Power generated from a nuclear energy facility is obtained by converting the energy released from a controlled nuclear reaction (most typically through nuclear fission) to steam, which in turn is used to generate electricity. The fuel most often used is uranium, an element that must be mined and enriched to provide a sufficient reaction to create enough energy. This form of electricity generation first appeared in the United States in the late 1950s, growing quickly until it peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s at around 150 gigawatts of power. By this time, construction costs were rising and oil prices had begun to fall, which led to the cancellation of many new projects. As a result, the last new nuclear reactor to be built in the United States was in 1996. Currently, the United States produces more gigawatts (101 GW) from nuclear plants than any other country in the world; this translates to 19.3 percent of the U.S. electricity supply.
The drawbacks to using nuclear energy are broad and complex. There are an array of health and safety concerns regarding both the use and disposal of the radioactive fuel. Accidents such as the one that took place at Three-Mile Island in 1979 increased public concern for the health and environmental risks to the general population when such events occur. With regard to disposal, the U.S. government takes responsibility for high level nuclear waste, but has not yet created a general repository site for long-term storage. The Department of Energy has proposed using Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert as the general repository for storing spent fuel and other radioactive waste and has submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for constructing this site. There is strong opposition to this plan, as it would require secure transportation of radioactive materials across the country. In the meantime, most spent fuel continues to be stored in pools on-site at the facilities themselves.
The cost of building a new nuclear power plant presents another obstacle to nuclear construction. A new nuclear plant is estimated to cost anywhere from $5-10 billion, a price that can easily rise if the cost of materials or other unforeseen issues come up. Many nuclear companies are relying upon loans guaranteed by the U.S. government (authorized in Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, P.L. 109-58) and paid for by taxpayers to construct any new nuclear plants.
With a shift towards low-carbon energy supplies, nuclear energy is once again gaining attention as an alternative to fossil fuel energy supplies. However, the unresolved issues concerning safety, national security and cost overruns provide plenty compelling arguments for phasing out this expensive, risky energy supply to focus on clean, domestic, renewable energy that is available without such a high price.
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