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Nuclear power

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This article is about power derived from nuclear reactions. For countries who possess nuclear weapons see Nuclear powers.

Nuclear power currently involves converting the nuclear energy of fissable uranium into thermal energy by fission, from thermal to kinetic energy by means of a steam turbine and finally to electron energy by a generator. Nuclear reactors currently use nuclear power to provide about 17% of the world's electricity and 7% of global energy. Opponents of nuclear power, including many environmental groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists [1] (http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/nuclear_safety/index.cfm), argue against the use of nuclear power, often prefering renewable energy, because of the unsolved problem of storing radioactive waste, the potential for severe radioactive contamination by accident or sabotage, and the possibility that its use will lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Proponents of nuclear power, including some national governments, claim that these risks are small and can be lessened with new technology. They claim nuclear power is currently the most viable alternative to oil and gas after they increasingly becomes unavailable due to depletion or if its use is discouraged because of global warming, since nuclear power plants, once built, generate essentially no greenhouse gases.

Nuclear power station at , . The nuclear reactor is inside the dome-shaped containment building.
Nuclear power station at Leibstadt, Switzerland. The nuclear reactor is inside the dome-shaped containment building.
Contents

History

The first successful experiment with nuclear fission was conducted in 1938 in Berlin by the German physicists Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassman.

During the Second World War, a number of nations embarked on crash programs to develop nuclear energy, focusing first on the development of nuclear reactors. The first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was obtained by Enrico Fermi in 1943, and reactors based on his research were used to produce the plutonium necessary for two of the nuclear weapons (the "Trinity" device and the "Fat Man" weapon dropped on Nagasaki, Japan). Several nations began their own construction of nuclear reactors at this point, primarily for weapons use, though research was also being conducted into their use for civilian electricity generation.

On June 27, 1954, the world's first nuclear power plant that generated electricity for commercial use was officially connected to the Soviet power grid at Obninsk, USSR. The reactor was graphite moderated, water cooled and had a capacity of only 5 MW. The second reactor for commercial uses was Calder Hall in Sellafield, England with a capacity of 45 MW. The Shippingport Reactor (Pennsylvania) was the first commercial nuclear generator to become operational in the United States. In 1954, the chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (forerunner of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission) declared that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter" [2] (http://www.cns-snc.ca/media/toocheap/toocheap.html). However, falling fossil fuel prices gradually made nuclear power less economically competitive during the 1980s (see also Oil price increases of 2004 and 2005). A popular movement against nuclear power also gained strength in the Western world, based on the fear of a possible nuclear accident and on fears of latent radiation. These, economic costs related to vastly extended construction times, and the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, effectively stopped new plant construction in many countries. However it still continued strongly in many other countries, notably France, Japan, the former USSR and now China.

In 1986, a large accident at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine, exposed much of Europe to nuclear fallout and greatly heightened European concerns about nuclear power and nuclear safety. The units at the power plant, RBMKs, had been built (as was normal in the Soviet Union) without containment buildings around them.

Current and planned use

In 2000, there were 438 commercial nuclear generating units throughout the world, with a total capacity of about 351 gigawatts.

In 2001, the U.S. nuclear share of electricity generation was 19%. In 2004, there were 104 (69 pressurized water reactors, 35 boiling water reactors) commercial nuclear generating units licensed to operate in the United States, producing a total of 97,400 megawatts (electric), which is approximately 20 percent of the nation's total electric energy consumption. The United States is the world's largest supplier of commercial nuclear power.

In France, as of 2002, 78% of all electric power was generated by nuclear reactors.

Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, India, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Ukraine, and the U.S. (Browns Ferry and the Nuclear Power 2010 Program) are currently planning or building new nuclear reactors or reopening old ones. Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Israel, Romania, Slovakia, South Africa, Turkey, and Vietnam are considering doing this. Armenia, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and United Kingdom have nuclear reactors but currently no advanced proposals for expansion. [3] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf17.htm) [4] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/reactors.htm)[5] (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.09/china.html).

According to the EIA and the IEA, nuclear power is projected to have a slightly declining 5-10% share of world energy production until 2025, assuming that fossil fuel production can continue to expand rapidly, which is controversial. See Future energy development.

Reactor Types

Current Technology

There are two types of nuclear power reactors in current use:

1. The nuclear fission reactor produces heat through a controlled nuclear chain reaction in a critical mass of fissile material. All current nuclear power plants are critical fission reactors, which are the focus of this article.

