The nuclear capacity of the United States isn’t expected to wane any time soon. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the nuclear capacity in the United States should increase between 2016 and 2020, despite the scheduled closure of more than 2,000 megawatts (MW) of nuclear generating capacity by 2019.
Entergy Corp. announced in October that it plans to close the 685 MW Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station located in Massachusetts by mid-2019. It’s possible Pilgrim could be shut down sooner during the plant’s scheduled refueling and maintenance in 2017. In addition, the 678 MW Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station is scheduled to shut down by 2019.
Despite these closures, the United States’ nuclear generating capacity is still expected to increase by 2020. There are approximately five new nuclear reactors under construction in the United States. Watts Bar Unit 2 (estimated 1,150 MW capacity) in southeastern Tennessee just attained its nuclear license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It is expected to begin commercial operations sometime next year.
Power plants fuel America
The Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, located in eastern Georgia, and the V.C. Summer Plant, located in South Carolina, have a backlog of projects that could be pushed back two to three years. They are both scheduled to start operating two new reactors in 2019 and 2020, each with a 1,117 MW capacity.
Approximately 30 states in the United States have nuclear power plants, most of which are bound east of the Mississippi River. Illinois takes the prize as having the largest nuclear capacity of any state, followed by Pennsylvania. The former has 11 nuclear energy facilities owned by the Exelon Corporation.
Exelon has the highest amount of nuclear power capacity in its generation assets. They control 17 reactors at 10 plants sprinkled throughout Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Collectively, the nuclear plants in the United States should produce 5,000 MW of capacity by 2020, which vastly exceeds the reduction of 2,000 MW of capacity by the same time.
Nuclear reactors tend to be larger and more expensive than natural gas and coal fire units. The average nuclear capacity for nuclear reactors is close to 1,000 MW, whereas the average capacity for natural gas is a mere 130 MW, and 270 MW for coal units.
The country’s largest power plant and the world’s second largest power plant is the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station located in Arizona. It holds three reactors with a capacity of 3,937 MW. On the other end of the scale, the smallest nuclear power plant is Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station located in Nebraska, with a capacity of 479 MW.
Biting the radioactive bullet
The Vermont Yankee power plant closed last year with a nuclear capacity of 604 MW. A total of four power plants and five nuclear reactors have been shut down within the past four years, reducing the nuclear capacity by 4,000 MW. There are an estimated 62 power plants dotted throughout the United States with a sum total of 99 nuclear power reactors.
As the country relies more on nuclear power plants for electricity, the odds of a nuclear meltdown occurring increase as well. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the Fukushima disaster in 2011 are by far the worst nuclear catastrophes to plague humanity. According to the work of Spencer Wheatley and Didier Sornette at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Benjamin Sovacool at Aarhus University in Denmark, there is a 50 percent chance of another Chernobyl disaster occurring somewhere in the world before 2050, or in the next 27 years.
The risks attached to nuclear energy must be weighed against the benefits. The question for policymakers and the general public is, given the stakes, should we bite the radioactive bullet?