Allison Macfarlane, Barack Obama's nominee to head the body that regulates nuclear safety in the US, is a geologist and expert on nuclear waste disposal although she describes herself as a nuclear agnostic.

"The choice of Yucca Mountain was never a scientific choice, it was political .... Ever since, we have been trying to get science to fit a political decision ... the science doesn't match the politics and it's time to put this in the opposite order, find a good site and move forward."

- Arnie Gunderson, a veteran nuclear industry expert

If confirmed, she will replace Gregory Jaczko, whose eight year tenure was plagued by battles with the industry and Congress as he attempted to bring in new safety regulations.

Nuclear power supplies over 13 per cent of global energy needs. France is the country most dependent on nuclear power - it provides three quarters of its energy. Slovakia and Belgium get over half their energy from nuclear power while Ukraine gets 48 per cent and Sweden 42 per cent.

About 20 per cent of the US' electricity comes from nuclear power, but because the US uses more electricity overall, that accounts for nearly a third of total nuclear energy production.

The US is also home to nearly a quarter of the world's commercial nuclear reactors.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission overseas the country's 104 nuclear reactors, all of which are nearly 40 years old.

"There are lots of ways to deal with nuclear waste from putting [it] in Yucca Mountain or some other geological formation, we can reprocess it, we can let it sit on a site and allow the radio toxicity to go away over 100 years .... What we don't have is a system in place that allows us to carry out any of those things .... Let the government do the oversight, let the private sector determine what to do with the nuclear waste."

- Jack Spencer, a senior research fellow in nuclear energy policy

Earlier this year, approval was given for the building of new power plants in Georgia and South Carolina.

Following last year's Fukushima disaster in Japan, international safety concerns about nuclear power have intensified, with Germany announcing it will shut all its nuclear reactors by 2022.

Critics in the US point out that a quarter of American plants are the same model as the stricken reactors at Fukushima.

And there remains no plan for disposing of the 65,000 tonnes of nuclear waste currently stored at the US' power stations after a proposal to build a waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was abandoned in 2009.

Advocates of nuclear power argue it should play a crucial role in the US' energy future as the country looks to produce more "clean" energy and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

So, what kind of future is there for nuclear energy in the US? And why is Yucca Mountain not suitable for the storage and disposal of nuclear waste?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, discusses with guests: Arnie Gunderson, a veteran nuclear industry expert who is chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates and co-wrote the Greenpeace report, Lessons from Fukushima; Mindy Kay Bricker, the editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists; and Jack Spencer, a senior research fellow in nuclear energy policy at the Heritage Foundation.

"But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country."

Barack Obama during his State of the Union address in 2010



  • 13.5% of global energy needs are supplied via nuclear power
  • France gets 75% of its energy from nuclear power
  • Belgium and Slovakia get over half their energy from nuclear power
  • The US gets 20% of its electricity from nuclear power
  • The US uses vastly more electricity than most other countries
  • There are 434 commercial nuclear reactors in the world
  • There are 104 commercial nuclear reactors in the US
  • The US nuclear reactors produce up to 2,300 metric tonnes of waste yearly
  • There is about 67,500 metric tonnes of radioactive waste in the US

Source: Al Jazeera