America's Stance on Nuclear Energy

Helen Liu
May 3, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Current Construction of Nuclear Plants in the United States

Fig. 1: Plant Vogtle 1 and 2 reactors (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the beginning of 2018, the Georgia Public Service Commission and utility regulators in Georgia unanimously approved plans to continue building the only two nuclear reactors (Fig. 1) still under construction in the United States. [1] This is the only American commercial nuclear project, known as the Vogtle expansion. In 2009, the Georgia Public Service Commission authorized Georgia Power to build two new reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle generating station. The facility is located near Waynesboro, GA and is capable of generating 2,430 MW through two Westinghouse pressurized water reactors. [2]

The Issues

The BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017 reveals the makeup of the United States's energy consumption by fuel. Natural gas makes up 31.5% (716.3/2272.2) of total consumption as compared to nuclear energy's 8.4% (191.8/2272.2). [3] This shows the abundance of natural gas and we can draw the conclusion that the loss of nuclear plants does not have much of an impact on power supply on the United States. The BP Statistical Review reports that nuclear energy consumption in the US is roughly the same amount as from ten years ago in 2008, around 200 million tonnes oil equivalent. [3] Natural gas consumption has grown almost two hundred million tonnes oil equivalent since 2008, ten years ago. [3] Another reason against the decision to continue the Vogtle expansion is that the project is behind schedule; the two reactors were planned to be functional by 2017. [1] The project was initially budgeted to cost $14 billion. However, some statisticians estimate that it can cost as much as $25 billion in the end. [4] In addition to these points, the projects lead contractor, Westinghouse, suffered a bankruptcy in March 2017. [4]


The Georgia Public Service Commission voted in favor for the completion of the Vogtle expansion. Proponents of the nuclear energy industry hope that successful Vogtle expansion will lead to a higher reliability of the nuclear energy industry, provide more fuel diversity, promote cleaner and safer sources of fuel and also protect the United States from international sources and competition.

Other Plans for American Nuclear Energy

The Vogtle project is the only currently ongoing nuclear energy construction project. In July 2017, two South Carolina utilities gave up working on the two unfinished reactors in the state. These reactors have cost around $9 billion and are less than 40% completed. [5]

Historical Context

Now let us examine a bit more of the history of nuclear energy in the United States. On March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant had a coolant malfunction and shut down. People within a five mile radius of the incident were measured to have an average of 1 millirem of radioactive exposure above the usual background dose. For context, exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem. While there were no reported health consequences as a result, this is arguably the most politically significant nuclear power plant accident in the United States. [6] The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations was formed shortly after and enforced strict standards of operational safety. [7]

Improvements - The Future

In the past nuclear power plants on average suffered about six automatic shutdowns per year, but currently, the average is now decreased to less than once a year. [4] Plants also run more than 11 months on average due to quality maintenance. [8] The value placed on nuclear energy in America by different parties is still an ongoing debate.

© Helen Liu. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] B. Plumer, "Georgia, Facing Difficult Dilemma, Keeps Nuclear Project Alive," New York Times, 21 Dec 17.

[2] C. Van de Graaf, "Plant Vogtle Reactors 3 and 4: A Case Study in Challenges for US Nuclear Construction ," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[3] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017," British Petroleum, June 2017.

[4] Z. Pate and W. Webster, Jr., "The Nuclear Showdown in Georgia," The New York Times, 20 Dec 17.

[5] D. Cardwell, "The Murky Future of Nuclear Power in the United States," The Guardian, 18 Feb 17.

[6] C. Hopkins, "Three Mile Island," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2015.

[7] M.C. Hatch et al., "Cancer Near the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant: Radiation Emissions,"," Am. J. Epidemiol. 132, 397 (1990).

[8] K. Rakestraw, "The Future Of U.S. Nuclear Energy," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.