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Nuclear Power

Nuclear power

Nuclear power is any method of doing work that makes use of nuclear fission or fusion reactions. In its broadest sense, the term refers both to the uncontrolled release of energy, as in fission or fusion weapons, and to the controlled release of energy, as in a nuclear power plant. Most commonly, however, the expression nuclear power is reserved for the latter of these two processes.

The world's first exposure to nuclear power came when two fission (atomic) bombs were exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. These actions are said to have brought World War II to a conclusion. After the war, a number of scientists and laypersons looked for some potential peacetime use for this horribly powerful new form of energy. They hoped that the power of nuclear energy could be harnessed to perform work, but those hopes have been realized only to a modest degree. Some serious problems associated with the use of nuclear power have never been satisfactorily solved. As a result, after three decades of progress in the development of controlled nuclear power, interest in this energy source has leveled off and, in many nations, declined.

Words to Know

Cladding: A material that covers the fuel elements in a nuclear reactor in order to prevent the loss of heat and radioactive materials from the fuel.

Coolant: Any material used in a nuclear power plant to transfer the heat produced in the reactor core to another unit in which electricity is generated.

Containment: Any system developed for preventing the release of radioactive materials from a nuclear power plant to the outside world.

Generator: A device for converting kinetic energy (the energy of movement) into electrical energy.

Neutron: A subatomic particle that carries no electrical charge.

Nuclear fission: A reaction in which a larger atomic nucleus breaks apart into two roughly equal, smaller nuclei.

Nuclear fusion: A reaction in which two small nuclei combine with each other to form one larger nucleus.

Nuclear pile: The name given to the earliest form of a nuclear reactor.

Nuclear reactor: Any device for controlling the release of nuclear power so that it can be used for constructive purposes.

Radioactivity: The property possessed by some elements of spontaneously emitting energy in the form of particles or waves by disintegration of their atomic nuclei.

Subatomic particle: Basic unit of matter and energy (proton, neutron, electron, neutrino, and positron) smaller than an atom.

Turbine: A device consisting of a series of baffles (baffles are plates, mounts, or screens that regulate the flow of somethingin this case, a liquid) mounted on a wheel around a central shaft. Turbines are used to convert the energy of a moving fluid into the energy of mechanical rotation.

The nuclear power plant

A nuclear power plant is a system in which energy released by fission reactions is captured and used for the generation of electricity. Every such plant contains four fundamental elements: the reactor, the coolant system, the electrical power generating unit, and the safety system.

The source of energy in a nuclear reactor is a fission reaction in which neutrons collide with nuclei of uranium-235 or plutonium-239 (the fuel), causing them to split apart. The products of any fission reaction include not only huge amounts of energy, but also waste products, known as fission products, and additional neutrons. A constant and reliable flow of neutrons is ensured in the reactor by means of a moderator, which slows down the speed of neutrons, and control rods, which control the number

of neutrons available in the reactor and, hence, the rate at which fission can occur.

Energy produced in the reactor is carried away by means of a coolanta fluid such as water, or liquid sodium, or carbon dioxide gas. The fluid absorbs heat from the reactor and then begins to boil itself or to cause water in a secondary system to boil. Steam produced in either of these ways is then piped into the electrical generating unit, where it turns the blades of a turbine. The turbine, in turn, powers a generator that produces electrical energy.

Safety systems. The high cost of constructing a modern nuclear power plant reflects in part the enormous range of safety features needed to protect against various possible mishaps. Some of those features are incorporated into the reactor core itself. For example, all of the fuel in a reactor is sealed in a protective coating made of a zirconium alloy. The protective coating, called a cladding, helps retain heat and radioactivity within the fuel, preventing it from escaping into the power plant itself.

Every nuclear plant is also required to have an elaborate safety system to protect against the most serious potential problem of all: the loss of coolant. If such an accident were to occur, the reactor core might well melt down, releasing radioactive materials to the rest of the plant and, perhaps, to the outside environment. To prevent such an accident from happening, the pipes carrying the coolant are required to be very thick and strong. In addition, backup supplies of the coolant must be available to replace losses in case of a leak.

On another level, the whole plant itself is required to be encased within a dome-shaped containment structure. The containment structure is designed to prevent the release of radioactive materials in case of an accident within the reactor core.

Another safety feature is a system of high-efficiency filters through which all air leaving the building must pass. These filters are designed to trap microscopic particles of radioactive materials that might otherwise be released to the atmosphere. Additional specialized devices and systems have been developed for dealing with other kinds of accidents in various parts of the power plant.

Types of nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants differ from each other primarily in the methods they use for transferring heat produced in the reactor to the electricity-generating unit. Perhaps the simplest design of all is the boiling water reactor (BWR) plant. In a BWR plant, coolant water surrounding the reactor is allowed to boil and form steam. That steam is then piped directly to turbines, which spin and drive the electrical generator. A very different type of plant is one that was popular in Great Britain for many yearsone that used carbon dioxide as a coolant. In this type of plant, carbon dioxide gas passes through the reactor core, absorbs heat produced by fission reactions, and is piped into a secondary system. There the heated carbon dioxide gas gives up its energy to water, which begins to boil and change to steam. That steam is then used to power the turbine and generator.

Safety concerns. In spite of all the systems developed by nuclear engineers, the general public has long had serious concerns about the use of such plants as sources of electrical power. Those concerns vary considerably from nation to nation. In France, for example, more than half of all that country's electrical power now comes from nuclear power plants. By contrast, the initial enthusiasm for nuclear power in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s soon faded, and no new nuclear power plant has been constructed in this country since the mid-1980s. Currently, 104 commercial nuclear power reactors in 31 states generate about 22 percent of the total electricity produced in the country.

One concern about nuclear power plants, of course, is the memory of the world's first exposure to nuclear power: the atomic bomb blasts. Many people fear that a nuclear power plant may go out of control and explode like a nuclear weapon. Most experts insist that such an event is impossible. But a few major disasters continue to remind the public about the worst dangers associated with nuclear power plants. By far the most serious of those disasters was the explosion that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Kiev in Ukraine in 1986.

On April 16 of that year, one of the four power-generating units in the Chernobyl complex exploded, blowing the top off the containment building. Hundreds of thousands of nearby residents were exposed to deadly or damaging levels of radiation and were removed from the area. Radioactive clouds released by the explosion were detected as far away as western Europe. More than a decade later, the remains of the Chernobyl reactor were still far too radioactive for anyone to spend more than a few minutes in the area.

Critics also worry about the amount of radioactivity released by nuclear power plants on a day-to-day basis. This concern is probably of less importance than is the possibility of a major disaster. Studies have shown that nuclear power plants are so well shielded that the amount of radiation to which nearby residents are exposed under normal circumstances is no more than that of a person living many miles away.

In any case, safety concerns in the United States have been serious enough essentially to bring the construction of new plants to a halt. By the end of the twentieth century, licensing procedures were so complex and so expensive that few industries were interested in working their way through the bureaucratic maze to construct new plants.

Nuclear waste management. Perhaps the single most troubling issue for the nuclear power industry is waste management. After a period of time, the fuel rods in a reactor are no longer able to sustain a chain reaction and must be removed. These rods are still highly radioactive, however, and present a serious threat to human life and the environment. Techniques must be developed for the destruction and/or storage of these wastes.

Nuclear wastes can be classified into two general categories: low-level wastes and high-level wastes. The former consist of materials that release a relatively modest level of radiation and/or that will soon decay to a level where they no longer present a threat to humans and the environment. Storing these materials in underground or underwater reservoirs for a few years is usually satisfactory.

High-level wastes are a different matter. The materials that make up these wastes are intensely radioactive and are likely to remain so for thousands of years. Short-term methods of storage are unsatisfactory because containers would leak and break open long before the wastes were safe.

