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Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provided about 5.7% of the world's energy and 13% of the world's electricity, in 2012. In 2013, the IAEA report that there are 437 operational nuclear power reactors (although not all are producing electricity), in 31 countries. In addition, there are approximately 140 naval vessels using nuclear propulsion in operation, powered by some 180 reactors.
There is an ongoing debate about the use of nuclear energy. Proponents, such as the World Nuclear Association, the IAEA and Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy contend that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions. Opponents, such as Greenpeace International and NIRS, believe that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment.
Nuclear power plant accidents include the Chernobyl disaster (1986), Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), and the Three Mile Island accident (1979). There have also been some nuclear-powered submarine mishaps. Research into safety improvements is continuing and nuclear fusion, believed to be safer, may be used in the future. As of 2012, according to the IAEA, worldwide there were 68 civil nuclear power reactors under construction in 15 countries. In the US the licenses of almost half its reactors have been extended to 60 years, and plans to build another dozen are under serious consideration. However, Japan's 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster prompted a rethink of nuclear energy policy in many countries. Germany decided to close all its reactors by 2022, and Italy has banned nuclear power. Following Fukushima, the International Energy Agency halved its estimate of additional nuclear generating capacity to be built by 2035.
In 2011 nuclear power provided 10% of the world's electricity In 2007, the IAEA reported there were 439 nuclear power reactors in operation in the world, operating in 31 countries. However, many have now ceased operation in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster while they are assessed for safety. In 2011 worldwide nuclear output fell by 4.3%, the largest decline on record, on the back of sharp declines in Japan (-44.3%) and Germany (-23.2%).
Annual generation of nuclear power has been on a slight downward trend since 2007, decreasing 1.8% in 2009 to 2558 TWh with nuclear power meeting 13–14% of the world's electricity demand. One factor in the nuclear power percentage decrease since 2007 has been the prolonged shutdown of large reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Japan following the Niigata-Chuetsu-Oki earthquake.
The United States produces the most nuclear energy, with nuclear power providing 19% of the electricity it consumes, while France produces the highest percentage of its electrical energy from nuclear reactors—80% as of 2006. In the European Union as a whole, nuclear energy provides 30% of the electricity. Nuclear energy policy differs among European Union countries, and some, such as Austria, Estonia, Ireland and Italy, have no active nuclear power stations. In comparison, France has a large number of these plants, with 16 multi-unit stations in current use.
Many military and some civilian (such as some icebreaker) ships use nuclear marine propulsion, a form of nuclear propulsion. A few space vehicles have been launched using full-fledged nuclear reactors: the Soviet RORSAT series and the American SNAP-10A.
International research is continuing into safety improvements such as passively safe plants, the use of nuclear fusion, and additional uses of process heat such as hydrogen production (in support of a hydrogen economy), for desalinating sea water, and for use in district heating systems.
Use in space
Both fission and fusion appear promising for space propulsion applications, generating higher mission velocities with less reaction mass. This is due to the much higher energy density of nuclear reactions: some 7 orders of magnitude (10,000,000 times) more energetic than the chemical reactions which power the current generation of rockets.
Radioactive decay has been used on a relatively small scale (few kW), mostly to power space missions and experiments by using radioisotope thermoelectric generators such as those developed at Idaho National Laboratory.
The pursuit of nuclear energy for electricity generation began soon after the discovery in the early 20th century that radioactive elements, such as radium, released immense amounts of energy, according to the principle of mass–energy equivalence. However, means of harnessing such energy was impractical, because intensely radioactive elements were, by their very nature, short-lived (high energy release is correlated with short half-lives). However, the dream of harnessing "atomic energy" was quite strong, even though it was dismissed by such fathers of nuclear physics like Ernest Rutherford as "moonshine." This situation, however, changed in the late 1930s, with the discovery of nuclear fission.
In 1932, James Chadwick discovered the neutron, which was immediately recognized as a potential tool for nuclear experimentation because of its lack of an electric charge. Experimentation with bombardment of materials with neutrons led Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie to discover induced radioactivity in 1934, which allowed the creation of radium-like elements at much less the price of natural radium. Further work by Enrico Fermi in the 1930s focused on using slow neutrons to increase the effectiveness of induced radioactivity. Experiments bombarding uranium with neutrons led Fermi to believe he had created a new, transuranic element, which was dubbed hesperium.
But in 1938, German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, along with Austrian physicist Lise Meitner and Meitner's nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, conducted experiments with the products of neutron-bombarded uranium, as a means of further investigating Fermi's claims. They determined that the relatively tiny neutron split the nucleus of the massive uranium atoms into two roughly equal pieces, contradicting Fermi. This was an extremely surprising result: all other forms of nuclear decay involved only small changes to the mass of the nucleus, whereas this process—dubbed "fission" as a reference to biology—involved a complete rupture of the nucleus. Numerous scientists, including Leó Szilárd, who was one of the first, recognized that if fission reactions released additional neutrons, a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction could result. Once this was experimentally confirmed and announced by Frédéric Joliot-Curie in 1939, scientists in many countries (including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union) petitioned their governments for support of nuclear fission research, just on the cusp of World War II, for the development of a nuclear weapon.
In the United States, where Fermi and Szilárd had both emigrated, this led to the creation of the first man-made reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, which achieved criticality on December 2, 1942. This work became part of the Manhattan Project, which made enriched uranium and built large reactors to breed plutonium for use in the first nuclear weapons, which were used on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After World War II, the prospects of using "atomic energy" for good, rather than simply for war, was advocated as a reason not to keep all nuclear research controlled by military organizations. However, most scientists agreed that civilian nuclear power would take at least a decade to master, and the fact that nuclear reactors also produced weapons-usable plutonium created a situation in which most national governments (such as those in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the USSR) attempted to keep reactor research under strict government control and classification. In the United States, reactor research was conducted by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, primarily at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford Site, and Argonne National Laboratory.
