Nuclear energy is a low emission energy source that may reduce future electricity.
Deaths from production accidents and exposure to harmful materials are substantially lower in nuclear, solar and wind energy compared to coal or natural gas.
Nuclear power plant closures are high and new construction is low.
For an overview of state and federal nuclear restrictions and incentives, see our Policy Memo.
Nuclear energy generates 20% of the electricity in the U.S. (DOE n.d.).
Fuel Source and Emissions. Nuclear power produces almost no greenhouse gas emissions during operation (Jawerth 2020). It is reliable at a large scale and can be produced almost anywhere on Earth.
U.S. nuclear power relies on uranium, which is a non-renewable fuel source (NRC 2020).
Electricity Generation. Electricity sources can be classified based on energy production costs, how often they are called on to meet demand, and whether they can be reliably called on to meet demand.
In a comprehensive study of how energy source and decarbonization goals will impact future electricity costs, low-carbon, firm energy sources (e.g., nuclear energy) consistently lowered the price of electricity (Sepulveda 2018). In fully decarbonized scenarios, electricity costs decreased by 10-62%.
Production Accidents. Energy production can cause injury and/or death to those who are exposed to radiation, workplace accidents, or increases due to air pollution.
Catastrophic nuclear reactor accidents (e.g., Fukushima, Chernobyl) have long-term ecological effects.
Spent Nuclear Fuel. Spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive and can be dangerous to humans for thousands of years (EIA 2021).
All U.S. nuclear reactors store spent fuel in concrete reinforced pools that cool the fuel and shield from radiation (NRC 2019; Rusco 2021). After 5-10 years, the fuel is moved to a dry cask to further cool and shield from radiation.
The U.S. currently has 93 nuclear reactors. Twelve have shut down since 2013, with the most recent shutdown citing low electricity costs and increased operation costs (Holt 2021). The Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor in TN began operation in 2016 and was the first new reactor in the U.S. in nearly two decades (Scott 2018). Two new reactors in GA are expected to be completed in 2023 (SC n.d.).
Construction costs for many nuclear reactors often become more expensive than initially estimated, with an average increase in cost of 117%, compared to hydroelectric (71%), wind (8%) and solar (1%; Gilbert 2017).
One alternative to large nuclear reactors is the development of small, modular reactors which may require less upfront costs; however, this technology is still developing (Cho 2019).
For an overview of state and federal nuclear restrictions and incentives, see our Policy Memo.
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**This Note has been updated since its original publication. Previous versions are not up-to-date, but can be accessed here: Version 1 (October 2020) and Version 2 (January 2022).