Nuclear Power in the United States

Ryan Gaertner
February 23, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016

Commercialization of Nuclear Power

Fig. 1: This is a picture of George W. Bush signing in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During the period between the 1940s and 1950s, power reactor research was becoming common at the Argonne National Lab, done by the United States Atomic Energy Commission. They were able to build and operate fourteen reactors in Chicago and fourteen more in Idaho, which were mainly initial testing reactors that served as the precursors for today's modern pressurized water reactors, boiling water reactors, heavy water reactors, graphite-moderated reactors, and liquid- metal cooled fast reactors. All in all, Argonne and other contractors built 52 total reactors, two of which were never operated and all of which were shut down by 2000. [1]

In December 1951, a director at Argonne and other staff members saw four light bulbs light up in a building somewhere off in the eastern Idaho desert. Interestingly enough, there was a generator connected to Experimental Breeder Reactor that flowed electricity through these lightbulbs, marking the first time that this amount of electrical power had been generated from nuclear fission. Some time later, the United States Navy saw that there was a possibility for their ships to travel the world at high speeds without the necessity of refueling for quite some time, and that it could be plausible to create submarines that would never have to surface! As a result, they sent their best engineer to the Atomic Energy Commission to start a project called Naval Reactors, which eventually led to the developed of the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), a model that would be installed in the US Submarine USS Nautilus. This submarine was thus able to operate underwater full time, and was actually able to reach the North Pole, only coming up to surface through the Polar ice cap.

Following the success of the Naval Reactor Program, other engineers and scientists worked tirelessly developing plans to use reactor steam to drive turbines turning generators, and in 1958 the first commercial nuclear power plant opened. The plant was named Shippingport Atomic Power Station and was opened by President Eisenhower amidst his Atoms for Peace program. [2]

The Three Mile Island Incident

In 1979 in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, reactor number 2 failed, leading to a stuck-open relief valve in the primary system that allowed very large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to flow out of and escape. To compound the reactor failure, the plant operators on site did not realize the situation and rather misjudged the analysis of the incident to a much lesser extent than what was happening, mainly as a result of inadequate training and flaws with the main computers. For example, there was a hidden indicator light that then led to an operator overriding the automatic system manually because the operator thought there was way too much coolant water in the reactor which would then lead to a steam pressure release.

Because of this incident, there was a rising amount of anti-nuclear concerns among many safety activists and in the general public, which naturally led to increased regulations for the nuclear industry and also could be the reason for the decline of the new reactor construction program that was initially put in place earlier in the 1970s. The aftermath was pretty devastating, as unknown but very large amounts of radioactive gases and iodine were released into the environment. However, epidemiological studies that analyzed the difference in difference between rates of cancer before and after the incident showed that there was a non significant statistical increase after the incident, which indicated that there was no causal connection that linked the accident with these diagnoses of cancer. [3]

US Policy on Nuclear Power

The United States has had the most private sector participation in the production of civilian nuclear power in the world. However, the government is very involved in the safety and regulations of nuclear power regarding the environment and US citizens. In fact, the government is more involved in commercial nuclear power in the United States than it is in any other industry in the country. For each construction of a new power plant, there are long and very detailed requirements that must be adhered to prior to and during the construction and operation of the plant, courtesy of the government. It takes as many as 3 years and often up to 5 years to pass the review process of the construction. As well, due to national research labs and projects at university and industry facilities, the government is the main source of funding for advanced reactor and fuel research.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005

In 2005, President Bush (shown in the figure to the right) signed into law a bill passed by Congress at Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, NM. This bill, an act, was described by supporters as an attempt to fight growing energy issues in the US, and would change US energy policy by adding tax incentives and loan guarantees for energy production of different types. In addition to loan guarantees, the act: [4]

  1. Increases the amount of biofuel/ethanol that is required to be mixed with gasoline sold in the US from 4 billion gallons to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

  2. Is aimed to increase coal as an energy source while at the same time reducing air pollution through the authorization of $200million annually for clean coal initiatives

  3. Seeks a $4.3 billion reduction in taxes in addition to other nuclear-specific provisions in the act such as extending another nuclear act through 2025.

  4. Authorizes the cost-overrun support of almost $2billion for up to six new nuclear plants.

  5. Authorizes loan guarantees for new nuclear projects to be repaid within 30 years of the project's life.

  6. Authorizes $2.95billion for nuclear research and development and the building of an advanced hydrogen reactor at Idaho National Lab.

  7. Allows nuclear plant employees and specific contractors to carry firearms.

  8. Prohibits the sale, export, or transfer of nuclear materials and "sensitive nuclear technology" to any state sponsors of terrorist activity.

© Ryan Gaertner. 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] S. Jasanoff and S.-H. Kim, "Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea," Minerva 47, 119 (2009).

[2] "Nuclear Regulation: NRC's Liability Insurance Requirements for Nuclear Power Plants Owned by Limited Liability Companies," U.S. General Accounting Office, GAO-04-654, May 2004.

[3] S. Wing et al., "A Reevaluation of Cancer Incidence Near the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant: The Collision of Evidence and Assumptions," Environ. Health Perspect. 105, 52 (1997).

[4] M. Holt and C. Glover, "Energy Policy Act of 2005: Summary and Analysis of Enacted Provisions," Congressional Research Services, RL33302, 8 Mar 06.