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Policy Statement 490 - Nuclear Power

 

Approved by the Energy, Environment, and Water Policy Committee on March 14, 2019
Approved by the Public Policy Committee on April 28, 2019
Adopted by the Board of Direction on July 13, 2019

Policy

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) supports a balanced national energy portfolio in which nuclear power contributes to the national electric supply if justified economically and environmentally.

Issue

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Energy Department estimates that:

  • The United States has been a net energy importer since 1953, but the continued growth in both petroleum and natural gas exports are projected to make the U.S. a net energy exporter by 2020;
  • The continuing decline in natural gas prices and the increasing penetration of renewable electricity generation have resulted in lower wholesale electricity prices, changes in generation utilization rates, and operating losses for a large number of baseload coal and nuclear generators;
  • The share of electricity generation from renewables is expected to grow from 18 percent in 2018 to 31 percent in 2050 as the cost for certain systems, such as those for solar and wind, decline making them more economical; and  
  • Coal will remain a significant fuel for electricity generation in the U.S., but its share will decline significantly. In 2018, coal accounted for 28 percent of total U.S. generation; in 2050 coal is expected to account for 17 percent of cost. Competition from natural gas and renewables is a key factor in the decline, with this share rising from 34 percent in 2018 to 39 percent by 2050.

There are currently 59 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 98 nuclear reactors in 30 states in the U.S. Thirty-six of the plants have two or more reactors. These plants have generated about 20 percent of U.S. electricity each year since 1991 and 56 percent of the nation's emissions-free generation. U.S. electricity demand will rise 17 percent by 2035, about 1 percent each year.  

Meanwhile, the EIA reports nuclear power plants provided 19 percent of total electricity generation in 2013. From 2013 to 2040, the nuclear share of total generation will decline. Nuclear power capacity will increase from 101.2 gigawatts (GW) in 2010 to a high of 114.7 GW in 2025, before declining to 110.9 GW in 2035, largely as a result of plant retirements and increasing renewables. The capacity increase through 2025 includes 7.3 gigawatts of expansion at existing plants and 6.8 gigawatts of new capacity. Although the industry is able to store spent nuclear fuel on site, under any used fuel management scenario, disposal of high-level radioactive byproducts in a permanent geologic repository is necessary, according to the National Energy Institute (NEI).

Rationale

The largest source of U.S. electricity generation is natural gas, followed by coal, nuclear energy, hydropower, oil, and non-hydropower renewable energy. Nuclear energy is the third-largest source of U.S. electricity generation. Nuclear power is used exclusively to generate electricity.

Nuclear power has none of the emissions associated typically associated with power plants, including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury and carbon dioxide. While the number of nuclear plants has declined because of retirements, nuclear electricity generation has steadily increased because of improved reliability and up-rating of existing reactors and must-run status designation where the plants are located within regulated wholesale markets. 

As of August 2018, there were 98 commercial nuclear reactors operating in the United States. The average age of U.S. commercial reactors is about 35 years. The oldest operating reactors entered commercial service in December 1969. The last newly built reactor to enter service came online in 1996. Twelve commercial reactors with a capacity of 11.7 gigawatts are scheduled for decommission between 2019 and 2025. Uncertainty exists with future nuclear plant construction given cost overruns and unclear regulatory status. Economic factors have played a significant role in decisions to continue opening or to retire nuclear plants as increased competition from natural gas and renewables has made it increasingly difficult for nuclear generators to compete in electricity markets. 

One factor that may affect increased nuclear power generation is the supply and disposal of nuclear fuel. Securing reliable sources of fuel (enriched uranium) and properly disposing of fuel as high-level radioactive waste after use should be a priority for both government and industry to enable future use. 

ASCE Policy Statement 490 
First Approved in 2001

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