Nuclear energy involves the harnessing of energy from the unstable nucleus of an atom. The unstable nucleus can either split therefore producing energy in a process called nuclear fission, or it can react by joining with another nucleus to gain stability and in the process release energy, in a process called nuclear fusion. These nuclear processes release more energy than any other energy harnessing source including the currently used fossil fuels. Unlike the fossil fuels, nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases and other toxic gases that would directly pollute the air. Therefore, the technique is among the low carbon energy supply techniques that aim to conserve the environment. However, as compared to other renewable sources of energy like the solar energy, nuclear energy despite producing high energy content is less favorable because of its harmful toxic radioactive waste which is still a challenge disposing. The waste is hazardous to people as it causes genetic mutations. On the other hand, solar energy is a low carbon energy technique that produces relatively high energy and has no harmful waste that would harm people and hence, it is favorable. The nuclear energy was discovered in the early years during the discovery of the X-rays. However, it was not until the Russians began their experiments on uranium where the massive energy release of the radioactive materials was discovered. This led to the formation of nuclear bombs which left serious effects in the 1950`s. However, it was not until 1951 where the EBR-1 was designed and operated in Idaho to produce electricity. The Soviet Union began working on improving the reactor designs and to design new ones (World Nuclear Association). In 1954, the FEI in Obninsk began generating nuclear power electricity. Obninsk developed fast breeder reactors and lead bismuth reactors for the navy. In 1955, Bystry Reaktor fast reactor which was a fast neutron reactor began operating. However, it did not generate power as expected, nevertheless, it paved the way for the designing of sodium cooled FBRs. The main United States ebreakthrough was through Hymal, which developed the pressure reactor that used water for the US navy. In 1960 however, Westinghouse designed the first commercial Pressure Water Reactor, which began to operate in 1992 in order to provide electricity to the citizens of the US. The nuclear power faced a decline from the 1970`s to 2002 despite the increase in its energy capacity, because of the handling of the energy which was not known to the operators and hence, there were many harmful accidents that caused deaths. Moreover, the toxic waste from the reactors made people object the use of the nuclear energy. Even today the concerns about the disposal of the radioactive waste from nuclear plants are still many and they make the use of this energy difficult to implement. However, research is underway to obtain methods of disposing this harmful waste and facilitate the nuclear power usage. United States of America has been the global leader for the nuclear energy for a very long time, however, this leadership is slowly fading away as a result of various reasons such as: the decline in electricity consumption leading to a closure of some of the nuclear plants. This is however taking a new turn, with the introduction of electrical appliances that in increasing the electricity consumption of Americans. Moreover, the availability of cheaper energy sources like fossil fuels, fuel cells, coal, solar energy and tidal energy opted by the United States makes the decline of the nuclear energy power for the US. Moreover, the construction of new nuclear plants takes a very long time to get approved by the United States government and this discourages the potential investors and has reduced the nuclear energy power of the United States. Countries like France and Japan who are embracing the nuclear energy technology have a brighter future in becoming the moguls of nuclear energy and laying down the United States.
Figure 1: Showing the operation of a nuclear reactor plant.
Current State of Nuclear Technology in the Unites States.
According to World Nuclear Association, the United States is still the world`s leading producer of nuclear energy, producing about 30% of the total nuclear energy produced. The associations adds that the nuclear reactors in the United States produce about 805 billion kWh of energy that accounts for the 20% of the electricity produced in the US. New nuclear reactor plants are under construction in order to increase the energy production. There are currently 99 nuclear reactors in the United States which are found in 30 different states and are operated by 30 different power companies. Some of the nuclear power reactants are shown in the table below.
Figure2: Table showing some of the nuclear plants in the US.
