Nuclear power provides safe, clean energy

Imagine that the twin problems of foreign-oil dependence and atmospheric pollution from the burning of fossil fuels could be limited by the increased use of a commercial energy source already in common use. But you don’t need to imagine. The hypothetical is real.

Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of the country’s electricity — safely, economically and reliably.

Its benefits are real and measurable. For example, nuclear power has played a central role in replacing oil in electricity generation, and it could do the same in transportation if plug-in electric hybrid vehicles catch on.

The great environmental advantage of nuclear power is that it produces no greenhouse-gas emissions or air pollution. The 104 U.S. nuclear power plants account for more than 70 percent of the nation’s emission-free electricity generation. Without base-load electricity from nuclear plants, we would be burning substantially more coal and natural gas.

Energy needs in the United States are projected to grow in the coming decades, even with improved efficiency and conservation. The use of nuclear power in this country is on the rise, producing a record 807 billion kilowatt hours of electricity last year, compared with 557 billion kilowatt hours in 1990, adding the equivalent of 25 large power plants without any fanfare. Steady improvements in the safety and efficiency of nuclear plants have made this possible.

Industrial and nuclear safety records are consistently better than ever in more than four decades of operation. A steady reduction in the number of significant events at America’s nuclear plants, a plunging workplace-accident rate and far fewer unplanned automatic plant shutdowns reflect increased attention to training and plant safety.

There has been only one plant shutdown of more than a year for safety reasons over the past decade, compared with 26 shutdowns from 1987 to 1997 and 21 in the decade before.

Everyone involved in plant operations, from reactor operators to those responsible for refueling and spent-fuel management, receive rigorous and continuous training. Consequently, there has been an improvement in safety and efficiency.

In 2007, nuclear plants, on average, were up and running at full power 91 percent of the time , compared with 62 percent in 1980 and 71 percent in 1990.

Pennsylvania has some of the top-performing plants in the country. For the three-year period between 2004 and 2006, plants operating more than 90 percent of the time included Beaver Valley 1 and 2, Limerick 1 and 2, Peach Bottom 2 and 3, Susquehanna 2 and Three Mile Island 1.

Spent fuel is being stored safely at the plant sites until it can be moved to a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

To ensure safety, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, which the industry established about 25 years ago, monitors each plant’s performance. Its inspections typically run two weeks, and it shares lessons learned from experience and technological advances across all plants.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has at least two resident inspectors and as many as four inspectors at each nuclear site.

It is only in recent years, however, that the NRC and the industry have made increased use of computer-based analyses of each plant. Known as probabilistic safety analyses, they provide plant personnel and regulators with a valuable tool for zeroing on what are the most important maintenance needs and safety risks at a plant.

These safety analyses have permitted the NRC to shift from a prescriptive approach to regulation, which was based on the best engineering judgments of past decades, to one that is more risk-informed and performance-based, enabling its inspectors to determine whether a plant is being operated safely.This vigilance has produced an outstanding safety record: No one in the public has ever been harmed by the operation of a nuclear power plant in the United States.

And the attention to safety continues. Instead of nuclear plants being shut down after their initial 40-year licenses, half of the plants have been licensed by the NRC for another 20 years. Almost all of the remaining plants have either applied to the NRC to have their licenses renewed or intend to.

To date, utilities have applied for licenses from the NRC for seven new nuclear plants that are expected to be ready for commercial service by 2015. The industry has indicated that more applications are anticipated during 2008 and 2009.

When these plants are on-line, construction of another group of nuclear plants will be launched. Together, these actions are demonstrating that the nuclear industry is serious about providing reliable supplies of electricity that safeguard public health and protect the environment.

Forrest Remick is a professor of nuclear engineering emeritus and associate vice president for research emeritus at Penn State and a retired commissioner for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The opinion of the columnist does not necessarily reflect that of the university.