For centuries the planet has relied on carbon fuels to sustain its energy demands. The current global warming debate has given an indication that the globe can no longer pay the environmental price of the carbon fuels (Gohlke, 2008). There is a consensus worldwide that the industrialised nations need to be at the forefront in assisting curtail the carbon emissions which are now threatening the presence of life on earth. The US has found itself at the centre of this debate with its administration actively advocating for low carbon fuels. As a way of offering alternative energy to its citizens. The country has identified several sectors to help generate energy.one of the areas with so much public interest is the idea of nuclear energy (The National Academies Press, 2011).
Nuclear energy technology has its roots in the United States from the 1940s when the technology was used in the world war II (Zeiler, 2004). With time and development of innovation it has been realized that the technology can be very vital in generating massive quantities of sustainable energy.
In this report will highlight the developments in the US nuclear sector; current state, of the technology, technical development, a venous for further establishment as well as some of the factors hindering its development.
The current state of nuclear technology
The nuclear fission is the technology that has been applied mostly in the United States for energy production. This involves deriving energy from the splitting atoms of some unique elements defined as isotopes. The technology was first applied by the USA in the 1940s. during this period it was mainly pursued as a tool of war (Helge, 1999). From the 1950s the focus shifted, and the planet realized the usefulness of the innovation in energy production. This marked the beginning of the nuclear revolution (Schneider & Froggatt, 2012).
Up to date the use of civil nuclear have been with us for over 1000 years, during this period its applications have spread to the extent that several countries have embraced the technology as an alternative source of energy (Nicholson, 2006). At the moment over 30 nations have set up nuclear power plants. There are a lot of other nations who derive nuclear-generated electricity through the regional integration system. For instance, Denmark and Italy obtain 10% of their electricity through the importation of nuclear power (World Nuclear Association, 2018).
Apparently, there are over 400 power reactors which are responsible for generating up to 11% of the total global electricity. Further 60 reactors are under construction which represent an additional 16% of the already established capacity. Moreover, plans are underway for the establishment of another 150-160 nuclear plants (Gohlke, 2008).
Over 16 countries depend on nuclear power to provide over 25% of their total energy needs. On top of this list is France which derives 75% of its energy from nuclear power plants. In addition, Slovakia, Ukraine and Hungary obtains 50% of their power supply from nuclear. Also, Finland, Czech Republic, Sweden, Slovenia and Belgium derive around 30% of their energy from nuclear firms. To close this list are the countries like United States, UK, Romania and Russia who obtains around 20% of their energy demand from nuclear.
The demand for more nuclear plants have becomes more urgent as the campaign to move towards green energy intensifies. This will mean intensive research and innovation in the nuclear sector. As per 2015 fossil fuels supplied over 66% of the global energy demand. This value has withstood pressure from experts and environmentalists who are constantly questioning the sustainability of fossil fuels and calling for a restructure of the global energy mix. From 2005 there has been no change in terms of the use of fossil fuels to supply global energy needs (Bodansky, 2004).
The US takes pride as the pioneer of nuclear technology. The development of first fully commercial pressurized water Reactor (PWR) was by Westinghouse. This reactor had a capacity of 250MWe. In addition to this the Boiling water reactor (BWR) was designed by Argonne National Laboratory. The initial commercial plant of this nature was designed by the General Electric in the 1960s.
Towards the end of 1960 a lot of orders were being made for the PWR and BWR. The demanded capacity was over 1000MWe, such an increase in demand triggered a major construction of the reactors to be initiated. Up to date the two reactors’ types remained to be the only ones built for commercial purpose in the US.
The nuclear industry suffered a serious set back by the accident that occurred at the Three Mile Island in 1979. Even though no major injuries were reported the result of the accident was a suspension and cancellation of several orders which had previously been made. From this point the nuclear sector underwent a period of dormancy for decades. There was no major development in terms of construction of nuclear plants as the public became opposed to such initiatives. Despite this the nation still managed to commission 100 power reactors by 1990 (EIA, 2018).