According to World Nuclear Association, in 2016, the nuclear plants were producing a total of 805 TWh, and as from 2001, the plants had generated up to 807 TWh every year, which was a 90% achievement. The rising margins were attributed to the advancements in technology that had led to the manufacture of more electrical appliances that resulted in an increase in the demand of electricity and consequently the nuclear power plants were improved over the years to increase their capacities. In addition, the increase was attributed to the fact that during that time the prices of the nuclear generation had decreased, favoring production. The strong incentives among the United States utilities will keep the nuclear power plants operating despite the opposition it keeps facing. Since the 2000`s, there has been great uncertainty about the cost of the nuclear reactors for the revival of the nuclear energy production in the US (Sharon Squassoni, 2009). According to Sharon (2009), five nuclear technologies were under consideration for construction in the year 2009 and were expected to be completed by 2020 if the designs were accepted. These technologies included the GE/Hitachi/Toshiba`s Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, Westinghouse`s AP-1000, AREVA`s European Pressurized Water Reactor, Mitsubishi`s Advanced Pressure Water Reactor and the GE/Hitachi`s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor. The design certification and COL for these reactors were still running till 2013 as they had to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Controversies arose from the construction of these plants and only the AP-1000 was set up in Florida and South Carolina states (Sharon Squassoni 2009). From this it became clear that the state and local governments have a major impact on the framework and economics of the United States nuclear power industry. This is also seen when the California state government set up a referendum in 1976 to vote either for or against the construction of nuclear plants in the state. The votes turn out against the construction of new nuclear plants in the state and this law has been followed ever since. According to World Nuclear Association, a $ 1.25 billion next generation nuclear plant was authorized at the Idaho National Laboratory and the plant is expected to be capable of cogenerating hydrogen. The cogeneration of the hydrogen is important because hydrogen gas is also another way of fuel production by burning hydrogen. Despite the high and costly price of the plant, the construction is underway and is expected to be done by 2021 (World Nuclear Association). This is as a result of the ongoing advancements in technology that are increasing the use of electricity and increasing the demand of power. Moreover the department of energy has been granting loans to construct new clean energy producing plants including nuclear power plants and uranium enrichment plants. These loan guarantees ere to encourage the commercial use of new and improved technologies. The department of energy has so far issued loans to Georgia Power, to Oglethorpe Power for Vogtle and for MEAG Power (World Nuclear Association, 2018). The department of energy has however faced criticism for this initiative from several federal agencies like the department of labor, the Office and Management budget and the Federal Financing Bank. This has generally slowed the improvement of the nuclear energy technology in the United States. The office of management and budget together with the Federal Financing Bank challenge the high costs of the program that would lead to an economic surge that would greatly affect the United States economy and take them a great time to recover especially since the country is recovering from the 2009 recession. The department of labor however is against the program because it channels most of the finance capital of the country towards itself and this would cause a surge that would affect the salaries of the laborers. In addition, in 2011, Solyndra, a company that designed and manufactured solar PV panels had received a loan from the department of energy and thereafter, went into bankruptcy and laid off all its workers (World Nuclear Association, 2018). This made the criticism of the loan program that the department of energy had put in place to ensure that there are improved technologies
Figure 3: Nuclear Capacity in the US graph.
Impact of the Nuclear Energy System on other Fuels.
Fossil fuels are forms of energy that produce fuel by their combustion. They have been used for quite a number of years especially after their discovery because they generated higher energy than the previously used methods. Moreover, it was less costly to extract the fossil fuels from the earth`s crust and in turn, this made the commercial cost of the fossil fuels quite affordable to the end user. However these fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide upon combustion. These gases are greenhouse gases that tend to form a “blanket” layer over the earth`s atmosphere. This layer allows ultra violet radiation into the earth but does not permit the heat resulting from leaving the earth and hence results in global warming which has adverse effects. The effects caused by the fossil fuels has led to a need of adopting low carbon fuel energy techniques like the nuclear power generation. This nuclear energy produces more energy than the fossil fuels, and does not emit the toxic gases directly into the atmosphere, hence, favorable. However, the radioactive waste material released from nuclear plants that is very harmful to humans, has seen this method of power production face rejection and opposition from the public. Moreover, the threat of the nuclear energy permeating to the hands of terrorists who disrupt peace, has further added to the rejection of nuclear energy. Until today, the nuclear energy still faces competition from natural gas whose prices have recently fallen and in addition, their plants are quicker and cheaper to build. This makes most local governments of the United States favor the use of natural gas for energy production other than nuclear energy (Sharon, 2009).
