Nuclear Energy in the World Today (Part One)

Published October 11, 2003

Unlike some applications of nuclear technology, the process of generating electricity in a nuclear power plant is not rocket science.

Uranium-235, a naturally occurring element, is one of the few materials on Earth that can be forced to undergo fission–its atoms can be forced to split, releasing prodigious amounts of energy. In a nuclear power plant, uranium pellets arranged on rods are collected into bundles and submerged in water. Induced fission heats the water and turns it into steam, which drives a steam turbine, which spins a generator to produce power.

According to Marshall Brain, whose essay “How Nuclear Power Works” appears on the HowStuffWorks Web site (, “a pound of highly enriched uranium … is equal to something on the order of a million gallons of gasoline. When you consider that a pound of uranium is smaller than a baseball, and a million gallons of gasoline would fill a cube 50 feet per side (50 feet is as tall as a five-story building), you can get an idea of the amount of energy available in just a little bit of U-235.”

Due to the abundance of radioactive minerals in the Earth’s crust, nuclear power offers a limitless supply of reasonably priced energy, so long as we safely contain the radioactive material.

History of Nuclear Power

The first experimental nuclear power apparatus was created in 1942 by Enrico Fermi and his graduate students at the University of Chicago. A product of naval propulsion research, nuclear power emerged in the United States as something other than an experiment in the 1950s.

A Pennsylvania utility, Duquesne Light, built the first commercial nuclear power reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1954. Nuclear power was commercially attractive because it offered the opportunity to generate power without the air pollution that accompanied the burning of fossil fuels.

The great advantage of nuclear power is its ability to wrest enormous energy from a small volume of fuel. One metric ton of nuclear fuel produces the energy equivalent of two to three million tons of fossil fuel.

Waste volumes are comparably scaled: Fossil fuel systems generate hundreds of thousands of metric tons of gaseous, particulate, and solid wastes. By contrast, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), boiling water nuclear power reactors produce between 50 and 150 metric tons of low-level waste per year, while pressurized water reactors produce between 20 and 75 metric tons. The volume and mass of the waste is further reduced in processing, resulting in additional reductions in the amount of low-level waste actually disposed. Nuclear power plants produce only about one metric ton of high-level waste per year.

The high-level waste is intensely radioactive, but its small volume means it can be effectively isolated and contained. Its radioactivity dissipates over time.

Nuclear power plants do not emit pollutants into the air, and for that reason they do not have smokestacks. Some nuclear power plants have cooling towers that are sometimes mistaken for smokestacks, but those cooling towers emit only water vapor. A 1,000-megawatt electric (MWe) coal-fired power plant releases about 100 times as much radioactivity into the environment as a comparable nuclear plant, because radioactive material occurs naturally in coal and is emitted as a byproduct of coal-fired electricity generation.

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his famous Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations. The following year, Eisenhower signed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, ending the government’s monopoly over nuclear technology and giving industry access to government research into power reactor technology.

Within four years, American industry had sold about $1.5 billion worth of nuclear reactors, components, materials, and services in the United States and overseas. By 1964, the first order had been placed for a nuclear power plant that could be justified on purely economic grounds. A rush of more than 100 orders followed over the next decade.

Then came the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, creating a pause throughout the industry that has not yet ended.

Present Status of Nuclear Power

At the end of 1998, 33 countries around the world hosted 434 operating commercial nuclear energy-fueled electric generating facilities. Those facilities had cumulatively recorded 9,012.5 years of operation.

  • The United States remains the largest single producer of nuclear energy in the world, with 103 plants that supplied 780 billion kilowatt (kW) hours in 2002. In 1998, those plants supplied 674 billion kilowatt (kW) hours. The gains came as a result of improving equipment, procedures, and general efficiency–not a single new nuclear plant was built over that period. The increased efficiency and capacity of the nuclear fleet from 1990-2002 means the industry added the equivalent of 26 new 1,000 MW reactors to the grid.
  • France has the second largest number of nuclear power plants with 58, and three are under construction.
  • Japan now has 54 nuclear power plants, followed by 35 in the United Kingdom. Russia follows with 29, and then Germany with 20. China currently has seven operational plants and two under construction. Finland is going ahead with a fifth reactor.
  • A total of 29 new nuclear power plants were under construction worldwide at the end of 2002, with an estimated capacity of 23 billion watts.

