In Fukushima???s aftermath, nuclear industry stepped up safety measures

With the political conventions over and the state of the economy rightly paramount in peoples??? minds, it can???t???and shouldn???t???be long before Americans hear candidates speak to the importance of reliable, affordable electricity supplies as the foundation for a thriving economy and high standard of living.

We can anticipate robust debate over some aspects of energy policy. However, there is a consensus among policymakers and the public for a substantial contribution from nuclear energy as a key component of a balanced portfolio of electricity generation.

Nuclear energy is a low-carbon energy technology that has proven its ability to be a safe, reliable, and affordable generation source for large amounts of baseload electricity around the clock. It is vital to any nation???s ability to improve its standard of living, to create jobs, to power heating and cooling systems and to enhance America???s energy leadership and energy security.

Nuclear energy produces electricity for one of every five American homes and businesses. It is by far the largest source of electricity that doesn???t emit greenhouse gases or particle pollutants. Additionally, America???s nuclear energy facilities have an exemplary safety record and are the most reliable power plants on the electricity grid, with an industry-leading efficiency rating every year for the past decade.

Safety has been and always will be the nuclear industry???s top priority. The accident last year at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan raised legitimate concerns about the safety of nuclear power. The U.S. nuclear industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and government policymakers have been in agreement from the very beginning on the need to apply relevant lessons learned from the events in Japan to enhance safety at U.S. nuclear energy facilities. In fact, much has already been done.

Comprehensive safety plan

The nuclear industry is implementing a program that incorporates a tailored and comprehensive safety capability that provides backup systems to maintain power to essential safety systems. This response to the events in Japan has been endorsed by the NRC and will significantly enhance safety for America???s reactors. Known as FLEX, this program will add another layer of protection to the many protective systems already in place.

Under a commitment made by all U.S. operators, the companies are acquiring additional equipment, such as portable generators, pumps and satellite communications technology, which can be used to provide power and water to cool the reactors under any extreme scenario.

The industry has hired more than 41,000 new employees since 2005 as U.S. companies build new nuclear energy facilities, and enhance the performance of existing reactors. New reactor designs benefit from the insights gained through 3,600 combined reactor-years of operating experience in the United States, and have an even greater assurance of safety. One example is the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design being built in Georgia and South Carolina to help meet rising electricity demand in the Southeast. This design incorporates new safety features that would allow the plant to be safely shutdown even with the loss of all power and limited operator action. Other advanced-design reactors, including small, scalable reactors, similarly will have state-of-the-art safety features when they enter the marketplace in the next decade.

U.S. nuclear energy facilities produce electricity at just over two cents per kilowatt-hour. With the exception of hydroelectric power plants, they are the lowest-cost producer of baseload electricity even in the absence of a tax on carbon, which would significantly increase the cost of fossil-fueled power plants. By burning one kilogram of their respective fuels, coal can power a 100-watt light bulb for about four days and natural gas for about six days. Uranium in a nuclear energy facility can power the light bulb for 140 years.

There are those who argue that the nation can provide all the electricity needed through renewable technologies such as wind and solar. Renewable energy sources including wind and solar are expanding and have an important role in our national energy portfolio, but are dwarfed by nuclear energy???s around-the-clock performance and large-scale electricity production. For example, wind farms operate only about 30 percent of the time; so, they require fossil fuel sources, primarily natural gas, as a back-up.

The bottom line is that, in the coming decades, we will be challenged to simultaneously meet rising electricity demand and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. To meet this challenge, federal and state policy organizations and the American public agree that the nation must establish a comprehensive and sustainable national energy policy that supports the development of technology-based, low-carbon solutions. Nuclear energy must continue to play an important role in helping us meet that challenge.