Renewable sources of energy which are low carbon energy producing methods and which are generally cheaper to construct plants for, are the biggest competitors for nuclear energy today and also for the future, if a solution to the management of the radioactive waste is not found. Solar energy for instance involves the harnessing of energy from the sun. The harnessed energy is non-polluting and it can be used for various purposes. The amount of energy produced is lower than that produced by the nuclear generators, however, the amount of energy that is produced is sufficient to provide power to the various states in the US. The radioactive waste material resulting from the nuclear generators as previously stated is what faces this method out when it comes to solar energy and hence, most local governments opt for the solar energy installation.
Tidal power is energy produced from the ocean tides as well as from the dams built at a bay or inlet. The incoming tide generates electricity as it flows through the turbines that have been constructed in the dam and thereafter the turbine blades are turned in order to generate electricity as the outgoing tide flows back. The advantage with tidal energy is that the energy source is renewable. However, tidal power plants alter the normal flow of water and destroy the environment. As a result of the environmental effects caused by tidal energy, tidal energy has a narrow future into becoming a main source of energy in the United States (World Nuclear Association, 2018).
Energy from hydrogen gas is also a renewable source of energy that is slowly replacing the natural gas, coal and oil as energy sources. The hydrogen could be transported through pipes in the same way as the transportation of natural gas occurs. The fuel generated from the hydrogen gas combustion can be used for producing heat used for heating homes or it can be reacted with oxygen gas to form steam that can turn turbines in order to generate electricity. Hydrogen gas is advantageous because it burns cleanly and it releases more energy as compared to the natural gas and other fossil fuels. The problem associated with this method of energy generation is that hydrogen rarely occurs in free-state because of its explosive nature. It occurs as combined state in water and hydrocarbons mostly. Therefore, in order to obtain the hydrogen gas, electrolysis of water is carried out. Electrolysis requires the input of electricity, which would mean that the production of the hydrogen gas would require a lot of energy, which again is not favorable since it becomes expensive. However, compared to the nuclear energy plant set up, the cost of electrolysis are way lower and would be favored at any time by the local state governments. Moreover, despite the hydrogen gas being an explosive gas in pure state, the effect is not as serious as that of the radioactive materials which even lead to genetic mutation in people. Therefore, the opposition against the use of nuclear energy still persists.
Fuel cells are another way of generating energy. The fuel cells use hydrogen gas in a process that involves the oxidation of the hydrogen gas in the fuel cell in order to produce energy. Fuel cells are a great deal in the automotive industry to provide fuel and hence, are facing out the use of fossil fuels as gasoline for auto motives. These fuel cells use hydrogen and therefore offer an added advantage of the hydrogen fuel over the nuclear energy today and also in future.
Geothermal energy is another renewable energy source that utilizes the steam occurring naturally from the earth`s crust to provide heat that heats houses and also to turn turbines and in turn generate electricity. The heated steam or underground water may emerge either as a geyser or a hot spring. The electricity produced by the method provides cheaper electricity as compared to nuclear power plants. However, the challenge is that the underground steam reservoirs dry up and consequently, the heat and electricity produced from this method also decrease in capacity. The geothermal energy does not offer as much competition to nuclear energy as expected because the geothermal plants also produce hydrogen sulfide gas which is a very toxic gas that affects people severely. Moreover, the geothermal energy plants are normally located in rugged terrains and in parks because of the hot springs and hence, establishing the plants becomes difficult in the first place.
Water power is another energy source that produces electricity and steam for heating houses. The hydro-electricity produced by this method is sufficient but the hydroelectric power creates numerous environmental problems such as flooding surrounding areas when the water levels in the dams rise during the wet seasons and also the dams cause sedimentation at the dam as the eroded material is deposited at the dam section. These environmental problems limit the use of water power as an energy source and therefore favour the nuclear energy instead which has less effects to the environment with a condition that its waste is handled with care.
