The United States operates 103 nuclear power reactors—that’s a quarter of the world’s total—even if the most famous U.S. nuke isn’t even real. That would be the Springfield plant. A nuclear fuel specialist, University of Florida professor, and immediate past president of the American Nuclear Society. With hefty construction bills paid off at many plants, “you just deal with the operating costs. All those plants run flat out day and night,” he says. And they deliver electricity more cheaply than gas or coal plants.
The hopes of a burgeoning nuclear industry imploded 27 years ago after the partial meltdown at one of the Three Mile Island reactors in Pennsylvania, followed by the horror of Chernobyl seven years after that. Plus, decisions made by utility regulators in the 1970s and ’80s left companies barely able to pay off billion-dollar nuclear construction bills. Now the U.S. produces half its electricity with cheaper coal-burning plants. The trouble with that is the two billion tons (1.8 billion metric tons) of climate-warming carbon dioxide spewing skyward every year. Industrializing nations, such as India and China, hungry for every megawatt of power they can produce, are also building new coal plants at a rapid clip.
Nearly a decade, with no new plants, nukes’ 20 percent share of U.S. electricity production has held steady, keeping pace as overall electricity output has risen 15 percent. In the 1970s and 80s unscheduled shutdowns for repairs or other problems limited U.S. plants to less than 65 percent of their potential output. Today, with experience and improved operating practices, output exceeds 90 percent.
A country with reactors in such places must really like them. Amid a jumble of construction cranes and heavy concrete walls, two similar reactors are rising next to the first two, and another pair, more than twice as powerful, will likely join them in coming years.