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Nuclear Energy’s Unmatched Reliability

The following is a guest blog post by NEI’s Mitch Singer. Today, tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll be taking a closer look at how nuclear energy facilities function as the backbone of the electric grid, operating at full power when demand is at its highest in summer and winter. Click here to see why nuclear energy’s reliability is unmatched in the electric business. Later, take some time to better understand the value of "Always On Power," and then see "How Nuclear Power Plants Prep," for times when demands is at its height.

As we enter the height of the summer season when sweltering heat waves challenge utilities to keep pace with hundreds of millions of air conditioners running at full blast, it’s comforting for Americans to know that relief from stifling heat will be there when they need it.

The system is so reliable that we take for granted that, when we step inside our homes or workplaces, we’ll be met with a refreshing flow of cool air. Until it isn’t there. Some don’t have that luxury. In India, more than 300 million people – equal to the entire U.S. population – don’t have any electricity at all.

One reason Americans are able to maintain their comfortable lifestyle is that many utilities have invested in creating a diverse generating mix – one where nuclear energy provides the foundation to keep the grid up and running when demand is at its highest. It is no exaggeration to say the nuclear plants that provide 20 percent of America’s electricity are “always on.” They operate more than 90 percent of the time which helps mitigate disruptions when other types of plants fall off the grid; 96 percent of the time in July and August.

Why are nuclear plants so reliable? Plant reliability is directly tied to highly trained technicians and programs. Preventive and predictive maintenance is carried out daily during refueling outages. Workers tear down, inspect and replace equipment before it fails. Refueling outages bring in over a 1,000 workers and spend between $30 million-$60 million dollars during a typical 30-day outage. Nuclear plant operators undertake their month-long refueling and maintenance in the spring and fall when demand is low.

Thus when crunch time hits in the summer and winter the plants are ready to meet these peak periods.

Gabriel Verespej works on an Emergency Diesel Generator at Fermi 2. 
Reliable supplies of electricity are critical to the industries that drive the American economy. The manufacturing sector accounts for 18 percent of the American economy and uses the equivalent of the entire annual production of 100 large-scale (1,000 MWe) power plants. Just one of these plants can power a mid-size city like Boston or Seattle.

Ross Eisenberg, vice president, Energy and Resources Policy at the National Association of Manufacturers said,“Energy is the lifeblood of manufacturing. As consumers of one-third of the nation’s energy, manufacturers depend on a steady flow of electricity to power our plants and equipment. Even short interruptions of electricity service can be incredibly costly as production lines halt, batches are scrapped and equipment is damaged.”

An excerpt from a recent annual report of the Century Aluminum Company echoes many of the same day-to-day concerns:
“We use large amounts of electricity to produce primary aluminum. Any loss of power which reduces the amperage to our equipment or causes an equipment shutdown would result in a reduction in the volume of molten aluminum produced, and prolonged losses of power may result in the hardening or “freezing” of molten aluminum in the pots where it is produced, which could require an expensive and time consuming restart process.”

“We operate our plants at close to peak amperage. Accordingly, even partial failures of high voltage equipment could affect our production.”

“Electricity represents our single largest operating cost. As a result, the availability of electricity at economic prices is critical to the profitability of our operations.”
Food and beverage processors also need reliable power to stay online. Power outages can be expensive. Much like oil, hot chocolate is piped over long distances. If power is lost, chocolate congeals within 3-5 minutes. A plant could be down for 2 hours, or entire pipelines may have to be discarded at great cost.

We’ve all become used to getting information with the click of a mouse. And we get frustrated when websites are down or take too long to load. More and more information is being stored in “the cloud.”

On a yearly basis the computer and electronic products industries use the equivalent of the annual production of four nuclear plants. And it will only increase with the continued growth in cloud technologies and mobile computing.

Let’s take Google as an example.

Google products launch more than 100 billion searches every month, map information for more than 1 billion monthly users and host over 5 million businesses in the cloud. In 2012, Google’s electricity consumption totaled 3 million MWh, more than one-third of the total annual output of a nuclear plant.

If Google doesn’t have reliable electricity, just take a look at Twitter whenever Gmail suffers an unexpected service interruption. We’ve come to rely on these services so heavily, that we simply can’t live without them anymore – which means we can’t afford to live without reliable, affordable nuclear energy either.

Photo Credit: Interior shot of Google logo inside Building 43 on their Silicon Valley Campus by Robert Scoble. Photo used under Creative Commons license.


jimwg said…
Nice article, but we've got to stop this preaching to the choir here and get info fact goodies like this article OUT into the press mainstream to do any good! Aside, Google proudly clucks that they're somehow 100% "Green" solar and wind power...

James Greenidge
Queens NY
Anonymous said…
Wow, didn't realise Google was such a big energy muncher! Good things we dont have too many mega tech companies in the world! Still I completely understand the point you are making, reliable energy is essential. It's just a shame that nuclear waste is such a big problem. in the Uk Npower are working hard to promote green energy but i think itll be a very long time before we say goodbye to nuclear power.
Spent fuel is actually a valuable commodity (owned by the American people) that some estimate (Bill Gates) may be worth more than $100 trillion in clean energy production in next generation reactors.

The manufacture of rooftop photovoltaics produce at least 10,000 times as much toxic waste as the commercial nuclear industry does per kilowatt produced.

Anonymous said…
Complete citation for $100 trillion of energy from US used nuclear fuel, please? That sounds awfully high -- more than six years of the entire US GNP.
Engineer-Poet said…
Both the LFTR and TransAtomic reactor designs can produce electricity using about 1 ton of heavy metal per GW-yr.  A GW-yr is 8,760,000,000 (8.76 billion) kWh.  At 5¢/kWh, a GW-yr is worth $438 million.

The USA has about 70,000 tons of SNF in inventory.  70,000 tons times $438 million per ton is over $30 trillion.
Anonymous said…
$100 trillion, $30 trillion. Same thing. Just rounded up by over a factor of three, I guess.

1 MTHM-GW/year refers to 1 MT of spent fuel, or 1 MT of fresh fuel for the new reactors?
Engineer-Poet said…
MTHM = metric ton heavy metal, aka actinides.

Transatomic's concept uses spent LWR fuel directly.  The non-oxygen fraction is about 96% actinides.  They claim 96% burnup, so 1.04 tons input for 1 ton "burned".

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