Nuclear energy is therefore a favorable means of energy production. It overrules the fossil fuels, geothermal energy, coal, water power and tidal power energies which are cheaper methods. With more research added on the ways of managing the radioactive waste material from the nuclear plants, the solar energy and the use of hydrogen for power will not become a challenge to the nuclear power for generation. Moreover, a general support of the department of energy in giving out the loans for construction of newer nuclear plants will improve the power supply in the United States and the country will have three ways of curbing the fossil fuel challenge.
Technical Developments of Nuclear Energy Currently Present and those for the Future in the United States of America.
According to Rachael Slaybough, (2016), “The nuclear energy sector is often perceived as a last century industry, but that is changing as a result of a growing market of venture-backed startup signals that were on the verge of a nuclear do over.” This statement emphasized that despite many people having a view that the nuclear energy was about to crumble, the scientists and nuclear engineers like Rachael, have seen the future of the nuclear energy. Daniel McGlaynn, (2016), adds that the electricity production on a huge scale using nuclear energy despite the minimal emissions that are harmful, still remains attractive to the scientists. These emissions have seen the public object the use of the nuclear energy and have demanded for a closure of the plants. The United Nations International Panel for Climate Change even recommends the doubling of the nuclear capacity of the world by the year 2050 (Daniel McGlaynn, 2016). It is argued by the nuclear engineers like Rachael Slaybough that nuclear energy is an effective way of dealing with climate change. Rachael emphasizes that the technique hardly emits toxic gases directly into the atmosphere and this has been backed by many other nuclear engineers like Per Peterson, a professor at Berkeley.
The 99 reactors in the Unites States are reaching their retirement age despite the plants still contributing to about 20% of the total energy produced in the US. California Pacific Gas announced in June 2016 that they had plans to shut down the Diablo Canyon reactor within a decade. Surprisingly, their cited reason for the closure of the reactor was as a result of economic reasons and not environmental reasons that would have led to public dismissal of the reactants. Many nuclear engineers including Rachael criticized this move stating that it was ironic that most environmental groups had switched to pronuclear yet the existing nuclear plants were closing as a result of distortions in the electricity market and not the public`s backlash.
For nuclear energy to have a future, the nuclear industry will need to have regulatory structures that dictate how the nuclear reactors are to be designed and built (Daniel McGlaynn, 2016). Moreover, local state governments need to be more accommodating to the new nuclear ventures. In addition, the nuclear workforce will require further training to ensure safety during operations in the nuclear plants, thus, prohibiting accidents. This need for training saw a boot camp organized by Berkeley in 2016, and it led to an increase in safety operations at many nuclear plants (Todd Allen).
During the early developments of the nuclear plants, the industry had settled on the use of water cooled reactants as the standard for nuclear plants. The time and money used in the approval process of the designs makes the establishment of nuclear plants expensive and time consuming and may lead to potential investors dropping out on the plant construction. Prof. Peterson argued that changes in the nuclear technology will make rapid changes in the production of nuclear energy. This is because the water cooled reactors may release radioactive materials as fine particles in steam during an accident that may leak and cause serious effects in the surrounding areas. The new research involves the advance reactors being cooled by molten fluoride salts (Daniel McGlaynn, 2016). These molten salts reactors will be cooled by fluoride salts that will liquefy at high temperatures and still remain stable at these temperatures. The salts will not need high pressures like those of light water reactors, which mainly cause accidents, making nuclear energy production a safer method of producing the energy.
In addition to changing the reactors, more research is currently underway to see how nuclear fusion can be used to generate power. Nuclear fusion temperatures are very high and thus, for many years, scientists have had a challenge developing reactors that operate with the high temperatures of the reaction, and this has proved futile. The scientists are however, working a way around to bring these temperatures down and have a ‘cold’ nuclear fusion reaction that nuclear plants designs can be made. A breakthrough in this research will mean an increase in the energy produced by the nuclear reactors and hence, would grant the nuclear energy a position as a low carbon energy source in future amongst solar energy and hydrogen power.
