Sixty years ago, the first commercial nuclear power reactor went on line at Calder Hall, England. About a year later, the first commercial facility in the United States began generating power at Beaver Valley Pennsylvania. Nuclear power was hailed as cheap, safe, dependable and carbon emission free.
Today there are 440 commercial reactors operating in 31 countries.
Currently, nuclear plants provide about eleven percent of the world's electricity. Although total capacity remains relatively constant, the share of world power generated from nuclear has declined from seventeen percent in 1996. The UnitedStates has the largest number (99) of operational nuclear reactors in the world.
Has nuclear power not lived up to its potential? Are we not utilizing this technology to the extent we might to reduce the release of greenhouse gases and control climate change? The answers to these questions are as complex as the technology they spring from. Environmental issues surrounding nuclear power generation are wide-ranging and often controversial.
There are few greenhouse gas emissions from an operating nuclear plant. However, the carbon footprint of mining uranium for fuel, and the cement and steel required for construction of a generating plant is significant.
Safety is always a concern when nuclear materials are dispersed around the country and around the world. There have been two major disasters involving nuclear power plants; Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. In particular, the Japanese incident at Fukushima resulting from earthquake and tsunami caused a rethinking of priorities everywhere. Several nations, besides Japan, scaled back on their nuclear power generation and/or cancelled plans for new reactors.
High-level waste from generating plants is relatively small in volume, but may remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. Most regulators agree that deep burial of such wastes in a stable geological setting is the preferred method of disposal. However, after almost six decades of nuclear power generation, no government has succeeded in opening such a repository. In this country all commercial high-level waste is in "temporary" storage, mainly at nuclear power plants.
The existing stock of nuclear plants is aging and replacement is barely keeping pace.
From 1996 to 2015, 66 reactors were retired while seventy-one were newly placed in operation. Decommissioning of retired facilities is tremendously expensive and can take decades to complete.
Nuclear power can be economical only at a very large scale. However the building of big new plants remains challenging, costing billions of dollars and taking over 10 years to complete. Economic payback may be as much as forty years, an eternity in today's volatile energy market and climate change scenario.
Nuclear power generation has filled a large role in meeting the energy needs of the planet and has had an impact of holding down the rate of climate change. However, after 60 years, enough problems remain that nuclear is seen as only a partial solution to our energy problems and for holding climate change in check. In the meantime, energy from renewable sources is growing at a much faster rate than nuclear.
Some in the scientific community continue to lobby for nuclear as the alternative to fossil fuel to hold back climate change. Others argue that the future of nuclear remains cloudy and can be a partial solution at best. Clearly there are no universal answers. Dealing with climate change requires flexibility, sacrifice, investment and hard work. We need to get on with it.