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Nuclear Power Plants


As the world remains focused on climate change, the debate over which alternate energy solution would generate the best results in terms of energy production and providing electricity to more users intensifies. Current debate surrounds issues relating to the environmental impact fossil fuels impose, specifically the carbon emissions from the mining of coal. Despite ongoing efforts to reduce emissions, it has become evident that an alternative must be implemented soon.

Energy Research

While environmental and government agencies seek viable alternatives, they also realize a full commitment to combating climate change cannot be made until a clear plan for eliminating the world’s dependence on coal and for creating the infrastructure to build nuclear plants is presented. As this paper illustrates, an understanding of fossil fuels and the electricity it produces is a predominant step toward understanding and implementing a plan for replacing fossil fuel with nuclear power plants for energy production.

Much international attention has been given to the environmental implications of current energy production sources as well as the benefits of nuclear power plants; however, this paper’s focus is on the United States and its ardent quest to implement energy production solutions that not only provide energy throughout a nation but that will reduce the impact energy production has on the environment, the economy, and the people who rely on energy sources for personal and professional survival.

Data Analysis

Research indicates that by 2050 the earth’s population will exceed nine billion, a projection that—if accurate—points to the potential for increased and serious environmental damage. Some question where the energy will come from to fuel the growing expectations of modern society and to power its progress as current sources of energy are finite and will not meet the needs of future generations. According to Vestas, a wind power plant corporation, the world is currently using “significantly more fossil fuels that we are finding” (Sustainability, 2007, para. 2). Of course, Vestas claims the most effective and least costly renewable energy source is the power of the wind, which may be true to some degree, but it fails to meet the expansive needs of a growing world. As such, the real probability of not having the fossil fuels needed to meet increased energy demands is a real issue but wind power as a blanketed solution is erroneous.

In regard to the probability of running out of fossil fuels, much debate has also ensued. According to policy analyst Jeffrey Rissman (2013), we will not run out of fossil fuels. Rissman explains, using historical predictions, that 1977 Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports claimed the US “had just 32 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and 207 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves” but that between 1977 and 2010 the U.S. 2.6 times the 1977 estimate (84 billion barrels of oil) and 2.9 times the reserve estimate (610 trillion cubic feet of gas) with large reserves remaining (Rissman, 2013, para. 4). Rissman (2013) further adds that the size of US reserves has grown more than 30% since 2011. Conversely, according to data presented by Shafiee and Topal (2009), Rissman’s claim is inaccurate.

Using a new formula, modified from the Klass model, that assumes “a continuous compound rate and computes fossil fuel reserve depletion times for oil, coal and gas of approximately 35, 107 and 37 years, respectively,” Shafiee and Topal (2009) claim “coal reserves are available up to 2112, and will be the only fossil fuel remaining after 2042” (p. 181). While, according to this model, reserves will be available over the next 100 years, the implications of coal being the fossil fuel remaining after 2042 indicates a serious concern for the younger and middle-aged generation that will be left to deal with the decline in less than 30 years. As such, these figures alone indicate the urgency in creating strong alternatives to energy production today.

In a 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, revealed estimates that world energy is likely to increase 25%-35% over the next 20 years with a shift in composition expected to be significant after 2030—possibly as far out as 2050 (Strassel, 2012). However, Yergin adds that while fuel volume numbers appear large that is where the debate intensifies as he does not believe there is enough fuel to sustain all the world—much less the US—needs to do (i.e. manufacturing, electricity and fueling fleets) (Strassel, 2012). In fact, Yergin’s concerns reveal aspects of the fuel debate that some may not have considered: not only are fossil fuels used to power electricity, they are simultaneously used in other production capacities that only work toward depleting reserves quicker.

