Nuclear power has its challenges, as does every method of power generation. It is more expensive than it once was, as is the cost of most everything else being built these days– largely due to higher costs for labor, construction materials and fuel. Nuclear power’s development in the United States has been hobbled by over-regulation and less demand for electricity. And the waste problem is still unresolved.
Nuclear power, though, is ripe for change. Nuclear engineers love to talk about advanced “fourth generation” reactors like the gas-cooled pebble-bed reactor that does not require emergency core-cooling systems and physically cannot “melt down.” Or small modular reactors, some of which are designed to be air-cooled and supply electricity in smaller amounts for industrial processes and desalination.
Still, large nuclear plants using a conventional light-water reactor design aren’t going away anytime soon, and some environmentalists have realized this, too. The two Westinghouse AP1000 units under construction at the Vogtle nuclear plant site in Waynesboro are the most advanced nuclear designs in the world. Major plant components are being built in factories instead of at the nuclear site. The new units are being built pretty much on budget and on schedule. The credit goes to an extraordinary team of experts in nuclear plant construction that the Southern Company assembled for the job.
Nuclear power is arguably the most valuable source of energy in the Southeast, the United States and globally. What makes it so important? In a word: reliability. The average nuclear power plant in the United States provides electricity 90% of the time. Georgia’s Hatch and Vogtle plants are among the most efficient, with an average capacity factor of 94% in the first six months of 2012. By contrast, the average capacity factor for coal plants is 58.9% and combined-cycle natural gas plants, 50.3%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Solar energy doesn’t hold a candle to nuclear power. Solar arrays generate electricity only during the day and when the sun is shining. And solar power is mainly power for peak demand when there is a need for additional electricity. Wind energy is also intermittent. The capacity factor for wind is 32.3% and solar, 24.4%. By contrast, nuclear power is “base-load” electricity, available 24/7, delivered on demand.
Today, there are 72 nuclear plants being built worldwide, including five plants in the United States, and another 400 are planned or proposed. That’s in addition to another 435 operating nuclear plants. Such a commitment to nuclear power could not only halt but eventually reverse the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Certainly Georgia would not be able to meet EPA’s proposed 44.4% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2030 without the Vogtle additions.
In the meantime, it’s important that the operating license of every reactor in the U.S. fleet of about 100 nuclear plants is renewed for another 20 years.
Demand for electricity in the Southeast is projected to grow 34% by 2030– a greater rate than the rest of the country. With the closing of many coal plants due to environmental restrictions, Georgia will rely increasingly on nuclear power to meet its energy needs. And Georgia is not alone. South Carolina and Tennessee have nuclear plants under construction, and consideration is being given to construction of plants in Florida, New Jersey and Utah.
But the enormity of Southern Company’s decision to build the two additional Vogtle units is obvious. An expansion of nuclear power will drive economic growth throughout the region and create thousands of jobs. It will contribute to the fuel and technological diversity that is one of the bedrock characteristics of a reliable electric sector. And it will provide price stability and is not subject to the price volatility associated with natural gas.
Due to the shale revolution, natural gas is now abundant in the United States, and that’s been great for the nation’s economy and our geopolitical position in the world. In fact, this country has become the world’s Number 1 gas producer, eclipsing Russia. But gas has a history of wide swings in price, and such volatility could occur again as increasing volumes of gas are diverted for industrial purposes, transportation and made available for export to overseas markets.
And while natural gas is cleaner than coal, with half of its carbon content, it accounts for a quarter of U.S. power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide. Within several decades, carbon emissions from gas plants will nullify any gains made from switching from coal to gas. And the crossover point could come a lot sooner if better ways aren’t found to curb emissions of methane, which is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide and released into the air from the flaring of natural gas during oil production, shale-gas fracking and leaky pipelines. Nuclear power, on the other hand, is essentially emission-free.
What’s more, nuclear power has a stellar safety record. Nuclear accidents in the United States have been few and minimal. In more than 50 years of commercial nuclear power operations there has never been a radiation-related death. Indeed, nuclear power is much safer than fossil-fuel systems.
Yes, there still is no national repository for nuclear waste. But keep in mind that it’s used fuel– not waste — that’s being stored at nuclear plants around the country. This is valuable material containing plutonium that in the future can and should be recycled to produce a “mixed-oxide” fuel for use at nuclear plants to produce more electricity. Recycling would both extend uranium supplies and reduce the amount of waste significantly. Until such time as a recycling facility and a national waste-storage site become available, used fuel will be able to remain in storage at plant sites indefinitely.
It is nonsensical for critics to discount the need for nuclear power, since it is reliable, clean and affordable. Nuclear power, indeed, is the best answer for large-scale production of reliable electricity.
Dr. Nolan Hertel is a Professor of Nuclear & Radiological Engineering at Georgia Tech