Policy Prescriptions for Encouraging Nuclear Energy

Travis Lanham
December 17, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017

Introduction and Background

Fig. 1: Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since the detonation of nuclear fission bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of the Second World War, public perception of nuclear energy has been tainted with a destructive lens. In 1934, Enrico Fermi first discovered the process of fission through his experiment that bombarded atoms of uranium with neutrons, yielding lighter products. He then lead the first group that constructed a nuclear reactor in 1942.

Although the demands of the war effort pushed for weaponized nuclear development, the promise of efficient electrical power generation remained. The potential was perceived as so great that Lewis Strauss, the commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission, claimed that future generations would enjoy "electrical energy too cheap to meter."

The first US commercial nuclear power plant went online in 1958 and grew steadily through the 1960s and 70s, until the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 which spurred the environmentalist opposition to nuclear power. Public opinion combined with slowing demand for electricity lead to a stagnation in the nuclear power industry through the late 1990s.

In the 2000s, a "nuclear renaissance" was proclaimed for the US as reducing carbon emissions became a more prominent policy issue. This renaissance initially appeared promising, with several new reactor projects started in the US, but cost overruns and the Fukushima Daiichi event eroded support. Nuclear power continue to provide an important source of electrical energy in the US, accounting for almost 20% of annual electrical power generation, and importantly, over 60% of carbon-free electrical power, including the Diablo Canyon plant see in Fig. 1 that produces 18,000 GWh of electricity annually; however, with several reactors set to be decommissioned and uncertain timelines for new ones under construction, these numbers are poised to shrink. [1]

Benefits of Nuclear

As one of the largest sources of carbon-free electricity, nuclear power has many benefits as a source of energy. Nuclear power plants require minimal land use in contrast to solar and wind farms which are typically at least 10 times larger in terms of land use. Further, nuclear power is one of the safest sources of electricity generation. Only the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi incidents (both outside the US) resulted in maximum radiation exposure higher than natural background levels, and even the radiation levels at Fukushima Daiichi were not high enough to cause significant health effects. Nuclear has a lower morbidity rate per unit of energy produced (even lower than some renewables). [2]

From a cost perspective, according to the Energy Information Administration, nuclear is roughly competitive with convention coal and among renewables is cheaper than solar, offshore wind, and biomass. [3]


The barriers to nuclear adoption in the US is not a technical one, but rather a regulatory one. Other countries like France generate the majority of the electric power from nuclear energy without major technical incidents. Plans to build new reactors in South Carolina were abandoned after cost overruns, leaving fewer than 100 operational US reactors across 61 plants. [4]

Policy Options

Nuclear is technically and economically feasible and an instrumental source of carbon-free electricity, however, public policy adjustments are need to include nuclear in future energy planning. Policies are in place that advantage the nuclear industry, including liability indemnity, but it does not feature prominently in the public discourse on energy. A critical barrier to nuclear development are renewable portfolio standards which states use to establish goals and mandates for percentages of electricity generation by source. These standards are instrumental in state energy policy and often include additional subsidies; however, they do not treat all carbon-free energy sources equally. Although the stated policy objectives of the portfolios are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, only 1 state (Ohio) out of 29 that have adopted them allow for nuclear power to be included. [5]


Nuclear power is a crucial source of carbon-free energy but is frequently ignored in discourse over the future of US energy policy. Nuclear is one of the only carbon-free energy sources that has proven reliable for energy generation at scale. As the number of active reactors declines and few look to be built to replace them, policymakers should look to include nuclear in renewable portfolio standards and consider how to attract new reactor development.


[1] "Direct Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy in Fiscal Year 2010," US Energy Information Administration, July 2011.

[2] B. Richter, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[3] "Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2014," US Energy Information Administration, April 2014.

[4] B. Plumer, "The U.S. Backs Off Nuclear Power. Georgia Wants to Keep Building Reactors," New York Times, 31 Aug 17.

[5] J. Heeter and L. Bird, "Including Alternative Resources in State Renewable Portfolio Standards: Current Design and Implementation Experience," U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL/TP-6A20-55979, November 2012.