Our aging nuclear plants need to be replaced but the new ones fail to compete on price with natural gas and renewable sources such as wind and solar energy.

Is Nuclear Energy Still Viable?
Is Nuclear Energy Still Viable?

Contributed by | Len Calderone for

There are about 450 nuclear reactors in the world. The United States generates the most energy using nuclear power plants followed by France, China, Russia, and South Korea. Nuclear energy supplies about 11 percent of the world's electricity.

Nuclear energy is produced by splitting atoms to release the energy held at the core of those atoms. Nuclear fission generates heat that is bound for a cooling agent, usually water. This fission results in steam, which spins a turbine connected to a generator, producing electricity.

Uranium is commonly used for fuel. Uranium is abundant and can be found throughout the world. The uranium is processed into U-235, which is used as fuel in nuclear reactors because its atoms can easily be split apart. In a nuclear reactor, neutrons collide with atoms, causing them to split. That collision (nuclear fission) releases more neutrons that react with more atoms, creating a chain reaction. 

Most nuclear reactors are either boiling water reactors, where the water is heated to the boiling point releasing steam, or pressurized water reactors, where the pressurized water does not boil but directs heat to a secondary water supply for steam generation. The UK uses gas-cooled reactors, which use carbon dioxide as the cooling agent. Other reactors are fast neutron reactors, which are cooled by liquid sodium.

Although nuclear energy isn't considered renewable energy, it does not emit any of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Therefore, it should be considered alternative energy and a solution to climate change. Second, nuclear power plants function at a much higher capacity than renewable energy sources or fossil fuels. Capacity is a percentage of the time a power plant actually produces energy. It’s a problem for all alternative energy sources. The sun doesn’t always shine; the wind doesn’t always blow; and water doesn’t always run through the turbines of a dam.

Our aging nuclear plants need to be replaced but the new ones fail to compete on price with natural gas and renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.

The future of nuclear energy encompasses nuclear fusion, which generates energy when two light nuclei smash together to form a single, heavier nucleus. Fusion delivers more energy safely and with a lot less harmful radioactive waste than fission. Organizations such as ITER in France and Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics are working on commercially viable fusion reactors, but so far, they have not been successful. 

A 1960s-era design could be resurrected. It is a molten-salt reactor, which is both carbon free and cheaper than coal. A molten-salt reactor uses a liquid uranium salt as fuel, permitting easier removal of fission by-products. Should a plant lose electricity, it has a containment system that would kick in, making it less vulnerable to an accident. Should an accident happen, it’s less likely to explode, shooting out radiation, because the reactor operates at atmospheric pressure. It also needs half the fuel of a fission reactor while producing less than half the waste.

A nuclear power plant has an average capacity factor of 92.6 percent, which means they operate at full power on 336 out of 365 days per year with 29 days off the grid for maintenance. Whereas, hydroelectric systems delivered power 42.8 percent of the time (156 days), wind turbines 37.4 percent of the time (137 days) and solar electricity arrays only 26.1 percent of the time (95 days).

Nuclear power plants on average require less maintenance and are designed to function for longer periods of time before refueling, typically 1.5 to 2 years. Natural gas and coal capacity factors are generally lower due to routine maintenance and refueling.

Renewable plants are considered intermittent and are limited by a lack of fuel, such wind, sun, or water. Therefore, these plants need a backup power source such as nuclear energy or a backup storage system, which is not currently available at grid-scale.

A standard nuclear reactor delivers 1 gigawatt of electricity. Based on the capacity factors above, two coal or three to four renewable plants (each of 1 GW size) would be needed to generate the same amount of electricity as one reactor.

Nuclear waste disposal, is a political problem in the U.S., but no longer a technological problem. More than 90 percent of spent fuel can be recycled to extend nuclear power production by hundreds of years. This fuel is stored safely in impenetrable concrete-and-steel dry casks on the grounds of operating reactors.

Many complain that nuclear energy is too expensive. After a full accounting of the external costs of different energy systems, nuclear is cheaper than coal or natural gas, but the costs for nuclear are rising while renewable costs are declining. There is little doubt that renewables will be the future generation’s method of choice, as advances in storage technologies and reductions in price will help remove the worries of some renewables.

Recent studies in New York and California indicate that it is economically cheaper to invest in renewables and energy storage to replace the aging nuclear plants than it is to keep the existing nuclear plants operating. The savings range is from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars.

Because the costs of wind and solar have dropped dramatically, the cost of new, unsubsidized utility-scale wind and solar power facilities can now compete with that of existing coal and nuclear power plants.

Nuclear advocates claim that nuclear power is required to fight climate change, but that is not completely true. California reduced greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 four years earlier than targeted by shutting down its nuclear plants and setting policies that give renewables, energy efficiency and energy storage priority. China is very aggressive with respect to nuclear power, but it is adding more capacity with wind and solar compared to nuclear. By the time China completes 28 new nuclear plants, they will have added more power from wind and solar in the same timeframe, taking capacity factors into account.

Nuclear power plants just cannot contain global warming as predicted. It seems that it is no longer even a part of the solution to global warming. 

* Cofrentes (Spain) nuclear power plant. Photo by Roberto Uderio.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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