Work in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and USSR proceeded over the course of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Electricity was generated for the first time by a nuclear reactor on December 20, 1951, at the EBR-I experimental station near Arco, Idaho, which initially produced about 100 kW. Work was also strongly researched in the US on nuclear marine propulsion, with a test reactor being developed by 1953 (eventually, the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, would launch in 1955). In 1953, US President Dwight Eisenhower gave his "Atoms for Peace" speech at the United Nations, emphasizing the need to develop "peaceful" uses of nuclear power quickly. This was followed by the 1954 Amendments to the Atomic Energy Act which allowed rapid declassification of U.S. reactor technology and encouraged development by the private sector.
On June 27, 1954, the USSR's Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant became the world's first nuclear power plant to generate electricity for a power grid, and produced around 5 megawatts of electric power.
Later in 1954, Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (U.S. AEC, forerunner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the United States Department of Energy) spoke of electricity in the future being "too cheap to meter". Strauss was very likely referring to hydrogen fusion —which was secretly being developed as part of Project Sherwood at the time—but Strauss's statement was interpreted as a promise of very cheap energy from nuclear fission. The U.S. AEC itself had issued far more conservative testimony regarding nuclear fission to the U.S. Congress only months before, projecting that "costs can be brought down... [to]... about the same as the cost of electricity from conventional sources..."  Significant disappointment would develop later on, when the new nuclear plants did not provide energy "too cheap to meter."
In 1955 the United Nations' "First Geneva Conference", then the world's largest gathering of scientists and engineers, met to explore the technology. In 1957 EURATOM was launched alongside the European Economic Community (the latter is now the European Union). The same year also saw the launch of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The world's first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall at Windscale, England, was opened in 1956 with an initial capacity of 50 MW (later 200 MW). The first commercial nuclear generator to become operational in the United States was the Shippingport Reactor (Pennsylvania, December 1957).
One of the first organizations to develop nuclear power was the U.S. Navy, for the purpose of propelling submarines and aircraft carriers. The first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), was put to sea in December 1954. Two U.S. nuclear submarines, USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, have been lost at sea. Several serious nuclear and radiation accidents have involved nuclear submarine mishaps. The Soviet submarine K-19 reactor accident in 1961 resulted in 8 deaths and more than 30 other people were over-exposed to radiation. The Soviet submarine K-27 reactor accident in 1968 resulted in 9 fatalities and 83 other injuries.
The U.S. Army also had a nuclear power program, beginning in 1954. The SM-1 Nuclear Power Plant, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, was the first power reactor in the U.S. to supply electrical energy to a commercial grid (VEPCO), in April 1957, before Shippingport. The SL-1 was a U.S. Army experimental nuclear power reactor at the National Reactor Testing Station in eastern Idaho. It underwent a steam explosion and meltdown in January 1961, which killed its three operators.
Installed nuclear capacity initially rose relatively quickly, rising from less than 1 gigawatt (GW) in 1960 to 100 GW in the late 1970s, and 300 GW in the late 1980s. Since the late 1980s worldwide capacity has risen much more slowly, reaching 366 GW in 2005. Between around 1970 and 1990, more than 50 GW of capacity was under construction (peaking at over 150 GW in the late 70s and early 80s) — in 2005, around 25 GW of new capacity was planned. More than two-thirds of all nuclear plants ordered after January 1970 were eventually cancelled. A total of 63 nuclear units were canceled in the USA between 1975 and 1980.
During the 1970s and 1980s rising economic costs (related to extended construction times largely due to regulatory changes and pressure-group litigation) and falling fossil fuel prices made nuclear power plants then under construction less attractive. In the 1980s (U.S.) and 1990s (Europe), flat load growth and electricity liberalization also made the addition of large new baseload capacity unattractive.
The 1973 oil crisis had a significant effect on countries, such as France and Japan, which had relied more heavily on oil for electric generation (39%[verification needed] and 73% respectively) to invest in nuclear power.
Some local opposition to nuclear power emerged in the early 1960s, and in the late 1960s some members of the scientific community began to express their concerns. These concerns related to nuclear accidents, nuclear proliferation, high cost of nuclear power plants, nuclear terrorism and radioactive waste disposal. In the early 1970s, there were large protests about a proposed nuclear power plant in Wyhl, Germany. The project was cancelled in 1975 and anti-nuclear success at Wyhl inspired opposition to nuclear power in other parts of Europe and North America. By the mid-1970s anti-nuclear activism had moved beyond local protests and politics to gain a wider appeal and influence, and nuclear power became an issue of major public protest. Although it lacked a single co-ordinating organization, and did not have uniform goals, the movement's efforts gained a great deal of attention. In some countries, the nuclear power conflict "reached an intensity unprecedented in the history of technology controversies". In France, between 1975 and 1977, some 175,000 people protested against nuclear power in ten demonstrations. In West Germany, between February 1975 and April 1979, some 280,000 people were involved in seven demonstrations at nuclear sites. Several site occupations were also attempted. In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, some 120,000 people attended a demonstration against nuclear power in Bonn. In May 1979, an estimated 70,000 people, including then governor of California Jerry Brown, attended a march and rally against nuclear power in Washington, D.C. Anti-nuclear power groups emerged in every country that has had a nuclear power programme. Some of these anti-nuclear power organisations are reported to have developed considerable expertise on nuclear power and energy issues.
