Nuclear power comes from the process of nuclear fission, or the splitting of atoms. The resulting controlled nuclear chain reaction creates heat, which is used to boil water, produce steam, and drive turbines that generate electricity.

The United States is home to 104 nuclear power plants, located in 31 states. Together, these plants generate roughly 20 percent of America’s electricity, or approximately 8.5 percent of its total energy.[i]

 Courtesy DOE/OCRWM

However, no new nuclear reactors have started up in the United States since 1996.[ii]

From 1973 to 2008, electricity generated by nuclear plants in the US rose TENFOLD TO APPROXIMATELY 800,000 megawatt hours.[iii] Reliability of existing plants has grown substantially during this time, which means that existing plants are producing more energy than in the past. Nuclear capacity factors are now averaging around 92 percent, up from 48 percent in 1974.[iv]

Nuclear operators can increase the rated capacity of their plants through power uprates, which are license amendments that must be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Uprates can vary from small (less than 2 percent) increases in capacity, which require very little capital investment or plant modifications, to extended uprates of 15-20 percent, requiring significant modifications. It is expected that over 3 gigawatts of additional nuclear power will be added by 2030 through uprates at existing nuclear power plants.[v]

The US is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, but it derives a smaller percentage of its electricity from nuclear technology than many other industrial countries. In 2005, France derived 78.9 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Other countries producing a high percentage of their power from nuclear energy include Lithuania (72.8 percent), Belgium (56.1 percent), Sweden (44.9 percent), South Korea (38.1 percent), and Switzerland (39.5 percent).

Nuclear energy is reliable and emission-free, and is viewed by many governments around the world as an attractive form of future electricity generation in the light of controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear Challenges

While several new US nuclear plants are planned, none have been built in decades. A new federal law enacted in 2005 seeks to revive the construction and deployment of nuclear power plants by granting regulatory certainty to new and safer designs of nuclear reactors.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides loan guarantees of up to 80% of a project’s cost and a production tax credit of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour for new nuclear capacity beginning operation by 2020. The tax credit is specified for the first 8 years of operation and is limited to $125 million per gigawatt per year.

This act has spurred applications for new plants to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, their high capital cost is still an impediment to the deployment of these plants. Some examples include:

  • In September 2007, an application was filed with the NRC to add units 3 and 4 to the South Texas Project nuclear power plant in San Antonio in 2014 and 2015 at a cost of $10 billion, or $3682 per kilowatt, for the two 1358 megawatt reactors. [vi]The project has been postponed to 2016 and 2017 and there is speculation that the cost may be underestimated.[vii]
  • The cost of adding two new reactors to Florida’s Turkey Point nuclear plant is expected to range from $3,108 to $4,540 per kilowatt for 2,614 total megawatts.[viii]
  • Duke Energy proposes to build two 1,117 megawatt units at a new power station, William S. Lee III Nuclear Station, in Cherokee County, South Carolina for $11 billion, or $4,924 per kilowatt in 2018 and 2019.[ix] Duke Energy is looking for a partner and could delay the construction of the units by three years if finding a partner proves difficult.[x]

The Energy Information Administration, an independent agency in the U.S. Department of Energy, assumes the total overnight capital cost for a new nuclear plant is $3,318 per kilowatt in 2007 dollars, which supports the lower end of the individual project cost numbers given above.[xi]

The EIA has projected the cost of generating electricity from a new nuclear plant in 2016 to be 10.73 cents per kilowatt hour, 34 percent higher than a natural gas combined cycle plant, and 13 percent higher than a conventional coal plant. For conventional coal, EIA assumes the equivalent of a $15 per ton carbon dioxide emissions fee when investing in a new coal plant without carbon capture and sequestration technology[xii].

One ongoing concern in the nuclear power field is the safe disposal and isolation of spent fuel from reactors and waste from reprocessing plants. Consumers have paid billions of dollars in levies on their electric bills over the years to fund a government program to dispose of the waste. The Department of Energy has had the responsibility for development of the waste disposal system for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive nuclear waste since 1982, and current plans call for deposit of the material in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but this program is much delayed and funding for it has been reduced by the Obama Administration.

[i] Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, and .

[ii] “Nuclear Power: Outlook for new U.S. Reactors”, Congressional Research Service, March 9, 2007,

[iii] Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review,

[iv] Energy information Administration, Annual Energy Review 2008, Table 9.2,

[v] Energy Information Administration, Assumptions to the Annual Energy Outlook 2009, Electricity Market Module,

[vi] “CPS Energy sees need for new STP units”, June 30, 2009,

[vii] “Nuclear cost estimate rises by as much as $4 billion”, October 28, 2009.

[viii], February 21, 2008, and


[x] “Duke Energy Likely to Delay Construction of Lee Nuclear Power Plant”, Energy Business review, September 4, 2009,

[xi] Energy Information Administration, Assumptions to the Annual Energy Outlook 2009, Table 8.2,