Research & Commentary: Nuclear Power

Published October 13, 2014

Almost 20 percent of the United States’ electricity is generated by nuclear power, with more than 100 nuclear power units in 31 states. Nuclear power is processed by using radioactive material, such as uranium or plutonium, which naturally produce heat, to create steam and spin a turbine to generate electricity. Nuclear power offers many advantages as an energy source.

Nuclear power is emission-free, but unlike renewables such as wind and solar, nuclear is far more reliable and isn’t intermittent. It is also capable of producing an enormous amount of power from a small volume of fuel, avoiding the land intensity that technologies such as wind power require. For example, a standard 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant occupies about one-third of one square mile, whereas a wind farm must use up 200 square miles of land to generate that much power. In addition, one metric ton of nuclear fuel produces the energy equivalent of 2–3 million tons of fossil fuel.

Despite these distinct advantages, no new nuclear reactors have begun construction since 1996. Regulatory hurdles are suppressing nuclear power’s commercial viability. In addition, high capital costs (due in great part to government regulation) and historically low natural gas prices have stagnated the industry.

Plummeting natural gas prices have recently reduced the cost of using a natural gas-fired plant, making nuclear even more uneconomical in the current regulatory climate. According to Exelon CEO John Rowe, natural gas would have to nearly double in price before nuclear could compete, even assuming generous loan guarantees and other government subsidies for nuclear remain intact.

Experts across the political spectrum state the claims of health dangers linked to nuclear power have been overblown. Over the past 40 years, not one member of the public has been killed by commercial nuclear electricity activity in the United States.

To jumpstart new nuclear power development, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized the U.S. Treasury to compensate banks for up to 90 percent of their losses should a loan to a utility company seeking to build a new nuclear plant default. However, the threat of cost overruns and defaulted loans still prevents banks from issuing such loans, indicating nuclear power is still years away from being commercially viable.

Federal and state legislators should acknowledge nuclear power is a safe, reliable, emission-free form of energy that should be freed from burdensome regulation and delays in government permission. It should also be denied generous taxpayer-funded benefits that are unlikely to produce any meaningful return in the near future.

The following documents provide additional information about nuclear power.


Ten Principles of Energy Policy
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance to help deal with ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography. 

Encyclopedia Entry: Nuclear
The Institute for Energy Research offers a primer on nuclear power, fully updated with data released in 2014. The document addresses how nuclear power is produced, as well as the economic, regulatory, and safety challenges to increasing its production. 

Nuclear Power in the Dock
Writing in Forbes in April 2014, the Cato Institute’s Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren state the time is right for a reconsideration of nuclear power in the United States in light of the nuclear emergency in Japan, but not because of any safety concerns. Instead, nuclear power should be reconsidered because of economic problems. Taylor and Van Doren say nuclear is still decades away from making “any economic sense” because of high capital costs and cheap natural gas prices. They conclude nuclear power’s generous taxpayer-funded subsidies are just as risky as any other energy subsidy and should be eliminated. 

Testimony on the Future of Nuclear Power
Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute, was asked by the Joint Committee on Energy of Colorado’s legislature to provide testimony on Sept. 16, 2008 about the future of nuclear power. Lehr appeared before the committee and described nuclear power as a relatively simple technology with many advantages, including being emission-free, requiring only a small volume of fuel to produce an enormous amount of energy, and being reasonably priced. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Power
Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, and Jessica Lovering of the Breakthrough Institute, a self-described modern environmentalist think tank, provide a “Frequently Asked Questions” document about nuclear power, citing primary sources to explain how this technology is “enshrouded in myth” and is necessary in addressing global poverty and CO2 emissions. 

Green Energy and Red Tape
In a September 2014 essay for National Review Online, Jack Spencer and Katie Tubb of the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation agree with the verbal approval of nuclear power from high-level federal government officials such as President Obama, his former anti-nuclear adviser Carol Browner, and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, but they contend the administration’s policies do not match their rhetoric. These policies include onerous export regulations, unreasonable post-Fukushima standards, and “particularly obstructive” nuclear waste management policies. Spencer and Tubb argue for modernizing and simplifying regulations for the nuclear permit and export process, as well as removing third-party waste management responsibilities and putting control of managing waste in the hands of those producing it. These policies, they argue, will spur innovation as producers face economic incentives to meet customers’ needs and reasonable government safety standards.

Liberals and Progressives for Nuclear
Several high-profile liberal thinkers, policymakers, and business leaders voice their support for nuclear power. Breakthrough Institute staff aggregated the quotes in hopes of making the topic of nuclear power less partisan and to build support for the technology. 

Global Warming Activist James Hansen Says Nuclear Is the Answer
This April 2014 article in Environment & Climate News reports on an open letter by activist and former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, along with climate and energy scientists Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, and Tom Wigley, calling for environmental policymakers to support nuclear power despite its imperfections.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Web site of Environment & Climate News at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

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