Sunday, June 5, 2011

The status of the U.S. nuclear industry

There are currently 104 operable commercial nuclear reactors at 65 nuclear power plants. Since 1990, the share of the Nation's total electricity supply provided by nuclear power generation has averaged about 20%, with increases in nuclear generation that have roughly tracked the growth in total electricity output. Between 1985 and 1996, 34 new reactors were placed in service. In addition, nuclear generation has increased as a result of higher utilization of existing capacity and from technical modifications to increase nuclear plant capacity. Partly in response to incentives provided by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, including production tax credits for new nuclear power plants, EIA expects nuclear power output to grow, although at a rate about half that of total electricity generation.

There Are 31 States With at Least One Commercial Nuclear Reactor

Most of the commercial reactors in the United States are located east of the Mississippi River, near water sources (see map below). Illinois has the most reactors (11) and the most nuclear capacity. The two largest reactors in the United States, each with capacities above 1,300 net megawatts, are located at the Palo Verde plant in Arizona. The smallest reactor (482 net megawatts) is at Fort Calhoun, Nebraska.

A power plant refers to an entire facility. A plant may contain nuclear as well as non-nuclear units. Each reactor located at a commercial nuclear plant is part of a unique nuclear generating unit with its own personnel, equipment, and generators. The reactor provides heat to make steam for the generator which, in turn, provides the electricity.

More than half of the U.S. nuclear plants have at least two reactors. Although some foreign nuclear power plants have as many as eight reactors, only three U.S. plants have more than two operational reactors: Palo Verde in Arizona, Browns Ferry in Alabama, and Oconee in South Carolina each have three reactors.
Recent Nuclear Construction Activity

The last new reactor to enter commercial service was the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Watts Bar 1 in Tennessee in 1996. In 2002, the TVA returned Browns Ferry Unit 1 to service; the unit had been shut down since 1985. In 2007, construction resumed on a partially built reactor, Watts Bar 2, which is slated for initial operation in 2013. Construction on two other reactors, Bellefonte 1 and 2 in Alabama, remains suspended, but TVA has left open the possibility that the reactors eventually might be completed.

All of the TVA projects mentioned involve re-starting old, mostly partially built nuclear projects. Prospects for the construction of brand new plants are discussed below.
Nuclear Plants Are Generally Used More Intensively than Other Plants

Natural gas represents the largest share of electric power generation capacity, followed by coal, nuclear power, and conventional hydropower. Natural gas and coal capacity are each much larger than nuclear capacity (see capacity figure at left). However, for cost and technical reasons nuclear power plants are generally utilized more intensively than coal or natural gas units. In 2009, the nuclear share of electricity generating capacity was 10%, while nuclear's share of national power output was 20%. The comparable values for coal and natural gas were 30% capacity to 45% generation for coal, and 39% capacity to 23% generation for natural gas.
The United States Generates the Most Nuclear Power

The United States has the most nuclear capacity and generation among the 31 countries in the world that have commercial nuclear power. France, the country with the second most nuclear capacity, relies on nuclear power for nearly 80% of its electricity. Other countries that get a significant share of their electricity from nuclear power include Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Germany.
US Nuclear Energy Outlook

Nuclear Power and the Environment

Nuclear waste is a solid waste that must be carefully stored because it contains radioactive material and may be harmful if exposed. Currently, most commercial nuclear wastes are stored on-site at nuclear plants. See the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for more information on nuclear waste.

Nuclear power generation itself does not contribute to airborne emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a major greenhouse gas, although related activities such as the production of nuclear fuel for reactors do result in CO2 emissions. Currently, its nearest competitor in size among non-greenhouse-gas-emitting electricity generating technologies is conventional hydropower, which accounts for about 6% of U.S. electricity generation.
When Will New Reactors Come On Line?

Although five nuclear plants were retired in 1997 and 1998, nuclear capacity is about the same as in 1996 when the Watts Bar 1 plant came on line. Technical modifications to increase capacity (called uprates) at existing plants have made this possible. These uprates, combined with high utilization, have enabled nuclear to consistently maintain a share of about 20% of total electricity output. With many nuclear plants operating at or near capacity, even maintaining the current share will depend on new reactors being built.

As of early 2011, the NRC has active applications for a total of 28 new reactors, although it is unknown how many of the proposed reactors will be built. The NRC application review process is a detailed review that takes 30 to 60 months. Items as reactor design information, site evaluation, and safety features of the proposed plant are included in the review. Construction may take around six years for each reactor (see Assumptions to the AEO 2010, Table 8.2). EIA projects that the industry will add about 10 gigawatts (10,000 megawatts) of new nuclear capacity during the period 2009 to 2035, with 6.3 gigawatts coming from new reactors.1 The Watts Bar 2 reactor, reported by EIA as under construction, is currently the reactor nearest completion, with a construction permit completion date of 2013.


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