C.T. CARLEY: Keep an open mind about nuclear

(Excerpts from Dr. Carley’s comments)

Although inexpensive natural gas has changed the climate for nuclear power in the United States, nuclear still supplies roughly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, safely and reliably.

Someday, maybe decades from now, our children’s children will appreciate our commitment to maintaining a balanced mix of clean energy sources, including the nonpolluting power from the Grand Gulf nuclear plant.

This Mississippi plant has an electricity-generating capacity of 1,443 megawatts, the most for any single reactor in America.

A diverse portfolio of energy sources – coal, nuclear, natural gas and renewables – is the core strength of our electric power system.

This mix of energy sources serves as insurance against a sudden spike in the price of fuel in any part of the portfolio.

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Those who argue that nuclear power is dangerous should consider its stellar safety record. Since the first nuclear plant began generating electricity more than a half-century ago, there has not been a single fatality from a radiation-related accident in the United States. Used nuclear fuel is being stored safely at nuclear plants despite the government’s lack of progress in resolving the spent-fuel disposal issue.

Over the past 25 years, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of significant events at U.S. nuclear plants, a declining workplace accident rate and far fewer unplanned automatic shutdowns. … The nuclear industry’s ingrained culture of safety – one that recognizes the U.S. fleet of 100 nuclear plants is only as strong as its weakest link – is reinforced with stringent regulation and scrutiny by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Today, nuclear plants on average produce power 90 percent of the time, compared to 33 percent for wind and 25 percent for solar. Consider that in 2011 – despite tornadoes, a Virginia-based earthquake, hurricane Irene and flooding in the Midwest – nuclear plants posted a capability factor of 91.4 percent.

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Gov. Phil Bryant’s Energyworks: Mississippi’s Energy Roadmap notes the forthcoming “new wave of nuclear power-related investments.” Mississippians must seize opportunities in this area and cease treating the word “nuclear” as if it were distasteful.

In upholding nuclear power’s important mission, the NRC needs to renew the operating licenses of Grand Gulf and other reactors that are deemed capable of producing electricity safely for another 20 years. And the NRC should be given the funds in desperately needs to certify new reactor designs for commercial use. Otherwise we may see these new reactors built overseas.

For an industry that’s often misunderstood, nuclear power is doing remarkably well.

Utilities are particularly pleased that safety at nuclear plants is being maintained along with good economic performance.

C.T. Carley, Ph.D., P.E., professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, Mississippi State University, 213 Windsor Road, Starkville, MS 39759.