Boom and Bust—and Boom Again?

Brian Hamilton & Katie Wirka


Nuclear power alternately, and often simultaneously, has symbolized great peril and great promise. It has beckoned toward a bright future while bridled by its own past. This page offers an overview of the mechanics of turning uranium into electricity, the bull-and-bear history of the nuclear industry, and the points of contention in today's conversation about the place of nuclear power in our warming world.

Table of Contents

  1. The Life Cycle of Uranium
    1. The Rock
    2. The Reaction
    3. What's Left Over
  2. A Brief History of Nuclear Power
    1. Soldiers versus Civilians
    2. Postwar Optimism & the Building Boom
    3. The Troubles
    4. A Changed Climate
  3. Why We Argue About It
    1. Cost
    2. Waste
    3. Human Health
    4. Security
    5. Water
  4. To Learn More
  5. Works Consulted
  6. References

The Life Cycle of Uranium

Though it is draped in the aura of advanced technology, nuclear power has earthly origins, making it less distinct from its energy predecessors than it at first might seem. Just like coal power—the premier fuel for commercial electricity in the United States—nuclear begins with a rock. And more parallels follow. Unearthed and refined, both coal and uranium undergo a reaction that releases heat harnessed to create steam to propel a turbine, sending electrical power to the grid. And both the extraction of these rocks and the reactions they undergo produce an array of byproducts that affect both human societies and the natural world.

The Rock

Nuclear energy, despite diverse engineering methods and waves of innovation, depends ultimately on the extraction of uranium ore.

What is Uranium?

Uranium is a naturally occurring, radioactive element that is found in low levels within all rock, soil, and water. It ranks as the forty-eighth most abundant elements found in the earth's crust. In nature, uranium is found as U238, U235, and a very small amount of U234. U235 is the only form of uranium that can be used to create a sustained fission reaction. It splits apart easily because of its unstable ratio of protons to neutrons (92:143). U235 only makes up 0.79% of the world's total uranium supply and is mixed in ore with U238, which makes up 99% of the world's uranium.1 Separating the valuable U235 from the prolific U238 requires enrichment, but first the composite uranium ore must be mined.

Figure 1: Ranger Uranium Mine, Kakadu National Park, Australia

(Wikimedia Commons,

Uranium Mining and Milling

Sixty percent of the world's mined uranium comes from Canada, Australia, and Kazakhstan. There are three different ways to mine uranium: surface (open pit), underground, and in-situ leach mining.

Surface (open pit) mining removes the soil and rock overlying the mineral deposit by drilling and blasting to expose the uranium ore, which is then mined by blasting and excavation. Miners work in loaders and dump trucks, limiting their exposure to radiation. Water is used extensively to suppress airborne dust.

Underground mining is undertaken when uranium deposits are located too far (more than 120 meters) underground to extract it through surface mining. While this method requires less extensive excavation, complex ventilation systems must be installed to protect miners from breathing irradiated air.

In-Situ leaching (ISL), also known as solution mining, involves leaving the ore in the ground, and dissolving the desired mineral in an acid, alkaline, or peroxide and pumping what is termed the "pregnant solution" to the surface. This is uranium oxide (U3O8) or "yellowcake" and is ready for enrichment.

To turn mined ore into yellowcake, mills must first grind it into a fine powder and use the ISL chemicals to leach out the uranium.


To create energy from yellowcake, the U235 must be isolated. This process begins by converting yellowcake into the gas uranium hexafluoride (UF6). From there, one of two methods is employed.

Gaseous diffusion is the preferred enrichment technique in the U.S. The UF6 gas is forced into a container with semi-permeable walls, through which the smaller, lighter U235 particles are the first to escape.

Outside of the U.S., UF6 is enriched via centrifugation. By pumping the gas into a centrifuge, the lighter U235 collects towards one end of the centrifuge while the heavier U238 collects at the other. Usually, enrichments plants may include thousands of centrifuges arranged in cascades.

After enrichment, the heavy UF6 is transported to a fuel fabricator plant. This facility then converts it into uranium dioxide powder and presses the powder into fuel pellets the size of a dime. According to industry sources, each pellet contains as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil.2

Pellets are arranged into long rods, which are bundled together to create a fuel assembly. The result is referred to as lightly enriched uranium (LEU) and consists of less than twenty percent U235. Highly enriched uranium (HEU), or weapons grade uranium, consists of eighty percent U235.

