In a recently-released report by the City of San Antonio Community Emergency Preparedness Committee, two things stare us in the face. First, renewables wind and solar are not considered part of the city’s baseline power. And second, there’s no mention of nuclear power as a viable option for a future baseline power source, despite the fact that nuclear is the only one of our three baseline power sources with no carbon footprint.
Reactors will not only provide always-on affordable power, but they can add to the reliability of renewables by providing 100% clean energy when needed. They should be viewed as an exciting complement rather than a competitor to renewables.
Based on its history as a reliable, robust, and safe source, nuclear power will be a cornerstone of our power sources well into the future, and elected and industrial leaders must have the courage and willpower to focus on nuclear power as part of our strategy.
During my career serving on four submarines, I came to appreciate the U.S. Navy’s outstanding record of over 134 million miles safely traveled on nuclear power. The submarine force has protocols in place that recognize the need to balance the safety of the nuclear propulsion plant with the safety of the ship that it propels. Adm. Hyman Rickover, the “father of the nuclear Navy,” produced a culture of reactor safety built into engineering rigor, but more importantly, selection and training of operators. The commercial industry has grown out of this incredible record and culture of safety.
The safety record of nuclear power in our region is without parallel. The South Texas Project has operated very safely and reliably throughout its lifetime, with only three reactor trips in the past several years. In 2016, Unit 1 tripped due to a main generator lock. Prior to that, in 2013, Unit 2 experienced an automatic reactor trip from full power caused by a main transformer fire. And this past February, a frozen feed system (non-nuclear) component caused an automatic reactor trip at Unit 1.
During the February storm, the other three regional reactors, two at the Comanche Peak plant as well as South Texas Unit 2, continued to operate at 100%. How many more people would have been without power if these had not been built?
Because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, wind and solar can only generate 10-30% of their maximum output. Fossil fuel generators can run at 60% of their maximum, with nuclear leading the pack at 90%.
Nuclear power is critical to meeting environmental goals, but it is also a massive economic opportunity. To replace a 2-gigawatt nuclear plant with solar you would need the equivalent solar panel coverage of a two-lane highway from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles and back. Wind is simply not intended to be a major source of power year-round, and the Community Emergency Preparedness Committee’s report correctly called this out.
Not surprisingly, nuclear accidents have elicited a backlash of anti-nuclear sentiment. It’s important not to let accidents like Chernobyl or Fukushima prevent the development and implementation of safer reactors. A combination of woefully deficient design, engineering, operations, and training caused those two tragedies. These pillars are essential to reactor safety that is built into nuclear power plants in the U.S.
And there are exciting prospects ahead thanks to innovation. Industry leaders have figured out how to make nuclear power plants “walk-away safe” at a lower cost. This means that no human intervention is needed to shut down the plant if something goes awry. Plus, many of these new reactors work on used fuel. These new technologies aren’t pipedreams. As an exciting example, NuScale’s small modular reactor is essentially through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process and is working on power agreements with providers. Not only do these engineering breakthroughs address safety concerns, they drastically reduce costs.
Nuclear power is the most heavily regulated industry in the country. We’ve seen some improvements, but we need a bolder, more rapid modernization of federal nuclear policy. If we consider how best to address technical risks and agree that there is a role for government to play, it stands to reason that we want to ensure whatever regulatory burden we place on the designers, owners, and operators of energy technologies exceed the risk. Then the question becomes: Under what scenarios and with how much margin? As far as safety goes, there has never been a fatality or even a major injury at a nuclear plant in the U.S. due to radiation.
Nuclear power is our best choice, yet it’s disappointing that there is so little discussion of its future in South Texas. To bring nuclear back into the mainstream will require bold leadership, especially from the private sector. Responsible journalism, with accurate reporting based on facts, can help considerably. We should be having an active dialogue on the future of nuclear power as a source of baseline power generation in San Antonio and Texas. To ignore nuclear power is a loss for our long-term energy planning.