We are repeatedly told nuclear power is in decline. In 2002, four nuclear plants–two in the U.K. and two in Bulgaria– were permanently shut down. But that same year, seven new plants–one in Japan, four in China, and two in South Korea–began commercial operation. Overall, there was a net increase of three nuclear plants worldwide to 444. An additional 50 plants have been ordered or are under construction outside of the United States.

Of the 29 nuclear plants under construction worldwide, 19 are located in Asia. India leads the pack with eight, which are scheduled for completion in 2007 and which will double the total electric capacity of that country. The new facilities will bring India’s total to 21 nuclear plants. Their goal is to produce 29 billion kWh by 2020.

Nuclear power plants are generally licensed to operate for 40 years and can apply for a 20-year license extension. According to the NEI, 19 plants operating in the U.S. already have received an additional 20 years of operation; 16 have filed renewal applications; and 19 have informed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of their intention to do so. Notes the NEI, “that means over half the fleet is already on the license renewal bandwagon, and NEI (and the NRC) expect that almost all nuclear units will seek license renewal.”

Unwarranted Fears

The nuclear industry has long been a victim of scare tactics and false propaganda. Yet truth is a more potent weapon than falsehood.

The truth about nuclear power is that it provides a viable and safe means for satisfying the world’s growing need for electricity. In the U.S., growing concern over energy shortages can be expected to spark a renewed interest in nuclear power–provided its supporters can address the continuing assault by a radical environmental lobby that is not only anti-nuclear power but also anti-development.

Three Mile Island

The event at Three Mile Island occurred because faulty instrumentation gave false readings for the reactor environment. That led to a series of equipment failures and human error. As a result, the reactor core was compromised and underwent a partial melt. Radioactive water was released from the core and safely confined within the containment building structure. Very little radiation was released into the environment.

The Three Mile Island incident underscores the relative safety of nuclear power plants. The facility’s safety devices worked as designed, preventing injury to humans, animals, or the environment. The accident resulted in improved procedures, instrumentation, and safety systems, meaning nuclear reactor power plants in the U.S. today are substantially safer than they were in the past. Three Mile Island’s Unit One continues to operate with an impeccable record.


The worst nuclear power plant disaster in history occurred when the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine experienced a heat (not nuclear) explosion.

If such an explosion were to have occurred in a Western nuclear power plant, the explosion would have been safely contained. All Western plants are required to have a containment building: a solid structure of steel-reinforced concrete that encapsulates the nuclear reactor vessel.

The Chernobyl plant did not have this fundamental safety structure. The explosion blew the top off of the reactor building, spewing radiation and reactor core pieces into the air. The graphite reactor burned ferociously–which would not have happened if the facility had a containment building from which oxygen could be excluded.

The design of the Chernobyl plant was inferior in other ways as well. Unlike the Chernobyl reactor, Western power plant nuclear reactors are designed to have negative power coefficients of reactivity that make such runaway accidents impossible: When control of the reaction is lost, the reaction slows down rather than speeds up.

The flawed Chernobyl nuclear power plant would never have been licensed to operate in the U.S. or any other Western country. The accident that occurred at Chernobyl could not occur elsewhere.

Health impacts of Chernobyl

The circumstances surrounding the Chernobyl accident were in many ways the worst possible, with an exposed reactor core and an open building. Thirty-one plant workers and firemen died directly from radiation exposure as a result of the Chernobyl accident.

In September 2000, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published its Report to the General Assembly with Scientific Annexes, a document of some 1,220 pages in two volumes. Annex J (Volume 2, pages 453-551) addresses exposures and effects of the Chernobyl accident. Updated dosimetric findings in the regions of the former Soviet Union most highly contaminated by radioactive fallout, and an updated evaluation of the health effects of the Chernobyl accident, were discussed during the 50th session of UNSCEAR in Vienna, held April 23-27, 2001.

