The Future Of U.S. Nuclear Energy

Kevin Rakestraw
May 24, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

The Need For Nuclear Energy

Fig. 1: U.S. operating commercial nuclear power reactors, as of May 2017. (Courtesy of the NRC.)

In the past couple years the outlook on energy has significantly changed. Both the Paris Agreement drafted in 2015 and Sustainable Development Goals drafted in 2014 have pushed the agenda of clean energy further than it has been before. There is more pressure than ever before to reduce emissions on a global scale through emission-free options such as renewables or nuclear energy. However in the U.S. nuclear energy does not appear to have much of a future at all. While there are many reactors spread across the U.S., as shown in Fig. 1, there has been very little growth of nuclear power in the past 20 years.

What's Limiting Nuclear Growth?

Nuclear energy seemed to be a clear solution on paper. Nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gases, its prices are not volatile like other resources, and it has a better safety record than the coal industry. [1] However, its growth is seemingly crippled. Natural gas is a major reason for the lack of nuclear growth. Cheap and abundant natural gas, has become a massive energy source in the U.S. Natural gas energy is expect to grow at 20 times the rate of nuclear through 2040. [1] Nuclear energy also faces issues with high costs, safety concerns, waste disposal and threat of proliferation. [1] Nuclear plant construction takes longer and costs more than other mainstream energy sources. [1]

Rise of Natural Gas

Natural gas production was seemingly dying off in the U.S. early in this millennium. In 2005, U.S. was looking as though it would become an importer of liquefied natural gas. [2] Yet a decade later, natural gas production surged. Production rose by 50% from 2005 to 2015, and, more importantly, natural gas has become cheaper. [2] As of 2009, the United States is the world's top natural gas producer. [2] There are a couple factors that have driven this growth. The EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan has accelerated the phase out of coal plants and created demand for new energy sources. [2] On top of this, pipeline exports to Mexico and Eastern Canada are further driving production of natural gas. [2,3]

Decline of Nuclear

After the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, nuclear construction had all but disappeared. [4] Half of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors are over 30 years old, with most of the remaining reactors being at least 20 years old. [5] Nuclear plant construction has been at a standstill for quite a while. Only recently has nuclear construction resumed under the administration of George W. Bush, due in part to rising concerns of climate change. [4] The nuclear plants built in 1970s and 1980s were crippled by costly delays. [4] Federal regulators had devised new licensing process aimed at alleviating these difficulties and facilitating nuclear growth. [4] However, the new licensing process was not that effective, as seen in the issues with Westinghouse's nuclear project.

The Westinghouse Debacle

In 2008, Westinghouse had secured deals to expand two existing nuclear plants in Georgia and South Carolina. [4] However, there were many roadblocks along the way. Nuclear construction had been dormant for so long that American companies lacked the equipment or expertise to produce needed components. This required parts to be manufactured overseas, creating added expenses and delays. [4] Then in March of 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster prompted regulators to revisit safety standards. This slowed approval and resulted in new requirements, again creating more cost and more delay. [4] On top of that, Westinghouse acquired part of the construction company working on the project in order to get delays and costs under control. This merger ended up backfiring and created disputes of over who should absorb the costs. [4] In March 2017, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy protection. [6] While Westinghouse's bankruptcy filing is in a large part due to internal difficulties, this is a deterrent for more nuclear construction.

© Kevin Rakestraw. 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] K. Johnson, "What's Holding Back Nuclear Energy," The Wall Street Journal, 11 Nov 13.

[2] R. Rapier, "The Long Term Outlook For Natural Gas ," Forbes, 31 Oct 16.

[3] J. Clemente. "Growing U.S. Industrial National Gas Demand", Forbes, 16 Oct 16.

[4] D. Cardwell, "The Murky Future of Nuclear Power in the United States," New York Times, 18 Feb 17.

[5] S. Hargreaves, "Half of U.S. Nuclear Reactors Over 30 Years Old," CNN, 15 Mar 11.

[6] D. Cardwell and J. Soble, "Westinghouse Files for Bankruptcy, in Blow to Nuclear Power," New York Times, 29 Mar 17.