NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Nuclear Generated Electricity Output Is Growing

April 17, 2001

Although few Americans were aware of it, the total electric power generated by nuclear plants has been rising since 1980. Many thought that the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl had finished off nuclear power. After all, we haven't been building any new nuclear plants.

Nevertheless, the nuclear share of the electricity market has managed to grow in some unexpected ways.

  • Since 1980, the U.S. has increased its total consumption of electricity by over 60 percent.
  • Half of the new demand was met by coal -- which kept that fuel's share of total electricity output steady at 51 percent.
  • After dropping sharply for a time, the natural gas share of electricity output is back at the 16 percent share of 20 years ago.
  • But nuclear generation increased between 1980 and 2000 from 11 percent of the electricity market to 20 percent.

Nuclear energy was able to grow because plant operators were able to develop systematic procedures for sharing information and expertise -- allowing plant "up time" to grow from under 60 percent into the high 80s.

This stealthy rise in nuclear output allowed it to displace about 8 percentage points of oil's share of the expanding electricity market, and 5 points of hydroelectric's.

The technical experience gained over the years has increased nuclear safety. Experts are challenging environmentalists to recognize that electricity demand will continue to grow, and the choice is between burning more coal or emphasizing nuclear sources.

Experts say that if today's greens are so concerned about so-called global warming, they must opt for building more nuclear plants.

Source: Peter Huber (Manhattan Institute), "It's Time for Greens to Go Nuclear," Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2001.

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