The accidents also resulted in a positive effect, from that point the legislation of the country shifted drastically to put the nuclear sector safety in light, there were major changes which left the efficiency and safety of the country’s nuclear plants to be on top of their limits. As the new millennium sets in the nations had attained a mean net factor of 90%.
Nuclear power technology impact on the energy system and other fuels
In 2006 the United States generated a total of 4079 TWh of energy with a distribution as follows:
Table 1: US energy mix
The country is expecting its annual energy demand to shoot to 5000 TWh by 2030, at the moment the value is still constrained around the 2007 demand value. Being that there is a global pressure to do away with fossil fuels such an action if not pursued consciously may lead to a big void between the US energy supply and demand. For this purpose, there is need to speed the development of nuclear technology to replace the use of coal and gas which currently supply most of the country’s energy demands.
From the table above, we can conclude that nuclear power has played a significant role in the nations energy sector. At the moment the country has 99 operating nuclear reactors spread across 30 states. The reactors are owned and managed by different firms and in total they have a capacity of generating 805TWh of energy in 2016. As from 2001 the nuclear reactors have attained an average capacity factor of 90%, with this the plants can now produce energy that meets about 20% of the country’s total demand. The mean capacity factor grew from 50% prior to the Three Mile Island accident to around 70% by 1991. As of 2002 the value hit 90% and from there it has since levelled up. For upgradient and maintenance the industry has an investment of around $ 7.5 billion. The cost of producing nuclear energy reduced between 2002 and 2016 from $40/MWh to $34/MWh. The nation has a total of 65 Pressurised reactors capable of generating 64 GWe and on top of additional 34 boiling water reactors with a capacity of 35 GWe.
By 2013 there was no single new nuclear power plant under construction. This was caused by the opposition’s constant extension of the construction schedule because of safety concerns by the public. These fears were triggered by the accident which happened at the Three Mile Island in 1979. Also, the supply of energy from coal, and gas have been able to sustain the energy need of most of the citizens hence they see no urgency of pushing for alternative energy sources (Martin, 2007).
Given that the construction of new nuclear firms has been at a standstill for over 30 years, it is a surprise that the country ‘s dependency on the nuclear fuels grew during the period. As at 1980 the nation produced 251 TWh which was an 11% portion of the total energy generated, by 2008 the value has grown to reach 809 billion kWh which was around 20% of the total energy production. The 2008 figure was a third of the power which come from all the nuclear forms globally. With this we can gauge the role of US in the nuclear industry.
Its currently predicted that coal will remain the biggest supplier of energy up to 2035. From 2002-2016 an additional 20 GWe of coal-fired capacity was introduced into the energy grid, during the same period around 53 GWe of coal-fired plants were retired due to low efficiency and environmental pollution issues. The consecutive low prices of gas relative to coal combined by the push for low carbon energy were the catalyst behind the decision to retire the old and inefficient coal plants. Being that a number of coal-fired plants are over 35 years old there is an expectation that more coal plants will soon be retired. With the US having taken the central role in pushing for cleaner energy in the planet there is no doubt that the coal plants will not be able to survive the efficiency test.
A report in 2015 by the General Atomics showed that the development of the US nuclear was slowing down due to the price competition offered by the relatively cheaper carbon compounds. This limitation was proven when Toshiba withdrew its design certification renewal application due to its fears of perennial low energy prices. Being that nuclear power is relatively costly to produce the firms may find it hard to penetrate the market hence end up running in losses.
The power generated from the nuclear firms account for around 20% of the US energy supply, this is a 63% of all the clean energy generated by the nation. Should the demand for energy in the country go up followed by a reduction in the quantity of fossil fuels used in the country then the country will need to drastically expand its nuclear capacity to be able to sustain the energy needs. This should entail upgrading the current plants in addition to putting in place additional reactors before 2025 to accommodate the expected increase in demand to 5000 TWe by 2030.