Health and safety concerns, the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster played a part in stopping new plant construction in many countries,[not in citation given] although the public policy organization Brookings Institution suggests that new nuclear units have not been ordered in the U.S. because of soft demand for electricity, and cost overruns on nuclear plants due to regulatory issues and construction delays.
Unlike the Three Mile Island accident, the much more serious Chernobyl accident did not increase regulations affecting Western reactors since the Chernobyl reactors were of the problematic RBMK design only used in the Soviet Union, for example lacking "robust" containment buildings. Many of these RBMK reactors are still in use today. However, changes were made in both the reactors themselves (use of a safer enrichment of uranium) and in the control system (prevention of disabling safety systems), amongst other things, to reduce the possibility of a duplicate accident.
An international organization to promote safety awareness and professional development on operators in nuclear facilities was created: WANO; World Association of Nuclear Operators.
Opposition in Ireland and Poland prevented nuclear programs there, while Austria (1978), Sweden (1980) and Italy (1987) (influenced by Chernobyl) voted in referendums to oppose or phase out nuclear power. In July 2009, the Italian Parliament passed a law that cancelled the results of an earlier referendum and allowed the immediate start of the Italian nuclear program. After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster a one year moratorium was placed on nuclear power development, followed by a referendum in which over 94% of voters (turnout 57%) rejected plans for new nuclear power.
Nuclear power plant
Just as many conventional thermal power stations generate electricity by harnessing the thermal energy released from burning fossil fuels, nuclear power plants convert the energy released from the nucleus of an atom via nuclear fission that takes place in a nuclear reactor. The heat is removed from the reactor core by a cooling system that uses the heat to generate steam, which drives a steam turbine connected to a generator producing electricity.
A nuclear reactor is only part of the life-cycle for nuclear power. The process starts with mining (see Uranium mining). Uranium mines are underground, open-pit, or in-situ leach mines. In any case, the uranium ore is extracted, usually converted into a stable and compact form such as yellowcake, and then transported to a processing facility. Here, the yellowcake is converted to uranium hexafluoride, which is then enriched using various techniques. At this point, the enriched uranium, containing more than the natural 0.7% U-235, is used to make rods of the proper composition and geometry for the particular reactor that the fuel is destined for. The fuel rods will spend about 3 operational cycles (typically 6 years total now) inside the reactor, generally until about 3% of their uranium has been fissioned, then they will be moved to a spent fuel pool where the short lived isotopes generated by fission can decay away. After about 5 years in a spent fuel pool the spent fuel is radioactively and thermally cool enough to handle, and it can be moved to dry storage casks or reprocessed.
Conventional fuel resources
Uranium is a fairly common element in the Earth's crust. Uranium is approximately as common as tin or germanium in the Earth's crust, and is about 40 times more common than silver. Uranium is a constituent of most rocks, dirt, and of the oceans. The fact that uranium is so spread out is a problem because mining uranium is only economically feasible where there is a large concentration. Still, the world's present measured resources of uranium, economically recoverable at a price of 130 USD/kg, are enough to last for between 70 and 100 years. Uranium represents a higher level of assured resources than is normal for most minerals. On the basis of analogies with other metallic minerals, a doubling of price from present levels could be expected to create about a tenfold increase in measured resources, over time.
According to the OECD in 2006, there is an expected 85 years worth of uranium in identified resources, when that uranium is used in present reactor technology, with 670 years of economically recoverable uranium in total conventional resources and phosphate ores, while also using present reactor technology, a resource that is recoverable from between 60-100 US$/kg of Uranium. The OECD have noted that:
Even if the nuclear industry expands significantly, sufficient fuel is available for centuries. If advanced breeder reactors could be designed in the future to efficiently utilize recycled or depleted uranium and all actinides, then the resource utilization efficiency would be further improved by an additional factor of eight.
For example, the OECD have determined that with a pure fast reactor fuel cycle with a burn up of, and recycling of, all the Uranium and actinides, actinides which presently make up the most hazardous substances in nuclear waste, there is 160,000 years worth of Uranium in total conventional resources and phosphate ore.
According to the OECD's red book in 2011, due to increased exploration, known uranium resources have grown by 12.5% since 2008, with this increase translating into greater than a century of uranium available if the metals usage rate were to continue at the 2011 level.
Current light water reactors make relatively inefficient use of nuclear fuel, fissioning only the very rare uranium-235 isotope. Nuclear reprocessing can make this waste reusable, and more efficient reactor designs, such as the currently under construction Generation III reactors achieve a higher efficiency burn up of the available resources, than the current vintage generation II reactors, which make up the vast majority of reactors worldwide.
As opposed to current light water reactors which use uranium-235 (0.7% of all natural uranium), fast breeder reactors use uranium-238 (99.3% of all natural uranium). It has been estimated that there is up to five billion years' worth of uranium-238 for use in these power plants.
Breeder technology has been used in several reactors, but the high cost of reprocessing fuel safely, at 2006 technological levels, requires uranium prices of more than 200 USD/kg before becoming justified economically. Breeder reactors are still however being pursued as they have the potential to burn up all of the actinides in the present inventory of nuclear waste while also producing power and creating additional quantities of fuel for more reactors via the breeding process. In 2005, there were two breeder reactors producing power the Phénix in France, which has since powered down in 2009 after 36 years of operation, and the BN-600 reactor, a reactor constructed in 1980 Beloyarsk, Russia which is still operational as of 2013. The electricity output of BN-600 is 600 MW — Russia plans to expand the nations use of breeder reactors with the BN-800 reactor, scheduled to become operational in 2014, and the technical design of a yet larger breeder, the BN-1200 reactor scheduled to be finalized in 2013, with construction slated for 2015. Japan's Monju breeder reactor restarted (having been shut down in 1995) in 2010 for 3 months, but shut down again after equipment fell into the reactor during reactor checkups, it is planned to become re-operational in late 2013. Both China and India are building breeder reactors. With the Indian 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor scheduled to become operational in 2013, with plans to build five more by 2020. The China Experimental Fast Reactor began producing power in 2011.
