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(Released March 2002)



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Nuclear energy has long posed a dilemma for environmentalists. As a cheap, clean source of power that does not use fossil fuels or add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, it offers an appealing alternative to power from traditional coal-fired plants. Yet nuclear energy is associated with troubling environmental issues, including the problem of radioactive waste disposal.


The U.S. nuclear power industry is composed of 103 reactors in 31 states that together generate about 20% of the nation's power. Electricity production from nuclear power plants exceeds that from oil, natural gas, and hydropower sources, and is second only to coal.1 While construction costs for nuclear plants are high, the cost of nuclear power per kilowatt-hour (kwh) to consumers is comparable to that of coal.2

Nuclear energy production involves the fission, or splitting, of uranium atoms. When an atom splits, a small portion of its mass is converted to energy, and the remainder is converted to heat. Under the right conditions, it can set off a chain reaction that splits other atoms. Commercial production of nuclear energy maintains a controlled chain reaction within the reactor of a power plant, converts the heat released by the atoms to steam, and uses the steam to generate electricity.3 The energy produced from splitting atoms is far greater than the energy produced from combustion of the same amount of matter, so production of nuclear energy requires less land and fewer materials, and generates less waste, than production of energy from burning fossil fuels.2


Statistically, nuclear power has a far better safety record than coal-fired electricity generation, including fewer occupational fatalities and fewer industrial accidents, and it has a low risk of environmental hazards. Radiation from the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union, radiation released from burning coal, and nuclear weapons testing all exposed the U.S. public much more than U.S. nuclear power operations have. The only incident in the history of U.S. nuclear power that might cause any civilian deaths was the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, which released enough radiation to cause an estimated five cancer deaths in the general population over the next 30 years. Normal power plant operation is not considered to pose any risk. Nevertheless, the risk of nuclear accidents and radiation exposure looms large in the public eye, and has led to a "not in my back yard" mentality that has challenged the expansion of the nuclear power industry.4

An additional environmental risk associated with power generation both from nuclear plants and coal-fired plants is waste heat, which is usually discharged into streams and waterways, where it disrupts local ecology. Some people also contend that nuclear energy is not entirely innocent of producing greenhouse gas emissions, because fossil fuels are used in the mining of uranium and construction of nuclear power plants.5

Since September 11th, concerns have circulated that terrorists could target nuclear facilities or use radioactive materials obtained from nuclear plants to create "dirty" bombs, ordinary bombs that spread radiation when they detonate (see The Washington Post article, Makings of a 'Dirty Bomb', March 18, 2002). On September 11th, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) placed U.S. nuclear power plants at the highest level of security, and Congress approved extra money for power plant security.1

Radioactive Waste

But perhaps the greatest problem associated with nuclear power is waste disposal, as described in the Congressional Service Research (CRS) Report, Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal (January 11, 2002). Nuclear energy production creates radioactive waste that cannot be recycled or disposed of by conventional means. Some of the forms of radioactive waste include spent nuclear fuel rods, the most dangerous type of waste; low-level waste, including general radiation-contaminated material; and uranium mill tailings. We do not yet possess the technology to dispose of this waste properly, so it is piling up at nuclear facilities all over the country.

One option for nuclear waste disposal is storage in a long-term facility, where radioactive materials could decay undisturbed. Most isotopes decay to safe levels within decades; the most persistent would require 10,000 years to become harmless. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 19826 required the Department of Energy (DOE) to begin collecting nuclear waste from commercial power plants and transferring it to a long-term storage facility by 1998; however, poor program management and delays in funding, authorization, and storage facility construction caused the DOE to miss this deadline. As a result, a number of power plants are suing the DOE for the costs they will incur by continuing to store spent nuclear fuel rods and other radioactive waste.

Current storage techniques that are being used by power plants include cooling the wastes underwater for several years, vitrifying them (sealing them in glass), and storing them in concrete bunkers aboveground.

