The use of nuclear power to generate electricity began in the late 1950s. At the close of the twentieth century, nuclear power was supplying about 20 percent of the electricity generated in the United States and about 16 percent worldwide.
Nuclear power has been the most controversial of all energy sources. Public concerns about reactor safety and environmental issues were especially heightened by the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the much more serious accident in 1986 at Chernobyl in Ukraine. Construction of new nuclear power plants has
Public concerns about safety and environmental issues have been exacerbated by financial risks in the nuclear power industry, including the high cost of constructing and operating nuclear power plants, potentially high costs of decommissioning nuclear facilities, and costs for storage and disposal of spent fuel and other nuclear wastes. Nuclear power may not remain competitive with other energy sources unless these costs are reduced.
Proponents of nuclear power emphasize its significant benefits. Past accidents notwithstanding, the nuclear power industry has an enviable safety record in those industrialized countries that require extensive reactor safety systems. Uranium used in nuclear fuel is abundant, which reduces dependence on foreign energy supplies and preserves oil and natural gas for essential uses. Nuclear reactors produce the greatest amount of energy per amount of fuel of any nonrenewable energy source, and the environmental damage from use of nuclear power is less than with other major energy sources, especially coal. Perhaps most importantly, the use of nuclear power in place of coal, oil, and natural gas greatly reduces emissions of carbon dioxide, which is believed to be a factor in global warming, and other hazardous air pollutants.
Given these benefits, many energy experts believe that nuclear power is an important energy source for the future. A major challenge will be to address public concerns about safety and environmental issues. The keys to meeting this challenge may include resolving concerns about nuclear waste disposal, siting of new reactors in remote areas, developing smaller reactors that incorporate passive safety systems, and using standard power plant designs to lower construction and operating costs.
DAVID C. KOCHER
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