What is the status of the U.S. nuclear industry?

Did you know?

On December 2, 1942, under the bleachers of the football stadium at the University of Chicago, Dr. Enrico Fermi initiated the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. The experiment, conducted as part of the wartime atomic bomb program, also led to peaceful uses of the atom, including construction of the first U.S. nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, in 1957.

Annual nuclear generation in the United States has remained relatively steady in recent years.

Line graph showing: nuclear generation from 1980 to 2014 Source: Energy Information Administration

Did you know?

The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington has the most electricity generation capacity of any electric power plant in the United States, at 7,079 net megawatts. The Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona ranks second in the nation with a capacity of 3,937 net megawatts. Nuclear plants are able to use more of their capacity on an annual basis than hydropower facilities. In 2013, Grand Coulee generated more than 21,073 gigawatthours of electricity, while Palo Verde generated more than 31,431 gigawatthours.

Pie charts showing: capacity in 2011, total = 1,025,400 MW, natural gas 39%, coal 30%, other 13%, nuclear 10%, hydro 8%; generation in 2009, total = 3,950 million MWh, coal 45%, natural gas 23%, nuclear 20%, hydro 7%, other 5%. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

There are currently 99 operating commercial nuclear reactors at 61 nuclear power plants in the United States. The average age of a U.S. reactor is about 34 years. The oldest operating reactors, Nine Mile Point Unit 1 and Oyster Creek, began commercial operation in December 1969. Thirty-four reactors began commercial operation between 1985 and 1996. The last reactor to enter service was the Watts Bar Unit 1 in Tennessee in 1996. Four reactors were permanently shut down in 2013, and one reactor was taken out of service in 2014.

Since 1990, the share of total annual U.S. electricity generation provided by nuclear power has averaged about 20%. Nuclear generation has generally increased through power plant modifications to increase capacity (known as uprates) and has also increased by shortening the length of time reactors are offline for refueling. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects U.S. nuclear power generation to grow, but at a rate about one-fourth that of total electricity generation.

There are 30 states with at least 1 commercial nuclear reactor

Most of the commercial reactors in the United States are located east of the Mississippi River. Illinois has the largest number of commercial reactors (11) and the largest nuclear capacity. The largest reactor in the United States, with a capacity of more than 1,350 net megawatts, is the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, located in Port Gibson, Mississippi. The smallest reactor, with a capacity of 478 net megawatts, is at Fort Calhoun, Nebraska.

Four reactors were permanently shut down in 2013:

  • Crystal River Unit 3, in Florida
  • Kewaunee Power Station, in Wisconsin
  • San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station Units 2 and 3, in California

One reactor was removed from service in 2014:

  • Vermont Yankee, in Vermont

Five new nuclear reactors are actively under construction:

  • Watts Bar Unit 2, in Tennessee
  • Vogtle Units 3 and 4, in Georgia
  • Virgil C. Summer Units 2 and 3, in South Carolina

Many plants have more than one reactor

The term power plant refers to an entire facility. A power plant may contain nuclear as well as non-nuclear electric generating units. Each nuclear reactor located at a commercial nuclear power plant is unique with its own personnel and equipment. The reactor provides heat to make steam, which drives a turbine and in turn drives the generator that produces electricity.

Thirty-five U.S. nuclear power plants have at least two reactors. Although some foreign nuclear power plants have as many as eight reactors, only three U.S. plants have more than two operational reactors: Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona, Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Alabama, and Oconee Nuclear Station in South Carolina.

Nuclear power plants are generally used more intensively than other power plants

For cost and technical reasons, nuclear power plants are generally used more intensively than coal unit or natural gas units (see capacity figure at right). In 2014, the nuclear share of total U.S. electricity generating capacity was 9%, while the nuclear share of total electricity generation was 19%.

Recent U.S. nuclear construction activity

The last new reactor to enter commercial service was the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Watts Bar Unit 1 in Tennessee in 1996. In 1988, TVA halted construction on Watts Bar Unit 2; the unit was approximately 80% complete. Construction resumed on Watts Bar Unit 2 in 2007.

In February 2012, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to approve Southern Company's application to build and operate two new reactors, Units 3 and 4, at its Vogtle plant in Georgia. The Vogtle reactors are the first reactors to receive construction approval in more than 30 years. See related Today in Energy article, March 5, 2012. In March 2012, the NRC voted to approve South Carolina Electric & Gas Company's application to build and operate two new reactors, Units 2 and 3, at its Virgil C. Summer plant in South Carolina.

When will new reactors in the United States come online?

Although four nuclear reactors were retired in 2013 and one was retired in 2014, nuclear capacity at the end of 2014 was about the same as nuclear capacity in 2002, when there were 104 operating reactors. Power plant modifications to increase capacity (called uprates) at existing power plants have made it possible to maintain the same nuclear capacity. These uprates, combined with high capacity utilization rates, have allowed nuclear power to consistently maintain a share of about 20% of total annual U.S. electricity output since 1990. With many nuclear plants operating at or near capacity, maintaining the current share will depend on new reactors being built, as electricity demand increases. Five new reactors (Watts Bar Unit 2, Vogtle Units 3 and 4, and Summer Units 2 and 3) are expected to come online between 2015 and 2020.

As of November 2014, there were about 20 applications for new reactors in various stages of review by the NRC. It is unknown how many of these reactors will be built. The NRC application review process can take up to five years to complete. Under current licensing regulations, a company that seeks to build a new reactor can use off-the-shelf reactor designs that have previously been approved and certified by the NRC. Issuance of a design certification by the NRC is independent of applications to construct or operate a new nuclear power plant. When the utility uses an NRC-certified reactor design, safety issues related to the design have been resolved, and the focus of the NRC's review is the quality of construction. Construction of a nuclear power plant may take five years or more. EIA projects that new nuclear electricity generation capacity will be added through 2040, but that capacity retirements and derates will result in only a small net increase in generation capacity from nuclear power by 2040.