2. The radioisotope thermoelectric generator produces heat through passive radioactive decay. Some radioisotope thermoelectric generators have been created to power space probes (for example, the Cassini probe), some lighthouses in the former Soviet Union, and some pacemakers.

Experimental Technologies

A number of other designs for nuclear power generation are the subject of active research and may be used for practical power generation in the future.

1. A number of advanced nuclear reactor designs could also make critical fission reactors much cleaner and safer. Typical new reactor designs have a construction time of three to four years [6] (http://www.uic.com.au/nip16.htm).

2. Subcritical reactors are designed to be safer and more stable, but pose a number of engineering and economic difficulties.

3. Controlled nuclear fusion could in principle be used in fusion power plants to produce safer, cleaner power, but significant scientific and technical obstacles remain. Several fusion reactors have been built, but as of yet none has produced more energy than it consumed. Despite research having started in the 1950s, no commercial fusion reactor is expected before 2050 [7] (http://www.iter.org/index.htm). The ITER project is currently the leading the effort to commercialize fusion power.

Nuclear power primarily produces concentrated heat. This can be converted to electricity and this currently constitutes a small but significant percentage of worldwide electricity generation. The heat can also be converted to mechanical work and this is the power source for many large military ocean going vessels (and a few commercial or government vessels). Other possible uses for the heat is in chemical processes, like in the production of hydrogen, desalination [8] (http://www.control.com.au/bi2003/articles242/feat2_242.shtml), or direct heating of houses.

Fuel resources

The sun is a natural fusion reactor with an estimated remaining life of 5 billion years.
Enlarge
The sun is a natural fusion reactor with an estimated remaining life of 5 billion years.

At the present use rate, there are 50 years left of low cost known uranium reserves [9] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf75.htm). Given that the cost of fuel is a minor cost factor for fission power, more expensive, lower grade, sources of uranium could be used in the future. For example: extraction from seawater [10] (http://www.ans.org/pubs/journals/nt/va-144-2-274-278) or granite. Another alternative would be to use thorium as fission fuel. Thorium is three times more abundant in the Earth crust than uranium [11] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf62.htm).

Current light water reactors burn the nuclear fuel poorly, leading to energy waste. Nuclear reprocessing [12] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf04.htm) or burning the fuel better using different reactor designs would reduce the amount of waste material generated and allow better use of the available resources. 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 anywhere from 10,000 to five billion years (=remaining life of the Sun) worth of Uranium-238 for use in these power plants [13] (http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/cohen.html). Breeder technology has been used in several reactors [14] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf08.htm).

Proposed fusion reactors assume the use deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, as fuel and in most current designs also lithium. Assuming a fusion energy output equal to the current global ouput 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. [15] (http://www.fusie-energie.nl/artikelen/ongena.pdf)

Advantages

Nuclear power provides steady energy at a consistent price without competing for resources from other countries. Nuclear generation does not produce carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and other pollutants associated with the combustion of fossil fuels.

Disadvantages

Nuclear reactors require water to keep the reactor cool. The process of extracting energy from a heat source, called the Brayton cycle, requires the steam to be cooled down. In practice, this means that on extremely hot days, which is when demand can be at its highest, the capacity of a nuclear plant may go down because the incoming water - usually a river - has been warmed so that the maximum allowed temperature for the exhaust water (which is lower than the fishkill temperature) is closer to the inlet temperature.

Risks

Opponents of nuclear power, like Greenpeace, Sierra Club[16] (http://www.ge.com/ar2004/proxy/prop02.jsp) and Friends Of The Earth, argue against its use due to issues like the long term problems of storing radioactive waste, the potential for severe radioactive contamination by an accident, and the possibility that its use will lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They point to the chequered history of nuclear power and its continual procession of nuclear accidents, from the 1950s to the present day.

Proponents argue that the risks are small and that fear has been the single largest obstacle to the widespread use of nuclear power. They believe that nuclear power or coal are currently the only realistic large scale energy sources that would be able to replace oil and natural gas after a peak in global oil and gas production has been reached (see peak oil). Coal currently contributes significantly to problems like global warming, acid rain, various diseases due to airborne pollution, and the storage of large amounts of ash. Renewables have not solved problems like intermittent output, high costs, and diffuse output which requires the use of large surface areas and much construction material and which increases distribution losses. For example, studies in Britain has shown that increasing windpower production contribution to 20% of all energy production would only reduce coal or nuclear power plant capacity by 6.7% (from 59 to 55 GWe) since they must remain as backup. Increasing the contribution of intermittent energy sources above that is not possible with current technology [17] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf10.htm). Future technology may both increase the efficiency and safety of alternative energy sources, including nuclear, and make them more environmentally friendly.

