Nuclear power generation results from fission of uranium isotopes when bombarded by neutrons. Conventional burner reactors require relatively scarce uranium-235, whereas fast breeder reactors (which have not yet been developed on any significant scale) would exploit more abundant uranium-238.
In the early 21st century over 400 nuclear — mainly burner — reactors produced 16% of global electricity demand.
The UK played a leading role in nuclear power developments during the 1950s and 60s with its Magnox programme. During the 1970s new, more efficient reactor designs led to the building of AGRs in the UK, and PWRs and other analogous reactors in other countries. Progress was slowed in the late 1970s as concern grew over the operational safety of PWR nuclear reactors.
Including the costs of decommissioning reactors and managing radioactive waste, nuclear power is probably more expensive than power from fossil fuels. Nevertheless, arguments that nuclear power generation produces virtually no carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide gases have begun to weigh in favour of its further development as fears of global warming grow.
The properties that determine the mobility and concentration of uranium to form ore deposits are: (a) it is an incompatible element by virtue of the high charge and large size of uranium ions, so it becomes concentrated late in the evolution of granitic magmas; (b) uranium-bearing ions are much more highly soluble in water under oxidising conditions than under reducing conditions, thus controlling uranium transport and deposition in groundwater and hydrothermal fluids.
Uranium occurs in many geological settings, including disseminated magmatic and unconformity related hydrothermal deposits, sandstone-hosted and quartz-pebble conglomerate deposits.
Uranium is mined in surface and underground mines, and by in situ leaching. The higher costs of underground mining are offset by higher grade uranium ore. Uranium is extracted chemically from ore to yield uranium trioxide, or yellowcake, subsequently processed and enriched into reactor fuel. Safety precautions from the effects of radioactivity of uranium and its daughter products, especially radon, are essential in mining, processing and disposal of mining wastes.
Uranium demand has been affected by political factors and military requirements as well as the commercial demands of the energy industry. The low uranium prices of the late 1980s and 1990s led to many low-grade deposits becoming uneconomic. A reduction of stockpiles and the possibility of a brighter future for nuclear energy led to a rise in prices in the early 21st century.
Current estimates of reserves of uranium amount to about 3.5 million tonnes, sufficient to maintain global nuclear power supplies for many years even if demand (∼6.6 × 104 t annually in the early 21st century) increases significantly.
Public concerns about nuclear reactor safety were exacerbated in 1986 by a major accident at the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine, after which widespread atmospheric dispersion spread radioactive contamination over most of Europe.
The intensity of nuclear-waste radiation is greater from short-lived radioactive fission products than from uranium and plutonium with long half lives. The reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods therefore constitutes a potential hazard. However, by 2005, this has been tentatively linked only to increased incidences of childhood leukaemia. The small, but finite risk of accidents at facilities such as the controversial THORP plant on the Sellafield site could be much more serious.
Plans to dispose of radioactive waste by burial in the UK have had a chequered history, and plans to bury high-level wastes (HLW) in the UK and in other countries have either been postponed indefinitely or are awaiting approval.
on economic incentives and avoid incentives that can directly affect plant safety. On July 18, 1991 NRC issued a Nuclear Regulatory Commission Policy Statement which expressed concern that such incentive programs may adversely affect safety and commits NRC to monitoring such programs. A joint industry/state study of economic incentive programs could help assure that such programs do not interfere with the safe operation of nuclear power plants.
It is the Committee's opinion, based upon our experience, that NRC should continue to exercise its federally mandated preemptive authority over the regulation of commercial nuclear power plant safety if the activities of state government agencies (or other public or private agencies) run counter to nuclear safety. Such activities would include those that individually or in the aggregate interfere with the ability of the organization with direct responsibility for nuclear plant safety (the organization licensed by the Commission to operate the plant) to meet this responsibility. The Committee urges close industry-state cooperation in the safetyarea.
It is also the Committee's opinion, based upon our experience, that the industry must have confidence in the stability of NRC's licensing process. Suppliers and utilities need assurance that licensing has become and will remain a manageable process that appropriately limits the late introduction of new issues.
It is likely that, if the possibility of a second hearing before a nuclear plant can be authorized to operate is to be reduced or eliminated, legislation will be necessary. The nuclear industry is convinced that such legislation will be required to increase utility and investor confidence to retain nuclear power as an option for meeting U.S. electric energy requirements. The Committee concurs.
It is the Committee's opinion, based upon our experience, that potential nuclear power plant sponsors must not face large unanticipated cost increases as a result of mid-course regulatory changes, such as backfits. NRC 's new licensing rule, 10 CFR Part 52, provides needed incentives for standardized designs.
Industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
The U.S. system of nuclear regulation is inherently adversarial, but mitigation of unnecessary tension in the relations between NRC and its nuclear power licensees would, in the Committee's opinion, improve the regulatory environment and enhance public health and safety. Thus, the Committee commends the efforts by both NRC and the industry to work