Another alternative to fast breeders is thermal breeder reactors that use uranium-233 bred from thorium as fission fuel in the thorium fuel cycle. Thorium is about 3.5 times more common than uranium in the Earth's crust, and has different geographic characteristics. This would extend the total practical fissionable resource base by 450%. Unlike the breeding of U-238 into plutonium, fast breeder reactors are not necessary — it can be performed satisfactorily in more conventional plants. India has looked into this technology, as it has abundant thorium reserves but little uranium.
Fusion power advocates commonly propose the use of deuterium, or tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen, as fuel and in many current designs also lithium and boron. Assuming a fusion energy output equal to the current global output and that this does not increase in the future, then the known current lithium reserves would last 3000 years, lithium from sea water would last 60 million years, and a more complicated fusion process using only deuterium from sea water would have fuel for 150 billion years. Although this process has yet to be realized, many experts believe fusion to be a promising future energy source due to the short lived radioactivity of the produced waste, its low carbon emissions, and its prospective power output.
The most important waste stream from nuclear power plants is spent nuclear fuel. It is primarily composed of unconverted uranium as well as significant quantities of transuranic actinides (plutonium and curium, mostly). In addition, about 3% of it is fission products from nuclear reactions. The actinides (uranium, plutonium, and curium) are responsible for the bulk of the long-term radioactivity, whereas the fission products are responsible for the bulk of the short-term radioactivity.
High-level radioactive waste
The world's nuclear fleet creates about 10,000 metric tons of high-level spent nuclear fuel each year. High-level radioactive waste management concerns management and disposal of highly radioactive materials created during production of nuclear power. The technical issues in accomplishing this are daunting, due to the extremely long periods radioactive wastes remain deadly to living organisms. Of particular concern are two long-lived fission products, Technetium-99 (half-life 220,000 years) and Iodine-129 (half-life 15.7 million years), which dominate spent nuclear fuel radioactivity after a few thousand years. The most troublesome transuranic elements in spent fuel are Neptunium-237 (half-life two million years) and Plutonium-239 (half-life 24,000 years). Consequently, high-level radioactive waste requires sophisticated treatment and management to successfully isolate it from the biosphere. This usually necessitates treatment, followed by a long-term management strategy involving permanent storage, disposal or transformation of the waste into a non-toxic form.
Governments around the world are considering a range of waste management and disposal options, usually involving deep-geologic placement, although there has been limited progress toward implementing long-term waste management solutions. This is partly because the timeframes in question when dealing with radioactive waste range from 10,000 to millions of years, according to studies based on the effect of estimated radiation doses.
Some proposed nuclear reactor designs however such as the American Integral Fast Reactor and the Molten salt reactor can use the nuclear waste from light water reactors as a fuel, transmutating it to isotopes that would be safe after hundreds, instead of tens of thousands of years. This offers a potentially more attractive alternative to deep geological disposal.
Another possibility is the use of thorium in a reactor especially designed for thorium (rather than mixing in thorium with uranium and plutonium (i.e. in existing reactors). Used thorium fuel remains only a few hundreds of years radioactive, instead of tens of thousands of years.
Since the fraction of a radioisotope's atoms decaying per unit of time is inversely proportional to its half-life, the relative radioactivity of a quantity of buried human radioactive waste would diminish over time compared to natural radioisotopes (such as the decay chains of 120 trillion tons of thorium and 40 trillion tons of uranium which are at relatively trace concentrations of parts per million each over the crust's 3 * 1019 ton mass). For instance, over a timeframe of thousands of years, after the most active short half-life radioisotopes decayed, burying U.S. nuclear waste would increase the radioactivity in the top 2000 feet of rock and soil in the United States (10 million km2) by ≈ 1 part in 10 million over the cumulative amount of natural radioisotopes in such a volume, although the vicinity of the site would have a far higher concentration of artificial radioisotopes underground than such an average.
Low-level radioactive waste
The nuclear industry also produces a large volume of low-level radioactive waste in the form of contaminated items like clothing, hand tools, water purifier resins, and (upon decommissioning) the materials of which the reactor itself is built. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has repeatedly attempted to allow low-level materials to be handled as normal waste: landfilled, recycled into consumer items, etcetera.
Comparing radioactive waste to industrial toxic waste
In countries with nuclear power, radioactive wastes comprise less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes, much of which remains hazardous for long periods. Overall, nuclear power produces far less waste material by volume than fossil-fuel based power plants. Coal-burning plants are particularly noted for producing large amounts of toxic and mildly radioactive ash due to concentrating naturally occurring metals and mildly radioactive material from the coal. A 2008 report from Oak Ridge National Laboratory concluded that coal power actually results in more radioactivity being released into the environment than nuclear power operation, and that the population effective dose equivalent from radiation from coal plants is 100 times as much as from ideal operation of nuclear plants. Indeed, coal ash is much less radioactive than nuclear waste, but ash is released directly into the environment, whereas nuclear plants use shielding to protect the environment from the irradiated reactor vessel, fuel rods, and keep any radioactive waste on site.
