Nuclear power (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Many of the environmental impacts of nuclear power plants are common to all large-scale electricity-generating facilities, regardless of their fuel. The most important are land use and related impacts on plants, animals, and ecosystems; nonradioactive water effluent and water quality; thermal pollution of adjacent waters; and social impacts on nearby communities. Unique to nuclear power plants is the hazardous radiation emitted by radioactive materials present in all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. Such radiation is contained in uranium ore when it is mined and processed, in fabricated uranium reactor fuel, in spent fuel that has been fissioned, in contaminated reactor components, and in low-level radioactive waste—such as contaminated tools, protective clothing, and replaced reactor parts—generated by routine plant operation and maintenance.
Spent reactor fuel is highly radioactive and must be isolated from the environment for tens of thousands of years or more. Spent fuel can be reprocessed to separate out usable uranium and plutonium, but doing so generates large volumes of low-level waste that present disposal challenges of their own. Other challenges in waste handling and disposal arise at the end of a plant’s useful life, when the contaminated reactor must be dismantled and the radioactive and nonradioactive components disposed of in a process known as decommissioning.
Under normal operating circumstances, commercial...
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Early History (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
The nuclear power industry arose out of the technology developed during World War II to produce the atomic bomb. Postwar enthusiasm for new technology in general, combined with pressure to demonstrate peaceful uses for expensive and fearsome wartime nuclear technology, led to a strong U.S. government effort beginning during the early 1950’s to induce industry to develop nuclear energy. Large government subsidies and preferential treatment assisted the industry from its early days. Between fiscal year (FY) 1948 and FY2007, nuclear power received 53.5 percent of all federal energy research and development funds, totaling $85.01 billion in constant FY2008 dollars. One of the industry’s unique subsidies was the passage of the 1957 Price-Anderson Act, which limits the liability of nuclear power plant owners and equipment vendors in the event of a reactor accident.
The basic design of the first U.S. nuclear power plants was adapted from early pressurized water reactor technology developed for submarines and other naval propulsion applications. Roughly two-thirds of the 104 commercial reactors in use in the United States are pressurized water reactors. In this reactor design, light (ordinary) water surrounds the nuclear fuel, which is made up of enriched uranium. The system is pressurized so that the fuel heats the water without boiling it. The resulting heat is used to boil a separate water supply, creating steam. The steam spins...
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Late Twentieth Century Developments (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Government, industry, and public opinion were all largely positive about nuclear energy up through the late 1960’s. Two-thirds of the U.S. commercial reactors operating in 2010 were issued construction permits between 1966 and 1973, a time of great optimism about the technology. During this period, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 was enacted, which forced prospective reactor owners to address environmental impacts in plant proposals; the environmental movement arose, beginning with the first Earth Day in 1970; and there was a widespread increase in environmental activism on the part of the public. By the mid-1970’s, several widely publicized safety hearings, plant incidents, and government studies had begun to focus public and media attention on nuclear plant regulatory and safety lapses, accident risks, and the problem of nuclear waste disposal. These forces combined to create a sizable antinuclear movement in the United States, which was bolstered by the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania.
Although proponents of nuclear power frequently blamed licensing interventions by antinuclear activists for numerous plant cost overruns and delays, most analyses concluded that in the majority of cases other factors, such as capital availability and shifting regulatory requirements, were primarily responsible for a slowdown in the development of nuclear power. By the late...
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Status and Projections: United States (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
The early twenty-first century has seen increasing receptivity to nuclear power in the United States. Among the factors contributing to this renewed interest are the need to meet the nation’s continued growth in demand for electricity, the rising prices of fossil fuels, worries over possible interruptions in oil and gas availability, particularly from Middle Eastern sources, and concerns regarding the impact of the burning of fossil fuels on air quality and global climate. Some environmentalists tout nuclear power as a clean-air, carbon-free technology.
In the United States, nuclear power plants contributed approximately 20 percent of the electricity generated in 2009. In mid-2010 there were 104 licensed, operable reactors at sixty-five sites in thirty-one states. The newest of these received its construction license in 1973 and began its operational life in 1996. As of July, 2010, thirteen license applications were under active NRC review for up to twenty-two new reactors.
The nation’s FY2011 budget authorized a total of $54.5 billion for nuclear power facilities, $36 billion of it in new loan authority established by the 2005 Energy Policy Act for DOE projects that cut greenhouse gas emissions. In February, 2010, President Barack Obama announced $8 billion in loan guarantees to go toward the construction of two new reactors at the existing Plant Vogtle nuclear power facility near Augusta,...
