Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard
A radiation monitor near the tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors. (AP)

So many questions about nuclear power

ASK THIS | February 29, 2012

How competitive is nuclear power? How safe? And how practical? Two scientists examine the future of nuclear power in the U.S. and find many fruitful but unexplored lines of inquiry for journalists.

By Frank A. Settle and Charles D. Ferguson

Nuclear power is very much in the news. Japan's tsunami-hit Fukushima reactors remain fragile, federal regulators have approved two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, and New Hampshire state legislators are trying to shut down the one reactor in their state.

But there are many unanswered questions about nuclear power that too often go unexamined. A recent report, The Future of Nuclear Power in the United States, published by the Federation of American Scientists and Washington and Lee University, addresses many issues surrounding the history, current status, and future of this source of electricity. Some of the important questions it raises are:

Q. Can nuclear power compete with other sources of electricity?

The current abundance of natural gas and the lower cost of building natural gas power plants relative to the expense of nuclear plants make natural gas attractive. But the environmental impact and water requirements for obtaining natural gas make it less so. In addition, as Japan reduces its dependence on nuclear power, the global demand for natural gas could increase its price. What is the impact of natural gas on nuclear power?

While nuclear power has a tiny carbon footprint as compared to coal, coal fired plants generate almost half of the electricity in the U.S. In order to complete with coal, nuclear would need assistance from the government in the form of subsidies, cap and trade legislation, or a tax on carbon emissions. What are the advantages, liabilities and barriers to each approach?

The current financial markets and government debt make financing expensive new nuclear power plants difficult. What are the roles of the federal and state governments in the financing of the nuclear industry? How are the new Georgia plants being financed? Is this a model for future construction?

Q. What about spent fuel (nuclear waste)?

Spent fuel from nuclear power reactors is currently stored at reactor sites in pools of water or in dry casks. The design of the Fukushima reactors required that the storage pools be above the reactor, which added to the problems of containing radiation. Some reactors in the U.S. are of the same design. How safe and secure is the spent fuel on U.S. reactor sites?

Work on the proposed Yucca Mountain Nevada repository has been halted by the Obama administration. This January the federal Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future recommended steps to address nuclear waste, which included siting the repository in a different location. How will these recommendations be received by the government and the nuclear industry? Will any be implemented?

Q. Is the supply of uranium adequate for current and future projected requirements?

The supply of uranium appears to be sufficient to support current and future requirements. The major suppliers of uranium for U.S. reactors are close allies, Australia and Canada. Should the mining of uranium in Virginia and other domestic locations be approved? What would be the environmental impacts of new or renewed domestic uranium mining?

Q. How secure are the current reactors and spent fuel facilities from terrorist attacks?

Nuclear plants have increased their security since 9/11 and the physical force-on-force attack drills have increased from one every 8 years to one every 3 years. However, attacks on the computer control systems remain a major threat. What measures are being taken to increase security, both physical and cyber, of nuclear power plants?

Q. How safe are U.S. nuclear reactors?

Nuclear power production is one of the most highly regulated industries in the U.S. No fatalities have occurred from the operation of nuclear reactors in the U.S. However, there have been several accidents at nuclear facilities in this country. With the exception of Three Mile Island, they have been handled in a manner that minimized dangers to the public.

Is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) doing its job of monitoring the safe operation of nuclear power plants? Is its budget adequate for its mission? How much influence does the nuclear industry exert on the NRC? Are new plants such as the Westinghouse-Toshiba AP1000 being built in Georgia much safer than older generation plants?

The nuclear reactor fleet in the U.S. is aging and many reactors will be either decommissioned or relicensed. What are the factors in determining which option will be chosen? What are the procedures for relicensing and are they sufficient to assure safe operation?

Q. Is the infrastructure available to maintain and expand the nuclear power industry in the U.S.?

The workforce of engineers and technicians required to design, build, operate and maintain nuclear power plants is aging and will need to be replaced. The current educational system is inadequate for developing these human resources. How will the U.S. meet these educational challenges?