Barriers and Opportunities of Nuclear Energy.
As discussed in the previous section, nuclear energy is a great form of energy production, producing very huge amounts of energy that can be used to power an entire country. The nuclear energy is also an environmental friendly method of power production, as it does not release toxic gases directly into the atmosphere like fossil fuel methods, hence, conserving the environment. Moreover, the plants provide job opportunities to the nuclear engineers giving them their basic means of obtaining their needs thus, reducing dependency on the government for aid. In addition, the US benefits from the nuclear energy power in that they do not have to import power from other countries. As a matter of fact, the US exports some of its power to countries that do not have sufficient power, therefore, earning a revenue.
Figure 4: Graph showing the environmental friendly nature of the nuclear energy. Available from:
Despite the opportunities created by the nuclear energy, there are many limitations facing this industry. The management of the radioactive waste material is still a problem and hence, most people living near nuclear plants have developed genetic disorder like cancer as a result of exposure to the radioactive waste material. This has made the public oppose the nuclear energy as a means of supplying power in the US. Moreover, the fear of the nuclear materials getting into terrorists is a major outcry the people have and urge for the shutting down of nuclear plants. In addition, the nuclear energy may stir up nuclear wars between countries. A recent example is that between North Korean and the US. This puts the lives of the citizens in risk and hence, most people opt for the closure of the nuclear plants. Another barrier facing the industry is the high cost of construction of the nuclear plants, which has seen only a few, new nuclear plants being constructed. In addition, the design verification process takes a very long time and this ends up discouraging potential investors, making them pull out from the projects. The nuclear energy production also faces challenges from other renewable sources of energy which prove to be competitive since they are cheap to establish, produce relatively high energy power and are also environmental friendly. Such sources are like solar energy and hydrogen power methods, which might in the future face out the nuclear energy because of their pros against nuclear energy.
Views on the Nuclear Technology Based on the Evidences
Nuclear technology is indeed a great way of replacing the carbon emitting fuels. The technology yields high energy output which is advantageous in the modern world that is moving towards using very many electrical appliances. Despite the set up costs of the plant being expensive, in the long run the plant becomes a cheaper way of producing energy. This is because it is environmental friendly and the plants stay for very long years before their retirement age. Also, the nuclear power is enough for local consumption and even for sale to countries who do not have enough supply of power. This technology has a great future if the molten salt coolers are initiated by the scientists since these reactors will reduce the costs incurred from adding high pressure systems in the nuclear plants and the molten salts coolers will also reduce the accident caused by the light water steam reactors which allow for the emission of radioactive particles in the steam, thus, affecting the residents around the plant. Moreover, curbing the problem of waste management from the nuclear plants and the government ensuring the security of the nuclear plants from terrorists, will see the technology gaining favor among people as a means of providing power. Moreover, countries with the nuclear materials, agreeing to be in peace with each other in order to prevent nuclear wars will favor the growth of this industry. Moreover, more boot camps like the one conducted by Berkeley will ensure that the workers at the nuclear plants always ensure safety operations are done within the plants to prevent accidents like leakage which may cause serious harm. The boot camps should also aim at encouraging more students to do nuclear engineering in order to face out the idea of the industry being a past century industry. The boot camps also need to emphasize universities to conduct more research on methods that will improve the nuclear energy technology in order to boost the industry against its competitor, the solar energy and hydrogen power, since, the nuclear power energy produces the most energy. Also, the federal agencies need to support the department of energy in granting loans to ensure that safer plants are constructed in the US especially since most of the existing nuclear plants are soon reaching their retirement age. The design approval process should also take a shorter while in order to facilitate for faster development of the nuclear plants. Lastly, the research on the ‘cold’ nuclear fusion should be encouraged in order to be able to also harness energy from this process and maximize the energy produced by both nuclear reaction processes.
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