Nuclear Energy in the States: An Outlook for 2016 and Beyond

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Nuclear energy has provided commercial electricity generation in the United States since 1957, when a plant in Shippingport, Penn., came online.1 Between 1966 and 1977, 75 nuclear reactors were built in the U.S. However, a combination of escalating costs and increasing safety and environmental concerns halted almost all construction of new nuclear reactors in the U.S. after 1978.2

While more than 30 years have passed since the last nuclear reactor was constructed in this country, some states are taking an increased interest in nuclear power. Currently, there are 100 operating commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S., which generate about 19 percent of the country’s electricity.3 In 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued licenses for the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant Units 3 and 4, both located in Georgia, and for the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Station Units 2 and 3 in South Carolina. An additional license was issued on May 1, 2015, for the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Plant Unit 3, located in Michigan.4

After suspending construction of Unit 2 of the Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant located in southeastern Tennessee in 1985, the Tennessee Valley Authority was issued a full power facility operating license on Oct. 22, 2015. Unit 1 of the Watts Bar Plant was the last power reactor to be licensed in the U.S., after being issued a full operating license in 1996.5

While the future of nuclear energy is uncertain, the construction of the first new reactors in decades and the continuing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is leading to an increased interest in nuclear energy.

Currently, 30 states have at least one nuclear reactor.6 However, 15 states currently place restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power facilities. Minnesota bans the construction of new nuclear reactors statewide,7 while New York bans construction only in a certain area of the state.8

The remaining states require that certain conditions be met before the construction of a nuclear reactor is approved. In the majority of states with restrictions, the state requires that an adequate, federally licensed disposal facility must be operational prior to the approval of any new reactors. California requires a federally approved, technologically feasible fuel reprocessing plant to be built and operational. Other states, such as Maine, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont, require legislative or voter approval in order to site a nuclear power plant. Additionally, West Virginia and Massachusetts require that the construction of a nuclear power plant be economically feasible for ratepayers.

Massachusetts has perhaps the most comprehensive requirements for constructing a new nuclear reactor facility. While voters must approve the construction and operation of any new reactors, the legislature also must find that a disposal facility exists, an emergency preparedness plan has been developed, emissions standards have been developed, a federally approved technology for dismantling and decommissioning the plant exists, and that the proposed plant offers the optimal means for meeting the energy needs of the state.9

On April 1, 2016, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation into law repealing the state’s previous requirement that a nuclear facility could not be licensed until a disposal facility was available and it was found to be economically feasible for ratepayers.10 Both Kentucky11 and Illinois12 introduced legislation that would have repealed the restrictions on nuclear power in those states, but neither bill has passed at the time of this brief’s publication.

While new nuclear power plants are being constructed for the first time in decades, many state laws prohibit their construction until a permanent, federally approved disposal site is operational. In 2010, the U.S. stopped construction on Yucca Mountain, the disposal site selected in 1987 as the permanent disposal site for the country’s nuclear waste. Another location for a permanent disposal site has not been chosen, but the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, has noted that a solution to disposing of the spent nuclear fuel currently being stored at reactor sites will take decades to implement. DOE is currently working on an integrated nuclear waste management plan that includes consent-based siting. Public meetings on consent-based siting are currently being hosted by DOE at locations across the country.13

In light of increasing concerns regarding carbon emissions and rising electricity costs, some states are building new reactors and other have released, or attempted to release, restrictions on construction. As the federal government pursues a more diverse nuclear strategy that includes interim storage facilities, geological testing and consent-based siting, and as nuclear waste continues to be generated in the states, policymakers will continue to address issues associated with nuclear power and the waste it generates.


1 U.S. Department of Energy, “The History of Nuclear Energy."
2 Ahearne, John F., et al. “The Future of Nuclear Power in the United States” (February 2012).
3 United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Operating Reactors.”
⁴ U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Combined License Holders for New Reactors.” 
⁵ U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Watts Bar Unit 2 Reactivation.”
⁶ Union of Concerned Scientists, “U.S. Nuclear Power Plants.”
⁷ M.S.A. 216B.243
⁸ McKinney’s Public Authorities Law §1020-t.
9 M.G.L.A. 164 App. §3-3.
10 WI A 384 (2015), repealing W.S.A. 196.493.
11 Ky. SB 89 (2015).
12 Ill. HB 4542 (2015).
13 U.S. Department of Energy, “Consent-Based Siting.” 

Nuclear Energy in the States: An Outlook for 2016 and Beyond by CSGovts