Nuclear Energy: Safety and Viability

Todd Deger

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

The United States currently stands ready to make energy decisions that will impact every U.S. citizen alive today and generations moving forward. President Joe Biden committed to fighting climate change in his campaign for President and has continued in this vein by making goals to halve U.S. carbon emissions by 2030 and further, to create a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. The key to this plan is the not-so-simple issue of electricity generation.

Current sources of United States electricity

In 2020, about sixty percent of the four trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity generated in the U.S. came from burning fossil fuels such as natural gas. When discussing how to “go green” in the modern world, the nation must essentially work to replace the kilowatt-hours currently generated by fossil fuels with kilowatt-hours generated by a “clean” technology.

The Natural Resource Defense Council (“NRDC”) was founded in 1970 by a group of law students and attorneys at the forefront of the environmental movement. Currently led by President and Chief Executive Officer Manish Bapna, the NRDC defines clean energy as coming from natural sources or processes that are constantly replenished. This brings resources such as sunlight, which keeps shining, and wind, which keeps blowing, into the fold of renewable resources. Conversely, “dirty energy” is defined as coming from nonrenewable sources such as oil, gas, and coal. When those resources are utilized, it is pulling from a finite resource refined from crude oil from prehistoric ages long past.

Solar, or photovoltaic, energy accounted for just over two percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2020, wind energy made up about eight and a half percent, and hydropower contributed a little over seven percent. In all, renewables made up just under twenty percent of the total U.S. electricity generation. Renewable energy sources have grown faster than expected and even surpassed coal-based energy generation for the first time in 2019 with the U.S. Energy Information Administration (“EIA”) projecting that renewables were on track to produce more than forty percent of U.S. energy by 2050.

These figures, while denoting impressive progress, are still shy of President Biden’s hopes to decarbonize by 2050 Adding other forms of alternative energy such as biomass energy and geothermal energy can bolster those numbers, but only by so much, as biomass and geothermal contributed less than two percent to the total U.S. generation in 2020. Even as renewables need continued support to grow their electrical contributions, other forms of energy generation deserve attention and respect if the nation hopes to meet its goals. Enter: nuclear power.

The numbers of nuclear

Nuclear energy contributed 790 billion kilowatt-hours and just under twenty percent of U.S. electrical generation in 2020, a number that matches all renewables combined. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, the largest source of electricity in France is nuclear power. French nuclear power plants generated 309 billion kilowatt-hours and over seventy percent of the country’s total electricity production. As it stands, nuclear power is capable of meeting the demands of an entire country, but simply the ability to meet demand is not the only obstacle in the way of expanded implementation.

The nuclear phantom hanging overhead

Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of nuclear power plants having catastrophic failures that killed and injured innumerable people. These moments in history live in the public consciousness and serve as a warning to anyone trying to once again tempt fate by believing in nuclear power. But is this the proper takeaway from the spotty past of nuclear power? No. Nuclear power should be pursued in earnest with a focus on regulation and safety.

The life cycle of a nuclear power plant

Much like any building or piece of human-made machinery, a nuclear power plant has a life cycle throughout which its operators must care for it and bring it forward to its next stage of operational life. On its webpage devoted to explaining this process, the International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) writes “A nuclear power plant must be managed in a safe and efficient manner throughout its entire life cycle, from design through decommissioning, with the overall goal of providing reliable and affordable electricity.”

From beginning to end, the stages of building a nuclear power plant are as follows: siting of nuclear facilities, design of the plant itself, construction and commissioning of the plant, operation and maintenance, and finally decommissioning of the nuclear installation. Without proper care and attention at every level, nuclear energy can become not only a net sink of resources, but dangerous as well.

The fear of danger may be a contributing factor to the fact that the majority of American nuclear power plants are approaching the end of their designed life cycle and have not been updated in a meaningful capacity for close to a half century. The lack of updates to the nation’s current fleet of reactors isn’t an automatic sign that they must be decommissioned. Eighty-eight of the country’s ninety-three reactors have approval for a twenty-year extension, the majority of which will expire in the 2030s. Regulatory reviews of the reactors take time, so in the meantime, research is being conducted to determine how to support the long-term operation of the power plants.

Depending on the results of this and other research into the area, nuclear power may finally have the numbers to support not only the ability to meet the U.S.’s ever-increasing demand for electricity, but also to assuage the safety concerns and fears of its citizens by providing hard evidence that these reactors can continue to safely and efficiently operate for decades to come.