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America’s “Nuclear Renaissance” Part II: Risks and Challenges to an Expansionary Nuclear Policy

February 01, 2018

Nuclear energy has the potential to assist nations in tackling climate change and sustain a rapidly growing world population. In the first part of this series on nuclear energy, I analyzed why nuclear energy is superior to other energy sources in achieving this end but also why current market forces prevent its growth. However, even if US legislators decided to pass legislation that aggressively expanded the country’s nuclear infrastructure, there are three primary non-market challenges with current U.S. policy, or lack thereof: a hostile public, the absence of a centralized nuclear waste disposal site, and concerns with proliferation and the imperilment of U.S. national security objectives. In order to responsibly expand nuclear energy capacities and prevent proliferation to hostile states, policy-makers have an obligation to address these issues. Not doing so may bear worse consequences than wantonly enlarging the United States’ atomic sector.

The Denuclearization Movement

A 2016 Gallup poll showed that for the first time in United States history, a majority of Americans, approximately 54%, oppose the use of nuclear energy. [1] Much of this change in public opinion can be attributed to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, compounded with the memories of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. [2] While the United States government has yet to take an active stance against nuclear power, a variety of European nations have adopted denuclearization policies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel changed her position on nuclear energy and decided to initiate a phase-out of German nuclear power plants. [3] Unfortunately, this political decision had immediate consequences: Germany has replaced a large part of the 100 terawatts of nuclear energy lost with fossil-fuels, German utilities firms are struggling with rapid shutdowns, and the German government is facing difficulties with the costs of shutdowns. [4]

It is possible that the public’s response to Fukushima was reactionary and that the German response is political, which will bear severe consequences. Widespread public fear of nuclear energy may, in practice, be wholly unfounded. A study by ProPublica shows that the actual human cost, in total fatalities from 1970 to 2008, of nuclear power plants in the developed world (therefore excluding the Soviet Union and Chernobyl) has been zero fatalities. [5] Furthermore, no casualties occurred because of the radiation released in the Fukushima accident. [6]

(Image: While the total fatalities from nuclear accidents in the developed world is zero, the potential deaths from a catastrophic accident range in the thousands for the average nuclear site. However, in practice, traditional energy resources such as oil, natural gas and coal, are responsible for about 6,000 deaths. Source:  ProPublica) 

(Image: While the total fatalities from nuclear accidents in the developed world is zero, the potential deaths from a catastrophic accident range in the thousands for the average nuclear site. However, in practice, traditional energy resources such as oil, natural gas and coal, are responsible for about 6,000 deaths. Source: ProPublica)

Nuclear power plants, either by an external force or human error, could still face potential meltdowns or accidents. For example, many attribute the Three Mile Island nuclear accident to human error. [7] Yet, the World Nuclear Association claims industries have worked hard to improve the quality of design and construction, implement new fail-safes, and institute regular testing and monitoring. [8] Additionally, proponents of nuclear energy, such as former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, believe new technology, seen in small modular reactors (SMRs), could also lessen the risk of meltdown due to external forces. [9] Such reactors are built to produce anywhere from 300 to 1,000 megawatts and include natural cooling features, allowing it to continue to function in the case of loss of external power sources, like in the case of Fukushima. [10]

Regulation and Nuclear Waste

However, with such technology still in the research and development phase, and the public’s growing concern over nuclear energy, the federal government should consider scaling up its regulation of nuclear power plants. One of the chief criticisms of the United States’ reaction to Fukushima was that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did little to address public safety concerns after the accident. [11] Such regulations would include prohibiting the construction of nuclear power plants on fault lines, more frequent inspections, and even nationalizing unprofitable nuclear power plants. [12] While the nuclear energy industry has stated that more regulation could hamper technological progress, the potential for a disastrous mistake in a power plant may be a more compelling argument. [13]

While the risk of a meltdown is rather slim, the environmental and security risks associated with nuclear waste are assured. [14] And, if lawmakers want to expand the nuclear grid, it is imperative that a sensible policy solution must address the issue of nuclear waste. Currently, the nuclear energy industry produces about 2,000 - 3,000 metric tons of nuclear fuel every year, with 76,430 metric tons already having been generated since 1957. [15] In order to minimize public health hazards, the scientific consensus for storage has been to isolate the fuel deep underground. [16] However, many of these spent rods are kept in spent-fuel storage facilities close to the plant of origin, wrapped in concrete casks, or placed in pools. For example, in Surry, Virginia, the Surry Nuclear Power station stores its spent fuel about 25 feet below the surface of the James River, allowing the river to absorb the excess heat and radiation from the rods. [17]

