Although much of the world is focused on variable renewable energies such as wind and solar power to solve the emissions problem, nuclear power also has a role to play in reducing the total emissions created during electricity production. However, nuclear power must overcome its own set of constraints and obstacles to compete with other energy sources. And although global capacity for nuclear power is likely to expand in the coming decades, the United States probably will not substantially increase its own capacity. Instead, it will serve as a technological developer to help other countries ramp up their use of nuclear energy.
The United States has the largest civilian nuclear energy program in the world. Nuclear power now accounts for roughly one-fifth of the nation's electricity supply. But the path leading to that point was not smooth, nor is nuclear power guaranteed to hold its position in the country's energy makeup in the future.
High capital costs and regulatory hurdles have kept nuclear power from reaching its potential in the United States. Even during the "golden age" of U.S. nuclear power, cost overruns were astronomical; the 75 reactors built between 1966 and 1977 saw cost overruns that averaged more than 200 percent. Concerns about nuclear energy rose after an accident occurred on Three Mile Island in 1979, and the regulatory process became even more rigorous in an effort to ensure safety. Other countries, including France, have incorporated higher percentages of nuclear power into their energy mix. But in the United States, huge capital costs and an increasingly complicated regulatory process, combined with high inflation rates, have slowed the drive for nuclear power. The "death" of nuclear power was perhaps best illustrated in 1989, when a $5 billion, fully constructed plant that had never begun operating shut its doors.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Washington renewed its support for nuclear power. Between 2001 and 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy's budget for research and development in nuclear power tripled. In 2002, government programs spent half a billion dollars to jump-start new construction efforts. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 included numerous financial incentives for nuclear power producers, including loan guarantees and cost sharing. In the early 2000s, a nuclear renaissance seemed possible. However, the economic crisis and boom in shale and natural gas undid the progress that had been made.
Although funds continue to be appropriated for new nuclear construction, they are not nearly enough to meet existing requests. There are five units under construction, but more are awaiting licensing, while others have withdrawn applications. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued an operational license in October — its first in nearly two decades — for the Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee; when it comes online, it will become the first new unit to operate since the 1990s. Delays and cost overruns continue to plague plants under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, much like their predecessors.