WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. nuclear energy industry operates at high levels of safety that are being enhanced through early lessons from the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan, Nuclear Energy Institute President and CEO Marvin Fertel said today. Nuclear energy facilities generate 20 percent of America’s electricity and support the nation’s energy security, environmental and economic priorities.
“We believe that American nuclear plants are well prepared and could withstand significant natural forces here in this country. We’ll be even better prepared as we address the lessons learned from Japan,” Fertel said. “This event is a stark reminder that nuclear energy is one industry bound together by a technology that is both remarkable and demanding. Our commitment to safety must be equally demanding—as should our commitment to international cooperation and assistance.”
Speaking before 550 industry leaders at NEI’s annual meeting, Fertel said American nuclear facilities took prompt action after Japan’s natural disaster to verify every power plant’s capability to maintain safety even in the face of extreme events. They focused on losses of large areas of a plant site due to natural events, fires or explosions, as well as loss of off-site power and potential flooding of plant systems. The industry also is improving its capability to maintain safety if a severe event were to occur simultaneously at multiple reactors located at the same facility.
“We certainly must and will continue to learn from Japan, but we have a responsibility to keep moving forward and deliver safe, reliable electricity to meet America’s growing demand,” Fertel said.
Nuclear power plants are operating at high levels of reliability, as evidenced the record production of 807 billion kilowatt-hours of low-carbon electricity in 2010. They have operated at an industry-average capacity factor—a measure of efficiency—of more than 90 percent for the past decade, including 91 percent last year.
“During the past 30 years, both the industry and our regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have faced the challenge (of improving their focus on issues most important to safety) numerous times, and by working through the issues thoughtfully, we have honed nuclear plant performance to an extraordinary level,” Fertel said.
Since 1990, increases in efficiency, coupled with electric generating capacity “uprates” and the restart of Browns Ferry 1 in 2005 have resulted in adding the equivalent of 29 large reactors to America’s electric grid.
Fertel emphasized that the U.S. nuclear industry’s success is based on a skilled and dedicated work force and a credible regulator in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC is conducting reviews of plant safety in light of the Japanese earthquake and will issue reports in 30, 60 and 90 days.
The nuclear industry conducted a similar review and has made immediate protective enhancements or is prioritizing enhancements within each facility’s “corrective action program.” Examples of items indentified in the industry’s review, Fertel said, are:
Enhancements will be implemented at U.S. reactors regardless of their status relative to license renewal, as well as at new plants when they are built, he said.
“The NRC explores safety issues as part of its continuous, independent oversight of all nuclear power plants, regardless of their license renewal status. The NRC’s continuous review process is more effective than a snapshot in time,” Fertel said.
Sixty-six of the nation’s 104 reactors have had their licenses extended for 20 years, and license renewal applications for 18 reactors are under NRC review.
Construction of advanced nuclear energy facilities will continue, although at a slower pace than originally forecasted some years ago due to the recession and the drop in natural gas prices. NEI expects four to eight new reactors to be operating from 2016 to 2020. But even under challenging economic conditions, the Energy Information Administration expects a 28-percent increase in electricity demand by 2035, the equivalent of adding 220 large power plants.
“Electricity is so reliable and so abundant in developed countries that we sometimes forget how much we depend on it,” Fertel said. “Electricity drives the economy, powers devices we rely on, such as lights, medical equipment, refrigeration, and the Blackberrys and iPads we didn’t know we needed but now can’t live without.”