FAQ About Nuclear Energy

+ The Basics

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear power plants split uranium atoms inside a reactor in a process called fission. At a nuclear energy facility, the heat from fission is used to produce steam, which spins a turbine to generate electricity.

How does nuclear energy compare to other power sources?

A single uranium fuel pellet the size of a pencil eraser contains the same amount of energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil.

Does nuclear energy produce greenhouse gases?

There are no emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide during the production of electricity at nuclear energy facilities. Nuclear energy is the only clean-air source of energy that produces electricity 24 hours a day, every day.

Is nuclear energy considered a renewable energy source?

A renewable energy source uses an essentially limitless supply of fuel, whether wind, the sun or water. Nuclear energy is often called a sustainable energy source, because there is enough uranium in the world to fuel reactors for 100 years or more. 

Do nuclear energy facilities require large areas of land?

Compared to other non-emitting sources, nuclear energy facilities are relatively compact. The amount of electricity produced by a multi-reactor nuclear power plant would require more than 60 square miles of photovoltaic panels or about 180 square miles of wind turbines. 

Do Americans support using nuclear energy?

A February 2013 national poll of 1,000 adults by Bisconti Research Inc.-Gfk Roper found that solid majorities have favorable opinions about nuclear energy and building new nuclear power plants. Sixty-eight percent of Americans favor the use of nuclear energy—up from 62 percent in September 2011. 

Fifty-five percent of respondents agree that the industry should build more nuclear power plants in the future and two-thirds said that a new reactor would be acceptable at the nearest operating nuclear power plant site.

+ Radiation

What is radiation?

The radiation one associates with a nuclear energy facility are particles, such as alpha rays and gamma rays, emitted by an atomic nucleus as a result of the fission process.

Do nuclear power plants release radioactive material?

Yes, but in extremely small levels that are regulated by the federal government. Nuclear power plants produce radioactive gases and liquid wastes during normal operation. A plant has tanks designed to store gas and liquid radioactive materials that are generated during normal operation. The radioactive material is held for a period of time to allow for the radioactivity level to decrease before being treated and/or released in a planned, monitored way. This keeps the amount of radioactive material in releases low and well within federal limits.

Radiation releases that are not made in accordance with procedures, or are above regulatory limits, are reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and to the state where the facility is operating.

How is radiation measured around nuclear energy facilities? 

During normal operations, very little radiation is released. Multiple independent studies have found have no health effects on the neighboring population. Radiation monitors surrounding the plant site provide real-time data on radiation levels.  Additionally, radioactive materials that could cause radiation exposure near nuclear energy facilities are monitored by sampling air, food and water supplies.  

Nuclear energy facilities are non-polluting and use multiple, redundant layers of safety to contain radiation within the reactor. There has never been an event in the United States that resulted in harm from radiation exposure. Radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan  did not cause any immediate health effects, according to a United Nations panel of scientific experts. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public, the panel found.

+ Safety

Are nuclear energy facilities safe?

Yes. The industry’s first commitment is to operate nuclear energy facilities safely. After more than a half-century of commercial nuclear energy production in the United States—more than 3,500 reactor years of operation—there have been no radiation-related health effects linked to their operation. 

Studies by the National Cancer Institute, The United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the National Research Council’s BEIR VII study group and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements all show that U.S. nuclear power plants cause no harm to people in neighboring communities. 

Are facilities as safe for workers as for the public?

Yes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a smaller chance that a worker at a nuclear plant would be injured than employees at a fast food restaurant or a grocery store. As part of the industry’s commitment to a safe workplace, employees are continuously monitored for radiation exposure, for which strict limits are enforced by the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Could an accident like the one at Chernobyl happen at a U.S. plant?

No. It is physically impossible for a U.S. commercial nuclear energy facility to run out of control and explode like the Chernobyl RBMK reactor design did. During power operations, when the temperature within the reactor reaches a predetermined level, the fission process is naturally suppressed so the power level cannot spike under any circumstances. No RBMK-style reactor operates in the United States.

What about the Three Mile Island accident?

More than a dozen health studies and continuous environmental monitoring have found no effect on public  health or the environment near the Three Mile Island nuclear energy facility in Pennsylvania.