Accident or attack

Opponents argue that a major disadvantage of the use of nuclear reactors is the threat of a nuclear accident or terrorist attack and the possible resulting exposure to radiation. Proponents argue that the potential for a meltdown, as in Chernobyl accident is very small due to the care taken in designing adequate safety systems, and that the nuclear industry has much better statistics regarding humans deaths from occupational accidents than coal or hydropower [18] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf06.htm). The accident at Chernobyl is thought to have been caused by a combination of a faulty reactor design (such as no containment building present in all Western reactors), poorly trained operators, and a non-existent safety culture. Even in an accident such as Three Mile Island, the containment vessels were never breached, so that very little radiation was released into the environment.

Research is being done to lessen the risks by developing automated and passively safe fission reactors. Fusion reactors have little risk since the fuel contained in the reaction chamber is only enough to sustain the reaction for about a minute, whereas a fission reactor contains about a year's supply of fuel. Subcritical reactors never have a self sustained nuclear chain reaction.

Opponents of nuclear power express concerns that nuclear waste is not well protected, and that it can be released in the event of terrorist attack. Other energy sources like, hydropower plants and liquified natural gas tankers, are also vulnerable to accidents attacks. Proponents of nuclear power contend, however, that nuclear waste is well protected, and state their argument that there has been no accident involving any form of nuclear waste from a civilian program worldwide. In addition, they point to large studies carried out by NRC and other agencies that tested the robustness of both reactor and waste fuel storage, and found that they should be able to sustain a terrorist attack comparable to the September 11 terrorist attacks [19] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/news/resistance.htm). Spent fuel is usually housed inside reactor containment [20] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf03.htm).

In the US, insurance for nuclear or radiological incidents is covered (except for facilities built after 2002) by the Price-Anderson Act. In 2005, Congress will debate extending coverage to newer facilities.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 20 American States have requested emergency doses of potassium iodine which the NRC recommends for those living within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant [21] (http://www.nrc.gov/what-we-do/emerg-preparedness/protect-public/potassium-iodide.html).

The United States Navy owns and operates half of the nuclear reactors in the world. There has never been an incident in 51 years of near constant naval operation of these hundreds of power plants.

Airborne pollution

All power sources, including renewables, contribute to global warming, for example when mining and refining raw materials. However, most life cycle analysis shows that nuclear power contribution is about equal to that of many renewables and is much less than that from fossil fuels. [22] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf11.htm). Fission reactors produce gases such as iodine-131 or krypton-85 which have to be stored on-site for several half-lives until they have decayed to levels officially regarded as safe. According to several independent organizations, a person receives more radioactivity from household appliances than from nuclear power [23] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/education/ne/ne6.htm).

Health effect on population near nuclear power plants

Most of the human exposure to radiation comes from natural background radiation. Most of the remaining exposure comes from medical procedures. Several large studies in the US, Canada, and Europe have found no evidence of any increase in cancer mortality among people living near nuclear facilities. For example, in 1990, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health announced that a large-scale study, which evaluated mortality from 16 types of cancer, found no increased incidence of cancer mortality for people living near 62 nuclear installations in the United States. The study showed no increase in the incidence of childhood leukemia mortality in the study of surrounding counties after start-up of the nuclear facilities. The NCI study, the broadest of its kind ever conducted, surveyed 900,000 cancer deaths in counties near nuclear facilities.

However, in Britain there are elevated childhood leukemia levels near some industrial facilities, particularly near Sellafield, where children living locally are ten times more likely to contract the cancer. The reasons for these increases, or clusters, are unclear, but one study of those near Sellafield has ruled out any contribution from nuclear sources. Apart from anything else, the levels of radiation at these sites are orders of magnitude too low to account for the excess incidences reported. One explanation is viruses or other infectious agents being introduced into a local community by the mass movement of migrant workers. Likewise, small studies have found an increased incidence of childhood leukemia near some nuclear power plants has also been found in Germany [24] (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=9210727) and France [25] (http://www.ieer.org/ensec/no-4/lahague.html). Nonetheless, the results of larger multi-site studies in these countries invalidate the hypothesis of an increased risk of leukaemia related to nuclear discharge. The methodology and very small samples in the studies finding an increased incidence has been criticized. [26] (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=11990512&dopt=Abstract) [27] (http://www.nei.org/doc.asp?catnum=3&catid=1112&docid=&format=print) [28] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf05.htm) [29] (http://www.personalmd.com/news/n0818103222.shtml).