For more than two decades, the U.S. government has been attempting to develop a plan for the storage of high-level nuclear wastes. At one time, the plan was to bury the wastes in a salt mine near Lyons, Kansas. Objections from residents of the area and other concerned citizens caused that plan to be shelved. More recently, the government decided to construct a huge crypt in the middle of Yucca Mountain in Nevada for the burial of high-level wastes. Again, complaints by residents of Nevada and other citizens have delayed putting that plan into operation. The government insists, however, that Yucca Mountain will eventually become the long-term storage site for the nation's high-level radioactive wastes. Until then, those wastes are in "temporary" storage at nuclear power sites throughout the United States.


The first nuclear reactor was built during World War II (193945) as part of the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. The reactor was constructed under the direction of Enrico Fermi in a large room beneath the squash courts at the University of Chicago. It was built as the first concrete test of existing theories of nuclear fission.

Until December 2, 1942, when the reactor was first put into operation, scientists had relied entirely on mathematical calculations to determine the effectiveness of nuclear fission as an energy source. It goes without saying that the scientists who constructed the first reactor were taking an extraordinary chance.

That first reactor consisted of alternating layers of uranium and uranium oxide with graphite as a moderator. Cadmium control rods were used to control the concentration of neutrons in the reactor. Since the various parts of the reactor were constructed by piling materials on top of each other, the unit was at first known as an atomic pile. The moment at which Fermi directed the control rods to be withdrawn occurred at 3:45 p.m. on December 2, 1945. That date can legitimately be regarded as the beginning of the age of controlled nuclear power in human history.

Nuclear fusion power

Many scientists believe that the ultimate solution to the world's energy problems may be in the harnessing of nuclear fusion power. A fusion reaction is one in which two small nuclei combine with each other to form one larger nucleus. For example, two hydrogen nuclei may combine with each other to form the nucleus of an atom known as deuterium, or heavy hydrogen.

The world was introduced to the concept of fusion reactions in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union and the United States exploded the first fusion (hydrogen) bombs. The energy released in the explosion of each such bomb was more than 1,000 times greater than the energy released in the explosion of a single fission bomb.

As with fission, scientists and nonscientists alike expressed hope that fusion reactions could someday be harnessed as a source of energy for everyday needs. This line of research has been much less successful, however, than research on fission power plants. In essence, the problem has been to find a way of containing the very high temperatures produced (a few million degrees Celsius) when fusion occurs. Optimistic reports of progress on a fusion power plant appear in the press from time to time, but some authorities now doubt that fusion power will ever be an economic reality.

[See also Nuclear fission; Nuclear fusion ]

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Nuclear Power


NUCLEAR POWER refers to the energy produced by fission, when atoms are split, or by fusion, when two nuclei of a light atomare fused to forma single nucleus. The energy produced can be used for weapons or for peaceful purposes. The phrase is also used to designate those nations that have nuclear weapons. The first five nations to declare that they had nuclear weapons were the United States (1945), the former Soviet Union (1949), Great Britain (1952), France (1960), and China (1964), known as the "Big Five." The breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s resulted in the addition of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine as nuclear-weapon states because the nuclear missiles and storage sites placed on their territory by the Soviet Union became the property of these newly independent states; all three, however, transferred their weapons to Russia. India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, followed by Pakistan in 1998. North Korea is believed to have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons within a short time. Others, such as Israel, have likely developed one or more such weapons secretly. Some analysts believe that another group of countries, including Iraq, were trying to develop nuclear weapons at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Nuclear power also refers to plants and industry that generate electric power from nuclear sources. The possibility of using the energy in the atomic nucleus as a power source was widely recognized soon after the discovery of nuclear fission late in 1938, but only the United States was able to devote any significant effort to atomic energy development during World War II. On 2 December 1942 Enrico Fermi and others achieved the first self-sustained chain reaction at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. This experiment made possible the construction of three large plutonium-producing reactors; each generated about 250,000 kilowatts of energy, but they were not used for electric power production.

Despite the initial popular belief that the use of nuclear power was imminent, technical progress was slow after the war. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), facing extreme shortages of uranium ore, supported only three small reactor projects before 1950. One of these, the Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1, succeeded in generating a few kilowatts of electric power late in 1951, an accomplishment more symbolic than practical.

Growing industrial interest in nuclear power by 1952, basic revision in atomic energy legislation in 1954, and increasing ore supplies made a more ambitious program possible in the 1950s. The AEC adopted a five-year plan designed to test the feasibility of five different reactor systems. One of these, the pressurized water reactor (PWR)—designed and and built by a joint AEC-Navy tea munder Rear Adm. H. G. Rickover, at Shippingport, Pennsylvania—produced 60,000 kilowatts of electricity for commercial use before the end of 1957. The AEC's Argonne National Laboratory, at Lemont, Illinois, under Walter H. Zinn, successfully developed the experimental boiling water reactor (EBWR). The PWR and EBWR committed the United States almost exclusively to water-cooled reactors for the next two decades. By the end of 1957, the AEC had seven experimental reactors in operation, and American industry had started nine independent or cooperative projects expected to produce 800,000 kilowatts of electricity by the mid-1960s.

Nuclear power plants differ from hydroelectric plants—which generate electricity from the force of flowing water—and from coal-, oil-, or gas-fired electric plants, which generate electricity from the heat drawn from burning fossil fuels. Nuclear power plants generate steam to drive electric turbines by circulating liquid through a nuclear reactor. The reactor produces heat through the controlled fission of atomic fuel. Normally the fuel for power reactors is slightly enriched uranium. These differences give nuclear reactors several advantages over power generation using other fuels. Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear fuel does not foul the air and is not dependent on oil imports from unstable parts of the world. Before the environmental effects of radioactive wastes and the safety hazards of nuclear plants became apparent in the 1960s and 1970s, some environmentalists were strong advocates of nuclear power as a "clean" energy source. Others, aware of the rising costs of the world's diminishing coal, oil, and natural gas resources and the limitation on the number of hydroelectric power plants that could be built, believed that nuclear plants could be the key to an independent American energy supply.

The attraction of electricity generated by nuclear power was not limited to the United States. In contrast to the American emphasis on water-cooled reactors, both the United Kingdom and France chose to rely on gas-cooled systems. By 1957 the United Kingdom was building or planning twelve reactors with a capacity of more than 1 million kilowatts; the French were building five reactors totaling more than 350,000 kilowatts. The Soviet Union was planning a 200,000-kilowatt PWR and two smaller boiling-water reactors. By 1966 nuclear power generators were being built or operating in five countries. By 1980 there were a hundred nuclear power plants in the United States.

Technical difficulties prevented any of these national plans from being realized by the early 1960s. In the United States the AEC countered the resulting pessimism

by predicting the imminence of economically competitive nuclear power and concentrating resources on the most promising reactor designs—water-cooled reactors for the immediate future and sodium-cooled breeder reactors for later decades in the century. This confidence was fulfilled by early 1964, when an American power company first announced its decision, on the basis of economics alone, to construct a nuclear power plant. Despite a temporary dampening effect of licensing delays and challenges from environmentalists protesting the dumping of radioactive wastes, the trend toward nuclear power accelerated again in the early 1970s. By the fall of 1972, the total nuclear gross generating capacity of all nations outside the Communist bloc had reached 32 million kilowatts. Of this total, the United States provided 13 million electrical kilowatts generated in twenty-eight operating plants. More than a hundred additional plants with a total capacity of more than 116 million kilowatts had been ordered or were under construction in the United States.

A serious accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 proved to be a major turning point for nuclear power in the United States, and no new nuclear generators have been ordered since. All of the increases in nuclear-generated electricity since 1979 have come from existing plants, which have boosted their national capacity factor from under 65 percent in 1970 to 76 percent in 1996.

