The idea that energy demand will soon outweigh supply is a concept that has been touted for many years. Since many claim that fossil fuels are unsustainable and damaging to the earth’s environment and climate, renewable energy sources are often suggested as a viable alternative. A non-renewable energy alternative to fossil fuel, however, is nuclear energy.
Nuclear power made a notorious entry during World War II with the development of the atomic bomb. Created under the guise of the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb became a symbol of nuclear power's potent effects and dangerous potential. Recognizing this potential, the United States sought to channel the use of nuclear energy into more peaceful paths. Following the conclusion of WWII, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, an act which sought to encourage further research and development of nuclear power for American and international usage, while safeguarding against its misuse for weaponry.
Atomic energy usage grew rapidly in the following years, and in 1954, a legislative update to the first Atomic Energy Act was passed. President Eisenhower hailed this move as an opportunity for the government to hand over some of its nuclear energy control to "private industry." At the same time, however, the government sought to compensate producers and the public for the risks inherent in nuclear power by passing the Price-Anderson Act in 1957. An early version of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Price-Anderson set up liability coverage "to provide prompt and orderly compensation of members of the public who incur damages from a nuclear or radiological incident no matter who might be liable."
Indeed, the perception that nuclear energy is inherently unsafe has made political and economic support for its development highly contentious. Nuclear power plant accidents--Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and most recently, Fukushima in 2011--are all too present on the public's mind. Aside from these accidents, nuclear power plants are also potential terrorist targets for attacks resulting in massive causalities, or for stealing nuclear materials to build dirty bombs. Additionally, less dramatic but still disconcerting are the possible side-effects of living near nuclear power plants. A recent report has found that nuclear power plants have accidentally radiated the water supply, albeit within safe levels of consumption.
Moreover, development of nuclear power abroad has always been a bone of contention in international relations. Since countries with nuclear power plants are also able to create nuclear weaponry, there is legitimate fear in the international community that claims of developing nuclear power to meet energy demands are used to conceal more nefarious purposes. Fears such as these produced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978, which encouraged "international safeguards" such as regular inspections and regulations.
Yet, critics claim site inspections are not enough to prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Some suggest giving the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, more supervisory power over states' nuclear development programs. But skeptics wonder how states could be granted the use nuclear power without enabling them to build nuclear weapons.
Finally, there are environmental concerns associated with nuclear power. One problem is that of properly disposing the waste involved in nuclear production. These concerns resulted in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, an Act which President Reagan declared, "clears the barrier that has stood in the way of development of this vital energy resource." This Act proposed to place U.S. nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, an underground location which allegedly would prevent hazardous nuclear materials from contaminating the environment. Recently, however, under the direction of the Obama administration, this longstanding and friction-laden proposal was abandoned by the Department of Energy, which declared that updated research had rendered the plan imprudent.
Another problem is the nature of uranium mining. Environmentalists generally consider it unsafe and a major source of pollution. As one environmentalist group's report purports, "[t]he industry's history of contaminating streams, rivers, lakes and groundwater with radioactive or toxic wastes is just as long, and it persists as abandoned open-pit mines from the Cold War era continue to leach pollutants into waterways, mostly on public or tribal lands, in 14 Western states. By 2009, 14 uranium mines were in operation in the U.S., and four were in situ operations that involve injecting chemical-laced solutions into the ground to dissolve uranium from ore and then pumping out the uranium-containing fluids."
Aside from all these safety concerns, a major advance of nuclear power in the United States has thus far been further hindered by economics. Although nuclear energy’s KW/$ cost is relatively cheap, nuclear power plant construction costs are extremely high. For that reason, nuclear energy production has been heavily subsidized, a fact which some scholars claim "hides [its] full costs and risks." Between 1950 and 2003, nuclear energy received 10 percent of federal energy incentives--about $63 billion total. At the same time, it only provided 10 percent of the nation's energy and 20 percent of its electricity.
Supporters, however, believe that technological improvements and building economies of scale are bound to decrease the costs associated with providing nuclear power over time. Nuclear power, they claim, will eventually provide a cleaner, lower-cost alternative to America’s fossil fuel problems, especially if one considers the fact that fossil fuels are also heavily subsidized, being depleted, and will most likely be taxed more in the future (e.g. through carbon taxes or cap-trade programs).
Determining the viability and trajectory of nuclear power is no easy task. This topic therefore provides insight into the history and development of nuclear power as an energy source in the United States, the myriad of issues surrounding its production and safety, and the pros and cons associated with past, present and future nuclear energy policy.