Solid waste

Main article: Nuclear waste

Nuclear power produces spent fuel, a unique solid waste problem. Because spent nuclear fuel is radioactive, extra care and forethought are given to facilitate their safe storage (see nuclear waste). The waste from highly radioactive spent fuel needs to be handled with great care and forethought due to the long half-lifes of the radioactive isotopes in the waste.

As of 2003, the United States accumulated about 49,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors. Unlike other countries, U.S. policy forbids recycling of used fuel and is treated as waste. After 10,000 years of radioactive decay, according to United States Environmental Protection Agency standards, the spent nuclear fuel will no longer pose a threat to public health and safety. It is unclear whether this material can be safeguarded for such a long period of time.

The safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste is a difficult challenge. Because of potential harm from radiation, spent nuclear fuel must be stored in shielded basins of water, or in dry storage vaults or containers until its radioactivity decreases naturally ("decays") to safe levels. This can take days or thousands of years, depending on the type of fuel. Most waste is currently stored in temporary storage sites, requiring constant maintenance, while suitable permanent disposal methods are discussed. Underground storage like Yucca Mountain in U.S. has been proposed as permanent storage. Some argue that the generation of nuclear waste outpaces the ability of the current temporary storage sites to safely store it [30] (http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-waste12jun12,0,7666923.story?coll=la-home-headlines). See the article on the nuclear fuel cycle for more information.

The nuclear industry produces a much greater volume of low-level radioactive waste in the form of contaminated items like clothing, hand tools, water purifier resins, and upon decomissioning 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, etc. Much low-level waste release very low levels of radioactivity and is essentially considered radioactive waste because of its history. For example, according to the standards of the NRC, the radiation released by coffee is enough to treat it as low level waste. Overall, nuclear power produces far less waste material than fossil-fuel based power plants. Coal-burning plants are particularly noted for producing large amounts of radioactive ash due to concentrating naturally occurring radioactive material in the coal.

In addition, the nuclear industry fuel cycle produces many tons of depleted uranium (uranium from which the easily fissile U235 element has been removed, leaving behind only U238). This material is much more concentrated than natural uranium ores, and must be disposed of. U238 is a very tough metal with several commercial uses, for example aircraft production and radiation shielding. Nuclear power has useful additional advantages, including production of radioisotopes used in medicine and food preservation, though the demand for these products can be satisfied by a relatively small number of plants.

In countries with nuclear power, radioactive wastes comprise less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes (which remains hazardous indefinitely) [31] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf04.htm).

The amounts of waste can be reduced in several ways. Both nuclear reprocessing and fast breeder reactors can reduce the amounts of waste and increase the amount of energy gained per fuel unit. Subcritical reactors or fusion reactors could greatly reduce the time the waste has to be stored [32] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf35.htm). Subcritical reactors may also be able to do the same already existing waste. It has been argued that the best solution for the nuclear waste is above ground temporary storage since technology is rapidly changing. The current waste may well become valuable fuel in the future, particularly if it is not reprocessed, as in the U.S.

Nuclear proliferation

Main article: Nuclear proliferation

Both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion can be used for military purposes. See .
Enlarge
Both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion can be used for military purposes. See Nuclear weapons.

Opponents of nuclear power point out that nuclear technology is often dual-use, and much of the same materials and knowledge used in a civilian nuclear program can be used to develop nuclear weapons. This concern is known as nuclear proliferation and is a major reactor design criterion.

The military and civil purposes for nuclear energy are intertwined in most countries with nuclear capabilities. in the US for example the mission statement of the department of energy states its two primary goals:

"1) Ensuring a dependable energy supply for the American economy; 2) ensuring a secure, reliable nuclear deterrent for the nation’s defense."[33] (http://www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/fy04/pdf/budget/energy.pdf)

While the enriched uranium used in most nuclear reactors is not concentrated enough to build a bomb (most nuclear reactors run on 4% enriched uranium, while a bomb requires an estimated 90% enrichment), the technology used to enrich uranium could be used to make the highly enriched uranium needed to build a bomb. In addition, breeder reactor designs such as CANDU can be used to generate plutonium for bomb making materials. It is believed that the nuclear programs of India and Pakistan used CANDU-like reactors to produce fissionable materials for their weapons.

