Nuclear Energy’s Role Won’t Change in the Future

    by Teri Saylor for BusinessNC

    North Carolina’s first nuclear power plant — Brunswick Nuclear Generating Station near Southport — opened almost 45 years ago. It has outlasted its builder, Carolina Power & Light Co., which became Progress Energy when it merged with Florida Progress Energy in 2000 and then a subsidiary of Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp., the country’s largest utility, in 2012. The plant, however, continues to produce electricity.

    North Carolina’s net electricity generation from nuclear provided 5.3% of the nation’s total electricity in 2016, according to Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Energy Information Administration. That was fourth-most among the 50 states. Nuclear provided the biggest portion — 32.5% — of North Carolina’s electricity generation. Industry experts expect this “clean” energy supply, which contributes 57% of the nation’s and 87% of North Carolina’s zero-carbon electricity, will continue to carry that load for years to come.

    Duke operates 11 nuclear reactors on six sites, including Brunswick, Harris Nuclear Plant in Wake County and McGuire Nuclear Station in Mecklenburg County. Steve Nesbit, the utility’s director of nuclear policy and support, says they create 2,600 jobs and an annual payroll of $203 million. “Nuclear plants are valuable assets for our region,” he says. “They provide good jobs, steady employment and a revenue source for local communities. These plants have been performing well since the 1970s, and they are under 40-year license agreements granted through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The license agreements could be extended into the 2050s and 2060s, which means the nuclear fleet in operation here can remain in operation for decades to come.”

    But it won’t be entirely smooth sailing. Energy sources are becoming more diverse, says Rocky Seese, owner and CEO of Charlotte-based SOS Intl, which provides training and compliance services to utilities. “While coal-fired units are starting to be retired, it still ranks as the third top fuel source behind natural gas and nuclear. Then below that comes solar, wind, hydro-electricity and biofuels.”

    Nesbit sees the value in generating electricity from several sources and believes each has a role to play. “We have a diverse grid and diverse energy resources yielding a reliable and resilient supply of electricity. Natural gas has increased and has driven down the cost of generating electricity from gas. Nuclear energy also is a low-cost source of energy, and North Carolina’s energy costs are among the least expensive in the country.”

    Last summer, low demand and Monroeville, Pa.-based nuclear-technology supplier Westinghouse Electric Co.’s bankruptcy caused Duke to cancel construction plans for Lee Nuclear Station in Cherokee County, S.C. Its license is valid for 18 more years, so the project will continue to be evaluated, Nesbit says.

    While construction of large nuclear power plants is slowing, the sector will see growth from the development of small modular reactors. They are built in factories and moved to where they are needed, reducing construction costs. They incorporate technology that makes them safer and more environmentally friendly than larger reactors, says Carl Fisher, vice president of hardware modernizations and nuclear parts center for France-based AREVA Group’s AREVA NP. It develops nuclear-power technology and has offices in Charlotte. “AREVA has designed a Generation IV reactor to provide high temperature steam for industrial use and electricity production.” It also is developing a sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor, which can run on the waste produced by other reactors.

    One issue that the nuclear-energy industry has wrestled with for more than 30 years is disposal of radioactive waste. The Government Accountability Office estimates that more than 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste needs disposal in the U.S. Electricity generation contributed 80,000 metric tons of that. The balance is from the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

    In 1987, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate Yucca Mountain in Nevada for a national repository of spent nuclear fuel, but its license is still pending. “The Yucca Mountain site was chosen for its geological superiority,” Fisher says. “It’s a dry area and seismically stable, but local politics and the lack of funding have caused the efforts to grind to a standstill.”

    Spent nuclear fuel is currently stored at reactor sites, Fisher says. AREVA does provide waste-management services and operates nuclear-waste repositories in Europe.

    See related post: “Staying Current with NC’s Energy Future

    Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp. operates 11 nuclear reactors, including McGuire Nuclear Station near Huntersville. Industry experts forecast that nuclear will continue to be an important provider of electricity for years to come. Photo above of the Harris Nuclear Plant provided by Duke Energy.