Current State of the U.S. Nuclear Energy Industry

Aaron Jones
March 7, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. It was shut down in December 2014 by Entergy. [5] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The future of nuclear energy in America looks bleak. Nineteen reactors are scheduled to be decommissioned while only two are scheduled to be built. Some, like the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant shown in Fig. 1, have already been decommissioned. For the first time in a couple decades, the majority of Americans are opposed to nuclear energy. According to a Gallup poll conducted in March 2016, 54% of Americans are opposed to nuclear energy while 44% are in favor. This is a significant drop from its peak popularity of 62% in 2010. Much of this decline is due to cost. As other sources of energy become cheaper, nuclear struggles to compete. Nuclear power is cheap, but power plants cost a ton of money to build. The newest nuclear reactor in Georgia has a price tag of $14 billion. [1] There is also the issue of waste storage, which raises political and environmental concerns.


For nuclear energy to succeed, it has to be cheap enough. For it to be cheap enough, the government has to help.

The Trump administration seeks to help the nuclear energy industry by reopening Yucca Mountain (pictured in Fig. 2) as a site for nuclear waste storage. The president's budget proposal sets aside $120 million for the project. [2] According to a summary of the budget proposal, these investments would accelerate progress on fulfilling the federal government's obligations to address nuclear waste, enhance national security, and reduce future taxpayer burden. [3]

Naturally, Trump's proposal has stirred controversy. Yucca Mountain has been a source of controversy for decades. It was designated to be a storage site since 1987, but due to intense political opposition and Obama's decision to scrap the program in 2011, the site was never finished. If Congress approves Trump's budget, they will face renewed and intense opposition from Nevada. The state has filed 218 contentions citing technical and legal concerns. [2] Before any construction takes place, Congress must have hearings on these contentions. This would take four to five years and cost the government $2 billion. [2]

Fig. 2: Aerial shot of Yucca Mountain. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A Double-Edged Sword

This kind of controversy can only bring negative attention to the nuclear power industry, which already struggles with declining public favor. Public opinion matters because it is ultimately taxpayers who help fund nuclear energy. Private investors aren't too keen on financing new reactors. They cost billions of dollars and usually costs a lot more than initial estimates. This means the government ends up loaning billions of dollars to keep nuclear energy alive. [4]

The industry faces a conundrum. It needs government help to lower prices (and thus improve public opinion), but the current administration is very unpopular. By association, public opinion of the industry might diminish further. If nuclear energy becomes too unpopular, taxpayers may not want the government to spend money on it. If the government can't subsidize nuclear energy, it dies. Is Yucca Mountain worth the controversy? The administration might want to find other ways to help.

© Aaron Jones. 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] E. Peralta, "U.S. Regulators Approve First Nuclear Power Plant in a Generation," National Public Radio, 9 Feb 12.

[2] S. Zhang, "The White House Revives a Controversial Plan for Nuclear Waste," The Atlantic, 21 Mar 17.

[3] T. Gardner, "White House Proposes Reviving Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Site," Reuters, 15 Mar 17.

[4] M. Grunwald, "Why Obama's Nuclear Bet Won't Pay Off," Time Magazine, 18 Feb 10.

[5] B. Mann, "Unable to Compete on Price, Nuclear Power on the Decline in the U.S.," National Public Radio, 7 Apr 16.