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Status and Projections: World (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
As of November, 2010, 441 nuclear reactors were in operation in twenty-nine countries. The number of reactors in the United States (104), France (58), Japan (55), and the Russian Federation (32) accounted for more than half of the world’s total operating reactors. The majority of these reactors were between twenty and thirty-nine years old. In eighteen countries, nuclear power supplied at least 20 percent of total electricity for 2009.
While most of the world’s nuclear reactors are U.S.-designed pressurized water reactors and boiling-water reactors, other types are also in operation. Many of these employ graphite or heavy water (water enriched in deuterium) to moderate the nuclear reaction, which allows them to use less expensive natural (nonenriched) uranium as a fuel. The advanced gas-cooled reactors that predominate in the United Kingdom, for example, use graphite as a moderator and carbon dioxide instead of water as a coolant. In the pressurized heavy-water reactors common in Canada, heavy water serves as both coolant and moderator. The light-water graphite reactors of the Russian Federation are similar to boiling-water reactors but employ graphite moderators.
Although several countries established breeder reactor programs in the previous century, few of these programs were thriving as of 2010. The United Kingdom had not constructed a new breeder facility since it shut down its last breeder...
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Spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste can pose threats to human health and the environment for many thousands of years, so they must be properly isolated and secured. Deep subterranean storage appears to be the best solution, but finding a repository site with the right geological characteristics is a technical challenge that is invariably complicated by political controversy. In the United States, Congress designated Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the nation’s sole repository in 1987, and site suitability studies were conducted at Yucca Mountain for nearly two decades. Opponents, including the state of Nevada, charged that the DOE’s studies were geared more toward preparing the site for operation than for objectively assessing its suitability. The DOE submitted its license application for the repository in 2008, ten years after the original target date for opening. In early 2010, under the Obama administration, funding for the site was cut, and the DOE withdrew its license application. Lawsuits have been filed to challenge Yucca Mountain’s closure, which leaves high-level waste in temporary storage at nuclear facilities around the country.
Some countries—notably France, England, Russia, Japan, and India—reprocess spent fuel from nuclear reactors. Reprocessing strips the waste of uranium and plutonium, which can be used to fuel reactors. While reprocessing results in a small reduction of...
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Arguments Pro and Con (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Nuclear proponents cite several points in the technology’s favor: a good safety record, improved operating performance since the Three Mile Island accident, studies concluding that the risk of a severe accident is low, and the fact that nuclear power plants emit no significant amounts of common air pollutants or gases that contribute to global warming. Critics of nuclear power point to the long-standing failure of any country to establish a site for the permanent disposal of spent fuel and high-level wastes; flaws, uncertainties, and omissions in accident probability studies; the catastrophic consequences that could result from a severe reactor accident; a large number of safety-related incidents and near accidents; and the high cost of nuclear plants compared to competing electicity-generating technologies and energy-efficiency improvements. In addition, for those countries that do not already have nuclear weapons arsenals, inherent proliferation risks are associated with nuclear power technology and fuels, which, if misused, could provide the expertise, infrastructure, and basic materials for a program to develop nuclear weapons.
High costs remain another obstacle to new plant orders. U.S. reactors completed during the 1990’s cost $2 billion to $6 billion each, averaging more than $3 billion. Although proponents argue that new plant designs could be built more cheaply, the industry’s history of large cost...
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Further Reading (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Bodansky, David. Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects. 2d ed. New York: Springer, 2004.
Garwin, Richard L., and Georges Charpak. Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Hagen, Ronald E., John R. Moens, and Zdenek D. Nikodem. Impact of U.S. Nuclear Generation on Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Washington, D.C.: Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, 2001.
Hore-Lacy, Ian. Nuclear Energy in the Twenty-first Century: The World Nuclear University Primer. London: World Nuclear University Press, 2006.
Mahaffey, James. Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power. New York: Pegasus Books, 2009.
Murray, Raymond LeRoy. Nuclear Energy: An Introduction to the Concepts, Systems, and Applications of Nuclear Processes. Burlington, Vt.: Butterworth-Heinemann/Elsevier, 2009.
Wolfson, Richard. Nuclear Choices: A Citizen’s Guide to Nuclear Technology. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993.
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Nuclear Power (Encyclopedia of Science)
Nuclear power is any method of doing work that makes use of nuclear fission or fusion reactions. In its broadest sense, the term refers both to the uncontrolled release of energy, as in fission or fusion weapons, and to the controlled release of energy, as in a nuclear power plant. Most commonly, however, the expression nuclear power is reserved for the latter of these two processes.