To assist preserve the energy values that the market does not recognize, like the role played in curtailing carbon emissions most states have taken initiatives to assist improve the competitiveness of the nuclear energy in the local markets. An example was a step taken in 2015 by the New York state governor when the state public service department was ordered to develop a standard for clean energy to assist cut carbon emission by 40% of the 19990-value come 2030. The expectation was that the plan will assist to further cut the value by 80% come 2050 without reversing the gains which had been made to that date. New York state on its own possesses six nuclear reactors which managed to produce around 30% of the regions’ power supply in 2015. The decision by Entergy to plan the closure of its nuclear plants by 2017 in addition to the warning given by Exolon that it risks closing its power plants down due to economic bottlenecks have made the governor worry of the potentiality of reversing the gains that have been made in reducing carbon emission (Jim, 1982).
This gives an indication of the internal struggles that the nation is undergoing economically as it tries to maintain the nuclear plants as well as keep them economically competitive. The expansion of the nuclear firms as a way of increasing the proportion of clean energy generated in the country will not be an easy task both socially, politically and economically.
Technical development now and into the future
During the past two decades nuclear power technology has improved in the United States and is currently responsible for nearly 20% of the US energy production. This value has made nuclear power to be a single largest generator of green energy. The nuclear reactor technology has several classifications;
Small modular reactor designs; these reactors are smaller in size and can be produced in the factories prior to being transported to the nuclear sites at which point they are just plugged in. With this the capital cost can be minimised and the construction time reduced. Due to their smaller sizes the reactors are convenient to use in small electric grids and for locations that cannot accommodate the large reactors. With this the nuclear facilities can gain flexibility in terms of production scale and demand fluctuations.
Light water reactor designs; the nuclear feet possessed by the United States at as now have recorded very impressive performance records. In this case the country just needs to extend their life beyond 60 years and upgrade their productivity before beginning to derive immediate benefits. With this the nation can improve its nuclear productivity without having to suffer the exorbitant costs associated with constructing new firms. The light water reactor technology has been at the canter of most of the US nuclear firms. Investing further in their research will prove vital to the growth of the sector.
Advanced reactor Technology (ARC); the research and innovation that have surrounded the ARC have made it possible for the nation to enhance its nuclear safety and improve the provision of clean, secure and affordable energy. With the country starting to prepare for the exit of the fossil fuels from the continent such steps will prove to be very vital for the energy sector. By introducing and making use of more advanced designs the nation is able to pursue thermal as well as fast neutron spectrum technology.
The nuclear grid of the United States is not entirely connected. there are three sets of interconnections one being in the Western region, this covers 11 states in addition to British Columbia and Alberta. On the other hand, the ERCOT grid covers most sections of Texas. Finally, we have the Eastern grid interconnection which covers the rest of the country. This also accommodates Canada. The central sections of the nation have a small grid capacity. In 2017 the DOE stated on its report to the secretary in charge of the electricity market and reliability that there is a need for the Federal Regulatory Commission (FERC) to take charge in ensuring that the grid connection can sustain the base-load demand in a reliable and wider manner.
Licence regulation and renewal
In the United States the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) oversees the regulation of the nuclear sector. The body renewed two-unit Calvert Power plants in 2000 to operate for another 20 years. In 2017 another two plants in the South of Texas were renewed for additional 20 years. This brings the number of reactors whose licences have been renewed to operate for 6o years to 89. Currently another 5 units are being reviewed with the target of renewing them to operate for another 20 years if possible. Most of the nuclear firms need to be upgraded after about 30-40 years to make them more secure and improve their efficiency. This is a time consuming and capital-intensive process. The review of the firms by NRC need a minimum of 4 years.
The extension of the nuclear firms’ lifetime to 60 years make their upgradient at the mid-life to be justified. There is need to replace the steam generators to enhance their performance as well as upgrade some components of the plants that may be technologically outdated. By 2017 from the 65 pressure water reactors 56 had replaced their first steam generators with ones which were termed more durable, around 45 reactors replaced their reactor pressure vessel’s head by 2010.
Even after renewing the lifespan of most of the nuclear firms to 60 years the country will still need 55GWe of new reactors by 2035 if the country is to sustain the 20% proportion of energy generated by nuclear plants. This assumes that the existing reactors will be retired at 60 years. The plants responsible for producing 423 GWe of the nation’s power capacity are between 30-50 years of age. By 2020 the nation needs to retire 60 GWe of coal-fired plants generated capacity due to environmental concerns. This is what is calling for faster improvements in the nuclear sector.
