Frequently Asked Questions :  Nuclear Energy in Texas FAQs

How is nuclear energy used to generate electricity? Most electricity comes from essentially the same process but with different heat sources. Nuclear fission, or the burning of fossil fuels, heats water into hot steam. This steam is used to turn the blades of a turbine, which in turn rotate the shaft of an electrical generator. This turning causes a coil of wire inside the generator to spin in a magnetic field, which creates electricity.

Is nuclear energy a reliable source of electricity? Nuclear energy is proven to be a stable, reliable way to produce electricity for Texas and for the country. Texas’ two nuclear plants, South Texas Project and Comanche Peak, have been safe, consistent producers of inexpensive electricity for three decades. The nation’s 104 nuclear units supply about 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States. Power plant reliability is measured by capacity factor—the percentage of electricity actually produced, compared to the total potential electricity that the plant is capable of producing. The average capacity factor for U.S. nuclear plants was 89.9 percent in 2006, compared to coal at 71.1 percent, wind at 30.3 percent and solar at 18.8 percent. Plus, nuclear energy comes from an abundant supply of relatively low-cost uranium that is mined in countries that are friendly to the United States, such as Canada and Australia. Nuclear operations are not effected by changing weather conditions or the fluctuating price of Middle Eastern oil. Finally, nuclear energy can always be relied upon to produce electricity when it is needed the most, such as on the hottest days of summer. Solar and wind energy sources are notoriously unreliable when electricity demand peaks.

Nuclear energy does not contribute to global warming—how is that? Nuclear energy is a key tool in reducing greenhouse gases—it emits no greenhouse gas, including carbon dioxide. Life-cycle emissions from nuclear energy are comparable to other non-emitting sources of electricity, such as solar, wind, and hydropower. The volume of greenhouse gas emissions prevented through the operation of the nation’s 104 nuclear units is equivalent to taking 96 percent of all passenger cars off America’s highways for one year.

Why is nuclear energy so efficient? The United States nuclear industry produces about 88,932 megawatts of power each minute. It does so at the highest possible “capacity factor” in the world—this is a measure of the electricity actually produced by a source, compared to the total potential electricity that a plant is capable of producing. Nuclear fuel is so efficient that just five tiny pellets of uranium meet a household’s electricity needs for an entire year.

Why does Texas need more electricity generated with nuclear energy? The Lone Star State must have an energy mix in place that allows it to stay competitive as the needs for power are expected to grow 48 percent by 2030. Nuclear is a critical part of that mix for a variety of reasons; its safety, reliability and relatively low cost of producing electricity among them. Another key reason for Texas to look seriously at enhancing the amount of electricity it gets from nuclear energy is air quality: No other reliable source, capable of producing the amount of electricity that nuclear can produce, can do it emission free. Nuclear power puts no harmful greenhouse gases into the air.

How is used nuclear fuel handled? Is it safe? Currently, used nuclear fuel is safely stored on-site at all 104 U.S. commercial units. Used nuclear fuel cannot explode and does not burn. In the five decades since companies began producing electricity with nuclear energy in the United States, the nuclear industry has produced approximately 40,000 metric tons of used fuel, which would fit in an area the size of one football field to a depth of about 15 feet.

What is radiation? Radiation is energy in the form of particles of waves. There are many kinds of radiation, including acoustic, infrared, radar, microwave, ultraviolet and ionizing. Ionizing radiation is all around us, and it is used with nuclear technology in numerous beneficial ways.

Electro Magnetic Spectrum

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What about nuclear waste? Commercial nuclear energy plants produce a very small volume of waste, usually referred to as “used fuel” or “spent fuel.” Nuclear fuel, in the form of ceramic uranium pellets encased in metal rods, is very dense material and therefore very heavy. But by volume, there isn’t very much of it. All of the used nuclear fuel ever produced in America from all 104 nuclear energy plants would fit on a single football field to a depth of about 16 feet. In addition, all of the used fuel is numbered, inventoried and safely stored away from the environment, unlike waste from any other industry in the world. The nuclear industry treats its waste with this kind of care because it is highly radioactive and must be isolated from the environment. The small volume makes this possible and safe. Here’s another way to think about the relatively small amount of fuel waste produce by nuclear energy: If all of a person’s electricity consumption for his or her lifetime came only from nuclear power, the used fuel from that consumption would fit in a 12-ounce soda can.

Is nuclear energy heavily subsidized? Nuclear energy historically has been among the least subsidized energy sources in the United States. With its latest inclusion in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the industry now has the same incentives that wind and solar already had. The Energy Policy Act was passed to encourage the building of new nuclear facilities that do not produce greenhouse gas emissions and in recognition that it is in the best interest of national security to diversify our country’s energy supply.

What is ERCOT? The Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages the flow of electric power to approximately 20 million Texas customers—representing 85 percent of the state’s electric load and 75 percent of the Texas land area. As the independent system operator for the region, ERCOT directs and ensures reliable and cost-effective operation of the electric grid, which consists of 38,000 miles of transmission lines and more than 500 generation units, to enable fair and efficient market-driven solutions to meet customers’ electric service needs.

What is the Price Anderson Act? The main purpose of the Price-Anderson Act is to ensure the availability of a large pool of funds to provide prompt and orderly compensation to members of the public who might incur damages in the unlikely event of a nuclear or radiological incident, no matter who might be liable. Further, the Act is a consumer- and public-oriented legislation. It provides a substantial amount of insurance protection paid by the nuclear industry at no cost to the public or the government. The Act has removed the deterrent to private sector participation in nuclear activities presented by the threat of potential liability claims following a large nuclear accident. Each operator is required to have $300 million in primary insurance per nuclear unit, plus be able to commit an additional $10 billion in secondary insurance. Each company must prove annually that it is financially capable of producing this insurance should something happen to a nuclear unit. Beyond primary and secondary self-insurance, the Act allows Congress to decide if more compensation is needed, and who pays if it is needed.