Companies that operate nuclear energy facilities have developed proven  emergency response plans to protect the public in the event of an emergency. These plans often are used to evacuate citizens during natural disasters such as hurricanes and other storms.

Risks from nuclear energy are considerably smaller than many everyday activities, such as driving a car.

+ New Nuclear Facilities

How many new reactors are being built?

Construction is under way on two reactors in Georgia, two in South Carolina and one in Tennessee.

The World Nuclear Association counts nearly 70 new reactors being built in 14 countries. Some of these countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, are building their first reactors. Others, such as China and India, already have made a significant commitment to nuclear energy.

Why should new plants be built in the United States?

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that demand for electricity in the United States will rise 28 percent by 2040. That means our nation will need hundreds of new power plants to provide electricity for our homes and continued economic growth. Maintaining nuclear energy's current 20 percent share of electricity production will require building one reactor every year starting in 2016, or 20 to 25 new reactors by 2040, according to DOE forecasts. 

Nineteen companies and consortia are studying, licensing or building more than 30 reactors in the United States. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing nine combined license applications from eight companies and consortia for 16 nuclear power plants

Will there be the kinds of delays and cost overruns that affected some earlier projects?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission process for licensing new reactors is more efficient and the industry is taking advantage of modular construction techniques to make schedules more attractive. 

Construction of next-generation nuclear power plants will differ from the previous process, in which companies built plants as the designs and regulations were evolving. Facilities under construction have all design-related safety issues resolved before construction begins, avoiding delays.

The entire process, from starting the license application to the NRC to completing the new power plant, takes about nine years, four of them for construction. 

+ New Reactor Cost

How much do nuclear energy facilities cost?

Nuclear power plants are capital-intensive projects, with construction costs estimated at $6 billion to $8 billion for a large reactor. Once built, production costs for electricity are extremely low, about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour at today’s reactors. 

How are utilities managing cost recovery for the construction of new reactors? 

By paying the cost of building a new reactor as it is incurred, electric companies can benefit their customers by reduced financing costs. This is called Construction Work in Progress (CWIP). While there may be a small charge added to the monthly utility bill, it facilitates paying off finance charges immediately rather than over the entire life of the plant. This avoids "interest-on-interest" charges and prevents a much larger one-time increase in electric rates when the reactor becomes operational.

Improved cash flow to the electric company leads to a stronger financial rating, which in turn results in lower interest costs for the nuclear energy project and all other investments the utility makes over the long term.

How much is added to the monthly electricity bill? The amount differs depending on the nature of the project and what is allowed by the state government and regulator. For example, Florida Power & Light said that the cost recovery charge for its projects was about $1.65 per month to a typical customer. The fee financed $130 million for upgrades to the St. Lucie and Turkey Point nuclear power plants. 

What are loan guarantees for nuclear energy facilities?

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 created a program to provide federally backed loan guarantees for building new nuclear energy facilities; however the Department of Energy has not completed its review of any applications to use this financing tool.  Loan guarantees provide government backing to ensure construction loans will be repaid in the rare event of default. The guarantee results in lower interest rates for an energy company building a reactor, which passes on the savings to its customers. They are neither grants nor subsidies. Unlike loan guarantees for other sources of energy, nuclear energy facilities must pay the government a fee for granting the guarantee. 

+ Economic Benefits

How do nuclear energy plants benefit the economy?

Every dollar spent by the typical nuclear power plant results in the creation of $1.04 in the local community, $1.18 in the state economy, and $1.87 in the U.S. economy, according to an analysis of 23 nuclear plants representing 41 reactors.

Companies operating a typical nuclear plant pay about $16 million in state and local taxes annually. These tax dollars benefit schools, roads and other state and local infrastructure. Each company typically pays federal taxes of $67 million annually. 

In addition, nuclear energy facilities typically employ up to 3,500 people during construction and 400 to 700 people during operation, at salaries 36 percent higher than average in the local area. It produces approximately $470 million annually in sales of goods and services in the local community.

The construction of new reactors depends on a robust supply chain to support manufacturing. Nuclear plants are comprised of hundreds of components and subcomponents, whose construction requires a deep and diverse supplier base. More than 22,500 companies provide $14.2 billion in components and services to the U.S. nuclear energy industry each year. 

How do suppliers thrive when only 5 nuclear facilities are under construction?