One of the byproducts of nuclear-power generation is plutonium, a material that can be chemically processed for use in nuclear weapons. The danger of such use by nonnuclear nations led to international safeguards under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In Article III signatory nations agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "with a view to

preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." Most of the world's nuclear and nonnuclear nations signed this treaty. Iraq in 1992 and North Korea in 1994 were subjected to IAEA inspections that proved treaty violations in the former and raised serious suspicions about the latter. Both nations were signatories of the treaty, although North Korea announced its withdrawal some months prior to inspection. Iraq's nuclear-weapon production facilities were discovered as a result of a series of highly intrusive IAEA inspections and were subsequently destroyed by the United Nations.

When Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, it approved President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program, which included commercial development of nuclear reactors for the purpose of generating electric power. During the 1960s electricity generated by nuclear power contributed 1 to 2 percent of the nation's energy total. Since then that percentage has grown steadily, surpassing the proportion from hydroelectric sources in 1984.By 1990 nuclear power amounted to one-fifth of the nation's total generation of electricity. By 1992 nuclear generation reached 619 billion net kilowatt hours, more than double the amount generated in 1979, the year of the Three Mile Island accident.

In reaction to the 1973 oil embargo, U.S. consumers temporarily used less energy, which diminished the rate of growth in electricity generation. As a result of this and other factors, such as higher construction costs, delays brought on by antinuclear protests, increased operating costs resulting from new federal regulations, and uncertainties about disposal of high-level radioactive waste, no requests for construction of new nuclear power plants have been received by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission since 1978.The level of generation was still rising, however, because plants started in the 1970s had gone on-line, and modernization after 1979 made power plants more efficient. The rising production trend continued until the end of the twentieth century; in the year 2000, for example, 104 commercial nuclear plants in the United States produced 20.5 percent of all electricity consumed in the United States. Nuclear power's future is far from clear, however. The Energy Information Administration projected in 2001 that 27 percent of the nation's nuclear generating capacity then in existence would be retired by 2020, with no construction of new plants anticipated.


Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration. Annual Energy Outlook 2002 with Projections to 2020. Washington, D.C.: Department of Energy, 2001.

Deudney, Daniel, and Christopher Flavin. Renewable Energy: The Power to Choose. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.

Duffy, Robert J. Nuclear Politics in America: A History and Theory of Government Regulation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Henderson, Harry. Nuclear Power: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2000.

Robert M.Guth

Richard G.Hewlett/c. w.

See alsoNuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1978) ; Nuclear Test Ban Treaty .

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Nuclear Power


A form of energy produced by an atomic reaction, capable of producing an alternative source of electrical power to that supplied by coal, gas, or oil.

The dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, by the United States in 1945 initiated the atomic age. Nuclear energy immediately became a military weapon of terrifying magnitude. For the physicists who worked on the atom bomb, the promise of nuclear energy was not solely military. They envisioned nuclear power as a safe, clean, cheap, and abundant source of energy that would end society's dependence on fossil fuels. At the end of world war ii, leaders called for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 2011 et seq.), which shifted nuclear development from military to civilian government control. Very little development of commercial nuclear power occurred from 1946 to 1954 because the 1946 law maintained a federal government monopoly over the control, use, and ownership of nuclear reactors and fuels.

Congress amended the Atomic Energy Act in 1954 (68 Stat. 919) to encourage the private commercial development of nuclear power. The act ended the federal government's monopoly over nonmilitary uses of nuclear energy and allowed private ownership of reactors under licensing procedures established by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Private power companies did not rush to build nuclear power plants because they feared the financial consequences of a nuclear accident. Congress responded by passing the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2210), which limited the liability of the nuclear power industry and assured compensation for the public. With the passage of the Price-Anderson Act, power companies began to build nuclear plants.

At first, nuclear power was attractive largely because the demand for electricity grew at a steady rate in the 1960s and coal-burning facilities were becoming an environmentally unacceptable alternative. The high price of oil during the mid-1970s continued to make nuclear power economically desirable and helped keep nuclear energy a prominent part of national energy plans. By the 1990s, approximately 110 nuclear plants were operating in the United States, supplying 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

A nuclear reactor produces energy through a chain reaction that splits a uranium nucleus, releasing energy in the form of heat. Fast breeder reactors, which use plutonium as fuel, generate more energy than they expend. Plutonium is not a natural element. It must be recycled from the excess uranium produced from a chain reaction. The radioactivity of plutonium is higher and its life is longer than that of any other element. Because of these characteristics, the public became concerned about the safety of its development and use.

Until 1969, the AEC did not have a formal process for evaluating the environmental impact of building nuclear power plants. In that year Congress passed the national environmental policy act of 1969 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 4321– 4370), which required environmental impact statements for all major federal activities. In the 1970s, the temper of nuclear regulation changed. People were no longer complacent about nuclear power safety or convinced by environmental claims made by industry and government.

This lack of public trust centered on the role of the AEC as both a promoter of nuclear technology and a regulator of the nuclear power industry. In 1974, realizing the cross purposes of promotion and safety, Congress passed the Energy Reorganization Act (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 5801–5879), which created two agencies with different missions. The nuclear regulatory commission (NRC) is an independent agency

responsible for safety and licensing. The Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), later absorbed into the energy department, is responsible for promotion and development of nuclear power. This alignment did not completely remove fundamental regulatory conflict for the NRC, because the agency is responsible both for licensing plants and for safety oversight. If the NRC is too vigorous in exercising its safety role, the resulting compliance costs act as a disincentive to invest in nuclear plants.

A nuclear facility cannot be built without a construction permit issued by the NRC. An environmental impact statement that assesses the effect the facility will have on the environment must also be filed with the environmental protection agency (EPA). Once built, a nuclear plant must operate pursuant to a license from the NRC. A license requires that the facility use the lowest levels of radiation necessary to reasonably and efficiently maintain operations. The NRC also issues licenses for the use of nuclear materials, for transportation of nuclear materials, and for the export and import of nuclear materials, facilities, and components.

Nuclear power regulation is highly centralized in the federal government when nuclear safety and radiological hazards are at issue. States may address the financial capability of power companies to dispose of waste and may define state tort liability for injuries suffered at nuclear facilities.

Public confidence in the nuclear power industry suffered a major blow in 1979 when an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. No one was hurt during the accident although radioactive gases escaped through the plant's ventilating system. The accident did reveal, however, the nuclear power industry's lack of emergency preparedness. Following the incident, the NRC increased safety inspections, stepped up enforcement, required the retrofitting of systems to enhance safety, and developed emergency preparedness rules. These regulations delayed the opening of new nuclear plants during the early 1980s.

In 1986, however, the safety of nuclear power again was challenged when a nuclear reactor exploded at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Radiation 50 times higher than that at Three Mile Island exposed people nearest the reactor, and a cloud of radioactive fallout spread to Western Europe, causing the deaths of more than 30 people. People the world over questioned the logic of using such a volatile energy source.

Nuclear power also became less attractive to energy companies in the 1980s. The problem of disposing of nuclear waste became the focal point for the industry. Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 10101-10226), which directed the Department of Energy to formally begin planning the disposal of nuclear wastes and imposed most of the costs of disposal on the industry. The escalating costs of waste disposal helped bring construction of new nuclear facilities to a stop.

The problem of what to do with nuclear waste has proved difficult to solve. Nuclear material is contained in fuel rods. When spent fuel rods and other waste products fill the storage capacity at utility plants, the plants must either expand their storage capacity or find permanent off-site storage. Developing permanent nuclear waste sites is imperative because nuclear waste continues to accumulate. In addition, more than one hundred of the nuclear power facilities must be permanently shut down between 2010 and 2025 because their equipment and infrastructure will no longer be safe. This will entail removing most radioactive elements within each plant's nuclear reactor and then razing the entire plant.

