Nuclear energy plays a vital role in meeting our nation’s electricity needs, protecting the environment, and preserving the fuel and technology diversity that is the strength of the U.S. electricity supply system.
More than 100 reactors in 31 states operate around the clock, producing almost 20 percent of U.S. electricity while emitting no carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide (a precursor to ground-level ozone).
Nuclear energy generates more electricity than any other source in Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia. Nationwide, nuclear plants generated an estimated 769 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2012.
The United States generates most of its electricity by burning fossil fuels, which produce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. Emission-free sources provide 30 percent of America’s electricity, and nearly two-thirds of that comes from nuclear energy facilities.
U.S. electricity demand will rise 28 percent by 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2013. The United States will need hundreds of new power plants of all types to meet increased demand and replace older facilities that are retired. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, emission-free electricity source that can be widely expanded.
Nuclear energy facilities strengthen state and local economies through jobs, taxes, and direct and secondary spending. Building new reactors and exporting commercial nuclear technologies creates additional jobs throughout the U.S. economy.
New Nuclear Facilities Under Construction
Five reactors are under construction in the United States and many more are in the planning stages.
Tennessee Valley Authority continues work on a $4.2 billion project to complete Watts Bar 2 and plans to have the reactor operating by 2015.
In early 2012, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted construction and operating licenses for two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors to be built at Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle in Georgia and for two more to be built at South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.’s Summer facility. Both companies have started major construction. Vogtle 3 and 4 and Summer 2 and 3 are scheduled to be on-line in 2017 and 2018.
Nine applications for construction and operating licenses and two for early site permits are under NRC review. Construction of those projects is not expected to start before 2020.
Small Reactors in Development
Small reactors are attracting attention as a potential addition to the nation’s energy mix. Because of their size—300 megawatts or less, compared to a large reactor of 1,100 to 1,500 megawatts—they have many useful applications, including generating emission-free electricity in remote locations where there is little or no access to the main power grid and providing process heat for industrial applications.
They are “modular” in design, which means they can be manufactured in a factory and delivered and installed at the site in modules as needed based on electricity demand growth, giving them the name “small modular reactors,” or SMRs.
The U.S. Department of Energy has launched a cost-shared program with industry to develop and license as many as two small reactor designs.
Why Nuclear Energy?
Clean Air Energy
Clean-air energy sources—nuclear energy facilities, hydroelectric power and renewables—help minimize the production of greenhouse gases and pollutants because they generate electricity that otherwise would have to come from burning fossil fuels. Without nuclear energy facilities, levels of harmful emissions released into the atmosphere would increase significantly—particularly those that contribute to acid rain (sulfur dioxide) and urban smog (nitrogen oxide).
Nuclear energy facilities do not produce any greenhouse gases generating electricity and have among the lowest total “life-cycle” carbon emissions. Independent studies show that nuclear energy’s life-cycle emissions of carbon dioxide are about the same as wind and geothermal power and significantly less than other electricity sources. This measurement takes into account the facility’s construction, the mining and processing of fuel, routine operation, disposal of used fuel and the ultimate dismantling of the facility—in other words, its entire life cycle.
Although the government is discussing climate-change policy, there is bipartisan agreement that nuclear energy is part of the solution. Mainstream analyses conducted by independent organizations have shown reducing carbon emissions will require a diverse energy portfolio and that nuclear energy is the only low-carbon option to help meet forecasted global electricity demand.
Diversity of Electricity Supply Balances Costs and Benefits
A diverse mix of energy sources enables America to balance the cost of electricity production, availability and environmental impacts. Below is a breakdown of the main sources:
Nuclear energy facilities provide 19 percent of the nation’s electricity at an average cost of 2.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. They do not produce carbon dioxide or air pollutants, and their fuel costs are stable.
Coal-fired facilities provide 42 percent of America’s electricity at an average cost of 3.27 cents per kilowatt-hour. Coal is abundant and relatively cheap, but burning it contributes to air pollution. New technologies are making coal-fired generating facilities cleaner, but these innovations also add to the cost.
Natural gas facilities account for most of the new generating capacity brought on line in the past 15 years. Natural gas provides 25 percent of our electricity at an average cost of 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. While the carbon emissions are lower than with coal, the cost of fuel is higher and more volatile.
Wind provides nearly 3 percent of America’s electricity, but it is intermittent and expensive. Wind facilities complement other sources of electricity, but they cannot provide the massive amounts of power needed around the clock.
Solar energy contributes 0.02 percent of America’s electricity. Like wind power, it can augment other electricity sources, but solar-generated power remains intermittent and expensive.
Economic Growth and Job Creation
On average, a nuclear energy facility generates $430 million in sales of goods and services in the local community and nearly $40 million in total labor income annually. Each year, it pays about $67 million in federal taxes and almost $16 million in state and local taxes—crucial revenue that benefits schools, improves roads, and pays for other infrastructure and programs.
Construction of a nuclear energy facility gives a substantial boost to suppliers of concrete, steel and other commodities needed to manufacture hundreds of components.
The nuclear energy industry provides 120,000 high-paying jobs in occupations ranging from electricians and machinists to electrical and nuclear engineers, reactor operators and more. Due to ongoing expansion, the industry is hiring thousands of well-paid workers to build new reactors in the U.S. and up to 700 permanent staff to operate each site long-term. And because of expected retirements, the industry plans to hire as many as 25,000 highly skilled workers over the next few years to operate and maintain existing reactors.
Exporting commercial nuclear technology means more jobs for Americans. Worldwide, 70 reactors are under construction and 160 reactors are on order or planned. The demand for high-quality commodities, components and services provides an export opportunity for U.S. manufacturers. The industry has added 15,000 American jobs through the export of nuclear energy technologies in the past few years.