Putting nuclear energy in the right light for solving our energy crisis


Support for nuclear energy has increased steadily since Gallup began polling Americans in 1994 on the issue. Then, 57 percent supported using nuclear power to generate electricity. This year, it was 62 percent. Even as support inches forward, however, innovation is at risk of being crushed under the heel of the vocal minority.

Electricity demands are expected to increase 27 percent by 2030 in the Southeast, where bountiful but unpopular fossil fuels generate much of the energy. Georgia’s energy generation, half of which is coal-powered, is the cleanest it has ever been.

Still, regulation and legislation are expected to make those resources increasingly expensive and difficult to use for power generation. At the same time, even with conservation measures, Georgia’s population and economic growth will bring increases in energy demand. New, reliable and affordable power generation must come online.

Misguided activists call for energy independence, as if energy does not operate in a global marketplace. Environmental activists demand “clean,” “renewable” energy, disregarding the need for the affordability and reliability that are also critical to this nation’s competitive edge, economic success and quality of life.

But, just like automobiles in the stop-and-go traffic of congestion increase emissions, so do unreliable energy sources add to carbon dioxide emissions.

For example, electrical engineer Kent Hawkins reviewed several studies and found “increases in fossil fuel or CO2 emissions with the introduction of wind plants.” One study found, “The use of wind energy for electricity generation in combination with the requirement for fossil fuel powered stations to compensate for wind fluctuations can easily lead to loss of the expected saving in fuel use and CO2 emission. In addition, the conventional stations will be subject to accelerated wear and tear.”

Solar energy, too, is inconsistent and biofuels’ advantage is in question. For clean, reliable and safe electricity generation, nuclear energy is the logical choice. It’s unfortunate that instead of being embraced, nuclear energy continues to be demonized.

Unfortunate, because the 104 nuclear power plants operating in 31 states generate just 20 percent of U.S. electricity but nearly 75 percent of the nation’s carbon-free power – including hydroelectric power plants and renewable technologies. On average, they operate at 90 percent capacity.

In Georgia, nuclear energy provides 25 percent of the state’s electricity. Plant Vogtle, outside Augusta, operates at 90 percent capacity; Plant Hatch in South Georgia operates at 91 percent capacity.

Even world leader France can’t compare: That nation generates 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and its plants operate at 77 percent of their capacity.

Plans are to add two reactors at Vogtle to help satisfy Georgia’s future energy needs. The project will be one of the first additions to nuclear energy in the nation since the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee came online in 1996 and among the first new units built in three decades.

Vogtle’s $14.5 billion price tag is no surprise, nor is the time lag since the last U.S. nuclear construction. Like so many other plants, Vogtle’s planned expansion is meeting resistance every step of the way. The latest challenge came recently, when activists charged that the reactors’ design makes them vulnerable to corrosion that could lead to radiation leaks.

While regulators and utilities struggle to satisfy critics and skeptics, the challenges to additional nuclear construction mean the United States – and Georgia – are falling behind. Evidence that the cost, delays and regulatory hurdles compound the risks for utilities and rates for their customers came this month, when Southern Company and three subsidiaries, including Georgia Power, had their debt rating downgraded by Moody’s. One concern cited was Georgia Power’s involvement in the Vogtle expansion.

The opposition strategy is a winner: Increase the hurdles, thereby slowing the process, raising the costs and effectively discouraging further investment in nuclear energy.

Meanwhile, existing plants operate with outstanding safety, security, reliability and production. In fact, the Nuclear Energy Institute reports that according to data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “it is safer to work at a nuclear power plant than in the manufacturing sector and even the real estate and financial sectors.”

Nuclear energy does not deserve to be a pariah. The tide is turning but exceedingly slow. At stake for the United States – and Georgia – are a reputation as an innovation leader and a chance to spur economic growth and prosperity. Let’s not relinquish that to a quixotic quest for reliability through renewables. Let’s not allow misinformation to rob us of the proven promise of nuclear power.

[Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]