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BY JENNAH DENNEY

The top priorities of Iowa’s electric cooperatives are providing reliable and affordable electricity to our member-consumers. To meet the growing energy needs of our local communities, we continually explore innovative solutions. With advancements in technology and safety measures, nuclear offers potential for sustainable electricity generation.

The current state of nuclear power generation

Nuclear energy, often overshadowed by solar and wind energy, provides a reliable source of power that can be generated at any time. Over the past two decades, nuclear power has reliably and economically contributed nearly 20% of electrical generation in the U.S. It remains the single largest contributor – accounting for more than 70% – of non-greenhouse gas-emitting power generation in the country.

Nuclear energy currently accounts for about 15% of the electricity delivered by electric cooperatives, and more than two-thirds of all co-ops include a percentage of nuclear energy in their local fuel mix.

There are 92 nuclear reactors operating in the U.S., and nuclear energy has been powering the nation’s grid for the past six decades.

Current and developing nuclear technologies

Light water reactor technologies, known as LWRs, comprise the existing U.S. nuclear fleet and have a remarkable safety and performance record. An example is the Vogtle Unit 3, which commenced commercial operations in the summer of 2023. It is the first newly constructed nuclear unit in more than 30 years, can power an estimated 500,000 homes and businesses, and is currently the nation’s largest generator of clean energy. The project created numerous jobs during its construction phase and laid the foundation for future Small Modular Reactor (SMR) deployments across the country.

SMRs are seen as a promising alternative to traditional large-scale nuclear power plants, offering shorter construction times and increased safety. They can be easily transported and located in areas that wouldn’t support a full-scale nuclear plant, providing greater flexibility in energy production.

In addition to SMRs, some companies are developing microreactors, a Generation IV technology that is 100 to 1,000 times smaller than conventional nuclear reactors. A microreactor can operate as part of the electric grid, independently from the grid, or as part of a microgrid, providing heat for industrial applications. Most microreactors can be transported and hauled by a tractor-trailer.

Understanding the pros and cons

Like any other power source, nuclear energy has its pros and cons. The most significant benefit is that nuclear power plants are a carbon-free source of electricity, emitting no greenhouse gases. Additionally, these plants provide a reliable source of power, especially during extreme weather conditions. They operate continuously and have a relatively small physical footprint compared to other forms of energy generation. Nuclear plants in the U.S. have the highest maximum capacity for power output, at 92%. Compare that to 49% for natural gas, 44% for coal, 34% for wind and 24% for solar.

Safety has always been a concern in the nuclear energy sector. Generation III+ nuclear reactor designs, like the Vogtle Unit 3, include safety features that do not require sustained operator action or electronic feedback to shut down the plant safely in an emergency. These enhanced designs are more resilient to accidents and have a reduced environmental impact. By prioritizing safety, nuclear energy can be harnessed responsibly without compromising public well-being.

As electric cooperatives look ahead to long-term energy solutions, embracing innovation will play a key role in empowering local communities and providing our members with reliable and affordable electricity.

Jennah Denney writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing nearly 900 local electric cooperatives.

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