Disposal of nuclear waste is often said to be the Achilles' heel of the industry. Presently, waste is mainly stored at individual reactor sites and there are over 430 locations around the world where radioactive material continues to accumulate. Some experts suggest that centralized underground repositories which are well-managed, guarded, and monitored, would be a vast improvement. There is an "international consensus on the advisability of storing nuclear waste in deep geological repositories", with the lack of movement of nuclear waste in the 2 billion year old natural nuclear fission reactors in Oklo, Gabon being cited as "a source of essential information today."
As of 2009 there were no commercial scale purpose built underground repositories in operation. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has been taking nuclear waste since 1999 from production reactors, but as the name suggests is a research and development facility. In January 2013, Cumbria county council rejected UK central government proposals to start work on an underground storage dump for nuclear waste near to the Lake District National Park. "For any host community, there will be a substantial community benefits package and worth hundreds of millions of pounds" said Ed Davey, Energy Secretary, but nonetheless, the local elected administrative and governing body voted 7-3 against research continuing, after hearing evidence from independent geologists that "the fractured strata of the county was impossible to entrust with such dangerous material and a hazard lasting millennia."
Reprocessing can potentially recover up to 95% of the remaining uranium and plutonium in spent nuclear fuel, putting it into new mixed oxide fuel. This produces a reduction in long term radioactivity within the remaining waste, since this is largely short-lived fission products, and reduces its volume by over 90%. Reprocessing of civilian fuel from power reactors is currently done in Britain, France and (formerly) Russia, soon will be done in China and perhaps India, and is being done on an expanding scale in Japan. The full potential of reprocessing has not been achieved because it requires breeder reactors, which are not commercially available. France is generally cited as the most successful reprocessor, but it presently only recycles 28% (by mass) of the yearly fuel use, 7% within France and another 21% in Russia.
Reprocessing is not allowed in the U.S. The Obama administration has disallowed reprocessing of nuclear waste, citing nuclear proliferation concerns. In the U.S., spent nuclear fuel is currently all treated as waste.
Uranium enrichment produces many tons of depleted uranium (DU) which consists of U-238 with most of the easily fissile U-235 isotope removed. U-238 is a tough metal with several commercial uses—for example, aircraft production, radiation shielding, and armor—as it has a higher density than lead. Depleted uranium is also controversially used in munitions; DU penetrators (bullets or APFSDS tips) "self sharpen", due to uranium's tendency to fracture along shear bands.
The economics of new nuclear power plants is a controversial subject, since there are diverging views on this topic, and multi-billion dollar investments ride on the choice of an energy source. Nuclear power plants typically have high capital costs for building the plant, but low fuel costs. Therefore, comparison with other power generation methods is strongly dependent on assumptions about construction timescales and capital financing for nuclear plants as well as the future costs of fossil fuels and renewables as well as for energy storage solutions for intermittent power sources. Cost estimates also need to take into account plant decommissioning and nuclear waste storage costs. On the other hand measures to mitigate global warming, such as a carbon tax or carbon emissions trading, may favor the economics of nuclear power.
In recent years there has been a slowdown of electricity demand growth and financing has become more difficult, which has an impact on large projects such as nuclear reactors, with very large upfront costs and long project cycles which carry a large variety of risks. In Eastern Europe, a number of long-established projects are struggling to find finance, notably Belene in Bulgaria and the additional reactors at Cernavoda in Romania, and some potential backers have pulled out. Where cheap gas is available and its future supply relatively secure, this also poses a major problem for nuclear projects.
Analysis of the economics of nuclear power must take into account who bears the risks of future uncertainties. To date all operating nuclear power plants were developed by state-owned or regulated utility monopolies where many of the risks associated with construction costs, operating performance, fuel price, accident liability and other factors were borne by consumers rather than suppliers. In addition, because the potential liability from a nuclear accident is so great, the full cost of liability insurance is generally limited/capped by the government, which the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded constituted a significant subsidy. Many countries have now liberalized the electricity market where these risks, and the risk of cheaper competitors emerging before capital costs are recovered, are borne by plant suppliers and operators rather than consumers, which leads to a significantly different evaluation of the economics of new nuclear power plants.
Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, costs are expected to increase for currently operating and new nuclear power plants, due to increased requirements for on-site spent fuel management and elevated design basis threats.
Accidents and safety, the human and financial costs
Some serious nuclear and radiation accidents have occurred. Nuclear power plant accidents include the Chernobyl disaster (1986), the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), and the Three Mile Island accident (1979). Nuclear-powered submarine mishaps include the K-19 reactor accident (1961), the K-27 reactor accident (1968), and the K-431 reactor accident (1985). International research is continuing into safety improvements such as passively safe plants, and the possible future use of nuclear fusion.
Nuclear power has caused far fewer accidental deaths per unit of energy generated than other major forms of power generation. Energy production from coal and natural gas has caused far more deaths due to accidents.[not in citation given (See discussion.)] In comparison, nuclear power plant accidents rank first in terms of their economic cost, accounting for 41 percent of all property damage attributed to energy accidents.
Many technologies and materials associated with the creation of a nuclear power program have a dual-use capability, in that they can be used to make nuclear weapons if a country chooses to do so. When this happens a nuclear power program can become a route leading to the atomic bomb or a public annex to a secret bomb program. The crisis over Iran's nuclear activities is a case in point.
A fundamental goal for American and global security is to minimize the nuclear proliferation risks associated with the expansion of nuclear power. If this development is "poorly managed or efforts to contain risks are unsuccessful, the nuclear future will be dangerous".
