The future of nuclear energy

Mar 06, 2012

Last March, the world watched closely as Japan struggled to contain a series of equipment failures, hydrogen explosions and releases of radioactive materials at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The historic following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed the ’ connection to the power grid, causing them to overheat. Hundreds of people were exposed to increased levels of radiation. Thousands more were evacuated. Although Japanese officials have since declared the plant stable, the cleanup will be expensive and is expected to take decades.

A year later, however, the United States is moving forward with . For the first time since 1978, the National Regulatory Commission has approved two new plants. The $14 billion facilities will be built just outside Augusta and operated by Atlanta-based Southern Company. They’re scheduled to be up and running by 2016 and 2017 and should produce about 10 percent of Georgia’s power.

“It’s smart to continue generating nuclear power in the United States,” said Marilyn Brown, professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy. “It is a reliable, cost-competitive option that doesn’t contribute to air pollution or contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.” Brown helps shape the nation’s energy policies as a board member of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and chair of the company’s Nuclear Oversight Committee.

Brown said that nuclear power plants are expensive to build, compared to natural gas facilities.

“But they are clearly worth the investment,” she said. “A nuclear plant produces no carbon dioxide emissions and four times the power of a typical natural gas facility. Fourteen billion is a big number, but the plants should stay online for 50 to 70 years.”

Despite the benefits, critics will always point to the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. These are the nation’s first approved nuclear facilities since Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Experts contend that modern plant designs are much safer than those built previously.

“The new plant designs are passively safe, so there are far fewer issues to worry about, like those that occurred with the older plants at with the loss of off-site power,” said Glenn Sjoden, Georgia Tech professor of nuclear and radiological engineering. “With the new plants, you have a convection cooling loop that uses gravity and runs by itself for days in the event of lost power. There would be no active pumping required. . . . The more modern designs and precautions taken make nuclear the best option to satisfy our energy needs.”

Since last year’s incident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been reviewing existing U.S. plants to ensure that they can withstand earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters and making retrofit upgrades when necessary, Sjoden said.

Critics point to nuclear waste as another challenge with nuclear power. Each of the nation’s 104 plants store the radioactive waste on-site in steel casks protected by concrete and other safety systems. These are safe too, Brown said, because of careful construction and maintenance.

Nuclear waste would be a nonissue if the U.S. reprocessed its spent fuel like other nations such as France, Sjoden said.

“Like most nations, they recycle their used fuel, since 95 percent of the fuel can be recycled back into the reactor and used again, making nuclear power the most ‘green’ energy source out there,” Sjoden said. “Burying the waste, as we do in the United States, is completely wasteful.”

The generates almost 20 percent of its energy from nuclear plants, the same amount as natural gas. Coal supplies 50 percent. The remainder is generated from hydropower and other natural sources.  

“We must develop more renewables sources, such as wind, solar and biopower,” says Brown. “Industry leaders, business and the general public must also become more energy efficient. That is the key to our future.”

Explore further: Ambitious EU targets for renewable energies make economic sense

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Facing up to Fukushima

May 23, 2011

In the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima reactor, Japan and other nations are re-evaluating their attitude to nuclear energy. Cambridge academic Tony Roulstone believes it is vital for governments and ...

Taking the 'waste' out of nuclear waste

Jun 01, 2011

While spent nuclear fuel continues to pile up by the ton across the United States, UC Irvine’s Mikael Nilsson says the solution is clear: recycle it at the commercial nuclear power plants that create ...

Nuclear will survive, because it has to: ANU professor

Mar 29, 2011

Japan relies on nuclear power for about 30% of its electricity. It has few natural resources and imports large quantities of coal, gas and oil at an ever increasing cost. Some Japanese people are not in favor ...

New U.S. nuclear reactors unlikely soon: physicist

Apr 15, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Japanese officials increased the nuclear crisis level at the Fukushima plant on Monday to match that of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. But, unlike the Soviet disaster, most of the radiation ...

France must improve nuke plants 'without delay'

Nov 17, 2011

France must immediately improve safety at its nuclear power plants so they can deal with natural disasters in the wake of Japan's Fukushima accident, an industry body said Thursday.

Recommended for you

Should the Japanese give nuclear power another chance?

19 hours ago

On September 9, 2014, the Japan Times reported an increasing number of suicides coming from the survivors of the March 2011 disaster. In Minami Soma Hospital, which is located 23 km away from the power plant, ...

UK wind power share shows record rise

22 hours ago

The United Kingdom wind power production has been enjoying an upward trajectory, and on Tuesday wind power achieved a significant energy production milestone, reported Brooks Hays for UPI. High winds from Hurricane Gonzalo were the force behind wind turbines outproducing nuclear power ...

Global boom in hydropower expected this decade

Oct 24, 2014

An unprecedented boom in hydropower dam construction is underway, primarily in developing countries and emerging economies. While this is expected to double the global electricity production from hydropower, it could reduce ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

CapitalismPrevails
1 / 5 (1) Mar 06, 2012
The future of nuclear energy is LFTR.