Nuclear power plays a significant role in the United States’ electricity supply, accounting for 20 percent of demand. Even more notably, nuclear power generates more than 50 percent of the country’s carbon-free electricity. Nuclear power will remain an important part of the solution as the world takes steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Uranium as the Source for Nuclear Power
Nuclear power plants in the United States and worldwide depend on the fission of uranium atoms to create heat. In a nuclear reactor, uranium fuel is assembled so a controlled fission chain reaction can occur. The heat generated by splitting the uranium atoms (usually U-235) is used to make steam, which turns a turbine to drive a generator and create electricity.
U.S. reactors typically use enriched uranium as their fuel source. Enrichment involves increasing the proportion of the uranium-235 isotope in natural uranium from 0.71 percent to three to five percent. This process consists in converting the uranium into powder form, pressing it into small pellets, and stacking them into sealed metal tubes called fuel rods. Control rods, usually made of boron, help regulate the fission process and water.
Where Are U.S. Nuclear Plants Located?
Nuclear power plants are found in 28 states across America, most located east of the Mississippi River. There are currently 94 reactors, providing energy to 56 power plants. The location of these plants is often determined by the availability of natural bodies of water, which are used to cool the reactors.
The first nuclear-powered light bulb was invented in 1948, using a prototype nuclear reactor in Tennessee. In 1951, a bigger experimental nuclear reactor in Idaho created larger batches of electricity. The first operational nuclear plant was built in 1955 and generated enough electricity to power the town of Arco, Idaho.
After a few successes, utility companies began pushing to commission more nuclear reactors in the 1960s. They saw nuclear power as an economical option that would create less pollution. The early 1970s saw a rise in commodity prices, making nuclear power even more appealing.
The oil embargo of 1973 caused even more reactor deals to be signed as Americans struggled with the shortages and high prices that came with depending on foreign energy sources. In 1973, the newest reactors were ordered, with 41 being placed that year.
The Three Mile Island
The partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979 was a turning point for the nuclear energy industry. Although no one was killed or injured in the accident, it was the first major nuclear accident, leading to the cancellation of dozens of orders for new reactors. However, because reactors take a long time to build, many already under construction came online in the 1980s.
After the 1979 episode, public opinion of nuclear power declined sharply. However, the incident was caused by a design flaw and operator error, not by the nuclear process itself. In the years that followed, small changes were made to reactor design, but more substantial changes were made in operator protocols and regulatory oversight. As a result, nuclear power plants became much safer and more efficient.
Are There Safety Concerns?
All energy sources negatively impact humans, including air pollution, accidents, or greenhouse gas emissions. Of all the options, nuclear power has the lowest mortality rate per unit of energy produced. But because of public opinion, it’s also one of the most heavily regulated industries.
The United States has long benefited from nuclear power, and it will continue to play a significant role in our energy mix as we move into the future. Advances in reactor design and safety protocol mean that nuclear energy production is as safe as it has ever been and will be for decades.
enCore Energy, the most diversified U.S. domestic uranium developer is focused on becoming a leading ISR uranium producer. The enCore team is led by industry experts with extensive knowledge and experience in all aspects of ISR uranium operations and the nuclear fuel cycle. If you’re looking for a U.S. uranium mining company in Texas, look no further than enCore Energy! Get in touch to see our uranium projects!