The federal government has encountered political controversy and public opposition in its attempt to identify potential permanent nuclear waste sites. Since 1986 it has been unsuccessful in finding an acceptable site. Yucca Mountain, Nevada, has been earmarked as a nuclear waste repository, against the objections of citizens of Nevada and other advocacy groups. In January 2002, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham sent a letter to Nevada Governor Kenny C. Guinn notifying Guinn that Abraham had recommended to President george w. bush the development of the Yucca Mountain site. Guinn responded that the decision was premature and that further testing was necessary. When Bush approved the development of the site, Guinn vetoed, thus sending the issue to Congress.

The House and Senate both passed resolutions in 2002 with significant majorities approving the development of the Yucca Mountain site. The Energy Department must apply for a license from the NRC in order to construct the site; the application is not expected to be filed until 2004. The state of Nevada filed lawsuits against Abraham, President Bush, the DOE, the NRC, and the Environmental Protection Agency, seeking to block the future development of this site.

The commercial prospects for nuclear energy have faded. The decommissioning of nuclear plants in the early twenty-first century will be a huge undertaking. The cost, per plant, will be more than one billion dollars. Utility customers will pay for the costs in higher utility rates, but power companies will have to devote significant amounts of time, energy, and money to complete the process.

further readings

"Nevada Yucca Mountain Lawsuits." Yucca Mountain: Eureka County Nuclear Waste Page. Available online at <> (accessed August 9, 2003).


Energy Department; Environmental Law; Public Utilities; Solid Wastes, Hazardous Substances, and Toxic Pollutants.

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Nuclear Capability and Nuclear Energy


Nuclear proliferation in the greater Middle East is a central issue in international affairs.

In the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the issue of nuclear weapons in the Greater Middle East came to the fore as never before. Several developments played a role in this change: In 1998 nearby India and Pakistan almost simultaneously tested several nuclear weapons each. In 2002 these nations' ongoing conflict over Kashmir brought them close to the nuclear brink. Then came reports of the transfer of nuclear technology and materials from Pakistan to North Korea and perhaps also Iran. Other reports suggested that Pakistan considered its nuclear program to be an "Islamic bomb" enterprise that could provide extended deterrence to Israel's nuclear threat to the Arabs. Israel implied that it would use nuclear weapons if attacked by Iraq with chemical or biological weapons. Also of great concern was the proliferation of various delivery systemsballistic and cruise missiles, long-range aircraft abetted by aerial refuelingby several states in the region that might be joined to nuclear weapons arsenals. Around the world fears grew that terrorist organizations such as al-Qaʿida might somehow acquire nuclear weapons or materials for a "dirty" nuclear weapon derived from radioactive wastes. There were also increasing fears about Iraq's acquisition of nuclear weaponsa major rationale for the U.S.-led coalition's invasion of Iraq in 2003and Iran's seemingly imminent development of nuclear weapons.


Israel was the first of the nations in the region to cross the nuclear threshold. But despite a growing body of writings about the history of its nuclear program, vast gaps remain in what is known about the size of its arsenal, the dates of its initial deployments, and its current command-and-control structure. It appears that the initial decisions to move toward nuclear weapons status were made shortly after the Jewish state was created. Crucial to Israel's nuclear development was its nuclear cooperation with France, which grew out of the two nations' close relations at the time of the 1956 Suez War and continued until 19671968. Israel's nuclear development was centered on the French-supplied Dimona reactor, which went into operation around 1961, and continued to produce plutonium despite remonstrances from the Kennedy administration and some limited U.S. inspections.

Israel probably began plutonium separation and the deployment of operational nuclear weapons between the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israel wars, with the Soviet Union's active involvement in the Suez "war of attrition" (19691970) perhaps serving as a final trigger. In 1973 Israel's implicit threats to use nuclear weapons after the initial military setbacks in Sinai and on the Golan Heights appear to have impelled the U.S. arms resupply airlift after initial hesitation.

In 1979 U.S. satellites detected a flash over the southern Indian Ocean that was widely, though not definitively, attributed to an Israeli or joint Israeli-South African nuclear test. In 1986 Mordechai Vanunu, a disaffected Israeli who had worked at the Dimona reactor, leaked voluminous information and photographs that revealed the scope of the Israeli nuclear program. Those disclosures, now widely considered credible, indicated a program consisting of both fission and fusion weapons, involving up to or more than 200 weapons, mounted on delivery systems that could cover the entire Middle East. The latter delivery systems included now longer-range Jericho missiles (perhaps up to 1,500 miles), F-16 fighter aircraft with aerial refueling capability, andperhapsthree diesel submarines purchased from Germany.

Various rationales have been offered for the Israeli nuclear program. The main rationale is that the program serves as a credible deterrent against the threat of an overwhelming Arab conventional force, which some deem inevitable. The size of Israel's program appears to imply the prospective use of tactical nuclear weapons in such a scenario, backed by a threat against cities. Other rationales for the nuclear program are that it offers increased assurance of American arms resupply during crises; it may convince Arab nations of Israel's permanence, thereby nudging them along in the "peace process"; and it may deter involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict by powerful peripheral nations such as Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, the latter semi-allied to Israel.


Iraq's initial efforts to become the second Middle Eastern nuclear power were thwarted by Israel's bombing of the Osirak reactor in Baghdad in 1981. During the subsequent decade, Iraq allegedly built a clandestine nuclear infrastructure with the aid of numerous Western suppliers of relevant technologies, most notably that of gas centrifuges. That operation apparently was vastly underestimated by Western intelligence services, and the full scope of the program was revealed only in the wake of Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War of 1991 and its subsequent submission to United Nations inspections, which appear to have resulted in the dismantling of part of Iraq's nuclear infrastructure. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, however, the status of the Iraqi nuclear program was unclear. Little evidence was found. Various analysts suggested that intelligence reports had overstated the program; that it was well hidden by the Saddam regime; or that prior to the invasion it had been dismantled or the evidence moved to Syria or elsewhere outside of Iraq.

Iran, Algeria, and Libya

Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 and subsequent to the Gulf War, Iran is widely believed to have embarked on an energetic effort to acquire nuclear weapons. That effort is centered on its nuclear research complex at Isfahan. Reports suggest extensive outside assistance, particularly from Pakistan and perhaps from China and Russia. There are reports of work on centrifuge technology, and on plutonium production reactors. Israel in particular dreads the possible advent of an Iranian nuclear weapons program that would include long-range missiles capable of reaching Israel.

During the latter part of the shah's reign, Iran embarked on a program to build several nuclear reactors. One was nearly completed by a West German firm. In 2003 Iran was negotiating with Russia over the building of four new reactors, plans that were fiercely opposed by the United States. One reactor, at Bushehr, is apparently under construction.

Algeria has acquired a small nuclear reactor, causing anxiety in Western Europe over the threat that Islamic fundamentalism could lead to a European-Algerian conflict. Libya reportedly has made efforts to acquire nuclear weapons or technology, but to no avail. In December 2003, Libya announced the cessation of all of its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs.


The vast oil and gas resources of the Middle East presumably render almost superfluous the acquisition of nuclear power reactors for peaceful purposes. Statements about generating electricity appear to provide rhetorical cover for intended nuclear weapons programs.

Nuclear disarmament is unlikely to be achieved in the region in the foreseeable future. Israel clearly sees nuclear deterrence as vital to its survival. It could not conceivably abandon its stockpile unless Pakistan did so as well, which would require India also to disarm, and thus also China, the United States, and Russia. That is a daunting row of dominoes.

see also dimona.


Aronson, Shlomo. The Politics and Strategy of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Burrows, William E., and Windrem, Robert. Critical Mass: The Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Cohen, Avner. Israel and the Bomb. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Cordesman, Anthony. Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2003.

Feldman, Shai. Israeli Nuclear Deterrence: A Strategy for the 1980s. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Hersh, Seymour. The Samson Option: Israel's Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy. New York: Random House, 1991.

