Perhaps the clearest sign of a sea change in public acceptance of nuclear power was during the 2008 U. S. presidential campaign. During this campaign, the candidates of both major parties made clear their support for the use of nuclear power as part of the energy mix in America. Prior to this, such public support for nuclear power would often mark the end of a political career. Even before this, the company Areva began a national advertising campaign for nuclear power. This sea-change was also evident in the actions of many different companies within the energy industry, as they have submitted applications for 26 new reactors in the United States (Deutch, 2009). Prior to 2007, there had been no such proposals made for nearly 30 years.
The driving force behind this desire for more nuclear power is varied. For some it just represents the lesser of two evils (coal and nuclear), while for
others it represents a steady, clean, and relatively cheap source of energy; and of course there are those who remain opposed to nuclear power under any circumstances. Regardless, nuclear power does solve many of the problems associated with both fossil fuel and renewable energy sources, and presents a set of new problems. There are no emissions of any pollutants like there are with fossil fuels. The nuclear waste that is generated is completely contained and not released into the environment. It is the steadiest of all the sources of energy and is independent of weather (as well as, for the most part, of geography). New problems presented include the long-term storage of waste and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Proponents of nuclear power say that these problems have been solved from a technological viewpoint, but just not acted upon for political purposes.
The reemergence of nuclear power has been decades in the making. Plant designs have been made more advanced and fail-safe than those of decades ago. Also, designs allow for faster construction, which reduces costs. But, perhaps most of all, nuclear power plants are cost-competitive, if not cheaper, than the full accounting of fossil fuel power plants. Because nuclear power is now viewed as cost-competitive, industry is now choosing to invest in this technology, and it appears that nuclear power will meet a larger portion of our electricity needs in the future.
In addition, nuclear power is viewed as a replacement for coal and natural gas electricity generation. Nuclear power plants now operate with a duty cycle of over 90 percent, which is much greater than any other type of power plant. They also run independent of weather conditions, making them ideal for base-load power. These factors have led to the rebirth of nuclear power, and time will tell how completely nuclear power will be embraced by society.
But nuclear power cannot be the single solution to our energy crisis, at least not in the form currently used in the United States. There is not enough uranium in the world to supply a vastly expanded use of nuclear power for a time period of a century or so. In order for uranium to be a lasting part of our energy mix, it will become necessary for the science of breeder reactors and reprocessing nuclear waste into new plutonium and thorium fuel to take precedent over the politics of not wanting to reprocess nuclear waste. This reprocessing of nuclear waste is sometimes called a “closed fuel cycle,” to indicate that fuel is used to make more fuel and not as much waste needs to be generated. Although other nations such as Japan, France, and Russia currently reprocess their nuclear waste, the United States has had a policy for over 30 years to not reprocess nuclear waste. This political policy was adopted in the hope of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. However, as is evidenced by North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel, and South
Africa, this policy has failed. Many of the latest reactor designs being pursued internationally allow for the reprocessing of nuclear waste, so that nuclear power can provide energy for centuries more while reducing the amount of high-level waste that must be stored long-term.