The Reaction

Smashing Atoms

U235 is one of the few materials that can undergo artificially induced fission. When a neutron runs into a U235 nucleus, the nucleus will absorb the neutron, become unstable and split immediately. The split throws off two or three new neutrons, two lighter elements, as well as energy in the form of heat. (See Figure 2) The neutrons released from this reaction will hit other U235 atoms causing them to react in a similar way. If there is enough U235 (a "critical mass"), this will create a chain reaction.

At nuclear power plants, this process takes place in a nuclear reactor. In order to control the reaction and amount of heat produced, control rods made of a material that absorbs neutrons, such as cadmium or boron, are inserted into the uranium bundle. When more heat is desired, the control rods are raised out of the uranium bundle. The rods can also be lowered completely into the uranium bundle if the reactor needs to be shut down in the case of an accident or to change the fuel rods, which needs to be done every 6-12 months.

Figure 2: Induced Fission Reaction
(Graphic by Katie Wirka)

Making Electricity

The reaction is a high-energy source of heat that boils water, creating steam that drives a turbine that spins a generator that produces electricity. In a pressurized water reactor (originally designed in the U.S. by Westinghouse), the water containing the fuel rods is kept under extreme pressure to keep it from boiling, while the water outside the containment vessel is converted to steam. This happens within a trademark tall silo (see Figure 6). In a boiling water reactor (originally designed in the U.S. by General Electric), steam is created with the water in contact with the core, allowing the plant to exist within a single warehouse (see Figure 5).

In both models, the turbine and generator are nearly identical to those found in a coal-fired power plant.

Nuclear power plants send the electricity they produce, typically on the order of one gigawatt, directly into the commercial power grid. In the early twenty-first century U.S., about one hundred plants provided nearly twenty percent of the electricity Americans consumed.3 Utility companies use nuclear power as baseload power. Base load refers to the amount of electricity utility companies are mandated to provide to meet consumer demand. Power sources that are onerous to switch on and off, like a nuclear reaction or a hydropower dam, are tapped to provide baseload power, while intermittent or more easily activated, like a wind turbine or a natural gas generator, are assigned to meet consumer demand that exceeds base load.

Utilities tend to site nuclear plants, which require an average footprint of two hundred acres, near dense population areas with sufficient access to large quantities of water and with relatively less easy access to other fuel sources.

Figure 3: Map of operating nuclear power plants, 2008
(U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,

What's Left Over

Mine Tailings

Although a small fraction of uranium is needed to produce the same amount of energy as a much larger quantity of coal, its mining creates a comparable amount of waste rock. This is especially true of open-pit mining, where a large amount of unwanted material is excavated simply to prevent cave-ins. These leftovers often get piled outside of the mine and feature detectable amounts of radioactive U235, radium-226, thorium-230 and radon, as well as heavy-metal toxins such as arsenic, beryllium, magnesium, molybdenum, and vanadium.

These byproducts, called "overburden," are not directly regulated by the federal government in the United States, although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the national and state level can intervene under its mandate to guard citizens and the environment from hazardous exposures. Two abandoned mines have been designated Superfund sites (allowing the EPA to begin clean-up efforts or force the former mining companies to do so), and dozens more are on the Superfund National Priorities List.

Heat & Emissions

Nuclear power plants are less efficient (33%) than coal plants (40%) at turning the heat produced in the reaction into electricity. For every gigawatt a nuclear facility generates, it creates two gigawatts of excess heat. Water (as steam) is used both to power the turbine and to rid the plant of this waste heat. Cooling towers (see figs. 5 and 6) are included in some—but not all—designs to reduce the temperature of this water before it is returned to the watershed.

In boiling water reactors, unlike pressurized water reactors, water comes in contact with the reactor core and is therefore slightly irradiated. The tainted steam is expelled through a tall stack (see figure 5) intended to propel it up high enough into the atmosphere to dissipate to a safe concentration before coming back in contact with living things.

High-Level Waste

Every gigawatt of power produced through fission leaves behind twenty metric tons of solid waste. Ninety-seven percent of this spent fuel is inert, made up of uranium-238 and uranium oxide. However, it is still thermally hot, and the remaining three percent is highly radioactive and potentially harmful. Used fuel rods are placed in "wet storage"—a steel-lined pool filled with water that serves to cool them and curtail the spread of radiation. At plants in the U.S., this is where the waste remains for the life of the plant, though scientific and industry consensus contends that dry underground storage must be developed for commercial nuclear waste.