Many of the industries required to support the construction of new reactors are lacking in the U.S. For example, one of the few facilities that produce the vessels for reactors is located in Japan and has several years’ worth of back orders. How will the U.S. encourage the development of the industries required to maintain and expand its nuclear power industry?

Frank A. Settle is the Visiting Professor of Chemistry at Washington and Lee University and Charles D. Ferguson is president of the Federation of American Scientists. They edited The Future of Nuclear Power in the United States.

Some misconceptions.
Posted by Mike H
02/29/2012, 05:13 PM

Spent Fuel

Spent fuel is a political issue, not a technical one. The CBO made it very clear that the Obama administration closed Yucca Mountain over political concerns and not scientific or technical. Reprocessing of spent fuel is a very mature technology and once again, its based on political decisions, not technical ones, that the US doesn’t reprocess waste. Reprocessed waste would solve two simultaneous issues: it would allow much more potential energy to be use from the fuel decreasing the need to mine new supplies and it would turn high level waste into medium level waste.


To the best of my knowledge no nuclear facilities in the US use SCADA systems for safety related system control. Because the designs date back to the 70’s, safety related systems rely mainly on relay based control systems which are unhackable unless you physically rewire the systems. While some plant systems may be on SCADA controllers and SCADA acquisition systems monitor and collect data from safety related systems, they don’t control them so a STUXNET type of attack wouldn’t endanger any safety related systems.


While the number of N-Stamp certifications has fallen from 900 in the 80’s to around 200 by the mid-2000’s, that number has rebounded to over 240 today. Basically the infrastructure will develop when the orders start coming in. The decline from the 80’s stems from consoliation in the industry and the fact that we weren’t building 3-4 reactors a year. Part of the recent rebound in N-stamp certified fabricators is the anticipation of new work and the continual maintenance and upgrades to existing units. Areva and Shaw have opened some large nuclear fabrication shops in the US recently as well, in anticipation of the upswing in workload.

Although they have most of the work and a significant backlog Japan Steel Works isn’t the only facility that can forge GenIV reactor ring segments, several other foundries can (China First Heavy Industries. China Erzhong and OMZ Izhora) and capacity is being added at several others as well (Doosan, Le Creusot, Pilsen, ZiO-Podolsk, Sheffield, Larsen & Toubro, Bharat Forge). As with the N-Stamp shops, foundry capacity will be added if the work comes but no one is going to invest billions if the work isn’t there. Transportation costs drive where this is soured and if the US begins building one or two GenIV’s a year, its inevitable that foundry capacity will be increased in the US to handle this work a

What about the economical component?
Posted by Lucas Wyrsch
03/01/2012, 04:17 AM

Commercial use of nuclear power will bankrupt each and every country, it's only a question of time, were we told at the Swiss University of Geneva from our professor in nuclear physics who signed the Geneva Call in October 2nd, 1978 to close down Superphénix at Creys Malville in particular and to phase out from nuclear power in general!

Commerical use of nuclear power always creates a huge income inequality, too big to ignore with an enormous concentration risk! For each percent of nuclear electricity generated, GDP growth rate slows down about two percent, increasing unemployment and decreasing interest rates.

Commercial use of nuclear power always generates the most important Lucas wedge that we can imagine.

Commercial use of nuclear power is an assymetric wealth redistribution from the 99.9999 percent (one million electricity consumers who pay an annual one billion in energy bills) to the 0.000 percnet (one single nuclear power plant).

The economic cost of the commercial use of nuclear power is so huge that each and every country that uses it will sooner or later be exposed to a dramatic sovereign debt default risk, be it the US with 20 percent of nuclear energy, the EU with 28 percent or Japan with 30 percent before 311 at the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident.

German Democratic Republic was in 1990 the first victim of a national bankruptcy thanks to commercial use of nuclear power and had to be bailed out by Federal Republic of Germany! In 1990, all East German nuclear power plants were closed and in April 2000, Germany decided to phase out nuclear power which was confirmed 12 years later by another German government!