A "number of high-ranking officials, even within the United Nations, have argued that they can do little to stop states using nuclear reactors to produce nuclear weapons". A 2009 United Nations report said that:
The revival of interest in nuclear power could result in the worldwide dissemination of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies, which present obvious risks of proliferation as these technologies can produce fissile materials that are directly usable in nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, one factor influencing the support of reactors is due to the appeal that reactors have at reducing nuclear weapons arsenals through the Megatons to Megawatts Program, a program which has thus far eliminated 425 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, the equivalent of 17,000 nuclear warheads, by converting it into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors, and is the single most successful non-proliferation program to date.
Currently, according to Harvard professor Matthew Bunn: The Russians are not remotely interested in extending the program beyond 2013. We've managed to set it up in a way that costs them more and profits them less than them just making new low-enriched uranium for reactors from scratch. But there are other ways to set it up that would be very profitable for them and would also serve some of their strategic interests in boosting their nuclear exports.
In April 2012 there were thirty one countries that have civil nuclear power plants, with only nine of which with nuclear weapons and almost every nuclear weapons state began producing weapons first instead of commercial nuclear power plants.
According to the United Nations (UNSCEAR), regular nuclear power plant operation including the nuclear fuel cycle causes radioisotope releases into the environment amounting to 0.0002 mSv (milli-Sievert) per year of public exposure as a global average. (Such is small compared to variation in natural background radiation, which averages 2.4 mSv/a globally but frequently varies between 1 mSv/a and 13 mSv/a depending on a person's location as determined by UNSCEAR). As of a 2008 report, the remaining legacy of the worst nuclear power plant accident (Chernobyl) is 0.002 mSv/a in global average exposure (a figure which was 0.04 mSv per person averaged over the entire populace of the Northern Hemisphere in the year of the accident in 1986, although far higher among the most affected local populations and recovery workers).
Climate change causing weather extremes such as heat waves, reduced precipitation levels and droughts can have a significant impact on nuclear energy infrastructure. Seawater is corrosive and so nuclear energy supply is likely to be negatively affected by the fresh water shortage. This generic problem may become increasingly significant over time. This can force nuclear reactors to be shut down, as happened in France during the 2003 and 2006 heat waves. Nuclear power supply was severely diminished by low river ﬂow rates and droughts, which meant rivers had reached the maximum temperatures for cooling reactors. During the heat waves, 17 reactors had to limit output or shut down. 77% of French electricity is produced by nuclear power and in 2009 a similar situation created a 8GW shortage and forced the French government to import electricity. Other cases have been reported from Germany, where extreme temperatures have reduced nuclear power production 9 times due to high temperatures between 1979 and 2007. In particular:
- the Unterweser nuclear power plant reduced output by 90% between June and September 2003
- the Isar nuclear power plant cut production by 60% for 14 days due to excess river temperatures and low stream ﬂow in the river Isar in 2006
The price of energy inputs and the environmental costs of every nuclear power plant continue long after the facility has finished generating its last useful electricity. Both nuclear reactors and uranium enrichment facilities must be decommissioned, returning the facility and its parts to a safe enough level to be entrusted for other uses. After a cooling-off period that may last as long as a century, reactors must be dismantled and cut into small pieces to be packed in containers for final disposal. The process is very expensive, time-consuming, dangerous for workers, hazardous to the natural environment, and presents new opportunities for human error, accidents or sabotage.
The total energy required for decommissioning can be as much as 50% more than the energy needed for the original construction. In most cases, the decommissioning process costs between US $300 million to US$5.6 billion. Decommissioning at nuclear sites which have experienced a serious accident are the most expensive and time-consuming. In the U.S. there are 13 reactors that have permanently shut down and are in some phase of decommissioning, and none of them have completed the process.
Current UK plants are expected to exceed £73bn in decommissioning costs."Nuclear decommissioning costs exceed £73bn".
Debate on nuclear power
The nuclear power debate concerns the controversy which has surrounded the deployment and use of nuclear fission reactors to generate electricity from nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. The debate about nuclear power peaked during the 1970s and 1980s, when it "reached an intensity unprecedented in the history of technology controversies", in some countries.
Proponents of nuclear energy contend that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions and increases energy security by decreasing dependence on imported energy sources. Proponents claim that nuclear power produces virtually no conventional air pollution, such as greenhouse gases and smog, in contrast to the chief viable alternative of fossil fuel. Nuclear power can produce base-load power unlike many renewables which are intermittent energy sources lacking large-scale and cheap ways of storing energy. M. King Hubbert saw oil as a resource that would run out, and proposed nuclear energy as a replacement energy source. Proponents claim that the risks of storing waste are small and can be further reduced by using the latest technology in newer reactors, and the operational safety record in the Western world is excellent when compared to the other major kinds of power plants.
Opponents believe that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment. These threats include the problems of processing, transport and storage of radioactive nuclear waste, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorism, as well as health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining. They also contend that reactors themselves are enormously complex machines where many things can and do go wrong; and there have been serious nuclear accidents. Critics do not believe that the risks of using nuclear fission as a power source can be fully offset through the development of new technology. They also argue that when all the energy-intensive stages of the nuclear fuel chain are considered, from uranium mining to nuclear decommissioning, nuclear power is neither a low-carbon nor an economical electricity source.
Comparison with renewable energy
Nuclear power has been compared to renewable energy as neither produce greenhouse gases in operation and both have low lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. The cost of both nuclear power and wind power are dominated by plant construction costs, although the operation and maintenance costs for nuclear power were estimated in 2008 to be slightly higher than wind power according to the US Energy Information Administration  and considerably cheaper according to Lazard.
A typical nuclear power plant has an economic lifespan of around 40 years, while wind turbines have a lifespan of around 25 years, according to Lappeenranta University of Technology. However, wind turbines are much easier to decommission and replace with new ones, extending the life of the wind farm indefinitely, where as nuclear facilities must be closed at the end of their useful life.