Low-Level Waste

In addition to fuel rods, nuclear plants produce a range of other irradiated waste, from reactor vessels themselves to the protective shoe covers worn by employees. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) operates three low-level waste disposal facilities, in South Carolina, Utah, and Washington.

To transport low-level waste from commercial plants (as well as radioactive waste from defense and medical facilities) to storage sites requires three million shipments annually along the nation's road and rails. In preparation for shipping spent fuel, the NRC has tested transport casks against high-speed crashes with locomotives and into concrete walls, as well as 2,000-foot drops and 2,000°F fires.4

Figure 4: One of the many crash tests conducted at New Mexico's Sandia National Laboratory ordered by the Atomic Energy Commission in the late 1970s to assure the integrity of casks used to transport radioactive waste
(Sandia Corporate Archives,

A Brief History of Nuclear Power in the U.S.

Perhaps no modern energy source carries the weight of its history as heavily as nuclear power. It emerged out of the mushroom clouds at the close of World War II heavily laden with the specter of unprecedented destruction, international suspicion, astronomical capital costs, and clashes between private corporations and the federal government. All continued to hound the nuclear industry in succeeding decades. Yet for many, military victory over Japan marked just the first on an unending list of miracles nuclear power promised to American society.

Figure 5: After witnessing the unprecedented destructive capability of atomic energy, many immediately began dreaming of miracles that could accompany its civilian use. How many sick and disabled Americans might be, as this photo's caption imagines, "cured by atomic energy"?
(Collier's, May 1947)

Soldiers versus Civilians

In the 1930s, physicist Ernest Rutherford, who unlocked many of the secrets of the atom and radioactivity, dismissed nuclear power as "moonshine," the fanciful stuff of science fiction.5 However, many of the physicists and engineers involved with the Manhattan Project—the two-billion dollar highly confidential federal endeavor to create an atomic bomb—became convinced otherwise. To prove their suspicions correct, they first had to wrest control of the nuclear program out of what they felt to be the oppressive grasp of the U.S. Army. The civilian Federation of Atomic Scientists argued that military secrecy had impeded their progress constructing the bomb and must not interfere with further atomic explorations. The 1946 Atomic Energy Act rewarded their efforts. It established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was run by civilian commissioners, who were given control of the nation's nuclear arsenal. The military could not gain access to atomic material without the permission of the U.S. president. This hardly severed the military's ties with the atomic program, as innovations by the AEC's Naval Reactors Branch opened the way for construction of the first nuclear submarine in 1952.

Figure 6: "Pictorial Chart of the Processes using Uranium to Produce Atomic Energy," Appendix 1., U.N. Atomic Energy Commission Scientific and Technical Committee, "A First Report on the Scientific and Technical Aspects of the Problem of Control, September 27, 1946. This AEC diagram proposes that the nuclear power industry, in addition to sending electricity to the grid and radioactive materials to hospitals and laboratories, sketches a "possible diversion" from each step in production directly "to secret weapons production."

Postwar Optimism & the Building Boom

Though nuclear power shifted to civilian control, it remained strictly within the bounds of the federal government into the early 1950s. In 1951, a 100kW reactor at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory became the first to ever produce electricity. But, according to AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss, the promise of the technology could not be realized while "staightjacketed in government regulation."6 The Eisenhower administration released these restraints with three major initiatives:

  1. The "Atoms for Peace" proposal, calling for UN member nations to pool enriched uranium for energy production, especially in energy-poor Europe
  2. The 1954 amendments to the Atomic Energy Act, which allowed private corporations access to nuclear technology while forbidding the AEC from building commercial plants itself
  3. The 1957 Price-Anderson Act, limiting the nuclear industry's liability by pledging federal funds to victims of a radiological release

A rash of construction followed, led by the opening of the Shippingport, Pennsylvania plant in 1957, built collaboratively by a Pittsburgh utility company, Westinghouse (already working on nuclear contracts for the navy), and the federal government. By 1970, eighteen plants had come on line. Five years later, 55 plants were operational, with 178 more on the way. Industry agents foresaw nuclear power providing half of all the electricity consumed in the U.S. by the year 2000.