Jones, Rodney W., McDonough, Mark G., et al. Tracking Nuclear Proliferation: A Guide in Maps and Charts, 1998. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1998.

Khan, Saira. Nuclear Proliferation Dynamics in Protracted Conflict Regions: A Comparative Study of South Asia and the Middle East.

Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002.

Peimani, Hooman. Nuclear Proliferation in the Indian Subcontinent: The Self-Exhausting "Superpowers" and Emerging Alliances. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.

Sagan, Scott D., and Waltz, Kenneth N. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed. New York: Norton, 2003.

robert e. harkavy

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nuclear energy

nuclear energy, the energy stored in the nucleus of an atom and released through fission, fusion, or radioactivity. In these processes a small amount of mass is converted to energy according to the relationship E = mc2, where E is energy, m is mass, and c is the speed of light (see relativity). The most pressing problems concerning nuclear energy are the possibility of an accident or systems failure at a nuclear reactor or fuel plant, such as those which occurred at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011), and the potential threat to the continued existence of the human race posed by nuclear weapons (see disarmament, nuclear).

Nuclear Reactions

The release of nuclear energy is associated with changes from less stable to more stable nuclei and produces far more energy for a given mass of fuel than any other source of energy. In fission processes, a fissionable nucleus absorbs a neutron, becomes unstable, and splits into two nearly equal nuclei. In fusion processes, two nuclei combine to form a single, heavier nucleus. The most stable nuclei—those with the highest binding energies per nucleon holding their components together—are in the middle range of atomic weights, with the maximum stability at weights near 60. Thus, fission, which produces two lighter fragments, occurs for very heavy nuclei, while fusion occurs for the lightest nuclei.

Nuclear Fission

The process of nuclear fission was discovered in 1938 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann and was explained in early 1939 by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch. The fissionable isotope of uranium, U-235, can be split by bombarding it with a slow, or thermal, neutron. (Slow neutrons are called "thermal" because their average kinetic energies are about the same as those of the molecules of air at ordinary temperatures.) The atomic numbers of the nuclei resulting from the fission add up to 92, which is the atomic number of uranium. A number of pairs of product nuclei are possible, with the most frequently produced fragments being krypton and barium.

Since this reaction also releases an average of 2.5 neutrons, a chain reaction is possible, provided at least one neutron per fission is captured by another nucleus and causes a second fission. In an atomic bomb, the number is greater than 1 and the reaction increases rapidly to an explosion. In a nuclear reactor, where the chain reaction is controlled, the number of neutrons producing additional fission must be exactly 1.0 in order to maintain a steady flow of energy.

Uranium-235, which occurs naturally as one part in 140 in a natural mixture of uranium isotopes, is not the only material fissionable by thermal neutrons. Uranium-233 and plutonium-239 can also be used but must be produced artificially. Uranium-233 is produced from thorium-232, which absorbs a neutron and then undergoes beta decay (the loss of an electron). Plutonium-239 is produced in a similar manner from uranium-238, which is the most common isotope of natural uranium. The average energy released by the fission of uranium-235 is 200 million electron volts, and that released by uranium-233 and plutonium-239 is comparable. Fission can also occur spontaneously, but the time required for a heavy nucleus to decay spontaneously by fission (10 million billion years in the case of uranium-238) is so long that induced fission by thermal neutrons is the only practical application of nuclear fission. However, spontaneous fission of uranium can be used in the dating of very old rock samples.

The development of nuclear energy from fission reactions began with the program to produce atomic weapons in the United States. Early work was carried out at several universities, and the first sustained nuclear chain reaction was achieved at the Univ. of Chicago in 1942 by a group under Enrico Fermi. Later the weapons themselves were developed at Los Alamos, N.Mex., under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer (see Manhattan Project).

Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear fusion, although it was known theoretically in the 1930s as the process by which the sun and most other stars radiate their great output of energy, was not achieved by scientists until the 1950s. Fusion reactions are also known as thermonuclear reactions because the temperatures required to initiate them are more than 1,000,000°C. In the hydrogen bomb, such temperatures are provided by the detonation of a fission bomb. The energy released during fusion is even greater than that released during fission. Moreover, the fuel for fusion reactions, isotopes of hydrogen, is readily available in large amounts, and there is no release of radioactive byproducts.

In stars ordinary hydrogen, whose nucleus consists of a single proton, is the fuel for the reaction and is fused to form helium through a complex cycle of reactions (see nucleosynthesis). This reaction takes place too slowly, however, to be of practical use on the earth. The heavier isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium—have much faster fusion reactions.

For sustained, controlled fusion reactions, a fission bomb obviously cannot be used to trigger the reaction. The difficulties of controlled fusion center on the containment of the nuclear fuel at the extremely high temperatures necessary for fusion for a time long enough to allow the reaction to take place. For deuterium-tritium fusion, this time is about 0.1 sec. At such temperatures the fuel is no longer in one of the ordinary states of matter but is instead a plasma, consisting of a mixture of electrons and charged atoms. Obviously, no solid container could hold such a hot mixture; therefore, containment attempts have been based on the electrical and magnetic properties of a plasma, using magnetic fields to form a "magnetic bottle." In 1994 U.S. researchers achieved a fusion reaction that lasted about a second and generated 10.7 million watts, using deuterium and tritium in a magnetically confined plasma. The use of tritium lowers the temperature required and increases the rate of the reaction, but it also increases the release of radioactive neutrons. Another method uses laser beams aimed at tiny pellets of fusion fuel to create the necessary heat and pressure to initiate fusion.

If practical controlled fusion is achieved, it could have great advantages over fission as a source of energy. Deuterium is relatively easy to obtain, since it constitutes a small percentage of the hydrogen in water and can be separated by electrolysis, in contrast to the complex and expensive methods required to extract uranium-235 from its sources. In 2007 China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States formally established the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Organization to build an experimental fusion reactor at Cadarache in S France that would use the "magnetic bottle" approach. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's National Ignition Facility, based in Livermore, Calif., and dedicated in 2009, is exploring the use of high-energy lasers focused on hydrogen fuel to achieve nuclear fusion.


See H. Foreman, ed., Nuclear Power and the Public (1970); R. C. Lewis, Nuclear Power Rebellion: Citizen vs. the Atomic Industrial Establishment (1972); C. K. Ebinger, International Politics of Nuclear Energy (1978); S. Glasstone, Sourcebook on Atomic Energy (1979); G. S. Bauer and A. McDonald, ed., Nuclear Technologies in a Sustainable Energy System (1983); G. H. Clarfield and W. W. Wiecek, Nuclear America (1984).

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Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy, strictly conceived, has received rather scant attention within the literature of science and religion. However, if the focus is broadened to include nuclear technologythat is, nuclear energy and nuclear weapons considered togetherthen there is a modest increase in its treatment.

Benefits and risks

Nuclear energy has long been viewed as an alternative energy source to coal and petroleum, which are currently the principal sources of energy. Coal and petroleum provide efficient sources of energy, but their combustion also generates considerable carbon dioxide that escapes into the atmosphere. Although a few dissenters remain, the vast majority of climatologists hold that the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere creates a greenhouse effect. This greenhouse effect dramatically warms the planet, which leads, in turn, to global climate change, resulting in different impacts on different regions of the planet.

Nuclear energy provides an especially attractive alternative to coal and petroleum because it does not contribute to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Shifting to nuclear energy could potentially lead to a cleaner, healthier environment without a reduction in the human consumption of energy. However, the benefits of nuclear energy must be weighed against its substantial costs and risks. The principal cost of nuclear energy occurs with the safe disposal of radioactive wastes. In addition to the costs of disposal, there is the risk that nuclear radiation could be released into the environment, either at the nuclear power plant or at the site of waste disposal. Such a release could be accidental, the result of equipment malfunction or human error. There is also the risk of an intentional release of nuclear radiation as an act of terrorism. Whether accidental or intentional, such a release could potentially destroy all biotic life in the affected area and make the area sterile for life for the foreseeable future.

