This post is one in a series featuring the complete slate of advanced energy technologies outlined in the report This Is Advanced Energy.
Nuclear power plants in operation today rely on nuclear fission (the splitting of heavy atomic nuclei) to produce electricity. Fission releases heat in the plant’s reactor core. This heat is used to generate steam, which then spins a steam turbine attached to an electric generator. Nuclear power plants are large facilities with individual reactors typically sized in the 1 GW range. The three-unit, 4 GW Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona is the country’s largest, generating enough power to meet the needs of 4 million homes and supplying electricity to customers of seven utilities across three states. Nuclear power is typically used for baseload generation, as the technology is not easy to start and stop or cycle up and down. Currently, the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) and the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) are the only two types of reactors in operation in the United States. Newer technologies (known as “Generation III” or “III+”) offer greater reliability and enhanced safety features, as well as higher efficiency.
Nuclear power is a mature technology, with 99 licensed reactors operating across 30 states totaling 115 GW of capacity and producing about 20% of the country’s electricity. The United States remains the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy, accounting for more than 30% of global generation. As of 2015, there were five new reactors under construction in the United States in Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina: one PWR and four Generation III+ reactors by Westinghouse. In addition to the Westinghouse Gen III+ model currently under construction, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has certi ed two new designs by General Electric- Hitachi: the Gen III Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) (1,350-1,600 MW) and the Gen III+ Economically Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (1,520 MW). The ABWR, which is operational in Japan, is the first and only Gen III reactor in operation.
As a major source of baseload power, nuclear energy helps to maintain resource adequacy and ensure reliable electricity as part of a diverse energy portfolio. The estimated average generating cost (capital, fuel, & operating costs) for existing U.S. nuclear plants is $44/MWh. However, due to high capital costs, the levelized cost of generation by new-build nuclear facilities is generally higher than other conventional baseload power sources, with an estimated levelized cost of $92-$132/MWh, as compared to coal ($66-$151/MWh) and gas combined cycle ($61-$87/MWh). The nuclear power industry currently supports over 100,000 jobs nationally.
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