A breakdown of US energy production in 2010 reveals natural gas and coal at the top of all traditional sources with nuclear sources ranking fourth (Strassel, 2012). Usage data as reported by the EIA reveals the US generated about 4,054 billion kilowatthours of electricity in 2012. Of the total electricity generated 68% was from fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, and petroleum) and 37% directly from coal. Energy sources per share were: coal 37%, natural gas 30%, nuclear 19%, hydropower 7%, other renewable 5%, biomass 1.42%, geothermal 0.41%, solar 0.11%, wind 3.46%, petroleum 1%, and other gases less than 1% (What is U.S. electricity generation by energy source?, 2013). Specifically, as indicated here, nuclear energy production in 2012 was only 19% compared to 68% from fossil fuel.

According to 2011 data, the average US nuclear power plant generated about 12.2 billion kilowatt-hours. During the same period, the EIA reports “there were 65 nuclear power plants with 104 operating nuclear reactors that generated a total of 790 billion kilowatt-hours” accounting for “slightly more than 19% of the nation’s electricity” (How much electricity does a typical nuclear power plant generate?, 2012). The largest plant is located in Arizona capable of producing 3,937 megawatts with the smallest located in Nebraska, producing 478 megawatts with a single reactor (How much, 2012). The EIA reports that the average plant capacity factor in 2011 was 89% (How much, 2012). According to 2008 data, if nuclear energy production were to replace fossil-fuel energy and meet future demands, “nuclear energy production would have to increase by 10.5% per year from 2010 to 2050”.

Current electric grid

The US’s current electric grid operates as a series of networks defined by geography where there are massive dependencies in the system. Should one dependency fail, failure in other places is imminent and can lead to massive blackouts and, if severe enough, catastrophe. History reveals the impact a blackout can have, as was seen in 2003 when a blackout “crippled parts of the midwest and northeastern United States and parts of Canada” and resulted in more than 50 million people without power (Tollefson, 2013, para. 4). While the 2003 blackout was found to have been the result of the combination of poor vegetation management and “a series of monitoring and communications breakdowns” (para. 10), the potential for reoccurrence exists.

As the population continues to grow at rapid rates the need for increased capacity also rises. While there is the possibility of adding and extending lines to reduce load capacity, this move has been deemed to costly. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, smart grid technologies were introduced but as with efforts thus far they are temporary and serve to improve load capacity for near future needs versus addressing the long term demands the US can expect over the next 20 years.

According to the 2012 Long-Term Reliability Assessment conducted by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), in November 2012, NERC estimated the US would have 966 gigawatts of electric supply capacity available for Summer 2013, further estimating that “about 786 gigawatts would be needed to meet projected peak electricity demand” and an additional 117 gigawatts should comprise the target reserve supply in the event of supply outages or extreme weather (NERC, 2012). In November 2012, the US had 63 gigawatts of capacity above the target reserve supply with only one region—ERCOT, which comprises most of Texas—projected to below target capacity for Summer 2013 (NERC, 2012). The layout of the current grid prohibits transferring excess resources in one region to supply deficits in other regions. Collectively, regional reserves maintain target ranges from 14%-17% which total 117 gigawatts of supply capacity (NERC, 2012).

NERC reports that while the Planning Reserve Margins appear sufficient for the majority of the bulk power system to maintain reliability over the long-term, “there are significant challenges facing the electric industry that may shift industry projections adding considerable uncertainty to the long term assessment, [including] electricity market changes, fuel‐prices (natural gas in particular), potential environmental regulations, and renewable portfolio standards” (NERC, 2012, p. 2). In terms of how much more the current grid can handle, usage must remain within the projected supply capacity with the hope target reserve use is not necessary; otherwise, we could experience regional blackouts as in recent history (i.e. 2011 San Diego).

