U.S. regulators have given the go-ahead for the country’s first nuclear reactor in 20 years to begin commercial operations after years of public fears over a major nuclear meltdown.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is now officially permitted to begin commercial reactor operations of the new reactor in 2016. Construction on this reactor began 43 years ago, but work ended in 1985 (after more than $1 billion had already been spent) due to a construction scandal. The TVA revived the project in 2007, at a time when nuclear power seemed poised to make a comeback.
The new reactor will produce nearly 2,300 megawatts of electricity– enough to power 1.3 million homes. Nuclear power accounted for 19 percent of all electricity generated in the United States in 2014.
The high costs of new nuclear construction, competition from cheaper natural-gas, and political difficulties from the Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster have hampered the nuclear industry.
Two reactors, the Vermont Yankee reactor and Wisconsin’s reactor, have been eliminated by competition from cheap natural gas. The San Onofre reactor in California was shut down due to safety concerns, as was the Crystal River reactor in Florida. The world’s largest nuclear plant operator, Électricité de France, withdrew from a joint venture that would have created three new American nuclear plants– after it had already invested billions of dollars.
Political opposition from Nevada Democratic Senate Minority Leader [crscore]Harry Reid[/crscore] prevented the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site from opening, leaving nuclear plants without a good place to store spent fuel. Such opposition also created legal liabilities for the federal government that could exceed $50 billion.
Despite these problems, four new nuclear reactors are expected to enter service by the end of the decade. New nuclear reactor designs are much safer, and actually emit less radiation than coal plants. Recent breakthroughs in fusion could also potentially restart the atomic age, when nuclear progress was lauded as a pinnacle of human achievement.
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