Although as of 2002 there have been no intentional releases of nuclear radiation into the environment, there have been two serious accidents at nuclear power plants. In 1979, there was an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. There was another accident in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Although very little nuclear radiation escaped from the Three Mile Island accident, nuclear radiation did escape from the Chernobyl accident, causing substantial ecological damage and the deaths of a number of people.

Theological perspectives

Within the science and religion literature, Ian Barbour provides one of the few focused treatments of nuclear energy in his book Ethics in an Age of Technology (1993). Barbour begins his examination with a discussion of risk. If risk is defined as the probability of an accident multiplied by the magnitude of its consequences, then the risk posed by nuclear energy is low, compared to other daily activities, such as driving a car. However, Barbour argues that evaluations of such technological risks must also be influenced by assumptions about human nature and social institutions. Taking a Christian religious perspective, Barbour argues that the individual and social sin inherent in the human condition calls for extreme caution in the development of nuclear energy because the risks and consequences are so high.

Shifting his focus to the safe disposal of radioactive wastes, Barbour identifies three ethical issues. First, Barbour notes that an issue of regional justice arises because radioactive waste disposal imposes extreme risks for a local population in order to provide a national benefit for everyone. Intergenerational justice raises a second ethical issue. The present generation would enjoy the benefits of nuclear energy, but passes on some of the burdens and risks of waste disposal to future generations. Finally, Barbour identifies the loss of public confidence in governments and the energy industry as a third ethical issue. His point here is that historically government and industry have been secretive and have failed to protect the public, rather than being transparent and promoting public discourse concerning the benefits, costs, and risks of nuclear energy. Barbour believes that more promising energy alternatives lie in energy conservation and in the use of other renewal energy sources, such as solar power.

In the 1980s, several religious writers warned that nuclear weapons and nuclear war threatened not only human life but the ecological viability of the planet. Two Christian theologians, Gordon Kaufman and Sallie McFague, argued further that these interconnected challenges were rooted in what has become a flawed understanding of God's power. In Theology for a Nuclear Age (1985), Kaufman argues that the threat of nuclear war and annihilation elicits two contrasting responses from traditional Christian conceptions of God. On the one hand, nuclear annihilation is interpreted in eschatological terms as God's action to bring the present age to an end. On the other hand, the threat of nuclear war is discounted because of the view that an almighty creator God, who loves humans and the rest of creation, would not allow such a disaster to occur. Kaufman notes that both responses have the effect of obscuring and undermining the responsibility that humans have for their actions. While the traditional understanding of God as omnipotent may have been appropriate for earlier times, Kaufman argues that this understanding is no longer appropriate in a nuclear age. In light of the threat of nuclear weapons, Kaufman proposes that Christian theologians need to reconceive of God's power, moving from a dualistic to an interdependent understanding. This would require theologians to rethink their formulation of the symbols "God" and "Christ." McFague concurs with Kaufman's analysis in her book Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (1987). As alternative models for thinking about God, McFague proposes mother, lover, and friend.

While both Kaufman and McFague were thinking initially of the threat of nuclear annihilation, they both extend their analyses to include ecological concerns. Thus, whether conceived broadly as nuclear technology, or more narrowly as nuclear energy, the literature of science and religion has consistently seen critical ecological implications for the planet.

See also Ecology; Ecology, Ethics of; Ecology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Ecology, Science of; Greenhouse Effect


barbour, ian. ethics in an age of technology. san francisco: harper, 1993.

kaufman, gordon d. theology for a nuclear age. manchester, uk: manchester university press, 1985.

mcfague, sallie. models of god: theology for an ecological, nuclear age. philadelphia: fortress press, 1987.

richard o. randolph

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Energy, Nuclear

Energy, Nuclear

Nuclear energy is produced during reactions in the nucleus of an atom. Atoms can be thought of as miniature solar systems with the nucleus at the center like a sun and electrons orbiting around it like planets. Densely packed neutrons and protons make up the nucleus, which is held together with great force, the "strongest force in nature." When the nucleus is bombarded with a neutron, it can be split apart, a process called fission. Uranium is the heaviest natural element and has ninety-two protons. Because uranium atoms are so large, the atomic force that binds it together is relatively weak, so fission is more likely with uranium than other elements.

Fusion, another type of nuclear reaction, is the joining of atoms and can occur with elements of low atomic number, such as hydrogen, the lightest element, which has one proton. The first time physicists achieved fusion was in the 1950s with the hydrogen bomb. Fusion releases a tremendous amount of energy, but the energy is released so quickly and uncontrollably that fusion has not yet been harnessed as a usable source of energy.

Physicists formulated the principles of nuclear power in the early twentieth century. In 1939 German scientists discovered the process of nuclear fission, triggering a race with American scientists to use the massive energy release of fission to create a bomb. The atomic bomb was created by the United States in 1945; it was used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II.

After World War II, atomic power was seen as a potential new energy source. The U.S. government thought atomic explosions would be a laborsaving way to dig canals and reservoirs and to mine for gas and oil. As late as the 1960s, bombs were being set off above and below ground to test different ideas, resulting in radionuclide contamination of the soil that is still being addressed today.

A more successful use of atomic power was nuclear reactors that controlled the release of energy. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover guided the development of small reactors to power submarines, greatly extending their range and power. By the late 1950s, nuclear power was being developed for commercial electric power, initially in England. Morris, Illinois, was the site of the first U.S. commercial reactor. Nuclear weapons research was advanced by Russia and the United States during the Cold War, and a number of other countries, including China and India, have now developed nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Power Plants

Uranium is one of the least plentiful of minerals, making up only two parts per million (ppm) in the earth's crust. But because of its radioactivity, it is a plentiful supply of energy: one pound of uranium has as much energy as three million pounds of coal.

In 2002 there were 104 nuclear power reactors licensed to operate in the United States, and they accounted for 20 percent of the nation's electricity production and more than one-fourth of nuclear power capacity in the world. Many other countries, including France, Japan, and the United Kingdom, have nuclear power plants. Nuclear power accounts for about 80 percent of France's electrical power production.

How Nuclear Power Works

In nuclear power plants, neutrons collide with uranium atoms, splitting them. This split releases neutrons from the uranium that, in turn, collide with other atoms, causing a chain reaction. This chain reaction is regulated (or governed) by "control rods" that absorb neutrons. Fission releases energy that heats water to approximately 520°F in the core of the plant. The steam that is created is then used to spin turbines that are connected to generators, which produce electricity.

After the steam is used to power the turbine, it is cooled off and condensed into water. Some plants use water from rivers, lakes, or the ocean to cool the steam; returning this water to the environment can cause thermal pollution. Other plants use the hourglass-shaped cooling towers that are the familiar hallmark of many nuclear plants. For every unit of electricity produced by a nuclear power plant, about two units of wasted heat are sent into the environment.

Nuclear reactors are also used to power military submarines and surface ships. As in land-based reactors, nuclear-powered vessels use the heat produced by the chain reaction to make steam for a turbine. The turbine is connected to the propeller shafts aboard the ships rather than generators that produce electricity.

Radioactive Pollution from Nuclear Energy

By 1995 over 32,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste had been produced by American nuclear reactors. That number is expected to rise to 75,000 metric tons by 2015.

Before the mid-1970s, the plan for fuel removed from nuclear reactors was to reprocess it and recycle the uranium into new fuel. Because a by-product of reprocessing is plutonium, a highly unstable element that can be used to make nuclear weapons, President Jimmy Carter ordered the end of reprocessing in 1977 due to security risks. Reprocessing also had a difficult time competing economically with the production of new uranium fuel.

