The Broad Appeal of Nuclear Power

The Broad Appeal of Nuclear Power

Nuclear power has faced waves of negative sentiment since the technology’s early roots in weaponization. This history dates back to the 1930s-1940s and was exemplified with the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, during World War II. Despite this dark history, nuclear power offers a mix of attributes that add up to broad appeal.

We see five main characteristics supporting the case for nuclear energy:

1) Nuclear is reliable

For a national, state or local utility, the appeal of nuclear power starts with its reliability. Regions with nuclear power plants deploy reactors round-the-clock, using nuclear as the baseload power source for electric grids. All other power sources depend on less-reliable inputs — whether that’s fuels with volatile prices or natural conditions that are unpredictable and intermittent, like wind, solar and hydroelectric.

Nuclear power plants require a major capital investment to build, but the cost of fuel is a minuscule share of the overall operating expense. For utilities, that means it’s economically appealing to maximize their return on investment by running reactors at the highest possible capacity.

Figure 4. Nuclear Energy Provides the Most Reliable Baseload Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration. Data as of 31/12/2022. For illustrative purposes only.

As nuclear plants have advanced in recent decades, they have also figured out how to operate and maintain reactors more efficiently. This translates to fewer, shorter disruptions in the reactors’ consistent production of electrical power.

These reliability dynamics mean that nuclear energy has an incredibly high capacity factor of more than 90%. The next-most reliable source is biomass, which produces 61% of its potential energy capacity. Renewables such as wind and solar rank relatively low given that they are intermittent and subject to fluctuating wind and solar conditions. They are among the least reliable sources for meeting electricity demand. Hydroelectric power is greatly dependent on water flow and has been negatively impacted by increased drought conditions due to climate change. For all three of these, variable weather patterns can greatly impact electricity production, posing potential shortfalls.

2) Nuclear is efficient

One uranium fuel pellet — about the size of a gummy bear — is the energy equivalent of three barrels of oil, or one ton of coal, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, according to the American Nuclear association, as shown in Figure 5. The size and weight advantage of nuclear fuel add up when considering the full life cycle of energy production— extraction, refining, transport, production and especially waste disposal.

At each step, the energy density of uranium translates to huge efficiencies. Efforts to reprocess or recycle spent fuel in nuclear plants extend uranium’s efficiency further. Enriched uranium only uses about 4% of the potential energy in the first cycle through a reactor. As the technology advances to make it more economically viable to recycle fuel, the efficiency of nuclear is likely to rise even higher.

Figure 5. Nuclear Fuel is Efficient. Source: American Nuclear Association. For illustrative purposes only.

Spent nuclear fuel even has arguable appeal. Compared to the waste byproducts of other energy production processes, nuclear fuel has two significant advantages. First, the waste is physically compact. The waste from a reactor supplying one person’s electricity needs for a year is about the size of a brick. Only five grams[1] of this is high-level waste (the type requiring the most shielding from radiation). The small scale of waste allows utilities to store spent fuel onsite or in interim storage locations as policymakers sort out permanent storage plans.

Even more importantly, the waste from nuclear power is completely accounted for in the cycle. Fossil fuel energy creates expensive and destructive externalities for societies, most of which are invisible to the human eye. Fossil fuel plants are regulated for emissions, but they are not forced to bear the true costs of their wastes.

Apples to Apples: Comparing Capacity Factors

The capacity factor is a way of measuring energy output relative to the installed infrastructure: Capacity factor = Actual units of energy produced/maximum potential units. A capacity factor of 100% would mean that a plant was producing all the energy it physically could around the clock. Nuclear energy has an incredibly high capacity factor more than 90%.

3) Nuclear is clean

Nuclear energy generates the lowest greenhouse gases of any power source, period. Over the full lifecycle of nuclear power production, each gigawatt-hour of electricity contributes about three CO2 equivalent emissions per gigawatt-hour of electricity, which is in line with wind and solar. Hydroelectric power sources generate 11 times more CO2 equivalent emissions; oil and coal generate 240 and 273 times more, respectively.[2]

4) Nuclear is safe

A common association with nuclear energy is that it’s unsafe because of the risk of leaking radiation from reactors or spent fuel — but it is scientifically a far safer energy production method than fossil fuel sources. The mortality rate for the nuclear energy cycle is 0.03 per TWh (terawatt-hour), which includes Chernobyl and Fukushima, which is in line with renewables and about 821x safer than coal.

Nuclear’s Low Mortality Rate

Nuclear power technology has not changed since it was first implemented mid-century, but the safety protocols have advanced significantly, cementing the appeal of nuclear power. The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl was driven by an insufficient reactor containment blamed on a flawed Soviet-era design and by avoidable operator mistakes. The international community upgraded design standards and safety protocols after the tragedy. As shown in Figure 8, mortality rates reflect the damage to human life from both the extraction cycle and environmental effects. Energy from coal releases so much toxic pollution that it is estimated to account for 4,400 deaths per day in China, where coal plant usage is the highest.[3] The secure storage of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) is the other key issue for nuclear power’s safety ratings. SNF must be stored indefinitely because it is radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years — but importantly, the portion of the SNF that generates most of the penetrating heat and radiation has a short half-life. As a result, the radioactivity level of SNF decays exponentially.

Figure 7. Nuclear Operations and Waste Are Safe

*Death rate for nuclear energy includes deaths from Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters and the deaths from occupational accidents (largely mining and milling).

Source 1: Markandya & Wilkinson (2007) in The Lancet, and Sovacool et al. (2016) in Journal of Cleaner Production.
Source 2:

The Two Types of Radioactivity in Spent Nuclear Fuel

Spent fuel contains two different kinds of radioactive materials: certain lighter isotopes like cesium-137 and plutonium. The lighter isotopes account for most of the heat and penetrating radiation, but they decay relatively quickly, with a half-life of 30 years. Plutonium has a much longer half-life of 24,000 years, but it generates very little penetrating radiation.

5) Nuclear power may offer greater energy security

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has created a sense of urgency among western nations to securitize energy sources. According to the IEA (International Energy Agency), natural gas imported from Russia accounts for around 45% of the EU’s gas imports in 2021. Natural gas prices in Europe have soared compared to the U.S., putting significant pressure on policymakers to find more secure alternatives.

On March 3, 2022, the IEA released A 10-Point Plan to Reduce the European Union’s Reliance on Natural Gas; one of its points recommends maximizing dispatchable low-emissions sources, including nuclear:

Nuclear power is the largest source of low emissions electricity in the EU, but several reactors were taken offline for maintenance and safety checks in 2021. Returning these reactors to safe operations in 2022, alongside the start of commercial operations for the completed reactor in Finland, can lead to EU nuclear power generation increasing by up to 20 TWh in 2022. A new round of reactor closures, however, would dent this recovery in output: four nuclear reactors are scheduled to shut down by the end of 2022, and another one in 2023. A temporary delay of these closures, conducted in a way that assures the plants’ safe operation, could cut EU gas demand by almost 1 billion cubic meters per month.”

Figure 8. Natural Gas Prices in the EU Have Soared (2020-2022)


[2]; measured in emissions of CO2-equivalent per gigawatt-hour of electricity over the lifecycle of the power plant. Data as of 31/31/2020.


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