The Troubles

Rising Concern, Rising Costs

Almost as soon as the commercial nuclear industry took off, it ran up against the interrelated political and economic obstacles that would soon send it into dormancy. The nuclear arms race filled 1960s headlines with warnings about atomic testing, fallout, and nuclear holocaust—raising public concern over the danger of radiation. Antinuclear groups began successfully slowing construction of new plants with legal challenges, referendum victories, and public protests. These efforts were bolstered considerably by the 1969 passage of the National Environmental Protection Act, requiring environmental impact statements and cost-benefit analyses to be conducted prior to AEC licensing. Public pressure drove Congress to dissolve the AEC, which was perceived as having a conflict of interest in its roles as both promoter and regulator of nuclear energy. Legislators replaced the AEC with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), designed to be a more robust oversight agency.

The oil crisis of the 1970s initially persuaded utility companies to submit more applications for new nuclear plants, but the decade's inflation and the deregulation of electricity markets, combined with the mounting costs of court cases and construction delays, convinced most energy executives to opt for safer investments. By the late 1970s, very few believed in Lewis Strauss's 1955 prediction that nuclear power would bring about a world in which "our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter."7

Figure 7: Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant. Note the tall stack and single building (center) distinct to boiling water reactors, and the fan-driven cooling towers (lower left).
(U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,

Browns Ferry

In 1975, as some utilities canceled their orders for new plants, the industry entered a horrendous decade of public relations. On March 22 at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry plant in Alabama, an employee using a candle to check for leaking cables ignited a fire that disabled the cooling mechanisms for two reactors, leading the core to boil away the coolant and requiring operators to quickly devise another means of pumping in water to prevent a meltdown. The event did nothing to stop the trend of NRC officials and engineers resigning over concerns that the agency was overtaxed and unable to sufficiently ensure the safety of the nation's nuclear plants.

Three Mile Island

Four years later, a more frightening incident occurred at one of the two nuclear plants situated on sandy Three Mile Island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, near the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg. A work crew there inadvertently tripped safety valves that then halted the core reaction. Though the operators knew how to handle a core shutdown, malfunctioning valves produced misleading instrument readings. This led those at the controls to drain the water cooling the core when they instead needed to add more. Twenty tons of uranium, burning at nearly 5,000°F, melted down five feet into the reactor vessel, cracking but not breaking it. Outside the plant, conflicting reports and a partial evacuation terrified residents of the region and precipitated national anxiety, fanned by the nuclear meltdown film The China Syndrome, released less than two weeks before.

Figure 8: Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant. Note the domed containment silos (center) and separate fuel-containment building (left of silos) distinct to pressurized water reactors, and the natural-draft cooling towers. The reactors must be housed in these external silos rather than in the single facility used in boiling water reactors (see Figure 7) because the reactors are themselves much larger.
(U.S. Department of Energy, _(color)-2.jpg )


While the Three Mile Island meltdown released a slight amount of radiation into the environment and did irreparable damage to the U.S. nuclear industry, it cannot compare with the devastation wrought at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near Pripyat, Ukraine, in April 1986. A botched safety experiment, run by operators who flouted several safety regulations, produced a superheated core that exploded the reactor, spewing radioactive waste through the thin walls common to Soviet plants and setting a number of fires. Fifty-six firefighters died from radiation poising. A conclusive death toll has never been tallied, owing to the carcinogenic legacy left to the residents of now-abandoned Pripyat and surrounding regions. They were evacuated only after a long delay as Moscow tried to conceal the accident from the world. Ukrainians, after achieving independence in 1991, called for the international community to recognize Chernobyl as genocide.

Figure 9: A boy living in Minsk, Belarus's Novinki Asylum, home to abandoned children suffering the effects of exposure to the radiation released from Chernobyl
(Paul Fusco,

A Changed Climate

In the late 1980s, nuclear power rebranded itself in fights against acid rain, dependence on foreign fuels, and—most significantly—global climate change. While the majority of environmentalists remained opposed to new plants, many of those concerned about atmospheric carbon welcomed fission back to the table as an alternative to burning fossil fuels.