There is however no spent fuel that needs to be stored or reprocessed with conventional renewable energy sources. A nuclear plant needs to be disassembled and removed. Much of the disassembled nuclear plant needs to be stored as low level nuclear waste.
The cost of nuclear power has followed an increasing trend, as has the installation cost of wind power from approximately 2002, whereas the cost of electricity is declining in wind power. In about 2011, wind power became as inexpensive as natural gas, and anti-nuclear groups have suggested that in 2010 solar power became cheaper than nuclear power. Data from the EIA in 2011 estimated that in 2016, solar will have a levelized cost of electricity almost twice that of nuclear (21¢/kWh for solar, 11.39¢/kWh for nuclear), and wind somewhat less (9.7¢/kWh). Wind power and photovoltaics are variable renewable energy sources, meaning they are not dispatchable, and locally can be unavailable for days on end. Both, like nuclear, require buffering, with pumped hydrostorage. However due to nuclear powers capacity factor of 80-90%, in comparison to intermittent wind power's 30-40%, the requirements for pumped storage are much less than those needed for wind power.
In the United Kingdom, the amount of energy produced from renewable energy is expected to exceed that from nuclear power by 2018, and Scotland plans to obtain all electricity from renewable energy by 2020.
In 2012 the share of electricity generated by renewable sources in Germany was 21.9%, compared to 16.0% for nuclear power after Germany shut down 7-8 of its 18 nuclear reactors in 2011.
The majority of installed renewable energy across the world is in the form of Hydro power.
Nuclear power organizations
There are multiple organizations which have taken a position on nuclear power – some are proponents, and some are opponents.
- Friends of the Earth International, a network of environmental organizations in 77 countries.
- Greenpeace International, a non-governmental environmental organization with offices in 41 countries.
- Nuclear Information and Resource Service (International)
- World Information Service on Energy (International)
- Sortir du nucléaire (France)
- Pembina Institute (Canada)
- Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (United States)
- Sayonara Nuclear Power Plants (Japan)
- World Nuclear Association, a confederation of companies connected with nuclear power production. (International)
- International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
- Nuclear Energy Institute (United States)
- American Nuclear Society (United States)
- United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (United Kingdom)
- EURATOM (Europe)
- Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (Canada)
- Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (International)
Since about 2001 the term "nuclear renaissance" has been used to refer to a possible nuclear power industry revival, driven by rising fossil fuel prices and new concerns about meeting greenhouse gas emission limits. Being able to rely on an uninterrupted domestic supply of electricity is also a factor. In the words of the French, "We have no coal, we have no oil, we have no gas, we have no choice." Improvements in nuclear reactor safety, and the public's waning memory of past nuclear accidents (Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986), as well as of the plant construction cost overruns of the 1970s and 80s, are lowering public resistance to new nuclear construction.
At the same time, various barriers to a nuclear renaissance have been identified. These include: unfavourable economics compared to other sources of energy, slowness in addressing climate change, industrial bottlenecks and personnel shortages in nuclear sector, and the unresolved nuclear waste issue. There are also concerns about more accidents, security, and nuclear weapons proliferation.
New reactors under construction in Finland and France, which were meant to lead a nuclear renaissance, have been delayed and are running over-budget. China has 20 new reactors under construction, and there are also a considerable number of new reactors being built in South Korea, India, and Russia. At least 100 older and smaller reactors will "most probably be closed over the next 10-15 years".
In 2007 the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, the world's largest nuclear power plant, suffered earthquake damage, and in 2011 the nuclear emergencies at Japan's Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant and other nuclear facilities raised questions over the future of the renaissance. Platts has reported that "the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plants has prompted leading energy-consuming countries to review the safety of their existing reactors and cast doubt on the speed and scale of planned expansions around the world". Many countries are re-evaluating their nuclear energy programs and in April 2011 a study by UBS predicted that around 30 nuclear plants could be closed world-wide as a result, with those located in seismic zones or close to national boundaries being the most likely to shut. The UBS analysts believe that 'even pro-nuclear counties such as France will be forced to close at least two reactors to demonstrate political action and restore the public acceptability of nuclear power', noting that the events at Fukushima 'cast doubt on the idea that even an advanced economy can master nuclear safety'. Canadian uranium-mining company Cameco expects the size of world's fleet of operating reactors in 2020 to increase by about 90 reactors, 10% less than before the Fukushima accident.
Future of the industry
As of 2007, Watts Bar 1 in Tennessee, which came on-line on February 7, 1996, was the last U.S. commercial nuclear reactor to go on-line. This is often quoted as evidence of a successful worldwide campaign for nuclear power phase-out. However, even in the U.S. and throughout Europe, investment in research and in the nuclear fuel cycle has continued, and some nuclear industry experts predict electricity shortages, fossil fuel price increases, global warming and heavy metal emissions from fossil fuel use, new technology such as passively safe plants, and national energy security will renew the demand for nuclear power plants.
According to the World Nuclear Association, globally during the 1980s one new nuclear reactor started up every 17 days on average, and by the year 2015 this rate could increase to one every 5 days.
There is a possible impediment to production of nuclear power plants as only a few companies worldwide have the capacity to forge single-piece reactor pressure vessels, which are necessary in the most common reactor designs. Utilities across the world are submitting orders years in advance of any actual need for these vessels. Other manufacturers are examining various options, including making the component themselves, or finding ways to make a similar item using alternate methods. Other solutions include using designs that do not require single-piece forged pressure vessels such as Canada's Advanced CANDU Reactors or Sodium-cooled Fast Reactors.