Since then, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been studying storage sites for the long-term burial of such waste and is now focusing on Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The DOE has built a full-scale system of tunnels in the mountain at a cost of over $5 billion. Although the Yucca Mountain site is still controversial, there are no other sites presently under consideration.

Meanwhile, radioactive waste continues to be stored at the nuclear plants where it is produced. The most common option is to store it in a large steel-lined pool. As these pools fill up, fuel rods are stored in large steel and concrete casks.

see also Radioactive Fallout; Radioactive Waste; Thermal Pollution; Yucca Mountain.


mazuzan, george t., and walker, j. samuel. (1984). controlling the atom: the beginnings of nuclear regulation 19461962. berkeley: university of california press.

asimov, isaac. (1991). atom: journey across the subatomic cosmos. new york: truman talley books.

daley, michael j. (1997). nuclear power: promise or peril? minneapolis: lerner publications.

ramsey, charles b., and modarres, mohammad. (1998). commercial nuclear power: assuring safety for the future. new york: john wiley & sons.

internet resource

columbia college web site. "nuclear energy guide." available from

David Lochbaum

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Nuclear Power


The use of nuclear power to generate electricity began in the late 1950s. At the close of the twentieth century, nuclear power was supplying about 20 percent of the electricity generated in the United States and about 16 percent worldwide.

Nuclear power has been the most controversial of all energy sources. Public concerns about reactor safety and environmental issues were especially heightened by the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the much more serious accident in 1986 at Chernobyl in Ukraine. Construction of new nuclear power plants has slowed considerably since then, and some industrialized countries may abandon this energy source. Concerns about disposal of spent nuclear fuel have also affected public confidence in nuclear power. Although many scientists believe that spent fuel and other highly radioactive wastes can be disposed of safely in a geologic repository located far below ground, disposal sites for these wastes have not been approved, and the need to store spent fuel until disposal facilities are available raises safety and environmental concerns. The public also has not supported development of new disposal facilities for low-level radioactive wastes generated at nuclear power plants and in many other commercial activities. Other factors contributing to public concerns have included environmental problems at sites operated under nuclear weapons programs and fears that plutonium produced at nuclear power plants could be diverted for use in nuclear weapons.

Public concerns about safety and environmental issues have been exacerbated by financial risks in the nuclear power industry, including the high cost of constructing and operating nuclear power plants, potentially high costs of decommissioning nuclear facilities, and costs for storage and disposal of spent fuel and other nuclear wastes. Nuclear power may not remain competitive with other energy sources unless these costs are reduced.

Proponents of nuclear power emphasize its significant benefits. Past accidents notwithstanding, the nuclear power industry has an enviable safety record in those industrialized countries that require extensive reactor safety systems. Uranium used in nuclear fuel is abundant, which reduces dependence on foreign energy supplies and preserves oil and natural gas for essential uses. Nuclear reactors produce the greatest amount of energy per amount of fuel of any nonrenewable energy source, and the environmental damage from use of nuclear power is less than with other major energy sources, especially coal. Perhaps most importantly, the use of nuclear power in place of coal, oil, and natural gas greatly reduces emissions of carbon dioxide, which is believed to be a factor in global warming, and other hazardous air pollutants.

Given these benefits, many energy experts believe that nuclear power is an important energy source for the future. A major challenge will be to address public concerns about safety and environmental issues. The keys to meeting this challenge may include resolving concerns about nuclear waste disposal, siting of new reactors in remote areas, developing smaller reactors that incorporate passive safety systems, and using standard power plant designs to lower construction and operating costs.

David C. Kocher

(see also: Chernobyl; Energy; Not In My Backyard [NIMBY]; Nuclear Waste; Risk Assessment, Risk Management; Three Mile Island )


Cohen, B. L. (1990). The Nuclear Energy Option: An Alternative for the 90s. New York: Plenum Press.

Gofman, J. W., and Tamplin, A. R. (1971). Poisoned Power: The Case Against Nuclear Power Plants. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Jungk, R. (1979). The New Tyranny: How Nuclear Power Enslaves Us. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, Inc.

Rhodes, R. (1993). Nuclear Renewal: Common Sense about Energy. New York: Whittle Books.

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nuclear energy

nuclear energy is obtained by releasing the binding energy which holds together atomic nuclei, for example, in uranium. This fission process was used in the development of the atomic bomb during the Second World War, but by the mid-1950s scientists had been able to control it within the reactor cores of experimental power stations to produce utilizable energy. The nuclear reactor releases energy in the form of heat which is used to generate steam, and the steam to generate electricity. Plutonium, a highly fissile material used in the manufacture of nuclear bombs, is a byproduct.

The Atomic Energy Authority oversaw the development of the nuclear industry, which from the outset proved controversial on strategic, cost, and environmental grounds. When in 1956 power was switched from the first generator at Calder Hall to the National Grid it was hailed as a great achievement but scant attention was paid to the real purpose of the programme, to breed plutonium for Britain's nuclear deterrent. An experimental fast reactor, built at Dounreay in the north of Scotland, began operation in 1959, and paved the way for the first fast-breeder reactor power station.

From the standpoint of the 1950s, discounting the perceived need for a nuclear deterrent during the Cold War, nuclear power seemed an excellent investment, given the likelihood that unit costs could be as little as a fifth that of fossil-fuel electricity. In the ensuing years the industry expanded, though the balance of cost advantage remained uncertain. But the upsurge of oil prices in the 1970s, coupled with uneasy labour relations in the coal-mines, added to the comparative economic attraction of nuclear power, which began to accelerate dramatically, as did the nuclear component of electricity output.

Successive British governments since the 1950s wanted to lessen dependence on petroleum-exporting countries, but with the development of North Sea oil and gas, this was less pressing. Energy requirements in general began to be adjusted as a response to the energy crisis, and this brought about a reassessment of the high-energy role of nuclear power. While in its early stages of development nuclear energy appeared environmentally inoffensive to the general public, increased concern was voiced about its safety following major disasters at power plants internationally during the 1980s, and about the twin problems of waste disposal and decommissioning of redundant plant.

Ian Donnachie

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nuclear energy

nuclear energy Energy released during a nuclear reaction as a result of the conversion of mass into energy according to Einstein's equation E = mc2. The conversion involves the binding energy of the nucleus of an atom. Nuclear energy is released in two ways: by fission (splitting a heavy atomic nucleus in two) and by fusion (combining light aomic nuclei). Fission, discovered in 1938, is the process responsibile for the atomic bomb and for nuclear reactors in nuclear power stations that produce electricity. In 1942, German-born US physicist Enrico Fermi achieved the first sustained nuclear chain reaction. Fusion provides the energy for the stars and the hydrogen bomb. It also offers the prospect of cheap energy, once a method has been perfected for controlling fusion reactions. See also critical mass; Manhattan Project; nuclear weapon

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Nuclear Energy (Issue)


In 1954 the U.S. government authorized private ownership of nuclear reactors as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's (19531961) Atoms for Peace initiative, paving the way for utility companies to build nuclear power plants. By the mid-1960s many utility companies had "gone nuclear," though building reactors proved far more costly than the early hopes; reactor energy did not meet expectations that they could provide power for pennies a day.

Most U.S. citizens' sole experience with the power of the atom was the devastating bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; accordingly, some opposed the whole issue of nuclear energy. In California, after an earthquake disrupted construction, residents demanded the cancellation of the planned Bodega Bay reactor which was sited on a geological fault. Inhabitants of New York City resisted the siting of a plant within its borders because of the dense population.