Earth-systems science pioneer James Lovelock endorsed nuclear energy, insisting in 2006 that "we cannot turn off our energy-intensive, fossil-fueled-powered civilization without crashing; we need the soft landing of a powered descent."8 Jim Hansen, one of the earliest and most prominent climate change scientists, joined those measuring nuclear power's threat to human health against that posed by fossil fuels, declaring, "I would rather live next to a nuclear power plant than next to a coal-fired power plant."9

Other voices dispensed with such lesser-of-two-evils reasoning altogether. Bill Gates resurrected the mid-century technocratic optimism when he lectured in 2010 that a network of new, small-scale nuclear reactors "would power the U.S. for hundreds of years. And simply by filtering sea water in an inexpensive process, you'd have enough fuel for the entire lifetime of the rest of the planet."10

Why We Argue About It

Renewed dreams of near-limitless energy have not delivered the nuclear industry from its perennial debates about the expense, waste, material demands, and risks to human health and the environment associated with producing nuclear power.


"Nuclear energy has never been the cheapest way to do anything," writes engineer James Mahaffey.11 What makes nuclear power cost so much is neither the price of uranium nor operating expenses, but rather the capital investment needed to construct and decommission the plants. (In 2010, when the U.S. considered ending its thirty year drought in new construction, government officials estimated that the cost of a building a new plant ranged between $2 and $9 billion dollars.) Many states prevent utility companies from raising rates to offset these start-up costs until the plant is operational. This forces utilities to carry very large loans, with daily interest payments on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Critics charge that the high capital costs and risk of default deters private investment and makes nuclear power a "ward of the state," as the federal government and taxpayers take on the financial liability.12 They also lament the expense of the fossil-fuel generators required to back up nuclear plants in case of an accidental core shutdown, as utilities by law must deliver baseload energy at all times. Critics contend that money would be better spent on the research and production of renewable energy technologies.

Some nuclear advocates counter by attributing delays and cost overruns to an inordinately restrictive licensing process and to the lawsuits and protests launched by antinuclear activists. Furthermore, they argue that the threat of climate change alters the financial equation. In their view, nuclear power is the low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels that is best equipped to fit current consumption demands and distribution networks. A carbon tax on oil, coal, and natural gas, they claim, would make nuclear power much more competitive and attractive to investors.


A persistent challenge to the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. is the absence of a national repository for high-level commercial nuclear waste. For many, the lack of a comprehensive plan to handle this waste, which may remain toxic to humans for thousands of years, is a dealbreaker. In addition to Hawaii and Minnesota, which ban new nuclear plants outright, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, and West Virginia, and Wisconsin have all passed legislation that forbids any new plant construction before a federal waste disposal facility is in place.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, utility companies raised ten billion dollars to fund the location and construction of a subterranean facility. The Department of Energy chose Nevada's Yucca Mountain, located near the former Nevada Nuclear Test Site, eighty miles northwest of Las Vegas. But throughout construction, which began in 2002, the plan has been besieged by challenges from local residents, environmental advocacy groups, geologists, and state and national politicians.

The State of Nevada voiced concerns that radioactive substances could leak from the site and create serious long-term health risks to its citizens. It also decried what it sees as the federal government's refusal to consider alternate sites or back-up plans. Supporters have emphasized the benefits of the Yucca Mountain site because the area location is in a sparsely populated area already contaminated from hundreds of atomic bomb tests.

Nuclear advocates argue that, compared with coal power, nuclear plants produce a miniscule amount of waste and could reduce its quantity even more if permitted. Many nations (such as France, India, and Japan) process spent fuel to reduce its size before storage. However, President Carter forbade this practice in the United States with his 1977 executive order. The nuclear industry opposes this ban, claiming that commercial waste reprocessing could reduce the amount of hazardous waste produced by a single American's lifetime supply of nuclear electricity to the size of a soda can and a weight of two pounds.13

New technologies, pronuclear voices claim, could recycle waste into fuel. Tailing piles can be leached to extract trace uranium. And new, fast-breeder reactors simultaneously consume U235 while producing a byproduct, often plutonium, which can be used in new fission reactors. Opponents point to the security threat posed by boosting world plutonium stores.

Human Health

Radiation's effect on the human body has, since the bomb, cast a pall on nuclear energy. Even as the Obama administration jump-started the nation's nuclear energy program in early 2010, news headlines continued to remind readers of the technology's unique threats. Canadian utility Bruce Power launched an investigation of a leak in its Ottawa plant that may have exposed nearly 200 workers to harmful radiation. Exelon paid one million dollars to neighbors around three northern Illinois plants that released tritium-tainted water into the ground. And, in March 2010, the Vermont State Senate refused to renew the charter of Entergy's Vernon plant after it reported tritium seepage from underground pipes.