The Fukushima accident which occurred in 2011 due to inadequate external assistance to the flooded reactors has made the nation to form a FLEX accident response body (Hultman & Koomey, 2013). The FLEX system has 61 centres spread within the country’s states, in addition there are two national centres which work together with the other sections to ensure there is an immediate response should an incident be reported in any of the states nuclear plants (Macknick, et al., 2011).
Preparation for new plants
Nuclear energy significance in the country is currently an economic as well as geopolitical issue. The technology is projected to be very vital in providing alternative energy source once the coal-fired mines are retired. The newly planned reactors are expected to make use of the small reactors to be able to penetrate the market. With the urge to do away with fossil fuels actively taking effect the need to expand the nuclear technology is becoming urgent as a way of filling the energy demand void.
Future nuclear reactor designs
The nuclear sector in the country has been in the decline for the past 20 years ever since the accident which occurred at the Three Miles Island in 1979. The nation currently began the revolution of the industry to retain the stature of the country as the leading nuclear energy producer. A lot of funds are being directed towards the funding of the research and development in the sector. This has been a collective task which has brought together research laboratories, industry experts as well as academic experts. The major area of interest has been research aimed at designing plants that will go into the future as the energy demand goes up. With this objective attention have been on the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) projects. With this the government expects the research to design a generation IV high-temperature gas cooled reactor to be a section of a system meant to produce electricity and hydrogen in large volumes. All this progress is expected to improve nuclear-generated energy as we approach the future.
Opportunities and Barriers
The united states have several avenues that it can pursue to improve the nuclear power technology to assist provide future sustainable energy;
Innovative citizens; the nation is listed as one of the pioneers of the nuclear technology. At the early years the technology was mostly applied in generating atomic bombs for use in warfare. In the recent years the applications of nuclear technology have shifted and now the focus is on harnessing the technology to produce power. The united state's population is composed of innovative, skilled and technical population for which much of the improvement in nuclear technology can be attributed to. As the country looks for ways of expanding the sector this innovative population will be very useful in coming up with innovative ideas and skills to further the technology (Schmid, 2006).
The war on fossil fuels; there has been an active campaign by the US government to try eradicating the use of fossil fuels both within and outside the country. As the pressure to do away with carbon compounds goes up, a void is slowly cropping between the energy supply and demand within the nation. This is an opportunity that the nuclear technology can utilise to establish itself as the energy source for the future (Folbre, 2011)
Technological developments; there have been a lot of interest in the smaller reactors. This design of reactors has even received findings from private developers like Bill Gates who are interested in seeing the success of the green energy. This type of designs is considered safer and cheaper. Their viability is still under scrutiny and once approved this technology can be applied to improve the performance of the nuclear sector
The need to do away with fossil energy has left the globe struggling to set up an alternative energy system. The United States for instance have invested in several sources of renewable energy of interest being the nuclear plant power generation. This sector though faces several challenges which have limited its capacity to penetrate the market effectively. Some of these issues are discussed below:
Global slowdown; even before the nuclear firms in Chernobyl Ukraine and Three Miles Island was hit by the accidents the nuclear sector was already finding it had to stabilise. This can be attributed to the negative public opinion which was because of the previous role of the technology in warfare (Johnson, 2011). Also, the nuclear plants require huge capital investment to initiate. During a time when economic crisis was already eating most of the nations these huge investments become harder to initiate and manage. In 1973 about 60% of orders for nuclear reactors were cancelled according to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (Johnson, 2011). This was due to the economic crisis, exorbitant capital costs and environmental concerns. Majority of the improvements in the nuclear sector are arising due to the improved efficiency of the nuclear plants that are online (Martin, 2007).
Future expectations; By 2010 the United States had planned to put in place 25 new reactors. The country’s projection is that the nuclear-generated power proportion will slightly reduce as we approach 2035 (Johnson, 2011). The Obama administration through the provision of capital loan guarantee tried to promote the sector. The two reactors which were to be set up in Georgia being an indication of this initiative.