Regardless of fears about nuclear weaponry, most people liked the idea of building atomic energy plants. The country was using increasing amounts of electrical energy (produced by burning fossil fuels which created air pollution. Nuclear power promised to be cheaper and cleaner. Moreover, nuclear power had the aura of a neat, high-tech solution to the complicated problems that people had come to expect from politics and business. When an oil embargo by countries in the Middle East hit in 19731974, the United States faced shortages of electricity, gasoline, and heating oil. Factories and schools were shut down. There were also cancellations of commercial airline flights, electrical brownouts, and increased lines at gasoline service stations. Blackouts plagued cities and industries, most spectacularly in New York City on July 13 and 14, 1977. High fuel prices reduced the productivity of U.S. industry. To all of these complaints the supporters of nuclear energy claimed a solution. They also argued that nuclear energy would solve the balance of payments problem and neutralize the damage to the international monetary system that was being done by the heavy U.S. imports of fuel.

To some U.S. citizens, atomic energy seemed to offer a way for the nation to achieve energy independence. Support for nuclear power steadily increased. Meanwhile the anti-nuclear movement carried forward the traditions of the anti-Vietnam War movement and many opponents initiated demonstrations at nuclear power plants. At Seabrook Station in New Hampshire, opponents staged sit-ins, civil disobedience, celebrity concerts, and rallies. Supporters of nuclear energy ridiculed the protesters' fear of technology and charged the anti-nuclear movement with a vaguely un-American variety of consumer elitism. One writer caricatured the protesters as "vegetarians in leather jackets who drive imported cars to Seabrook listening to the Grateful Dead on their Japanese tape decks amid a marijuana haze."

Regardless of this culture clash, the United States' energy crisis was real and was caused by several factors. One was that in the 1950s and 1960s strategic geopolitical concerns led the government to promote the import of fuel from overseas, especially from the Middle East. Another was that President Richard Nixon's (19691974) 1971 attempt to halt inflation (called the New Economic Policy) had imposed price controls on the entire economy. But when the other restrictions were lifted, oil remained regulated, keeping the price artificially low to consumers and increasing demand. The United States was extravagant in its use of energyfew U.S.-made cars got better than 10 miles to the gallon, and homes and businesses were poorly insulated and inefficiently designed. Diverse special interests had skewed portions of the government's oversight and regulation of the oil industry toward their particular interests, and passing general legislation regarding energy became a political nightmare. Accordingly, efforts to develop a consistent energy policy throughout the 1970s were diluted and diverted. The decade ended much as it began, with the United States wastefully consuming inordinate amounts of energy, subject, once again, to an oil crisis.

During the 1960s utility companies were aware of the coming energy shortage. One of their methods to prepare for the shortfall was to construct nuclear reactors. In January 1973 there were 27 functioning reactors in the United States, providing only five percent of the power generated. Fifty-five plants were under construction, and an additional 78 were in the planning stages. The majority, however, were never built. Security expenses, nuclear-waste disposal costs, and construction overruns made the return on investment slim in nuclear-power plants.

In 1974, seeking to assist the nuclear industry, the administration of President Gerald R. Ford (19741977) disbanded the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which had overseen U.S. nuclear development for 28 years. In its place were constructed two more industry-friendly commissions: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). The latter agency was empowered to develop new energy sources and market U.S. nuclear industry abroad. The NRC streamlined the licensing and commission of reactor projects, but many of the old problems remained. Safety was a pressing issue: fires underscored the potential for a catastrophic accident at nuclear plants (at the Indian Point Two reactor in New York in 1971, the Zion reactor in Illinois in 1974, the Trojan reactor in Oregon in 1974, and the Brown's Ferry reactor in Alabama in 1975). In 1975 the Union of Concerned Scientists presented the White House with a petition signed by 2,000 scientists which called for a reduction in nuclear construction. Public opinion followed that of the scientists. Environmental groups increasingly challenged the construction of nuclear projects in the NRC and in the courts, delaying the deployment of projects and driving up the start-up costs. The 19781979 protests at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire were particularly vocal and drew national attention to the issue. Then, in the spring of 1979, an accident at the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Three Mile Island nuclear power plant resulted in a partial core meltdown. Although no one was injured, the accident terrified the public and placed the future of the nuclear industry in jeopardy.

On April 26, 1986, near the town of Pripyat in the Soviet Union, attention was again focused on the issue of safety in the nuclear power industry. One of four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in the Ukraine exploded with such force that the roof of the building was completely blown off. Eight tons of radioactive materials were scattered about the region immediately surrounding the plant. Airborne radioactivity from the blast rained down on northern Europe and Scandinavia. Fallout contaminating farm produce was measured as far away as Scotland. Engineers at Chernobyl had accidentally initiated an uncontrolled chain reaction in the reactor's core during an unauthorized test in which they unlawfully incapacitated the reactor's emergency systems. In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, more than 30 people lost their lives. Moreover, one estimate placed the number at 20,000 who would eventually live shortened lives as a result of the effects of their exposure to radiation from the accident.

In the United States experts argued that the disaster at Chernobyl was not pertinent to the domestic nuclear industry. They noted that the technology employed at Chernobyl was not being used in the United States. The Soviets, they pointed out, were using a weapons-material production reactor to generate electricity for their domestic marketsomething not done in the United States. Furthermore, the Chernobyl reactor lacked a containment buildinga required safety component mandated for all U.S. reactors. Nevertheless, many in the United States drew uneasy parallels between Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, among them, that operator error and equipment failure was possible in the nuclear industry. The consequences of a single major mistake could be catastrophic.

During the 1980s scores of "anti-nuke" organizations warned of the hazards of nuclear energy and protested plant construction and operation. In Seabrook, New Hampshire, protesters rallied around the citizens' action group, the Clamshell Alliance, to oppose the building of two nuclear reactors. By 1987 the utility that owned Seabrook was near bankruptcy, in part due to the increased vigilance of oversight safety committees insisted upon by the Clamshell Alliance. At Long Island's Shoreham nuclear facility the story was much the same. Besieged by civic-group opposition and having far exceeded initial cost estimates of $241 million (its actual cost to the utility had surpassed $5 billion), the Shoreham "nuke" was closed by the state government in 1988. The utility that owned Shoreham had failed to develop an adequate evacuation plan for the region of Long Island that would be affected in the event of a meltdown. Sold to the state government for one dollar, the completed plant was to be dismantled even before it opened.

Cost overruns and construction problems continued to plague the industry. Florida's St. Lucie Two plant cost about four times its original estimate of $360 million. This price, as it would turn out, was a relative bargain. By mid-decade Michigan's Midland nuclear power plant (initial cost estimate: $267 million) had cost the utility constructing it $4.4 billion, and it was nine years behind schedule. In the West, at the Diablo Canyon Plant, earthquake supports were installed backwards.

Another problem the industry faced was the disposal of irradiated fuel rods. During the 1980s utility companies stored these rods on site at the power plants, in large vats resembling swimming pools, but this was only considered a temporary solution. In 1982 Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The act called upon the Department of Energy (DOE) to find a suitable site to bury radioactive waste. DOE, however, was unsuccessful in locating a site that included both the necessary stable rock formation (free of groundwater) and the requisite local public support. By the end of the 1980s, no solution to the problem of nuclear waste had been found.


Glasstone, Samuel. Sourcebook on Atomic Energy. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand, 1967.

Inglis, David R. Nuclear Energy: Its Physics and Its Social Challenge. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1973.

Marion, Jerry B., and Roush, Marvin L. Energy in Perspective, 2d ed. New York: Academic Press, 1982.

Stobaugh, Robert, Daniel Yergin, eds. Energy Future: Report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School. New York: Random House, 1979.

Williams, Robert C., Philip L. Cantelon, eds. The American Atom: A Documentary History of Nuclear Policies from the Discovery of Fission to the Present, 19391984. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, September, 1984.

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nuclear power

nu·cle·ar pow·er • n. 1. electric or motive power generated by a nuclear reactor. 2. a country that has nuclear weapons. DERIVATIVES: nu·cle·ar-pow·ered adj.

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