The world's first exposure to nuclear power came when two fission (atomic) bombs were exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. These actions are said to have brought World War II to a conclusion. After the war, a number of scientists and laypersons looked for some potential peacetime use for this horribly powerful new form of energy. They hoped that the power of nuclear energy could be harnessed to perform work, but those hopes have been realized only to a modest degree. Some serious problems associated with the use of nuclear power have never been satisfactorily solved. As a result, after three decades of progress in the development of controlled nuclear power, interest in this energy source has leveled off and, in many nations, declined.
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Nuclear Power (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
A form of energy produced by an atomic reaction, capable of producing an alternative source of electrical power to that supplied by coal, gas, or oil.
The dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, by the United States in 1945 initiated the atomic age. Nuclear energy immediately became a military weapon of terrifying magnitude. For the physicists who worked on the atom bomb, the promise of nuclear energy was not solely military. They envisioned nuclear power as a safe, clean, cheap, and abundant source of energy that would end society's dependence on fossil fuels. At the end of WORLD WAR II, leaders called for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 2011 et seq.), which shifted nuclear development from military to civilian government control. Very little development of commercial nuclear power occurred from 1946 to 1954 because the 1946 law maintained a federal government MONOPOLY over the control, use, and ownership of nuclear reactors and fuels.
Congress amended the Atomic Energy Act in 1954 (68 Stat. 919) to encourage the private commercial development of nuclear power. The act ended the federal government's monopoly over nonmilitary uses of nuclear energy and allowed private ownership of reactors under licensing procedures...
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Nuclear Power (Encyclopedia of Public Health)
The use of nuclear power to generate electricity began in the late 1950s. At the close of the twentieth century, nuclear power was supplying about 20 percent of the electricity generated in the United States and about 16 percent worldwide.
Nuclear power has been the most controversial of all energy sources. Public concerns about reactor safety and environmental issues were especially heightened by the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the much more serious accident in 1986 at Chernobyl in Ukraine. Construction of new nuclear power plants has slowed considerably since then, and some industrialized countries may abandon this energy source. Concerns about disposal of spent nuclear fuel have also affected public confidence in nuclear power. Although many scientists believe that spent fuel and other highly radioactive wastes can be disposed of safely in a geologic repository located far below ground, disposal sites for these wastes have not been approved, and the need to store spent fuel until disposal facilities are available raises safety and environmental concerns. The public also has not supported development of new disposal facilities for low-level radioactive wastes generated at nuclear power plants and in many other commercial activities. Other factors contributing to public concerns have included environmental problems at sites operated under nuclear weapons programs and fears that plutonium produced at nuclear power plants could be diverted for use in nuclear weapons.
Public concerns about safety and environmental issues have been exacerbated by financial risks in the nuclear power industry, including the high cost of constructing and operating nuclear power plants, potentially high costs of decommissioning nuclear facilities, and costs for storage and disposal of spent fuel and other nuclear wastes. Nuclear power may not remain competitive with other energy sources unless these costs are reduced.
Proponents of nuclear power emphasize its significant benefits. Past accidents notwithstanding, the nuclear power industry has an enviable safety record in those industrialized countries that require extensive reactor safety systems. Uranium used in nuclear fuel is abundant, which reduces dependence on foreign energy supplies and preserves oil and natural gas for essential uses. Nuclear reactors produce the greatest amount of energy per amount of fuel of any nonrenewable energy source, and the environmental damage from use of nuclear power is less than with other major energy sources, especially coal. Perhaps most importantly, the use of nuclear power in place of coal, oil, and natural gas greatly reduces emissions of carbon dioxide, which is believed to be a factor in global warming, and other hazardous air pollutants.
Given these benefits, many energy experts believe that nuclear power is an important energy source for the future. A major challenge will be to address public concerns about safety and environmental issues. The keys to meeting this challenge may include resolving concerns about nuclear waste disposal, siting of new reactors in remote areas, developing smaller reactors that incorporate passive safety systems, and using standard power plant designs to lower construction and operating costs.
DAVID C. KOCHER
(SEE ALSO: Chernobyl; Energy; Not In My Backyard [NIMBY]; Nuclear Waste; Risk Assessment, Risk Management; Three Mile Island)
Cohen, B. L. (1990). The Nuclear Energy Option: An Alternative for the 90s. New York: Plenum Press.
Gofman, J. W., and Tamplin, A. R. (1971). Poisoned Power: The Case Against Nuclear Power Plants. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.
Jungk, R. (1979). The New Tyranny: How Nuclear Power Enslaves Us. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, Inc.
Rhodes, R. (1993). Nuclear Renewal: Common Sense about Energy. New York: Whittle Books.