The occurrence of the Fukushima accident cursed doubts regarding the plan to expand the nuclear technology. The intention of curtailing global warming through doing away with fossil fuels casting doubts among the population of expected rise in fuel prices. At the moment all the 60 reactors under construction are either in Asia or Eastern Europe. With the global energy demand expected to double by 2030, the worry is the possibility of failing to obtain a dependent energy source to replace the use of fossil fuels (Johnson, 2011). Unless the nuclear sector undergoes a tremendous improvement, it may even find it hard just to maintain is current proportion. With several reactors nearing the end of their lifespan more need to be done in the sector (Wolfgang, 1990).
Nuclear laws amendments; the aftermath of the 1979 accident was a massive overhaul of the nuclear regulations. This changes significantly increased the cost of securing a licence to establish nuclear plants, the initial cost of constructing the plants as well as the capital needed to run the plants effectively. As the new rules set in the nuclear plants that were already on the construction stage experience delays, added costs some even being scrapped off altogether.
Capital expenses; out of all the issues hindering the nuclear technology, capital requirements remained the biggest challenge. The information from the World Nuclear Association indicates that even though nuclear plants once online can be competitive the exorbitant costs of initiating the plants, uncertainties surrounding their regulations in addition to the extended long-lead construction time have made investment in the sector to be a risky affair (Johnson, 2011).
A personal view of the technology
After undergoing a period of dormancy, the nuclear technology is slowly beginning to re-emerge. The prevailing campaign against the use of carbon compounds have increased the research around the sectors termed as sources of green energy. Apart from the countries that have successfully established nuclear plants there is another set which has expressed interest in adopting the technology (Peachey, 2013).
Overall, nuclear technology appears as a viable alternative to the use of fossil fuels. In my opinion this may not be the case. Currently the United States has identified other areas like; wave power technology, offshore and onshore wind farms, hydro-electric power as well as geothermal. These are avenues that can be pursued without a lot of safety concerns (Wald, 2010)..
Nuclear power just from its introduction to the globe was used in warfare to cause mass destruction. Apparently its suggested that nations are guaranteeing to pursue the use of nuclear technology responsibly. This may be the case but there is little or no guarantee that they will stick to their stand should a global crisis like the world war II rise. For instance, there are cases in the middle east where countries are already building atomic bombs under the pretence of generating nuclear power.
Nuclear is a desirable alternative source of energy but just like carbon is being eradicated for causing global warming, nuclear power will just dump the world into another crisis. The security factor, health hazard issues as well as massive capital consumption should be enough to direct our attention elsewhere. Instead of pursuing nuclear power lets invest the resources in another area with minimal risks. What about wave power?
From the time the nuclear technology was introduced to the globe, it has enjoyed a mix experience around the world with so many ups and downs. The United States has so far made several recognizable steps when it comes to the development of the technology. The nuclear technology previously suffered serious setbacks due to the public resistance which was created by the accident in 1979. However, the nation gained a lot in terms of nuclear safety from the experience. The nuclear legislation that followed the aftermath of the accident drastically improved the nuclear safety and efficiency across the states of the country. This did not come with no cost. The introduction of the new regulations was accompanied by a tremendous increase in the cost and complexity of establishing a nuclear plant. Being that the cost of fossil fuels has remained comparatively lower the nuclear technology has found it had to penetrate the energy market and compete favourably with the coal-fired and gas plants (Crooks, 2014).
The energy grid of the United States is currently inefficient and may not be able to contain the energy from the wind power sector as well as from the nuclear plants during the peak period. Being that the nuclear sector is already being pulled down by the hurdles around its safety additional issues like those presented by the grid system does not make the future of nuclear power in the US to appear positive (Steve, 2017).
On top of the financial challenges facing the construction of new nuclear plants, the public concerns regarding their safety have triggered opposition from most of the country’s citizens who view nuclear as a potential health hazard. If the technology is to be embraced by the nation a lot will need to be done to create public awareness and minimize the negative attitude that presently surrounds the idea. This must take place on the short term otherwise the country should start considering other alternatives as the current proportion of fossil fuels in the energy grid is too big to be filled by nuclear energy in its current state.
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