To prevent this, safeguards on nuclear technology were published in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of 1968.Nations signing the treaty are required to report to the IAEA what nuclear materials they hold and their location. They agree to accept visits by IAEA auditors and inspectors to verify independently their material reports and physically inspect the nuclear materials concerned to confirm physical inventories of them in exchange for access to nuclear materials and equipment on the global market.

Several states did not sign the treaty and were able to use international nuclear technology (often procured for civilian purposes) to develop nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan, Israel, and South Africa). Of those who have signed the treaty and received shipments of nuclear paraphernalia, many states have either claimed to or been accused of attempting to use supposedly civilian nuclear power plants for developing weapons, including Iran and North Korea. Certain types of reactors are more conducive to producing nuclear weapons materials than others, and a number of international disputes over proliferation have centered on the specific model of reactor being contracted for in a country suspected of nuclear weapon ambitions.

New technology, like SSTAR, may lessen the risk of nuclear proliferation by providing sealed reactors with a limited self-contained fuel supply and with restrictions against tampering.

Some proponents of nuclear power agree that the risk of nuclear proliferation may be a reason to prevent nondemocratic developing nations from gaining any nuclear technology but argue that this is no reason for democratic developed nations to abandon their nuclear power plants. Especially since it seems that democracies never make war against each other (See the democratic peace theory). Furthermore, all power sources and technology can be used to produce and use weapons. The weapons of mass destruction used in chemical warfare and biological warfare are not dependent on nuclear power. Humans could still make war even if all technology was forbidden.

Economy

Opponents of nuclear power claim that any of the environmental benefits are outweighed by safety compromises and by the costs related to construction and operation of nuclear power plants, including costs for spent-fuel disposition and plant retirement. Proponents of nuclear power state that nuclear energy is the only power source which explicitly factors the estimated costs for waste containment and plant decommissioning into its overall cost, and that the quoted cost of fossil fuel plants is deceptively low for this reason. The cost of many renewables would be increased if they included necessary back-up due to their intermittent nature. Also not included in costs, hydropower produces large amount of greenhouse gases when organic matter decomposes in the dams [34] (http://www.springerlink.com/app/home/contribution.asp?wasp=aeab79d7983d4a8995b9beb2f22ffeb4&referrer=parent&backto=issue,5,25;journal,29,89;linkingpublicationresults,1:100344,1)

A UK Royal Academy of Engineering report in 2004 looked at electricity generation costs from new plant in the UK. In particular it aimed to develop "a robust approach to compare directly the costs of intermittent generation with more dependable sources of generation". This meant adding the cost of standby capacity for wind, as well as carbon values up to 30 per tonne CO2 (110/tC) for coal and gas. Wind power was shown to be more than twice as expensive as nuclear power. Without a carbon tax, coal, nuclear and gas ranged 2.2-2.6 p/kWh and coal gasification was 3.2 p/kWh - all base-load plant. Adding the carbon tax (up to 2.5 p) took coal close to onshore wind (with back-up) at 5.4 p/kWh - offshore wind is 7.2 p/kWh, while nuclear remained at 2.3 p/kWh. Nuclear figures included decommissioning. [35] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf02.htm).

Proponents note that several opponents of nuclear power have been forced to conclude in studies that renewables cannot replace all current energy production from fossil fuels, due to issues like intermittent output. To accept nuclear power may be a better solution than the lower livings standards some argue for [36] (http://sharpgary.org/RenewableE.html)[37] (http://scholar.google.com/url?sa=U&q=http://www.inderscience.com/filter.php%3Faid%3D2383).

Capital costs

In the U.S, a single nuclear power plant is significantly more expensive to build than a single steam-based coal-fired plant. A coal plant is itself more expensive to build than a single natural gas-fired combined-cycle plant. Although the cost per megawatt for a nuclear power plant is comparable to a coal-fired plant and less than a natural gas plant, the smallest nuclear power plant that can be built is much larger than the smallest natural gas power plant, making it possible for a utility to build natural gas plants in much smaller increments.

In the U.S., licensing, inspection and certification delays add large amounts of time and cost to the construction of a nuclear plant. These delays and costs are not present when building either gas-fired or coal-fired plants. Because a power plant does not earn money during construction, longer construction times translate directly into higher interest charges on borrowed construction funds. However, the regulatory processes for siting, licensing, and constructing have since been standardized, to make construction of newer and inherently safer designs more attractive to utilities and their investors.

