Imagine a power source that could fuel entire cities with just a few raw materials as input. No carbon is emitted in the production process, and environmental impacts are low. Waste is minimal, and there’s a secure way to dispose of it. We don’t have to go overseas to find sources. And the industry that produces it employs thousands of people in good-paying, secure jobs.
In all these ways and more, nuclear energy makes a great contribution to America’s energy strategy.
“When we’re a strong economic country, we are the most secure,” says Stephen Kuczynski, the chairman, president and CEO of Southern Nuclear, a division of U.S. energy powerhouse Southern Company. “One way to be very strong economically is to have a very stable, strong, resilient, diverse energy supply. We have all the technology and the resources here in the U.S. to do that.”
America’s homegrown civilian nuclear program proves his point. In a way, the history of nuclear power is ironic. America’s nuclear industry grew directly out of the U.S. military’s nuclear weapons program during World War II. But today, nuclear energy is a tool for peace, producing 20 percent of the nation’s power.
Scientists realized as they were developing the atomic bomb that the energy produced by splitting atoms—the essential heart of a nuclear reaction—could be harnessed for constructive, peaceful purposes. The New Republic predicted as much in 1947, at a time when nuclear energy was still heavily associated with the war.
Today, this country produces 30 percent of all of the world’s nuclear power, coming from about a hundred operating reactors. Southern Company is one of the biggest players in the American Southeast, in addition to being the fourth largest utility in the U.S. Every day, homes and businesses in Alabama and Georgia get a fifth of their energy from Southern Nuclear’s three plants in the region.
Recently, the company has doubled down on its commitment to this environmentally sound, highly productive energy source with the expansion of Plant Vogtle, at Waynesboro, Georgia, to include two new nuclear units capable of generating about 1,117 megawatts each—in total, more than enough to power 1 million homes and businesses.
While TNR predicted the peaceful turn in America’s nuclear capability, a decade would pass until the opening of the first major civilian nuclear power plant. The Shippingport Atomic Power Station, located near Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, began operating in December 1957. Over its 25 year lifespan—capped by a safe and successful decommissioning—it generated power for both military ships and civilian uses.
The project, which according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission cost $72.5 million, or about $540 million in today’s dollars, was financed by the federal government. But by the 1960s private energy companies had gotten into the nuclear sector. Their entrance dramatically swelled the number of U.S. nuclear plants. (Southern Company, which began its history in 1912 as Alabama Traction, Light & Power, opened a separate division in 1991 to operate its existing nuclear plants.)
The nuclear industry got a big boost with the 1973 oil embargo, perhaps the first major geopolitical event to prove the importance of American energy independence. With OPEC members forbidding the shipment of oil to the U.S. for six months in protest against the country’s involvement in the Middle East, thousands of Americans were left standing at the gas pump, worried about where their nation would reliably get its energy in the future. Nuclear power, produced in plants on American soil with American labor, was a clear and appealing alternative to fuels imported at the whim of foreign governments. The nuclear industry responded to the embargo by ordering the construction of 41 new plants that year, a record number.
Around that time, the country was reaching the 100-reactor figure it would soon plateau at. By the end of the decade, the nuclear sector’s focus had shifted from building new plants to maintaining and expanding production at older ones. Partly responsible for the move was an incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, which caused the industry to reevaluate how its plants were being built and operated.
“Three Mile Island was a turning point in our industry,” Kuczynski says. While the 1979 emergency at a nuclear facility in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, jolted power suppliers, it also provided a strong incentive to take a fresh look at nuclear plant safety. Asked about the more recent disaster at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant in Japan, Kuczynski—who sits on the Fukushima response committee of the Nuclear Energy Institute—says the odds of such a disaster occurring in the U.S. are at this point “extremely small.”
To build the new reactors at Vogtle, he says, “we’re using a vastly improved technology” relative to what the industry started with. “The design is significantly safer, and much more easily constructed. We build portions of the plant in manufacturing facilities all around the world, all around the U.S., and then bring those parts to the site and then build them together,” a technique known as modular construction.
“The new design, we call it a passive design,” he says, asked to explain the safety features of the new units. “For the first 72 hours, the plant does not rely on any external electric supply or operator action to assure that the plant remains completely safe under pretty much any design basis accident. It uses gravity, convective cooling—those types of safety features are built into the plant, so it is a much easier plant to construct, to operate, and the overall safety margins are improved.”
The construction of plants slowed in the late 1970s. “Around those times, the economic conditions were very difficult,” Kuczynski says. A lot of existing nuclear plants, Kuczynski notes, have in fact increased their generation capacity substantially to meet demand since the 1970s without actually constructing new reactors from scratch: “Essentially, you’re building new plants, you’re just doing it in pieces.”
Southern Company’s new reactors at Vogtle will be just two of the four to begin construction in the U.S. since 1977—all four given the okay by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012. Kuczynski points out that there are around 70 new reactors being built around the world today. Perhaps it’s a sign that other countries are looking to the U.S.’s own diversified energy strategy as a model, with nuclear as an important piece of that strategy.
“[Nuclear] plants are higher cost to build, but they are the most inexpensive fuel source and facility once in service.” Moreover, “nuclear is really the only emissions-free baseload energy provider we have in this country,” says Kuczynski. “Nuclear generation doesn’t use any fossil fuels or produce carbon dioxide.”
While disposal of waste may seem like an important environmental issue, “I think there may be a general misconception about the volume and how it’s controlled. Essentially, used nuclear fuel is stored on site in very robust facilities” for at least five years after it has been used. “After that, we transport the fuel into what we call dry-cask storage units. Those concrete, steel-lined canisters that we load the fuel into and transport to a facility at the site are designed to safely and securely store the fuel for decades.” For a longer term strategy, the industry awaits a solution from the Department of Energy: “The waste issue is one that the industry continues to work on. It is heavily reliant on federal law.”
Asked what future nuclear power has in the U.S., Kuczynski talks about it as part of a diverse “overall energy mix,” something he thinks is critical to the security and stability of this country. “When you look to the future, ten years, twenty years, and thirty years,” he says, “we’ll need to bring on quite a few more reactors to just maintain that 20 percent” of U.S. electricity need currently met by nuclear plants.
In the future, “you could envision maybe a third of U.S. [power], or even Southern [Company], at some point generating from nuclear. That industrywide shift would take a significant change to policy and direction. But it’s certainly feasible.” And with all the benefits that come with nuclear peace, it just might be worthwhile.
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