Would you like to live near a nuclear power plant? What if you already do, but you just don’t realize it? About 20% of the power generated in the United States comes from nuclear reactors. Proponents of nuclear power say it produces safe, clean energy that does not have the global warming effects of fossil fuels. On the other hand, it does produce deadly radioactive waste that must be stored safely for many thousands of years.
It’s hard to forget names like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima where radiation leaks or full-on meltdowns jolted us to the consequences of nuclear disasters. Some countries, like France, are increasing their nuclear energy usage to end their reliance on fossil fuels, while others, like neighboring Germany, have gone completely nuclear-free. In this article, we’ll look at how nuclear power plants work, how they can potentially affect the environment, and the locations of the top 10 largest nuclear power plants in the United States. Are any near you?
- Nuclear power plants use rods of radioactive uranium pellets to produce fission reactions, heating water and generating electricity.
- The energy generated does not release greenhouse gasses, so France, the United States, and other countries consider nuclear power a part of their long-term clean energy strategy.
- Other countries, like Germany, are concerned about potential safety hazards and phasing out nuclear power altogether.
- Most of the largest nuclear power plants in the United States are located in the eastern part of the country.
- Although accidents are very rare, all nuclear plants generate waste that must be stored safely for thousands of years.
- Fusion reactors promise to produce cleaner energy with less dangerous radioactive waste, but the technology is still not advanced enough to count on them as a power source.
- The U.S. plans to increase nuclear power plant construction, along with wind, solar, and geothermal plants, to meet its goals of carbon-free electric power generation.
How Does a Nuclear Power Plant Work?
Nuclear power plants use ceramic pellets of radioactive uranium that are sealed into metal fuel rods. 200 or more of these rods are bundled together to create a controlled fission reaction. That is, neutrons from radioactive decay split atoms of Uranium, releasing energy and more neutrons. The heat of this reaction boils water and generates steam that powers an electric generator. The speed of the reaction and the heat generated can be controlled with lead rods. These are inserted between the fuel rods and can be lowered or raised to absorb more or less of the neutrons of the reaction and keep them from triggering more fission.
The Top 10 Nuclear Power Plants in the United States
Below is a list of the top 10 nuclear power plants in the United States listed in order of their nameplate capacity; that is, the maximum capacity they were designed to produce. Note this does not mean that each of these today produces that much energy. The energy output is varied depending on energy needs and other factors.
|Palo Verde||Arizona||3,937 megawatts|
|Browns Ferry||Alabama||3,775 megawatts|
|South Texas||Texas||2,560 megawatts|
|Oconee||South Carolina||2,538 megawatts|
|McGuire||North Carolina||2,430 megawatts|
|Watts Bar||Tennessee||2,339 megawatts|
|Salem||New Jersey||2,304 megawatts|
Environmental Plusses and Minuses
Nuclear power plants are clean and efficient. They do not put carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere as power plants driven by fossil fuels do. Uranium is rarer than oil or coal, so mining operations take place in more limited geographic areas and do less wide-scale environmental damage than oil fields or coal mines. Uranium fuel lasts a long time as well; rods generally work for about 6 years before having to be replaced. If the plant is managed correctly and has no catastrophic failures, it will have minimal impact on the surrounding environment.
Costs and Waste
There are downsides to nuclear power though. Nuclear power plants have a high up-front construction cost. Construction takes decades and can cost as much as $5 billion. It’s actually much more expensive than solar power. Nuclear costs $112 to $189 per megawatt-hour (MWh) compared with $36 to $44 per MWh for solar.
After the fuel rods have been used up, they are still radioactive and have to be disposed of someplace that will not be disturbed for thousands of years until their radiation is no longer at a dangerous level. This is a major problem because the storage site needs to be geologically stable, in solid rock, and below the level of water tables that it could leak into and spread radiation. It also needs to be labeled in a way that our future descendants will be able to understand, long after all of today’s languages have been forgotten.
A lot of people have in mind a nightmare scenario that a nuclear plant could go off in an actual nuclear explosion. That’s not something you need to worry about, because it is physically impossible. A nuclear bomb has highly concentrated radioactive material in a small space to create a fission or fusion explosion. In a nuclear power plant, though, the radioactive materials are much less densely packed. They are not able to explode with that kind of power. Even if terrorists attacked the plant, the worst that could happen is a conventional explosion that dispersed radioactive materials, like a so-called “dirty bomb.”
In a less-dire situation, there is a very rare possibility of accidents that release radiation. Radiation can cause cancers, birth defects, and other kinds of mutations. Again, ignore the science fiction scenarios of zombie apocalypses or giant mutated insects. If you look into what happened in the years following the major radiation leak at Chernobyl, you’ll find that some trees and shrubs grew with twisted trunks and branches, while some animals had cataracts, deformed limbs, and albinism. Weird and sad, but nothing world-ending.
What About Fusion Reactors?
Unlike fission reactors, which split atoms of heavy elements like uranium, proposed fusion reactors would fuse light elements such as hydrogen from common seawater. A fusion reactor could generate a lot more energy with much less radioactive waste. What waste it does generate would mostly break down within 50 years, and within 500 years would be completely benign like common ash. The problem is, controlling a fusion reaction means finding a way to generate and contain a 100 million-degree plasma, which is a huge engineering problem. Only recently have researchers been able to produce a controlled reaction that generated more energy than it took to create it. This is a promising technology, but barring some incredible breakthroughs, it does not seem likely to be an energy source we can rely on in our lifetime.
Will the United States Build More Nuclear Power Plants?
Along with many other countries, the United States is trying to meet carbon-reduction goals to slow down global warming. Right now, nuclear power accounts for as much energy production in the United States as solar, wind, and geothermal power combined. The government sees nuclear power as part of its long-term sustainable energy strategy. One area of nuclear research and development now is on smaller reactors that won’t take as much time and expense to build. This could lead to nuclear power plants in even more communities, maybe even yours.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com
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