Debates over the threat of a catastrophic meltdown hinge on whether one believes nuclear technology can ever be fail safe. More nuanced disputes surround questions of the danger of less apocalyptic incidences of exposure—to neighbors and technicians, both in everyday life and in breaches like those described above. Nuclear proponents often make comparative arguments, asserting, for instance, that the dose of radiation received from living within fifty miles of a nuclear plant for a year is the same amount of radiation one receives flying from New York to Los Angeles, six times less than what one gets living in a place heated by natural gas, twenty times less than living in a brick house, 100 to 400 times less than living near a coal-fired power plant, and five-thousand times less than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.14

Opponents challenge this logic by calling into question the "rem," the standard unit used to measure radiation exposure. To calculate rem, scientists multiply the amount of energy deposited in living tissue by a modeled factor designed to account for how effectively a particular form of radiation was in damaging the cells of that tissue. Some assert this method does a poor job accounting for variations in human bodies and is based on an assumption that smaller amounts of exposure is necessarily less noxious. Nuclear engineer-turned-antinuclear-activist Karl Morgan writes, "There is no safe level of exposure and there is no dose of radiation so low that the risk of malignancy is zero."15



According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), while security at nuclear power plants has always been high, the security at these facilities has been heightened after the 9/11 attacks. After this event, the NRC required many security improvements at not only its licensed power reactors, but also at its decommissioning reactors, independent spent fuel storage installations, research and test reactors, uranium conversion facilities, gaseous diffusion plants, and fuel fabrication facilities.

After 9/11, some Americans feared that nearby nuclear facilities (or new ones proposed by utility companies) could become the next target of a terrorist attack. Pro-nuclear advocates insist on the structural integrity of their plants, pointing to tests like one at the Sandia National Laboratory, where a fighter jet was catapulted into a simulated containment dome, which is six-feet of concrete fortified with steel rebar, and crumpled up on impact, leaving the structure intact.


Nuclear plants must also guard against uncontrolled nuclear proliferation. International bodies (such as the International Atomic Energy Commission) and treaties (like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT) have been created in part to establish and administer safeguards to its signatory countries designed "to ensure that special fissionable and other materials, services, equipment, facilities, and information...are not used in such a way as to further any military purpose."16 When the NPT was enacted in 1970, the only Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) were China, France, the USSR, the UK, and the US, and by 1994, the only countries that did not sign the NPT (India, Pakistan, and Israel) had acquired nuclear weapons technology and were making bombs. In January 2003,North Korea withdrew from the NPT and by 1994, was thought to have nuclear weapons. North Korea, a country with a relatively small technical base, frightened onlookers with its ability to take the light-water-moderated research reactor it received from the USSR and using it to create a nuclear arsenal.17

Another example of an attempt to curtail nuclear proliferation is the "Megatons for Megawatts" program was developed in 1994 through commitments by the US and Russia to convert nuclear weapons into fuel for electricity production. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian and US officials have been concerned about the possible theft or loss of nuclear warheads due to lax security or accounting at nuclear weapons facilities, as well as concerns that nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union's nuclear weapons facilities might be lost or sold to nations seeking their own nuclear weapons.18

Like other treaties and bodies that were created to eliminate nuclear proliferation, the "Megatons for Megawatts" program created an agreement between the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) and a Russian company called Tenex, where Tenex would transform highly enriched uranium (HEU) from nuclear warheads into lightly enriched uranium (LEU) that would be shipped to USEC. USEC would then ship the LEU to US reactors to be used as fuel. Fifteen years later in 2009, 375 tons HEU had produced nearly 10,868 tons of low-enriched fuel, for which Tenex in Russia had received over US$ 8.5 billion under a market-based pricing formula.19


Water, as much as leaked radionuclides or toxic tailings, presents one of nuclear power's most contentious ecological impacts. A standard 1GW reactor requires up to 500 million gallons of water per day.20 New York's Indian Point 2GW plant draws a daily ration of 2.5 billion gallons of water from the Hudson River.21 (Water is also used as a cooling agent in power plants that run on fossil fuels; indeed, one third of all water consumed in Europe goes toward keeping electrical generators cool.22)

Environmentalists and utility companies have fought for decades over the damage to aquatic life wrought by the water inflow pipes and the heated effluent returned to river, lake, or ocean. The EPA claims that the water that runs through nuclear power plants picks up salts and heavy metals, contaminating the bodies of water into which it is discharged.23

In dry climates, such as Australia, the western U.S., and the heat-wave-prone regions of Europe, nuclear power plants have upset those with competing claims to water. Though neighboring farmers may hold older riparian rights, a nuclear power plant cannot safely lessen its demand without discontinuing its reaction (and, even then, the reactor core requires several more hours of cooling), giving it de facto first rights to scarce water.