According to the UNSCEAR report and subsequent discussions, roughly 1,800 thyroid cancer cases in children and some adults might reasonably be attributed to radiation exposure after the Chernobyl incident. More than 99 percent of those cancers were cured.

Beyond the thyroid cancers, reported UNSCEAR, there is no evidence of any major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure after the Chernobyl accident. UNSCEAR analysts found no increase in overall cancer incidence, mortality, or non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukemia–considered a good indicator of radiation harm because of its short latency period–is not elevated among roughly 5 million inhabitants of the contaminated regions, nor among the evacuated persons or recovery operation workers.

No deaths directly attributable to exposure from the Chernobyl radiation have been found in the population of the contaminated regions. Cancer incidence rates over the most contaminated regions of Ukraine are found to be consistently lower than rates over the country as a whole.

The incidence of solid cancers among Russian recovery operation workers is observed to be significantly lower than that in the general population. This is consistent with studies from the World War II atomic bomb blasts, where small doses of radiation received far from ground zero were found to have produced lower cancer rates than experienced by the general population. It is also consistent with considerable new medical research indicating low-dose radiation may serve to protect at-risk individuals from the development of cancer.

The whole-body radiation dose received during the past 15 years by individuals in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union is 10 to 100 times lower than the dose of ionizing radiation from natural sources received by individuals in many regions of the world. Neither radiation-induced diseases nor any genetic disorders have ever been found in these regions. Genetic disorders have not been found even in the offspring of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims exposed to a very high radiation dose from the atomic bombs dropped over Japan in 1945.

Promoting Fear

Today, approximately 80 percent of France’s electricity demand is met by nuclear energy, while Britain uses nuclear energy to generate 23 percent of its electricity. Other countries fall in between: Spain, 29 percent; Germany and Finland, 32 percent; Sweden, 44 percent; and Belgium, 58 percent.

Despite this dependence, several European Union member states that use nuclear energy have adopted, or have announced plans to adopt, a moratorium on new nuclear power plant projects. Belgium’s legislature is considering a bill that would shutter the country’s nuclear power plants by 2025.

In 1980, Swedish voters approved a non-binding referendum to phase-out all nuclear power plants by 2010; to date, only one reactor has been shut down. The government and utilities have entered preliminary talks about decommissioning Sweden’s remaining 11 reactors. While no timetable has been established, the government expects to reach an agreement soon.

At the same time, Italy is starting to reconsider the moratorium on nuclear power it adopted nationwide in 1987. While Germany has said its last reactor will close in 2021, it is increasingly being recognized that the country will never reach its Kyoto Protocol emission commitments if it phases out nuclear energy.

Europe’s current energy mix includes 41 percent oil, 22 percent gas, 16 percent coal, 15 percent nuclear, and 6 percent renewable sources. Europe’s nuclear industry regularly sets records for the highest production and lowest costs since the advent of nuclear energy in Europe. Yet under current projections, the pattern of energy generation in Europe will change by 2030, with oil accounting for 38 percent of the energy mix; gas, 29 percent; coal, 19 percent; and renewable energy, 8 percent. Nuclear would drop to 6 percent.

In the U.S., currently operating nuclear power plants continue to make great efficiency gains. Outlays for fuel, operations, and maintenance at U.S. plants in 2001 averaged 1.68 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), a 7 percent decline from 1.81 cents the previous year. During the past 10 years, nuclear plant production costs have fallen 40 percent, from 2.8 cents per kWh in 1991 to 1.68 cents in 2001. Costs have declined due to increased efficiency, improved plant processes focused on controlling costs, and stable fuel expenses.

Production costs do not represent the complete cost to consumers of nuclear-generated electricity. However, low production costs position the nation’s 103 operating nuclear power plants to thrive in a competitive electricity marketplace even after capital costs, property taxes, and other expenses are added.

In part two, Lehr addresses the environmental record of nuclear power and its future in the U.S. and worldwide.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D., is science director for The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].

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