(Image: A side-by-side comparison of commercial reactor locations and fuel storage sites. Many of the sites for spent fuel rods are offline nuclear reactors. Source:  The Economist)(Image: A side-by-side comparison of commercial reactor locations and fuel storage sites. Many of the sites for spent fuel rods are offline nuclear reactors. Source: The Economist)

(Images: A side-by-side comparison of commercial reactor locations and fuel storage sites. Many of the sites for spent fuel rods are offline nuclear reactors. Since 2014, many of these reactors have shut down, such as the plants in San Onofre, CA, and Vernon, VT.  Source: The Economist)(Images: A side-by-side comparison of commercial reactor locations and fuel storage sites. Many of the sites for spent fuel rods are offline nuclear reactors. Since 2014, many of these reactors have shut down, such as the plants in San Onofre, CA, and Vernon, VT. Source: The Economist)

This is extremely problematic for the public safety. And, such “disposal” sites as the one in Surry were only ever meant to be temporary. In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, in which the federal government promised it would dispose of civilian and military nuclear waste permanently. [18] Congress then determined that a permanent disposal site would be Yucca Mountain in Nevada. However, Nevada politicians lobbied heavily against this, and in 2010, the Department of Energy scrapped the plan. [19] As a result, there is currently an unused $31 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund, while about 80,000 tons of waste are scattered in temporary sites across the country. [20]

This is in stark contrast to recent Finnish plans, which has made it the first country to license and start building a final storage site, known as the Onkalo Repository. [21] Admirers of the project note that the Finnish government did not try to force locales into accepting the building of the repository, as the United States Congress did, and instead gave municipalities veto power over construction of a tunnel under their town. [22] Indeed, these towns already had experience with the benefits of nuclear power, whereas Nevada does not have any nuclear power plants, and its sole experience with nuclear energy was in the form of nuclear weapon tests. [23]

Nevertheless, political opposition to Yucca does not detract from the fact the United States is in dire need of a permanent nuclear waste site. In the meantime, however, former Energy Secretary Moniz has called for storing spent fuel in dry casks in a small, consolidated number of sites. [24] Additionally, he asserts that the waste from nuclear weapons production should be handled separately from civilian waste. A fast-tracked defense waste program would both minimize proliferation risks and provide experience as to how a geological repository would operate. [25]

Proliferation & Nuclear Security

Considering the potential weaponization of enriched uranium, it is also important to look at an expansionary nuclear policy as it relates to issues of national security and proliferation. One of the first consequences of such a policy, not just in the United States but among other nuclear states as well, is the imperilment of U.S. national security objectives. However, U.S. officials must dually recognize that by not expanding the country’s nuclear infrastructure, they also risk such hazards. If the United States wishes to preserve its national goals it must achieve two things: recognize that an expansionary nuclear policy can both threaten and ensure its national interests and reinforce its leadership on issues of nuclear security by strengthening the nonproliferation regime in order to mitigate these risks. [26]

The United States’ stagnation in terms of civil nuclear markets and waste disposal has diminished its leadership on matters of nuclear security, despite its attempts to deal with proliferation, such as with the Iran Nuclear Deal. [27] The decline of the nuclear power industry in North America and Europe has seen the rapid rise of commitments to nuclear energy by China, Russia, and India and a larger distribution of interest and influence. [28] Indeed, now all but one of U.S. based manufacturers of light-water reactors have been purchased by foreign competitors. [29]

This shift in nuclear power technology and demand for uranium and enrichment translates to problems for the U.S. military, particularly the U.S. Navy. Navy submarines, such as next-generation Virginia class attack submarines and Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carriers, all rely on nuclear power - and the Navy has not made announcements concerning scale backs of construction of these submarines or carriers. [30] Large market shares in uranium enrichment and nuclear technology by Russia and China, who are competitive threats to the United States, could inhibit the functionality of the Navy, 40% of whose combat vessels rely on nuclear energy. [31]

However, U.S. officials need to recognize that despite such hard-power incentives to aggressively expand America’s nuclear capacity, unbridled growth in any country’s nuclear energy sector could make it more vulnerable to nuclear terrorism, or other such hostile externalities. For example, China plans to build about 400 nuclear reactors by 2050, Russia has a 60%, and growing, share of the global nuclear technology market, and about 15 new countries could have nuclear energy plants by 2030. [32][33] Russian nuclear contracts, which number at around 34 reactors in 13 different countries, also come with Russian safety standards, which are not as stringent as those in the United States. [34] Similarly, China’s rapid growth in nuclear energy capacity is expected to overtake the U.S. by 2026. [35] This will go in hand with accelerating exports from China’s two largest nuclear technology exporters: China General Nuclear Power Corporation and China National Nuclear Corporation. [36]

(Image: This graph shows the number of nuclear reactors currently in construction. China accounts for about a third of all construction globally. Source:  WSJ)

