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Power Plants that Work, Including Nuclear Power

April 5, 2013 - 6:00pm

As a former assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, I understand the importance of considering all forms of energy when discussing our state and nations future.

These conversations are becoming increasingly important as we consider the best and most efficient way to build our energy capacity and meet our growing energy demand, as well as balance new challenges on the horizon. Energy is everywhere these days, from estimates about the amount of power needed to sustain our rapidly growing state, to new viable forms of power.

A responsible, sustainable portfolio of energy supply depends on combining multiple types of power plants. Together, power plants provide diversity by leveraging their different characteristics. Natural gas plants and nuclear plants are both necessary even though they have different features.

Gas plants have the benefit of relatively low construction costs and short construction times, but the fuel cost to supply a gas plant results in operating costs that tend to be unstable and increasing over a long period of time. Although the cost of natural gas has recently dipped, historically the cost of this fuel source fluctuates more than any other. It will most certainly rise again.

Nuclear plants cost more to build initially, and their construction takes longer, but nuclear plants save billions of dollars over time because they require no fossil fuel purchases. Compared to a gas plant, a typical two-unit nuclear plant saves about $58 billion that ratepayers do not have to spend on fossil fuel. Also, nuclear plants are the only type of large, base-load electricity supply that is zero-emission meaning no carbon is emitted into the air from these plants.

Compared with a gas plant, a typical two-unit nuclear plant avoids emission of more than 250 million tons of CO-2 into the air over its lifetime. You may not know that since the mid-1960s, more than 104 nuclear plants have operated successfully throughout America. They quietly and reliably provide 20 percent of Americas electricity and 73 percent of our total carbon-free electricity supply.

In Florida, Crystal Rivers three nuclear plants provided reliable, low-cost, emission-free electricity for more than 25 years along with four other reactors in our statewide fleet. Human mistakes were made that caused damage to the CR3 nuclear plant, but that does not support an inference that this plant or any other nuclear plant cannot work efficiently and effectively.

For example, ships are often retired from a fleet after years of service based on case-by-case assessments, sometimes following damages that are too costly to repair. In 2013 alone, the U.S. Navy is decommissioning 11 ships. After nearly 40 years of service, the Aircraft Carrier USS John F. Kennedy was officially decommissioned in 2007. It would be irrational to infer from this point that ships do not work or even that aircraft carriers do not work.

We have heard politicians on the national level say no crisis should go to waste. The retirement of the CR3 nuclear plant has been exploited by many to promote their views on other issues. People should be cautious about overgeneralizations and the false extrapolation of fact-specific events to further decisions about how we provide a balanced energy supply portfolio.

Heres the bottom line: we need a diverse host of energy supplies including natural gas, nuclear, solar, coal and others. As a society of educated people, we have the ability to deploy each of these energy sources. We should be skeptical of false claims suggesting that we must make choices between energy forms, especially because we must consider all forms of energy when making effective policy.

Dennis Spurgeon is the former assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the U.S Department of Energy. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds a master of science degree in nuclear engineering from MIT. He is a contributing expert to the Energy Information Center. He can be reached at

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