Hitachi. They sold five reactors to American utilities but fared poorly in the competition for federal loan guarantees. Two utilities have now cancelled those projects and there are rumors that GE may quit the field entirely. They don't seem very enthusiastic about nuclear anyway. Have you seen those GE ads for windmills? They're all over the place. Have you seen their ad for the smart grid, where the little girl says, "The sun is still shining in Arizona?" That was pretty good, too. Now, have you seen any GE ads, in this day of concern about climate change, that 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity comes from nuclear power? I certainly haven't. 

The Bottom Line

It is now completely absurd that anti-capitalist, anti-industry, anti-development, and in fact anti-people socialists have poisoned the minds of so much of the world against the cheapest, most abundant, and safest form of energy on the planet.

Those of us who know better must begin a strong and enduring battle against these forces because our success will improve the plight of the least fortunate, poorest fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated on this planet. As energy goes, so goes the ultimate health of nations.

Nuclear energy can bring wonders to all humankind, but only if those who know this have the courage to do battle with men and women who stand in opposition for whatever reason they perceive.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ( is science director at The Heartland Institute, an... (read full bio)