Nuclear energy facilities update their equipment over time and also need replacement parts, providing a steady stream of orders through the supply chain. Beyond this ongoing activity, the U.S. nuclear energy industry competes in international markets. The more successful this effort, the more manufacturers contribute to domestic job creation and economic development. 

Who works at nuclear energy facilities?

Nuclear energy facilities employ workers across myriad disciplines. Highly trained and licensed employees operate reactors and are supported by engineers of various types, health physicists, instrumentation and control workers and other professionals, as well as skilled craftspeople such as welders and mechanics. 

How do nuclear energy facilities contribute to their communities?

Nuclear power plants often are located in rural communities that benefit considerably from a large industrial complex. Companies that operate nuclear energy facilities are involved in the life of nearby towns and communities, offering college scholarships for related professions, participating in charities and sponsoring other activities. Energy education centers at many facilities teach schoolchildren about nuclear energy as well as about other forms of electricity generation. Because the plants operate over several decades, their presence encourages continuity in their communities by offering employment over more than one generation of families and workers.

Nuclear energy facilities enhance the habitat around the plant, too. Many take an active role in preserving the local flora and fauna, often earning commendations from their communities and from environmental and conservation groups. 

For example, the St. Lucie facility in Florida has devoted considerable resources to tracking and preserving the health of sea turtles attracted to breeding areas near the plant. At the Peach Bottom facility in Pennsylvania, Exelon Corp. developed a biodiversity team to mold its riverside site into an even more hospitable residence for its furred and feathered co-inhabitants, including bats, white-tailed deer, turkeys, foxes, bald eagles and osprey.

+ Safely Managing Used Nuclear Fuel

What is used nuclear fuel?

Used uranium fuel assemblies from commercial reactors still have 90 percent of the original potential energy, but are stored at nuclear energy facilities where they are used.

How is used nuclear fuel stored?

Most plants store used fuel in steel-lined, concrete vaults filled with water, which acts as a natural barrier for radiation from the used fuel. The water also keeps the fuel cool while it becomes less radioactive. The water itself does not leave the used fuel pool, rather is constantly circulated to maintain a suitable temperature. 

After at least five years of storage in the used fuel pool, the rods can be moved into large, heavily shielded concrete and steel storage containers, whose designs must be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There it awaits removal by the U.S. Department of Energy to a disposal facility.

Is the used fuel stored at nuclear energy facilities safe?

Used fuel storage at nuclear plant sites is safe and secure. However, centralized temporary storage at volunteer locations would enable the movement of used fuel from both decommissioned and operating plants before a repository begins operating. This would fulfill the government’s legal responsibility to take possession of used nuclear fuel.

What is low-level radioactive waste?

Low-level radioactive waste is a byproduct of the beneficial uses of radioactive materials, including electricity generation, medical diagnosis and treatment, biomedical and pharmaceutical research and manufacturing.

It is solid material that can be safely transported under strict regulations established by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Low-level radioactive waste usually consists of items such as gloves and other protective clothing, glass and plastic laboratory supplies, machine parts and tools, and disposable medical items that have come in contact with radioactive materials.

+ After Fukushima

How did the 2011 nuclear accident in Japan affect the nuclear energy industry?

In the United States, the nuclear energy industry and the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission immediately took steps to make facilities even safer than before the accident. Most other countries took a similar approach to the United States and kept their facilities operating. Germany and Switzerland are phasing out their nuclear energy facilities. Japan shut down its plants, but has restarted one and may restart others after they make safety upgrades. 

What did the U.S. nuclear energy industry do in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident?

The industry quickly implemented a safety enhacement strategy to ensure that plants have the additional equipment needed to respond to extreme natural events such as the tsunami in Japan. The industry initiative will provide additional sources of water and electric power to keep the reactor and used fuel pool cool if electricity from the grid is unavailable, as it was in Japan. Additional generators, batteries, water pumps and other emergency equipment have been purchased at each site. In addition, regional response centers in Tennessee and Arizona will maintain more emergency equipment that can be dispatched quickly to any facility that needs it. 

These enhancements follow additional safety measures that were implemented following the 2001 terrorist attacks. Safety enhancements made over more than 40 years, including new processes and procedures based on lessons learned from the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and in Japan in 2011, have resulted in sustained high levels of safety.

The industry is implementing additional safety measures required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission through 2016.