Oil's Replacement? The New Outlook for U.S Nuclear Energy

Grace Klaris
February 22, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: A scientist working at the Idaho National Laboratory. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years, the need to identify new, sustainable energy sources and achieve greater energy independence for America has risen to the top of lawmakers' agendas. With greenhouse gases still climbing and the world demand for energy predicted to increase by about 50% in 2030, nuclear energy has emerged as a promising answer to combat global warming. Despite the general public perception of nuclear energy being hazardous to both humans and the environment, the industry has maintained a strong record of safety in the past decade. The reality is that nuclear reactors are able to effectively produce electricity without releasing harmful air toxins like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur-compounds. [1]

Globally, we are seeing a resurgence of the nuclear energy industry. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), there are currently 435 working nuclear reactors around the world and 72 under construction. Of those 72, the United States is responsible for five. [1] There was a similar nuclear renaissance a few years back, but it failed to really take off. In fact, the last nuclear plant to be successfully finished in the U.S was Watts Bar in 1996. [2]

Bipartisan Senate Bill Passed to Support Clean Nuclear Energy

However, this push to improve our modest building program must be backed by policies that promote nuclear energy through funding and research. In the past decade, experts in the field have been calling for legislation that consider both energy policy and innovation. They assert that changes to energy policy have the potential to spur technological innovation, which in turn can also generate more interest to invest in nuclear power. [3]

Finally, we are seeing these types of changes in congress. Just last week, a bipartisan group of senators announced a piece of legislation called "The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act" (NEICA). The group included Democratic senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island along with Republic senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch from Idaho and Orrin Hatch of Utah.

One senator explained that the goal of this bill is to facilitate work between national laboratories and private companies. In other words, the legislators hope the bill will expedite the implementation of latest technology on nuclear energy, benefiting both research teams and private companies. [4]

Positive Implications for Nuclear Energy

This bill marks a momentous shift in attitude toward nuclear energy in congress. Now, more than ever, democrats and republicans are working together to accelerate innovation and destroy barriers between national labs and private companies. This collaboration between parties and across public and private sectors is a crucial step towards strengthening America's nuclear energy program. This important piece of legislation will promote domestic investment in nuclear energy and help national labs gain the backing then need from key players in the private sector.

What About Oil?

Despite the promising implications of this bill, nuclear energy is not replacing oil anytime soon. Currently, oil provides roughly 41% of America's energy consumption, while nuclear energy only accounts for 8%. [5] Keep in mind, that nuclear reactors produce electricity, not oil. Thus, the biggest issue right now is developing a way to harness that electricity for the same purposes of oil. For instance, in the future we may be able to run vehicles with an energy carrier like hydrogen, which could be produced by the electricity generated in nuclear plants. In this method, the nuclear reactors could essentially make motor fuel by providing the energy required to break down hydrogen fuels (coal, shale oil, etc.) into a gas composed of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. [5]

However, we are still a ways away from honing this technology. Moreover, building new power plants is extremely expensive and many investors are hesitant to give money to projects with such delayed payback periods. Nevertheless, nuclear energy may still be our only hope at reducing fossil fuel consumption in the U.S and globally.

Currently, nuclear power in America accounts for more than 175 million tons of carbon that would have been released into the atmosphere if coal had been used instead. [1] Hopefully this newly passed bill can help us avoid even more.

© Grace Klaris. 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] J. A. Lake R. G. Bennett, and J. F. Knotek, "Next Generation Nuclear Power," Scientific American, 26 Jan 09.

[2] C. J. Cleveland and C. G. Morris, Handbook of Energy (2 Vols.) (Elsevier, 2013).

[3] W. J. Nuttall, Nuclear Renaissance: Technologies and Policies for the Future of Nuclear Power (CRC Press, 2004).

[4] T. Dennis, "'New' Nuclear Power Deserves Close Look," Grand Forks Herald, 14 Feb 16.

[5] M. L. Wald, "When It Comes to Replacing Oil Imports, Nuclear Is No Easy Option, Experts Say," New York Times, 9 May 05.