In Japan and France, construction costs and delays are significantly less because of streamlined government licensing and certification procedures. In France, one model of reactor was type-certified, using a safety engineering process similar to the process used to certify aircraft models for safety. That is, rather than licensing individual reactors, the regulatory agency certified a particular design and its construction process to produce safe reactors. U.S. law permits type-licensing of reactors, but no type license has ever been issued by a U.S. nuclear regulatory agency.

In an attempt to encourage development of nuclear power, the US Department of Energy DOE has offered interested parties the opportunity to introduce France's model for licensing and to subsidize 50% of the construction expenses. Several applications were made but the project is still in its infancy.

Operating costs

In the U.S., these charges require that coal and nuclear power plants must operate more cheaply than natural gas plants in order to be built. In general, coal and nuclear plants have the same operating costs (operations and maintenance plus fuel costs). However, nuclear and coal differ in the source of those costs. Nuclear has lower fuel costs but higher operating and maintenance costs than coal. In recent times in the United States these operating costs have not been low enough for nuclear to repay its high investment costs. Thus new nuclear reactors have not been built in the United States. Coal's operating cost advantages have only rarely been sufficient to encourage the construction of new coal based power generation. Around 90 to 95 percent of new power plant construction in the United States has been natural gas-fired. These numbers exclude capacity expansions at existing coal and nuclear units.

To be competative in the current market, both the nuclear and coal industries must reduce new plant investment costs and construction time. The burden is clearly greater for nuclear producers than for coal producers, because investment costs are higher for nuclear plants, which also have the same operating costs. Operation and maintenance costs are particularly important because they represent a large portion of costs for nuclear power.

Subsidies

Energy research and development (R&D) for nuclear power has and continues to receive much larger state subsidies than R&D for renewable energy or fossil fuels. However, today most of this takes places in Japan and France, in most other nations renewable R&D get more money. In the U.S., public research money for nuclear fission declined from 2179 to 35 million dollars between 1980 to 2000 [38] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf68.htm).

Renewables receive large direct production subsidies and tax breaks in many nations [39] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf68.htm). Fossil fuels receive large indirect subsidies since they do not have to pay for their pollution and in various other ways [40] (http://www.ucsusa.org/publications/report.cfm?publicationID=149). Nuclear power also receives subsidies, for example in the U.S. they have limited liability for accidents (9.5 billion dollars as of 2004) under the Price-Anderson Act.

Other economic issues

Nuclear Power plants tend to be most competitive in areas where no other resources are readily available. China and India top the list of new plant starts. France, most notably, has almost no native supplies of fossil fuels [41] (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/readings/french.html). The province of Ontario, Canada is already using all of its best sites for hydroelectric power, and has minimal supplies of fossil fuels, so a number of nuclear plants have been built there. Conversely, in the United Kingdom, according to the government's Department Of Trade And Industry, no further nuclear power stations are to be built, due to the high cost per unit of nuclear power, compared to fossil fuels [42] (http://www.dti.gov.uk/nuclear/nuclear.htm). However, the British government's chief scientific advisor David King reports that building one more generation of nuclear power plants may be necessary [43] (http://washingtontimes.com/upi-breaking/20050512-082200-3520r.htm).

Most new gas-fired plants are intended for peak supply. The larger nuclear and coal plants cannot quickly adjust their instantaneous power production, and are generally intended for baseline supply. The market price for baseline power has not increased as rapidly as that for peak demand. Some new experimental reactors, notably pebble bed modular reactors, are specifically designed for peaking power.

Any effort to construct a new nuclear facility, whether it is a older design or a newer experimental design, around the world must deal with NIMBY issues. Given the high profile of both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, few municipalities would welcome a new nuclear reactor, processing plant, transportation route, or experimental nuclear burial ground within their borders, and many have issued local ordinances prohibiting the development of nuclear power.

Current nuclear reactors returns around 40-60 times the invested energy when using life cycle analysis. This is better than coal, natural gas, and current renewables except hydropower [44] (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf11.htm).

List of atomic energy groups

References

  • Atoms for Peace (http://www.sandia.gov/LabNews/LN03-26-99/savannah_story.htm)
  • The Nuclear Energy Option (http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/BOOK.html), online book by Bernard L. Cohen. Pro nuclear power. Emphasis on risk estimates of nuclear.

External links

See also

da:Atomkraft de:Kernkraft es:Energa nuclear fi:Ydinvoima fr:nergie nuclaire it:Energia nucleare ja:原子力 lt:Branduolinė energija pl:Energia jądrowa pt:Energia nuclear sl:jedrska energija sv:Krnkraft th:พลังงานนิวเคลียร์

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