Resources: Georgia Institute of Technology

For the first time since 1978, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the construction of two nuclear plants. The $14 billion plants, Vogtle 3 and 4, will be built next to two already operating reactors, Vogtle 1 and 2. They are just outside Augusta, Ga., and will be operated by the Atlanta-based Southern Co. When they go online in 2016-17, they will account for an estimated 10% of Georgia’s electricity and remain in operation for 50 to 70 years.

“It’s smart to continue generating nuclear power in the U.S.,” says Marilyn Brown, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy, as well as a board member of the Tennessee Valley Authority and chair of TVA’s Nuclear Oversight Committee. “Nuclear power is a reliable, cost-competitive option that doesn’t contribute to air pollution or greenhouse-gas emissions.”

The new plant is not without risks, but it does have a passive safety design, unlike the Fukushima power plant in Japan that was struck by an earthquake and a tsunami. That plant ran into serious problems when its emergency cooling was shut down after its off-site electrical power source was destroyed by flood waters. Each of the two new plants will have a convection-cooling loop that is gravity powered and can run for days without power.

The plants will also store nuclear waste on site in steel casks protected by concrete and other safety devices, just like it’s done at the other 104 nuclear plants in the U.S. Eventually the casks might be sent to a centralized containment center.

“But most nations recycle used nuclear fuel because 95% of it can be reused in the reactor, making nuclear power the most ‘green’ energy source out there,” says Glenn Sjopden, Georgia Tech professor of nuclear and radiological engineering.

Currently, the U. S. gets 20% of its electricity from nuclear power, another 25% from natural gas, 50% from coal, and the rest from hydropower, wind, solar, and geothermal.

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.