(Image: This graph shows the number of nuclear reactors currently in construction. China accounts for about a third of all construction globally. Source: WSJ)

Like with Russia, Chinese regulation, despite recent legislative attempts, is still not up to par with American regulators. [37] For example, China’s framework on the Design Basis Threat (DBT) review, which is used to design systems to prevent attacks on nuclear power plants and silos as well as theft of nuclear materials, has not been updated since the 9/11 attacks. [38] Additionally, China lacks an effective MPC&A (Material Protection, Control, and Accounting) system, which is central to protecting nuclear assets and preventing their proliferation. [39] Indeed, China’s nuclear security policies are also still obscure, showing a lack of transparency on nuclear security by Beijing. [40] Such a lack of assurance is worrying and demands that the United States aid in the strengthening of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. This can be done by seeking to expand funding for, and the inspection authority of, the IAEA, demanding adherence to the Additional Protocol, which further expands inspectors’ access to information, and asking the UN Security Council to formulate a comprehensive series of punishments for states who are noncompliant in terms of nonproliferation obligations. [41]


A recent article by the Wall Street Journal asked the seemingly simple question: ‘does nuclear power have a robust future in the U.S.?’ [43] On the other hand, Jason Bordoff, Professor at the University of Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, claims that market and political forces against nuclear are too strong. [45] And, such a push may be necessary if the United States wants to strengthen its role as a world leader on issues such as nuclear security and climate change. [47] Doing so would minimize the potential risk of a nuclear accident and help stymie further proliferation, all while reaping the benefits of plentiful carbon-free energy. If the United States can accomplish this, and encourage other nuclear states to do the same, the world may experience a “nuclear renaissance” after all.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


 [1] http://news.gallup.com/poll/190064/first-time-majority-oppose-nuclear-energy.aspx

 [2] Ibid.

 [3] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-nuclear/exit-now-pay-later-germanys-rushed-farewell-to-nuclear-power-idUSKCN0SQ1G520151101

 [4] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/13/world/europe/13iht-germany.html

 [5] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-nuclear/exit-now-pay-later-germanys-rushed-farewell-to-nuclear-power-idUSKCN0SQ1G520151101

 [6] https://www.propublica.org/article/charting-the-human-cost-of-different-types-of-energy

 [7] Ibid.

 [8] https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/nuclear-power-safety-concerns

 [9] http://energy.mit.edu/news/why-we-still-need-nuclear-power/

 [10] Ibid.

 [11] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/12/opinion/reform-the-nrc.html

 [12] http://kleinmanenergy.upenn.edu/blog/2017/11/02/lets-talk-government-ownership-unprofitable-nuclear-power-plants

 [13] https://www.technologyreview.com/s/542411/advanced-nuclear-industry-to-regulators-give-us-a-chance/

 [14] https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/nuclear-power-safety-concerns

 [15] https://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/Nuclear-Statistics/On-Site-Storage-of-Nuclear-Waste

 [16] http://energy.mit.edu/news/why-we-still-need-nuclear-power/

 [17] https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21662536-next-president-will-have-decide-what-do-about-radioactive-waste-faff-and-fallout

 [18] Ibid.

 [19] Ibid.

 [20] https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/yucca-mountain-and-a-path-to-a-long-term-solution-for-nuclear-waste/

 [21] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/09/science/nuclear-reactor-waste-finland.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FNuclear%20Waste&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection&_r=0

 [22] Ibid.

 [23] Ibid.

 [24] http://energy.mit.edu/news/why-we-still-need-nuclear-power/

 [25] http://energy.mit.edu/news/why-we-still-need-nuclear-power/

 [26] https://www.csis.org/analysis/restoring-us-leadership-nuclear-energy

 [27] Ibid.

 [28] Ibid.

 [29] Ibid.

 [30] Ibid.

 [31] Ibid.

 [32] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2017/11/02/nuclear-energy-in-america-is-teetering-on-a-cusp/#2bce81776867

 [33] https://www.csis.org/analysis/restoring-us-leadership-nuclear-energy

 [34] Ibid.

 [35] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-31/china-s-nuclear-power-fleet-seen-overtaking-u-s-within-decade

 [36] Ibid.

 [37] https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/…/Chinas%20Nuclear%20Security-Web.pdf

 [38] Ibid.

 [39] Ibid.


 [41] https://www.cfr.org/report/strengthening-nuclear-nonproliferation-regime

 [42] https://www.wsj.com/articles/does-nuclear-power-have-a-robust-future-in-the-u-s-1510628700

 [43] Ibid.

 [44] Ibid.

 [45] Ibid.

 [46] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2017/11/02/nuclear-energy-in-america-is-teetering-on-a-cusp/#2bce81776867

 [47] https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/key-steps-continuing-nuclear-security-progress


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