The Efficacy of Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century

Matthew Thornton
December 2, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: A home located in a village near to Chernobyl abandoned after the accident. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1934, Enrico Fermi discovered that nuclear fission could be used to generate nuclear energy. [1] On December 2, 1942, he used uranium and control rods to create the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction. During the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear power plants began appearing around the world and were deemed a safe and clean alternative to current energy sources. [1] Furthermore, nuclear energy was hailed for its effectiveness; a relatively small amount of uranium was able to power the equivalent of millions of gallons of gasoline. It also generated much revenue for the cities in which reactors resided. In this way, nuclear energy was seen by many as the panacea to all future energy challenges. This proved to a futile belief in many ways, largely because of the safety concerns that came to be seen with the energy source.

Nuclear Accidents

Though nuclear energy was seen as the perfect clean energy solution, there was a significant danger associated with it. In 1986, what many consider the worst power plant accident in history occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine. [2] The accident was largely the result of a flawed reactor design that was operated with by personnel that had not been adequately trained. In total, 30 operators and fireman died. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to relocate given the potential dangers of lingering radiation after the accident occurred. [2] We can see from the figure on the right, the devastation this disaster left to the city and the nearby villages. This accident led to major changes in safety culture to protect against future accidents. Specifically, improvements were made to the cooling systems that would help prevent uncontrolled power surges. The RKMK reactors were also modified by changes in control rods, as neutron absorbers were added which increased the fuel enrichment and made them more stable at low power. [2] This devastating accident highlighted the grave dangers associated with nuclear energy. As we progress further into the future, nuclear energy safety will continue to improve to ensure accidents such as these are a thing of the past.

Efficiency and Economic Benefits

In the decision to incorporate one energy source over another, it is essential to consider the efficiency of the fuel source and the amount of energy that it can actually generate. Below, we can observe a number of key facts that can help to better understand the efficiency of nuclear energy.

This improvement in the technologies of nuclear power plants has led to an increased use in nuclear by various countries. It is also important to consider the economic benefits that nuclear energy can offer. The nearly 100 reactors in the US generate $40 billion to $50 billion each year in electricity sales and revenue. [4] The average energy facility also pays approximately $16 million in state and local taxes along with $67 million in federal taxes annually. [4] Aside from revenue generation within the respective communities each reactor resides in, nuclear energy is cost competitive. [4] Except where a country has direct access to low-cost fossil fuels, nuclear power is among the least costly sources of energy.


Nuclear energy has been seen by many as the energy of the future. Countries all over the world continue to begin the construction of nuclear plants in order to decrease their reliance on non-renewable resources such as coal. Though there have been horrific accidents in the past, the safety of these plants has improved dramatically and there have been numerous measures implemented to ensure an event as catastrophic of those of the past would never happen again. This has increased the usage by countries across the world, and with the economic benefits offered by the energy source, this increased usage by countries around the world will likely continue into the future.

© Matt Thornton. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] C. D. Ferguson, Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] "Backgrounder: Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, May 2013.

[3] "The Economics of Nuclear Power," World Nuclear Association, November 2008.

[4] P. S. Nivola, "The Political Economy of Nuclear Energy in the United States," The French Center on the United States,, May 2004.