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Managing Nuclear Energy

Big Picture:

In moving away from fossil fuels, the United States has two options: renewable energy sources or nuclear energy. Renewable sources are clean, but they also are intermittent, less reliable, prone to repairs and require widespread infrastructure development to meet energy needs. Nuclear energy is also clean and efficient, but it comes with the risks of nuclear disasters and the production of nuclear waste. Currently, about 20 percent of the nation’s energy comes from nuclear power. As energy demand is expected to increase by one percent every year, the U.S. must find a balance between the two sources of energy if it wants to achieve a zero-emissions energy cycle.


Graphic From: Office of Nuclear Energy, Capacity Factor by Energy Source in 2020, energy.gov, March 24, 2021.

This graphic illustrates the different energy production capacities for the most widely used clean energy sources. Nuclear energy is the most efficient, with a 92.5 percent capacity.


Operative Definitions: 

  1. Nuclear energy: Power derived from the fission of uranium atoms, which release large amounts of heat. This heat evaporates water, which turns turbines and produces electricity.

  2. Renewable energy: Power sources that use unlimited resources, such as sunlight, wind, waves and water currents, to produce electricity.

  3. Capacity factor: A power source’s ability to produce energy at maximum capacity.

Important Facts and Statistics: 

  1. In the 70 years that nuclear power has been used across 32 countries, the death toll includes no more than 32 people.

  2. It would take 3 million solar panels (which would require a land area similar to the size of New Mexico) to match the energy produced per hour in one nuclear power plant.

  3. All the nuclear waste produced in the U.S. over the last 60 years wouldn’t exceed the size of a football field. 


Five-Point Plan: 

(1) Develop a nationwide, comprehensive clean energy plan. While nuclear power plants are better equipped to provide large amounts of reliable power while occupying relatively small amounts of space, they are not renewable resources and do carry with them great environmental, social and economic costs. Nuclear plants also require costly and lengthy initial investments. The economic cost and return of nuclear plants are better equipped to provide energy for larger cities. In rural areas, smaller-scale, local renewables would be more energy and economically efficient. A comprehensive, nationwide plan, such as this, would likely be the most successful approach to energetic development in the United States.


(2) Reallocate a portion of the federal energy budget toward nuclear energy research. Nuclear power still has a long way to go, as researchers are just beginning to venture into the field of nuclear fusion. Fusion is equally efficient when compared to nuclear fission, but it removes the issue of nuclear waste, thus turning nuclear energy into a renewable resource. Further investments into nuclear energy research could not only make nuclear energy more efficient and safe but could also result in the development of a waste-free clean source. 


(3) Include expanding renewable infrastructure in future bills. Renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydropower, would require further expansion of the power grid. This would allow home-to-grid power connection. Such an expansion would result in a larger, more resilient grid that would incorporate individually owned solar and wind power sources. This would be particularly useful in smaller towns and communities, which could completely rely on renewable sources of power and could reach energetic self-sufficiency.


(4) Help companies and workers transition industries. One of the major negative externalities of the energetic transition is the loss of jobs for skilled professionals. Providing training and subsidies to transition the workforce from one energy source to another would solve the unemployment issues surrounding the closing of fossil fuel manufacturing plants. It would also preserve the country’s GDP by allowing companies to transition towards cleaner energy sources as opposed to closing down. 


(5) Promote the expansion of nuclear power plants. It is possible to draw most of a country’s energy from nuclear power. For example, France draws close to 75 percent of its energy from nuclear power. The United States currently has 93 operating reactors, which produce about 30 percent of global nuclear energy. Nevertheless, this only accounts for 20 percent of domestic energy consumption. Promoting the construction of more nuclear plants would allow the U.S. to become less dependent on fossil fuels, especially as energy demands continue to grow.


Why This Initiative Is Important: 

Most countries still depend on fossil fuels as their main source of energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the United States currently sources 60.6 percent of its energy from fossil fuels. That being said, many experts argue that rampant climate change effects are calling for a change in business as usual. Studies show that the U.S. GDP will decrease 1.2 percent for every 1ºC increase in global temperature. As fossil fuels become more scarce and as global temperatures continue to grow, the energetic transition toward cleaner sources is imminent. In transitioning towards less CO2-intensive energy, an important decision must be made regarding which power sources make the most sense for the country. 


Economic Impact (From Our Student Economist Team): 

Globally, the cost of renewable energy sources is now significantly below that of nuclear and gas power. Wind and solar power are now the cheapest forms of electricity in most of the world. As such, it would be economically feasible to bring renewable energy to rural areas.

Bills like the Zero-Emission Nuclear Power Production Credit Act of 2021 (S. 2291) will provide $50 billion in additional revenue for utilities by 2030, which could prevent future reactor closures and increase investment in the aging infrastructure. The prevention of closures and the possibility of increased investment will help the industry maintain, if not increase, employment numbers. 


Due to nuclear energy's relatively low fuel cost when compared to other forms of energy generation, the expansion of plants could result in a long-term decrease in the country’s utility bills. 


Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual authors.


The following students worked on this proposal: Annie Llombart, University of California, Santa Cruz graduate; Alexander Sejas, University of Miami.


Sources:

Kazilbash, Sana. “What's the Death Toll of Nuclear vs Other Energy Sources? by Sana.” Engineering.com, 24 Feb. 2021, https://www.engineering.com/story/whats-the-death-toll-of-nuclear-vs-other-energy-sources.

Martin, William. “Nuclear Power.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2021, https://www.britannica.com/technology/nuclear-power.

“Nuclear Power in the USA - World Nuclear Association.” Nuclear Power in the USA, World Nuclear Association, Nov. 2021, https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-t-z/usa-nuclear-power.aspx.

“Nuclear Power Is the Most Reliable Energy Source and It's Not Even Close.” Energy.gov, Office of Nuclear Energy, 24 Mar. 2021, https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/nuclear-power-most-reliable-energy-source-and-its-not-even-close.

“The Ultimate Fast Facts Guide to Nuclear Energy.” Energy.gov, U.S. Department of Energy, 2021, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2019/01/f58/Ultimate%20Fast%20Facts%20Guide-PRINT.pdf.

Cardin, Benjamin L. “Text - S.2291 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): Zero-Emission ...” Congress.gov, 24 June 2021, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/2291/text?r=10.

Schneider, Mycle, and Antony Froggatt. “World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2021.” World Nuclear Industry Status Report, 5 Oct. 2021, https://www.worldnuclearreport.org/-World-Nuclear-Industry-Status-Report-2021-.html.

World Nuclear Association. The Economics of Nuclear Power. Nov. 2008, https://www.world-nuclear.org/uploadedFiles/org/info/pdf/EconomicsNP.pdf

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