Ensuring Electricity Demands with Nuclear Power

Despite record-breaking heat in large parts of the United States this summer, there were no electricity shortages. Air conditioners kept humming and power reserve margins stayed within required levels during two major heat waves in July and August.

This was due in no small measure to the excellent performance of the nation’s nuclear power plants, which account for about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity-generating capacity and 26 percent in Georgia and are the only clean-air source that produces power around the clock. Reactors in 30 states operated during the summer with an average capacity factor of 96.1 percent – a measure of efficiency, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.

Thanks to the outstanding performance of the Vogtle and Hatch nuclear plants, there was plenty of generating capacity to meet electricity demand in Georgia.

IT IS WELCOME news that nuclear power is making a difference considering the economic stresses in the U.S. electric power system. In the past two years, 10 reactors around the country have closed or will be retired prematurely. Scores of coal plants have been shuttered. Some natural gas plants aren’t operating because public opposition to new pipelines has cut off the supply of fuel.

Those expecting renewable energy sources to replace base-load nuclear, natural gas and coal plants have been disappointed. Solar and wind power combined account for 7 percent of the nation’s electricity supply, even with federal subsidies and action by many states mandating the use of renewables. Solar and wind – though carbon-free like nuclear power and helpful in the battle against climate change – are available only intermittently, when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. The rest of the time, when the weather isn’t cooperating, they require backup power from fossil-fuel plants.

Nuclear power’s reliability and importance as a supplier of base-load electricity is most apparent during extreme weather conditions. Because they are built to withstand tornadoes and hurricanes, nuclear plants consistently post weekly average capacity factors in the mid- to high 90s, even as other power plants drop off the grid because of low natural gas supplies and mechanical failures.

NUCLEAR POWER’S potentially life-saving service in extreme weather illustrates the value of energy diversity. Instead of relying heavily on a single fuel, utilities know that a mix of fuels and technologies is fundamental to a properly functioning electricity system. A study by IHS Energy shows that overreliance on natural gas and unreliable renewable sources would drive down the U.S. gross domestic product by nearly $200 billion; increase wholesale and retail electricity prices by 75 percent and 25 percent respectively; and lead to the loss of about 1 million jobs. It also would disrupt electricity reliability.

We will benefit from continued reliance on, and expansion of, the nuclear power infrastructure. Nuclear power is clean, reliable and affordable. The addition of two nuclear reactors at the Vogtle plant will contribute to the fuel and technology diversity that is a bedrock characteristic of a reliable and resilient electric sector.

- Dr. Nolan E. Hertel