China has 25 reactors under construction, with plans to build more, while in the US the licenses of almost half its reactors have been extended to 60 years, and plans to build another dozen are under serious consideration. China may achieve its long-term plan of having 40,000 megawatts of nuclear power capacity four to five years ahead of schedule. However, according to a government research unit, China must not build "too many nuclear power reactors too quickly", in order to avoid a shortfall of fuel, equipment and qualified plant workers.
The U.S. NRC and the U.S. Department of Energy have initiated research into Light water reactor sustainability which is hoped will lead to allowing extensions of reactor licenses beyond 60 years, in increments of 20 years, provided that safety can be maintained, as the loss in non-CO2-emitting generation capacity by retiring reactors "may serve to challenge U.S. energy security, potentially resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions, and contributing to an imbalance between electric supply and demand."
Nuclear phase out
Following the Fukushima I nuclear accidents, the International Energy Agency halved its estimate of additional nuclear generating capacity to be built by 2035. Platts has reported that "the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plants has prompted leading energy-consuming countries to review the safety of their existing reactors and cast doubt on the speed and scale of planned expansions around the world". In 2011, The Economist reported that nuclear power "looks dangerous, unpopular, expensive and risky", and that "it is replaceable with relative ease and could be forgone with no huge structural shifts in the way the world works".
In early April 2011, analysts at Swiss-based investment bank UBS said: "At Fukushima, four reactors have been out of control for weeks, casting doubt on whether even an advanced economy can master nuclear safety . . .. We believe the Fukushima accident was the most serious ever for the credibility of nuclear power".
In 2011, Deutsche Bank analysts concluded that "the global impact of the Fukushima accident is a fundamental shift in public perception with regard to how a nation prioritizes and values its populations health, safety, security, and natural environment when determining its current and future energy pathways". As a consequence, "renewable energy will be a clear long-term winner in most energy systems, a conclusion supported by many voter surveys conducted over the past few weeks. At the same time, we consider natural gas to be, at the very least, an important transition fuel, especially in those regions where it is considered secure".
In September 2011, German engineering giant Siemens announced it will withdraw entirely from the nuclear industry, as a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and said that it would no longer build nuclear power plants anywhere in the world. The company’s chairman, Peter Löscher, said that "Siemens was ending plans to cooperate with Rosatom, the Russian state-controlled nuclear power company, in the construction of dozens of nuclear plants throughout Russia over the coming two decades". Also in September 2011, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said the Japanese nuclear disaster "caused deep public anxiety throughout the world and damaged confidence in nuclear power".
In February 2012, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of two additional reactors at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, the first reactors to be approved in over 30 years since the Three Mile Island accident, but NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko cast a dissenting vote citing safety concerns stemming from Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and saying "I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened". One week after Southern received the license to begin major construction on the two new reactors, a dozen environmental and anti-nuclear groups are suing to stop the Plant Vogtle expansion project, saying "public safety and environmental problems since Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor accident have not been taken into account".
The nuclear reactors to be built at Vogtle are new AP1000 third generation reactors, which are said to have safety improvements over older power reactors. However, John Ma, a senior structural engineer at the NRC, is concerned that some parts of the AP1000 steel skin are so brittle that the "impact energy" from a plane strike or storm driven projectile could shatter the wall. Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is concerned about the strength of the steel containment vessel and the concrete shield building around the AP1000. Arnold Gundersen, a nuclear engineer commissioned by several anti-nuclear groups, released a report which explored a hazard associated with the possible rusting through of the containment structure steel liner.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has referred to the European Pressurized Reactor, currently under construction in China, Finland and France, as the only new reactor design under consideration in the United States that "...appears to have the potential to be significantly safer and more secure against attack than today's reactors."
Worldwide wind power has been increasing at 26%/year, and solar power at 58%/year, from 2006 to 2011, as a replacement for thermal generation of electricity.
Current reactors in operation around the world are second or third generation systems, with most of the first-generation systems having been retired some time ago. Research into advanced generation IV reactor types was officially started by the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) based on eight technology goals, including to improve nuclear safety, improve proliferation resistance, minimize waste, improve natural resource utilization, the ability to consume existing nuclear waste in the production of electricity, and decrease the cost to build and run such plants. Most of these reactors differ significantly from current operating light water reactors, and are generally not expected to be available for commercial construction before 2030.
Nuclear fusion reactions have the potential to be safer and generate less radioactive waste than fission. These reactions appear potentially viable, though technically quite difficult and have yet to be created on a scale that could be used in a functional power plant. Fusion power has been under intense theoretical and experimental investigation since the 1950s.
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- Reactor Power Plant Technology Education[dead link] — Includes the PC-based BWR reactor simulation.
- Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues — Annotated Bibliography on Nuclear Power
- An entry to nuclear power through an educational discussion of reactors
- Argonne National Laboratory
- Briefing Papers from the Australian EnergyScience Coalition
- British Energy — Understanding Nuclear Energy / Nuclear Power
- Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger?
- PDF (94.0 KB)
- Energy Information Administration provides lots of statistics and information
- How Nuclear Power Works
- IAEA Website The International Atomic Energy Agency
- Nuclear Power: Climate Fix or Folly? (2009)
- Nuclear Power Education
- Nuclear Tourist.com, nuclear power information
- Nuclear Waste Disposal Resources
- The World Nuclear Industry Status Reports website
- Wilson Quarterly — Nuclear Power: Both Sides
- TED Talk - Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!
- LFTR in 5 Minutes - Creative Commons Film Compares PWR to Th-MSR/LFTR Nuclear Power.