The ability to control nuclear fission reactions, in which atoms of radioactive elements such as uranium split apart into smaller atoms and liberate energy in the process, represents one of the great technological feats of the twentieth century. Harnessed as heat, the released energy boils water, producing steam that turns turbines, thereby being converted to mechanical energy that generates electricity. Nuclear energy currently provides 20% of total electricity generation in the United States.
According to government estimates, output from nuclear power plants is expected to increase 10% by 2030.
According to EIA’s 2009 estimates, output from nuclear power plants is expected to increase 10% by 2030. However, a growing number of nuclear plant design and construction permits have been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the past year and the AEF committee’s findings suggest that a U.S. nuclear renaissance is possible, at least in the near term. As many as five to nine new plants could be built by 2020, according to the AEF report. The new plants, combined with new capacity obtained by modifying existing plants, could lead to as much as a 12% to 20% increase in U.S. nuclear capacity by 2020. Future construction post-2020 would depend on the performance of the plants built during the next decade. If the first few plants meet cost, schedule, and performance targets, many more could be deployed after 2020. Even so, the pace of growth may slow in the long term due to a wave of retirements of existing plants. If license extensions aren’t granted, as much as 30% of the current U.S. nuclear capacity would be retired by 2035.
If there is renewed U.S. interest in nuclear power generation, sufficient uranium supplies will likely be available. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, known worldwide reserves are adequate for about 70 years at current consumption rates and under current policies.
Some countries have successfully embraced nuclear power generation: for example, nuclear power plants produce nearly 80% of all electricity in France. In the United States, the issue prompts considerable debate, including concern over security and arguments about where and how to dispose of nuclear waste. But interest is growing, and nuclear energy may one day play a much larger role in supplying America’s electricity, particularly if the necessary technological advancements are made on another form of nuclear energy—nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fusion, the process that powers stars, could offer a virtually unlimited supply of energy with significantly reduced quantities of long-lived radioactive waste compared to fission, if successfully harnessed in a reactor. Over the last 50 years, many countries, including the United States, Russia, Japan, and the United Kingdom, have investigated the concept of controlled fusion for electricity production. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a multinational effort currently under way to develop a “burning plasma” machine by 2025, is intended to provide the information needed to assess the practicality and cost of a fusion reactor. Even if successful, however, fusion reactors are unlikely to be ready for commercial deployment until after 2050, absent a major breakthrough.