Getting electricity from nuclear plant to manufacturing plant

Nuclear plants operate similarly to fossil-fueled power plants. As such, there must be an infrastructure in place to accommodate the transfer of energy from one source to another. For example, to transfer energy from a nuclear plant in South Dakota to a manufacturing plant in Boston, the grid system has to be interconnected the same as it is currently set up. However, one difference that must be addressed is the need to change the current grid limitations as the current grid was built to most power in one direction, from plant to consumer. At present, there are no nuclear plants in South Dakota and only one in Massachusetts. There are several facilities in states between South Dakota and Massachusetts, meaning electricity can be transferred; however, one would have to ensure the Massachusetts’ facility could handle the increased load. Given the structure of nuclear power plants, the capacity is significantly better than traditional facilities and can withhold higher loads with less environmental impact.

Infrastructure Analysis

When considering that 80% of the energy used to drive, heat home, and power gadgets comes from fossil fuels, a significant change—especially eliminating the current fossil fuel infrastructure for the transition to nuclear power—will require “speedy technological advancement, huge capital investments, and the political—and personal—will of ordinary people” (Friday, 2013, para. 1). To realize the full benefits of nuclear power versus fossil fuel power plants, change must start and it must begin with doing away with the current methods of powering our nation—the same methods that contribute to the global problems with carbon emissions. While projections reveal it is unlikely that any single nation will completely convert within the next 50 years, the process must begin in order to work toward a sustainable energy solution that meets the growing demands of an increasing population and the escalating issues that stem from current solutions’ negative contribution to the environment.

Eliminating the current fossil fuel infrastructure

The most effective method of eliminating the current fossil fuel infrastructure is to build more nuclear power plants. Current initiatives are working toward reducing fossil fuel use by gradually introducing new alternatives. While the initiatives are positive, they are progressing slowly whereas the nation needs to see greater change at a faster pace. In addition to a quicker implementation process, all current infrastructures that can be transferred to nuclear facilities will reduce the economic and time costs associated with making a ground-floor change. For example, plants that are currently unused can be developed into smaller facilities that will enable the process of delivering energy to nearby regions.

According to the NERC chart (see Appendix: Figure 1), FRCC (Florida Reliability Coordinating Council), one of eight NERC regional entities, the majority of growth of future planned resources is projected to come from natural gas or nuclear plants. Excluding natural gas data, increases in nuclear capacity from 2013-2022 is planned to come mostly from the “uprate of existing units” with about “2,517 MW of new nuclear capacity is scheduled for operation by 2022” (NERC, 2012, p. 96). The graph depicted in Figure 1 illustrates the significant change projected through 2022. Over the course of the next 10 years, the graph shows very little fossil fuel compared to nuclear and other renewable energy sources. When considering the efforts put forth to ensure a shift from fossil fuel to alternative energy sources such as natural gas (the major preferred alternate source to date), the same efforts can be increased to implement nuclear plants.

One of the major disadvantages is the high costs associated with changing from a fossil fuel-based infrastructure to nuclear power. The majority of nuclear power opponents are those working in executive positions within some of the nation’s largest oil and gas corporations. Others claim the EIA’s projections that the renewable sector would need to grow at least 19% per year every year to meet US demand by 2030 are “overly ambitious and impractical” (Murphy, 2008, para. 5). While no one can argue the monetary costs of shifting from fossil fuels to nuclear power, the overall costs in terms of risk to human and environmental health is much higher.

The infrastructure to build nuclear power plants is already partly in place as many people have shifted from traditional energy sources to renewable energy (i.e. electric cars and natural gas fueled fleets). When implementing a new plan, one must begin with the sources available and build upon them. As such, it would be more practical to continue building on the technologies already in place and expand at a quicker pace versus drawing out changes over the course of 20 or 30 years. Certainly, the impact to the environment decreases slightly with every electric car and natural gas powered transportation system but improvement could be recognized at a quicker and wider-ranged pace with nuclear facilities in place. Again, however, increasing the time frame for adding nuclear facilities will result in some job losses as a result of closing fossil fuel facilities, but the job opportunities created by new nuclear facilities would work toward bridging that gap. According to Pearce (2008), with energy consumption projected to double by 2050, indicating about 26,000 nuclear plants would be needed to place fossil fuels while meeting growing demands (p. 121).

