Proponents say it has the potential to free the United States from its dependency on foreign oil and nudge the nation toward a cleaner, less carbon-intensive energy future.
Critics focus on the possibility of potentially disastrous accidents and the difficult issue of how to safely dispose of nuclear wastea toxic by-product that must be isolated from humans for thousands of years. For nearly three decades, these concerns have kept the nuclear power industry in the U.S. frozen in place, with no new plants built.
But all that may be changing. In February, President Obama unveiled an energy policy that includes plans for "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants." The Energy Department has announced loan guarantees of $8.3 billion to help build two reactors in Georgia and is working on financing for three other nuclear projects, in South Carolina, Maryland, and Texas.
Other countries have already embraced nuclear power. There are currently 436 working reactors in 30 other countries. France gets almost 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, and almost 25 percent of Japan's electricity comes from nuclear power.
Nuclear reactors harness the enormous energy released when atoms split apart in nuclear chain reactions. That energy is used to heat water, which produces steam to drive a turbine generator, creating electricity. But unlike conventional power plants, which burn coal, oil, or natural gas to make the steamand emit greenhouse gases that contribute to global warmingnuclear energy produces no carbon emissions. That's one reason some environmentalists who once opposed nuclear energy now see it as a key part of any plan to address climate change.
Patrick Moore, a co-founder of the environmental group Greenpeace, now says "nuclear energy is the most important technology we have" to "reduce greenhouse-gas emissions."
Currently, the 104 operating nuclear plants in the U.S. generate about 20 percent of our electricity and account for 9 percent of the nation's total energy consumption.
"If we're looking over the next 25 to 30 years to meet rising demand," says Steven Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, "we do have to start building new facilities."
When the first commercial U.S. reactor went into operation in 1957, nuclear power seemed to be the wave of the future. But progress was slowed in the 1970s by high construction costs, the fluctuating price of competing fuels like oil, and safety concerns, especially after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
Where Does the Waste Go?
A cooling-system failure at the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, nuclear plant resulted in a partial meltdown of atomic fuel. The accident was contained and didn't cause any injuries, but it could have been catastrophic, and a nation already wary of nuclear power turned against it with a vengeance. Then, in 1986, a deadly explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in what was then the Soviet Union (now Ukraine) made the public even more wary about nuclear power.
Safety concerns persist. Vermont's State Senate voted in February to shut down the Vermont Yankee reactor, citing radioactive leaks and the collapse of a cooling tower. And in April, New York State officials said the Indian Point nuclear power plant's cooling system was polluting the Hudson River in violation of the Clean Water Act, and had to be updated or the plant would be shut down.
The long-term storage of nuclear waste also remains unresolved since the Obama administration decided last year against using Yucca Mountain in Nevada, where $10 billion has been spent building a repository that would safeguard the nation's waste. In the meantime, the waste sits in short-term repositories throughout the U.S. Security experts say that leaves it vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
"People tend to minimize the downside of this technology," says Ellen Vancko of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.
Despite the concerns, public support for nuclear power is at an all-time high: In a recent Gallup poll, 62 percent of Americans said they support the use of nuclear energy.
When David Hammer, a nuclear engineering professor at Cornell University, began teaching there in 1977, most of his students opposed nuclear energy.
"But now," he says, "about 80 percent of students think that nuclear reactors are part of the solution."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, May 10, 2010)