Nuclear Power Plants in the United States

The nuclear age has brought American strategists face to face with a task of unparalleled difficulty. Not only must they bring their concepts into line with the realities of thermonuclear power — a matter of enormous complexity in itself — but, in so doing, they must resist those strong pressures emanating from traditional American conceptions about war and peace which may well sweep us over the precipice of world destruction. In the age of oil shortage, Nuclear power plants have become one of the best solutions which help to solve the problem of energy supply and production. Thesis Nuclear power plants are the cleanest, cheapest, and efficient source of electricity in the United State.

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Initiatives for the development of power reactors began coming from the Eisenhower administration, which insisted on the commercial development of nuclear power under private auspices. The administration even suggested to the AEC that the carrier prototype it was then killing be redirected toward the development of a power reactor. AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) commissioner Thomas Murray revised this suggestion and presented it again to the administration as an AEC proposal in May 1953 (Morris 21) The AEC was concurrently recommending that the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 be revised, and it used the opportunity of recycling the carrier project as a concrete example of the benefits to be derived by letting private industry exploit the power of the atom.

The JCAE (Joint Committee on Atomic Energy) also began to display an interest in the industrial applications of nuclear power. JCAE hopes were piqued by a letter from Walker Cisler, president of Detroit Edison, one of the companies involved in the study groups, expressing an interest in building a power reactor (Morris 22).

American utilities alone place orders for seventy-five new nuclear plants having over 45,000 MWe generating capacity. Installed capacity (that is, reactors actually built and online) by 1975 approached 100,000 MWe. The growth of nuclear power in the United States is proceeding along an exponential curve. Hope and reality, at first mutually reinforcing, becomes indistinguishable. Alvin Weinberg, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, hailed the “nuclear energy revolution” that would provide a “permanent and ubiquitous availability of cheap power” (Morris 65). Promise beckoned reality, then substituted for it, while reality elicits ever more dazzling expectations.

In all this, utilities are taking a high risk, measured by the distance between actual operating experience and extrapolated estimates. This represented a revolutionary change in management practices (Loiselle and Kritsky 126). Previously the electric power industry considered even an extrapolation as low as 2:1 over experience as risky; during the Great Bandwagon Market, this ratio moved recklessly up to 4: 1 (Morris 65). The ratio of ordered to operating capacity soared from 2:1 to 30:1.

The use of nuclear power is efficient because “the use of the radioactive materials that are by-products of the nuclear reactors or that can be purposely manufactured in a reactor has also developed with great speed and with profound effects in the industry, medicine, and agriculture” (Welsh 43). Economic considerations play a role, too. Private utilities are so frightened by Democratic talk in the previous decade of nuclear TVAs that they jump on the bandwagon to prevent a public-power preemption of nuclear power.

Nuclear power plants are the cheapest way of energy production in contrast to oil and gas. Gas prices are symptomatic of a steady increase in all energy prices. Residual fuel oil is tied to the OPEC prices and it rises with them, hitting residents of the east coast hardest because of their dependence on imported oil for domestic heating. Coal and natural gas prices followed along, coal being stimulated by increased costs caused by enforcement of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and a brief mineworkers’ strike. These rising fossil fuel prices save the economic position of nuclear power. A fundamental proportion underlies the economic competitiveness of fossil and nuclear generating plants (Mumaw and Roth 36).

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Relative to each other, fossil plants have low capital costs but high fuel costs and high operating and maintenance costs; nuclear plants present high capital costs but low fuel costs, plus low costs. “The Sun’s radiation, storage of the runoff in mountainous regions, hydro-electric power” can be a good source of energy but “unfortunately, there are few regions left where further exploitation of this power source is worthwhile” (Burton 249). While the industry is undergoing its painful confrontation with market reality, the AEC is beginning to overcome its adversarial posture toward the JCAE and to establish policies for civilian nuclear power that are to have important long-term consequences.

Under the Atomic Energy acts, the AEC has both promotional and regulatory roles. It has a mandate to develop and encourage nonmilitary applications, yet at the same time, its responsibilities for public safety and health create tension in its functions that it never satisfactorily resolved. The AEC experienced “capture,” a phenomenon long noted by observers of public administration (Wendt 33).