Initially, first- and second-generation nuclear power plants were built by integrated suppliers such as Westinghouse. Today, most new plants come from a variety of international suppliers and vendor companies. Westinghouse focuses on design, engineering and project management (Heavy Manufacturing of Power Plants, 2013). Currently, “very heavy forging capacity in operation today is in Japan (Japan Steel Works), China (China First Heavy Industries and China Erzhong) and Russia (OMZ Izhora)” (Heavy, 2013, para. 5). To date, North American facilities cannot compete with the companies, meaning building new facilities—and even reorganizing old plants for nuclear purposes—will require international import for the majority of the nation’s nuclear facility needs.

Interdisciplinary Analysis

Any type of energy production process and related facilities come with some implications and nuclear power plants are no different. While there are dangers, the extent of the danger presented has been unfairly criticized. Nuclear facilities have been in operation for more than 50 years and illustrate it is a safe technology that afford no greater danger than other plant types. In fact, the dangers are minimized as nuclear facilities to not emit dangerous gases associated with fossil fuel power plants. Certainly, the 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl incidents have caused grave fear over what could happen should more nuclear facilities be built. Despite the negatives of the incidents, the Three Mile Island incident represents a success story in that no one was killed or injured. Chernobyl, however, did result in nine fatalities and later cases of thyroid cancer, but the incident served to motivate engineers on ways to improve nuclear reactor designs and safety protocols. Further, research considered by the World Nuclear Association reveals the coal mining industry reports about 15,000 global deaths per year. To reiterate, any industry involving the mining and extraction of resources for energy production poses some level of risk but the nuclear industry is by far the safest among those currently in use.

Conclusions and Implementation Plan

If continuing forward a planned by reducing fossil fuel use and increase nuclear power use, within the next 20 to 30 years the US can expect to see more than 50% of its energy production coming from nuclear facilities. In the event the process of building new plants is expedited, the number could increase to 70%. However, politics play a major role in how quickly such changes can be implemented.

In 2011, President Obama “called for the US to generate 80 percent of its electricity from renewable and carbon-light resources by 2025” (Green Energy Reporter). However, according to Oil Price, a major source for oil and energy news, “a light-green renewable electricity portfolio, bolstered by uranium (nuclear power) and carbon (clean coal), is necessary if the president is serious about meeting his goal” (para. 3). Subsequently, in July 2013, Forbes reported the president’s strategy has been somewhat successful as the US now leads the world in CO2 emission reductions and coal powered electricity production has creased from 50% to 30% over the past five years with gas increasing from 30% to 50% over the same period. While nuclear power plants have not shown an increase, holding steady at about one-fifth, the potential for future increase is encouraging.

Moving to nuclear power does present some concerns, specifically those related to cancer-causing issues. However, the same dangers are presented by current technologies, including nuclear power will not present a greater danger than the power sources already in place. In fact, the risks are reduced as coal has been known to kill about 20,000 Americans a year (Conca, 2013). By transitioning from fossil fuels to nuclear generated electricity, not only will the US see a major decline in industry injuries and fatalities but the health of the environment will see significant improvement. Further, utilizing all possible current facilities to convert from coal-based to nuclear facilities will reduce some of the economic burdens associated with the expense of building new plants. During the transition period, gas and wind power are the recommended bridge energy sources as they present lower risks to human and environmental health. Collectively, however, one can realistically expect major improvements to be seen over a 20 year period with some changes noted in the first 10 years. With a quicker implementation process combined with the fact that nuclear power plants report no fatalities, the risks are minimal and the benefits will be seen in terms of reduced costs of working to undo the damage inflicted by emissions and liabilities issues on top of the ability to increase electricity capacity and meet impending demand.


Figure 1: FRCC Capacity Outlook and Change


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