Nuclear Gaining

Published in Sun-Sentinel Dec. 23, 2007

By Lois Lindstrom

After the near-accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the disaster at Chernobyl in Russia in 1986, the U.S. nuclear industry halted construction of new nuclear power plants. In today's world of increased electrical usages and declining fossil fuel supplies, it's time we rethink our nuclear position.

This month, the Florida Public Service Commission approved Florida Power and Light Co.'s petition to add a total of about 414 megawatts of nuclear power to two units at Turkey Point near Homestead and two units on Hutchinson Island in St. Lucie County beginning in 2011 and 2012. The expansion is estimated to provide long term savings of $221 million to $963 million.

Intrigued by this nuclear expansion, I arranged to find out more by touring the Turkey Point Site. I arrived at the plant and felt like an extra on a movie set. There were armed guards in strategic places, and everyone looked serious and busy.

FPL currently supplies electricity to 4.5 million customers. It's four nuclear power units at two locations generate approximately 25 percent of the electricity consumed in 31 Florida counties. All power plants, including FPL's nuclear ones, operate in a similar fashion: the fuel (coal, oil, natural gas or uranium) heats the water in the reactor and turns it into steam.

The steam turns fan-like blades of a turbine, spinning the shaft of an electric generator and producing electricity. The water at FPL's nuclear facility is completely recycled within the plant area.

FPL's nuclear program has proven cost-effective. In 2006, FPL's actual fuel cost per megawatt hour for nuclear was $4 compared to $68 for the average fuel cost for fossil fuels (light oil, heavy oil, natural gas and coal combined) per megawatt hour.

There are 104 nuclear units operating in 31 states, and they provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity. Also, nuclear energy does not emit greenhouse gases. But the nuclear industry does face problems. One major concern is where to dispose of the spent fuel. Plans were being discussed in Congress to build a deep geological repository — at Yucca Mountain in Nevada — for the final disposal of long-lived radioactive waste.

However, Congress believes that nuclear waste should stay right where it is — at the nation's nuclear power plants — until better waste technology is proposed.

No stone should go unturned to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants. The Institute of Nuclear Power Operators is the nuclear industry's inside watchdog, and they rate the safety and efficiency of nuclear units. Alongside state and federal nuclear agencies, the public can feel more secure knowing INPO makes surprise inspections.

In fact, INPO has given FPL's Turkey Point a 3 on a scale of 1-4, with 1 being the most technically secure. An FPL spokesperson said the Turkey Point unit had received favorable ratings from the federal NRC, and, "they were working hard to improve their INPO rating."

Meanwhile, utility executives such as FPL's Steven Scroggs, senior director of project development, says FPL adds 86,000 customers a year, and electric usages have increased by 30 percent in 20 years. "Nuclear energy provides added capacity. It's operation and longevity is controlled by the NRC, and it is emission-free and highly efficient".

In a Gallup poll in March 2007, 53 percent of Americans surveyed favored the use of nuclear energy. I favor it, too. The American nuclear power industry has had an excellent track record since Three Mile Island. As Mayco Villafana, an FPL spokesman, put it: "Nuclear provides excellent base load power without causing major economic distress. We need it."

I agree.

Lois Lindstrom is a journalist who lives in Broward County and writes on energy and health-related subjects.