To Learn More

Marshall Brain & Robert Lamb, "How Nuclear Power Works,"

Dickinson College, "Three Mile Island: Emergency,"

Bill Gates, "Innovating to Zero,"

Nuclear Energy Institute, "How It Works,"

Nuclear Information and Resource Service,

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Radiation Protection,"

Robert H. Williams, "Nuclear and Alternative Energy Supply Options for an Environmentally Constrained World: A Long Term Perspective,"

C. Pierre Zaleski, "The Future of Nuclear Power in France, the EU and the World for the Next Quarter-Century," Zaleskifutureo%20nuclearpower.pdf

Works Consulted

Bodansky, David. Nuclear Energy - Principles, Practices, and Prospects. Verlag: Springer, 2004.

Cantelon, Philip L., Richard C. Hewlett, and Robert C. Williams, eds. The American Atom: A Documentary History of Nuclear Policies from the Discovery of Fission to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Cravens, Gwyneth. Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. New York: Knopf, 2007.

Hayes, Brian. Infrastructure: The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape. New York: Norton, 2005.

Henderson, Harry. Nuclear Power: A Reference Handbook. Denver: ABC-CLIO, 2000.

Lewis, Ph.D., Elmer E. Fundamentals of Nuclear Reactor Physics. Maryland Heights, MO: Elsevier, 2008.

Mahaffey, James. Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power. New York: Pegasus, 2009.

Makhijani, Arjun, and Scott Saleska. The Nuclear Power Deception: U.S. Nuclear Mythology from Electricity "Too Cheap to Meter" to ‘Inherently Safe" Reactors. New York: Apex Press, 1999.

Morris, Robert C. The Environmental Case for Nucelar Power: Economic, Medical, and Political Considerations. St. Paul, MN: Paragon, 2000.

Zoellner, Tom. Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World. New York: Viking, 2009.


1 Agronne National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy. "Depleted UF6, Uranium Quick Facts,"

2 Nuclear Energy Institute, "How It Works: Nuclear Plant Fuel,"

3 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Power Reactors,"

4 Harry Henderson, Nuclear Power: A Reference Handbook (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 2000), 21.

5 Rutherford, quoted in Martin Rees, "Science: The Coming Century," New York Review of Books, November 20, 2008,

6 Lewis Strauss, "My Faith in the Atomic Future," Reader's Digest, August 1955, 17.

7 Lewis Strauss, speech to the National Association of Science Writers, New York, NY, September 19, 1954.

8 James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 13.

9 Jim Hansen, "'The Threat to the Planet': An Exchange," New York Review of Books, September 21, 2006,

10 Bill Gates, "Innovating to Zero," (lecture, TED2010, Long Beach, CA, February 18, 2010),

11 James Mahaffey, Atomic Awakenings: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power (New York: Pegasus, 2009), 281.

12 Editorial, National Review, February 17, 2010,

13 James Mahaffey, Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power (New York: Pegasus, 2009), 308.

14 Robert C. Morris, The Environmental Case for Nuclear Power: Economic, Medical, and Political Considerations (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2000), 85; Gwyneth Cravins, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy (New York: Knopf, 2007), 70-74.

15 Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, "Cancer and Low Level Ionizing Radiation," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 34 (September 1978): 30-41.

16 International Atomic Energy Agency, "IAEA Statute, Article III." Vienna, Austria, October 23, 1956.

17 David Bodansky, Nuclear Energy—Principles, Practices, and Prospects (New York: Springer Verlag, 2004), 517-519, 534.

18 Amy F. Wolfe, "Nuclear Weapons in Russia: Safety, Security, and Control Issues,"

19 United States Enrichment Company, "Megatons to Megawatts,"

20 Brian Hayes, Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape (New York: Norton, 2005), 207.

21 "Showdown at Indian Point," New York Times, April 5, 2010,

22 Susan Sachs, "Nuclear Power's Green Promise Dulled by Rising Temps," Christian Science Monitor, August 10, 2006,

23 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Water Discharge," Clean Energy,