Accepting the industry’s assurance light water reactors are successes from an engineering point of view and cost-competitive with coal, the AEC turns its attention from light water technology, including safety issues, and instead promoted the more glamorous breeder (Spence 187). The nuclear power plants diverted to research and development funds to advanced breeder concepts, not to evaluating challengers to light water or to exploring inadequate depth the safety constraints that might have thrown roadblocks in front of the light water bandwagon (Morris 81). In contrast to nuclear power plants, other plants and power stations pollute the environment and require strict control and regulations. Nuclear power plants are the cleanest method of fast and large energy production: “these plants are vital to reliable, economic electricity supplies; have environmental benefits in emitting no greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and reduce dependence on foreign oil” (Uncertainty Clouds 46).

Criticism from within the nuclear community stopped the AEC in its tracks in a controversy involving nuclear waste. Because of their extremely high toxicity and their permanence, high-level radioactive wastes must be secured, effectively forever, from both human meddling and escape into the biosphere. The nuclear power plants at first, however, declined to regard the wastes problem this way. Instead, it viewed radioactive wastes as a valuable commodity, bearing recoverable amounts of uranium and plutonium (Welsh 39).

Conservatism in practice meant virtually ignoring the problem until the number of civilian reactors coming on stream in the 1960s made some sort of solution to the waste problem urgent. Until then, the AEC tried to rid itself of them. The solution favored by the nuclear power plants was to reduce wastes to liquid form, pour the hot slop into canisters that would not disintegrate for a few years, and then dump them somewhere, out of sight, out of mind. Among the various options for long-term waste disposal, salt formations scored high. Nuclear spokesmen claim that they are permanent, inexpensive, and, best of all, isolated from the biosphere (Morris 81).

It is possible to refute these arguments stating that oil and gas power plants also pollute the environment and requires additional spending on waste disposal. Abandoned mines are often scouted as desirable candidate sites for nuclear waste disposal. The US administration gives special attention to “reactor safety, the adequacy of plans for nuclear waste disposal, the dangers of low-level radiation, and the absence of an integrated energy policy” (Welsh 53). Proponents of salt formations claim that their very existence testifies to their immunity from water leaching, which is the most likely route by which radioactive wastes would find their way back into the environment.

Inputting forth its salt proposals, the AEC and its successors have always relied on a piece of simplistic reasoning: the very fact that the salt formation is there is proof that it is dry and stable for eons. If it were not, so the logic goes, water would have leached it away already. This ignores the fact that the salt may have already been penetrated by drilling, and that the ferocious heat given off by the waste might cause water already present in the salt to migrate to the waste containers, helping to corrode them.

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The disposal method is relatively cheap, sites are plentiful, and the technology of drilling into salt is comparatively well along. “Substantial uncertainty remains in decommissioning costs and the adequacy of decommissioning financing in cases of early retirement or rapid cost escalation. If viewed as a one-time expense, these costs are not large relative to lifetime plant production costs” (Uncertainty Clouds 46).

In sum, nuclear power plants are the most effective and cheapest way of energy production. Nuclear power plants have inevitably placed a normative strain on political leaders. Waste disposal and contamination of the environment are often cited as the main problems of nuclear power plants but, in contrast with other power plants’ waste disposal techniques, these problems can be successful management and solved.

Works Cited

  1. Burton, B. Nuclear Power, Pollution and Politics. Routledge, 2003.
  2. Loiselle, V., Kritsky, W. G. Nuclear Power for the 21st Century: There Is Life for the Nuclear Industry in the New Millennium If It Is Willing to Create Its Own Future. Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, 14 (1999): 126.
  3. Mumaw, R. J., Roth, E. M., Vicente, K. J., Burns, Ch. M. There Is More to Monitoring a Nuclear Power Plant Than Meets the Eye. Human Factors, 42, 2000. p. 36.
  4. Morris, R. C. The Environmental Case for Nuclear Power: Economic, Medical, and Political Considerations. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.
  5. Spence, D. B. Coal-Fired Power in a Restructured Electricity Market. Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, 15 (2005): 187.
  6. Wendt, G. The Prospects of Nuclear Power and Technology. Van Nostrand, 1957.
  7. Welsh, J. Mobilizing Modernity: The Nuclear Moment. Routledge, 2000.
  8. Uncertainty Clouds Long-Term Future of Operating Nuclear Power Plants. Journal of Environmental Health, 56 (1994); 45.
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