Nuclear Power

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Nuclear Power

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 established by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Private power companies did not rush to build nuclear power plants because they feared the financial consequences of a nuclear accident. Congress responded by passing the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2210), which limited the liability of the nuclear power industry and assured compensation for the public. With the passage of the Price-Anderson Act, power companies began to build nuclear plants.

At first, nuclear power was attractive largely because the demand for electricity grew at a steady rate in the 1960s and coal-burning facilities were becoming an environmentally unacceptable alternative. The high price of oil during the mid-1970s continued to make nuclear power economically desirable and helped keep nuclear energy a prominent part of national energy plans. By the 1990s, approximately 110 nuclear plants were operating in the United States, supplying 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

A nuclear reactor produces energy through a chain reaction that splits a uranium nucleus, releasing energy in the form of heat. Fast breeder reactors, which use plutonium as fuel, generate more energy than they expend. Plutonium is not a natural element. It must be recycled from the excess uranium produced from a chain reaction. The radioactivity of plutonium is higher and its life is longer than that of any other element. Because of these characteristics, the public became concerned about the safety of its development and use.

Until 1969, the AEC did not have a formal process for evaluating the environmental impact of building nuclear power plants. In that year Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 4321– 4370), which required environmental impact statements for all major federal activities. In the 1970s, the temper of nuclear regulation changed. People were no longer complacent about nuclear power safety or convinced by environmental claims made by industry and government.

This lack of public trust centered on the role of the AEC as both a promoter of nuclear technology and a regulator of the nuclear power industry. In 1974, realizing the cross purposes of promotion and safety, Congress passed the Energy Reorganization Act (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 5801–5879), which created two agencies with different missions. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent agency responsible for safety and licensing. The Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), later absorbed into the Energy Department, is responsible for promotion and development of nuclear power. This alignment did not completely remove fundamental regulatory conflict for the NRC, because the agency is responsible both for licensing plants and for safety oversight. If the NRC is too vigorous in exercising its safety role, the resulting compliance costs act as a disincentive to invest in nuclear plants.

A nuclear facility cannot be built without a construction permit issued by the NRC. An environmental impact statement that assesses the effect the facility will have on the environment must also be filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Once built, a nuclear plant must operate pursuant to a license from the NRC. A license requires that the facility use the lowest levels of radiation necessary to reasonably and efficiently maintain operations. The NRC also issues licenses for the use of nuclear materials, for transportation of nuclear materials, and for the export and import of nuclear materials, facilities, and components.

Nuclear power regulation is highly centralized in the federal government when nuclear safety and radiological hazards are at issue. States may address the financial capability of power companies to dispose of waste and may define state tort liability for injuries suffered at nuclear facilities.

Public confidence in the nuclear power industry suffered a major blow in 1979 when an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. No one was hurt during the accident although radioactive gases escaped through the plant's ventilating system. The accident did reveal, however, the nuclear power industry's lack of emergency preparedness. Following the incident, the NRC increased safety inspections, stepped up enforcement, required the retrofitting of systems to enhance safety, and developed emergency preparedness rules. These regulations delayed the opening of new nuclear plants during the early 1980s.

In 1986, however, the safety of nuclear power again was challenged when a nuclear reactor exploded at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Radiation 50 times higher than that at Three Mile Island exposed people nearest the reactor, and a cloud of radioactive fallout spread to Western Europe, causing the deaths of more than 30 people. People the world over questioned the logic of using such a volatile energy source.

Nuclear power also became less attractive to energy companies in the 1980s. The problem of disposing of nuclear waste became the focal point for the industry. Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 10101-10226), which directed the Department of Energy to formally begin planning the disposal of nuclear wastes and imposed most of the costs of disposal on the industry. The escalating costs of waste disposal helped bring construction of new nuclear facilities to a stop.

The problem of what to do with nuclear waste has proved difficult to solve. Nuclear material is contained in fuel rods. When spent fuel rods and other waste products fill the storage capacity at utility plants, the plants must either expand their storage capacity or find permanent off-site storage. Developing permanent nuclear waste sites is imperative because nuclear waste continues to accumulate. In addition, more than one hundred of the nuclear power facilities must be permanently shut down between 2010 and 2025 because their equipment and infrastructure will no longer be safe. This will entail removing most radioactive elements within each plant's nuclear reactor and then razing the entire plant.

The federal government has encountered political controversy and public opposition in its attempt to identify potential permanent nuclear waste sites. Since 1986 it has been unsuccessful in finding an acceptable site. Yucca Mountain, Nevada, has been earmarked as a nuclear waste repository, against the objections of citizens of Nevada and other advocacy groups. In January 2002, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham sent a letter to Nevada Governor Kenny C. Guinn notifying Guinn that Abraham had recommended to President george w. bush the development of the Yucca Mountain site. Guinn responded that the decision was premature and that further testing was necessary. When Bush approved the development of the site, Guinn vetoed, thus sending the issue to Congress.

The House and Senate both passed resolutions in 2002 with significant majorities approving the development of the Yucca Mountain site. The Energy Department must apply for a license from the NRC in order to construct the site; the application is not expected to be filed until 2004. The state of Nevada filed lawsuits against Abraham, President Bush, the DOE, the NRC, and the Environmental Protection Agency, seeking to block the future development of this site.

The commercial prospects for nuclear energy have faded. The decommissioning of nuclear plants in the early twenty-first century will be a huge undertaking. The cost, per plant, will be more than one billion dollars. Utility customers will pay for the costs in higher utility rates, but power companies will have to devote significant amounts of time, energy, and money to complete the process.

Further readings

"Nevada Yucca Mountain Lawsuits." Yucca Mountain: Eureka County Nuclear Waste Page. Available online at <> (accessed August 9, 2003).


Energy Department; Environmental Law; Public Utilities; Solid Wastes, Hazardous Substances, and Toxic Pollutants.

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