Nuclear plants can generate large quantities of relatively dependable baseload electricity but are tremendously costly to build, produce dangerous radioactive waste, and present an attractive target for terrorism. Other options cost less and produce no deadly long-lived waste, for which there still is no permanent storage option in the United States.
There are more than 400 nuclear power plants currently operating in 31 countries around the world. Roughly 13–14 percent of the world’s electricity comes from nuclear power. The United States produces the most nuclear energy of any country, although this accounts for only 19 percent of its electricity. France, by comparison, generates about half as much power from nuclear energy, but that amount represents almost 80 percent of its electricity production, the highest proportion in any nation.
Proponents argue that nuclear power is a safe, carbon-free source of power, and that it presents a green alternative to dirty, climate-killing coal. This claim does not hold up well to critical scrutiny. Although nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide while heating water to run a steam turbine (as coal-burning power plants do), lifecycle analysis of nuclear power shows that the entire process emits significant greenhouse gases. Deforestation and mining to procure uranium, nuclear plant construction with massive amounts of steel and concrete, and decommissioning and waste storage responsibilities that stretch thousands of years into the future all are significant greenhouse gas contributors.
High-profile accidents including the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdowns have periodically focused world attention on the potential for catastrophic breakdown of these highly complex systems. While major accidents are rare, “near misses” occur more frequently, and small releases of radioactivity are common. After many decades of trying to solve the waste disposal problem, the United States still has no permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste. Moreover, nuclear plants are an obvious target for terrorists, and a civilian nuclear industry can be used by rogue nations to develop nuclear weapons capability. Finally, a key objection to nuclear power is its tremendous cost: Without government support including loan guarantees and insurance underwriting, private capital markets in the United States would not finance new nuclear plant construction.