Meanwhile, Congress has identified a single candidate site for investigation by the DOE as a repository, Yucca Mountain in Nevada. If the site is found to be geologically stable, isolated from groundwater flows, relatively safe from human interference, and otherwise suitable, a storage facility may be built there. President Bush recommended the site for approval on February 15, 2002, despite strong opposition from the State of Nevada; Nevada's governor has threatened to submit a state veto which would block any action at the site until a congressional resolution was passed to continue. If built, the facility would not open until 2010 at the earliest, by which time there could be as much as 80,000 metric tons of radioactive waste awaiting disposal.7

A further discussion of the Yucca Mountain site is available in the CRS Report, Proposed High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository: Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Progress (May 27, 1999).

The nuclear industry has urged the construction of an interim storage facility that could house waste until a permanent repository is constructed or a better way of dealing with the waste is found. However, environmentalists counter that it is safer to leave the waste where it is than to undertake risky transfer to an interim site. For more information about transporting nuclear materials, see the CRS Report, Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel (May 29, 1998).

Congress has approved the construction of 10 regional compacts for low-level waste disposal, which is considered to be the responsibility of individual states. Only three of these compacts are operating, in Washington state, Utah, and South Carolina, and they accept only limited types and origins of waste.

Nuclear Energy Policy

The U.S. now finds itself at a crossroads in energy policy. International and domestic pressure to respond to the global warming threat is building; our dependence on foreign oil imports seems increasingly risky given the political instability in the Middle East; yet development of the nuclear industry in the United States has ground to a halt. No new nuclear plants have been ordered since 1973 and currently there are no plants under construction.

Nuclear research has also nearly ceased, as a result of federal funding cut-backs under the Clinton Administration. Since 1995, several research projects have been shut down, including development of the advanced liquid metal reactor (ALMR), also called the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), research on the gas turbine modular helium reactor (GT-MHR), and research on improved versions of light water reactors (LWRs)1.


This situation may change depending on the actions of the 107th Congress. A detailed treatment of recent and pending legislation on nuclear energy issues is provided by the CRS Report Nuclear Energy Policy (March 1, 2002).

President Bush initially proposed further reductions to the nuclear research budget, but Congress rejected most of these reductions in the Energy and Water Development Appropriations for FY2002. Several other bills have been introduced to Congress that would encourage the development of the nuclear power industry. One bill would designate nuclear power as an "environmentally preferable product" and as an "emission-free electricity source", which might make nuclear industry development eligible for incentives under the Clean Air Act and greenhouse gas mitigation programs. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear power plants worldwide have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 6.1 billion metric tons of carbon since 19738.

Bills sparked by the events of September 11th would provide more funds for security at power plants, increase NRC responsibility for security, and establish stockpiles of potassium iodine tablets near power plants that could be distributed to local populations in the event of a nuclear accident (potassium iodide can prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine).

A provision passed by the House of Representatives authorizes spending for research on spent fuel, in the interests of recycling and reducing the volume of toxic waste. Opponents of this program contend that the separated components of spent fuel could be used to manufacture nuclear explosives, and that focusing on research would undermine U.S. efforts towards nonproliferation by encouraging other nations to develop their own nuclear research agendas.

The Future of Nuclear Energy

Concerns that soon the U.S. electricity supply may not be sufficient to meet demand have reopened the discussion of construction of new nuclear reactors for the first time in years. Of the $250.1 million nuclear energy budget, $38.5 million has been earmarked for a DOE initiative to encourage construction of nuclear power plants in the U.S. A major nuclear power company, Exelon, is participating in a consortium to construct a pebble bed modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (PBMR) in South Africa. Cost of construction (about $2-6 billion per reactor) has long hindered nuclear power development, so orders for new plants in the U.S. may only be placed if the PBMR can provide an example of dramatically reduced construction costs1.

Nuclear energy holds great promise as an environmental technology that would allow us to reduce our unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels, use less land and other resources, and produce fewer greenhouse gases. However, in order for the industry to reach its full potential, we must find a way to reduce construction costs, address public health and environmental safety issues, and solve the weighty problem of waste disposal.

Written by Heather E. Lindsay.


1. CRS Report, Nuclear Energy Policy (March 1, 2002)

2. American Nuclear Society.

3. Uranium Information Centre Ltd.

4. Uranium Information Centre Ltd.

5. The Sustainable Energy and Anti-Uranium Service Inc.

6. U.S. Department of Energy Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.

7. CRS report Civilian Waste Disposal (December 31, 2001)

8. The International Nuclear Forum.