Coal, Nuclear, Reactors

Nuclear Power: Safety is a Key Factor to Industry Growth

Issue 8 and Volume 120.

By John Ryan, U.S. Regional Vice President, TRANSEARCH International

There are about 7,304 operational power plants in the United States utilizing diverse technologies such as gas, coal, wind, solar, hydro and nuclear. All of these power facilities ultimately support 124 million households.

Reliability and safety are key drivers for power plant operators. Having just spent a week in India, I found that most locals are accustomed to disruptions in service. In fact, we experienced outages on almost a daily basis.

I’d like to take this opportunity to lead a brief dive into nuclear power. As you may know, there are 438 nuclear plants in operation around the world, 61 of which are located in the U.S. Nuclear power has been part of the grid since 1954.

We are all familiar with the three biggest nuclear accidents: Three Mile Island in 1979; Chernobyl in 1986; and Fukushima in 2011. Unfortunately, there have been at least 99 accidents since 1954 that resulted in loss of life or damages in excess of $50,000. Since the Fukushima incident, a 12-mile exclusion zone circles the power plant and people have limited access to the site. Ultimately, 50,000 households and 156,000 people were permanently displaced.

An NRC task force investigated the Fukushima incident and ultimately concluded that current operating standards “do not pose an imminent risk to public safety and health,” which to me is a roundabout way of saying “we doing it right.” However, the task force did pull together a list of over 10 new recommendations as a result of Fukushima. Some of those include strengthening defenses against flooding and earthquakes, and hardening vents that carry away hydrogen gas from damaged reactor cores. Backup electric power for extending plant’s capabilities to project reactors and spent fuel was another of the recommendations that was a result of this investigation.

Highlighting the worst nuclear incident in 25 years illustrates the worldwide commitment to safe, responsible generation. Operators use advanced equipment to monitor their reactors 24 hours a day. Located in Illinois, for example, the Dresden Generating Station has been in continuous operation since 1960. Its first unit, Dresden 1, was retired in 1978. Units 2 and 3 — two GE BWR-3 reactors — have been in operation since 1970. This plant safely generates power for over one million households. Its staff have taken reactors offline as necessary when, for example, it detects elevated water levels in a reactor.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides regulatory oversight for plants like Dresden. This framework has three major pillars: Reactor Safety; Radiation Safety and Safeguards. Key staff are rigorously trained in segments that include initiating events, mitigating systems, barrier integrity, emergency preparedness, public radiation safety, occupational radiation safety, and physical protection.

There are currently more than 15 applications for new nuclear power facilities. Proposed sites are in Texas, Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina and other states. The last newly built reactor in the U.S. came online in 1996. The next reactor, Watts Bar 2, entered service in mid-2016 in Tennessee. This $4.7 billion unit has undergone several design modifications, all of which were spurred by the Fukushima incident.

We predict the commissioning of more nuclear power plants in the United States over the next 20 years. Currently nuclear accounts for 20 percent of all U.S. generation, the third highest source. Coal, the top source, generates 40 percent of our power, but is projected to decrease over the next 20 years. Safety training will continue to play a key role in the nuclear sector to ensure adherence to protocols and regulations that have that been in place for over 50 years. In addition to the onsite training that the power companies provide, the NRC provides an ongoing list of training courses on topics that include environmental monitoring and materials control and security systems.