Since Germany has decided to phase out from nuclear power, 2.3 million new jobs were created and Germany's economy is strongly recovering while France's economy still is in a big downward cycle!

It's neither politic nor technical, it's for economical reasons that we have to phase out from nuclear power everywhere!

2012 is the UN year for sustainable energy for all!

"As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs - but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment." - President Barack Obama
http://www.whitehouse.gov/energy ...

Think, and grow rich!

Phase out from nuclear power now!

Facts please Mr. Wyrsch!
Posted by Andrii Gritsevskyi
03/01/2012, 07:01 AM

There are many question and uncertainties with respect of future of nuclear power. It is very serious topic and no mater what decision will be it will definitely have implications for long term future.
That is why it is critically important to assess benefits and disadvantages of nuclear power technologies based on facts. So Mr. Wyrsch please share with us data that supports your statements:

- "For each percent of nuclear electricity generated, GDP growth rate slows down about two percent";
- "German Democratic Republic was in 1990 the first victim of a national bankruptcy thanks to commercial use of nuclear power".

Concerning last one, there were many reasons why economics of GDR collapsed, but for anyone who ever study economics use of nuclear power is probably the last that can come to his/her mind.

Important political and economic decisions, and future of nuclear power is definitely one of them, should be based on facts and logic not "one day" populistic slogans playing on people's fear and economic insecurity.

So FACTS please!

Concerns in Hawaii
Posted by Tui
04/05/2012, 03:25 PM

I'm a resident of Honolulu. As you know, in a desperate attempt to get the Fukushima reactors under control, a massive amount of seawater was used as an emergency coolant. That water was then pumped back into the ocean. There's a popular image of the irradiated plume floating (no pun intended) around the interwubz. How irradiated would the water be by the time it hits Hawaii? How does that water affect our food sources in that area of the Pacific? If this happened at Camp Pendleton, how would Hawaii's exposure to the situation differ from the current scenario? What specific levels of radiation would we be talking about and who'd be responsible for taking those readings? Thank you for your time



Posted by Tui
04/05/2012, 03:26 PM

Did Fukushima just get censored?

Deputy Editor, NiemanWatchdog.org
Posted by Dan Froomkin
04/05/2012, 05:46 PM

It did get censored, yes. It is now uncensored. Our "dirty word filter" replaced Fuk with ***. Our apologies.

Posted by Lucas Wyrsch
08/01/2012, 02:53 PM

Dear Andrii Gritsevskyi,

It's not facts that are needed, but stats, statistics!

If you analyze the average annual growth rate during one or two decades of a country before commercial use of nuclear power and after, you always get the same stats, a slow down of the average annual growth rate!

Japan had an average annual growth rate of 10 percent between 1950 and 1969! It started its first nuclear power plant in 1966! Between 1970 and 1979, average annual growth rate of Japan went down to 5 percent! Between 1980 and 1989, average annual growth rate of Japan went down to 4 percent! On the last day of December 1989, NIKKEI 225 index stood at 39,000 and this index is now, 23 years later 75 percent below its highest! Between 1990 and 2010, Japan generated 30 percent of nuclear power and had an average annual growth rate of zero percent! Japanese called it the Lost Decades (????10? Ushinawareta Junen)! Then came 311 or March 11, 2011 and 420 days later, Japan's nuclear power was 0 percent as it closed down all nuclear power plants! And you know what, Japan's GDP in Q1 of 2012 increased unexpectedly to 4.1 percent! Germany's GDP also increased in Q1 of 2012 and Germany also closed down most of its nuclear power plants, while UK with 17 percent nuclear power and Spain with 20 percent nuclear power are in recession! US with 20 percent nuclear power is the most indebted country on earth! Do you need more stats or are you able to collect them yourself? Commercial use of nuclear power will bankrupt each and every country, it's only a question of time! You'll remember it later!
Have a great and happy day! Best, Lucas

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.