Cover Story: Nuclear power revival?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - America's energy demands are shooting through the roof.  By 2030, the U.S. will need 20% more power.  Today, coal generates most of our electricity.  But a pellet of uranium about the size of a pencil eraser can create as power as a ton of coal.

For North and South Carolina, that means more nuclear plants fast.

Most newcomers probably don't know Charlotte lies in the shadows of two nuclear stations, one to our north and one to our south.  And right now there's a plan on the table to build a third plant about 50 miles southwest of Charlotte.

Is nuclear back in vogue?

It's an exercise they have to go through every two years.

Inside a command center at Duke Energy headquarters in uptown, officials from the utility along with federal, state and local government officials practice how they would respond in an emergency at Duke's Catawba Nuclear Station south of Charlotte in northern York county.

Duke Energy's Tim Pettit says, "Having an emergency plan is a good idea at home. It's certainly a good idea at a commercial nuclear facility."

Nuclear took a hit 31 years ago this month.  At Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a partial core meltdown released radioactive gasses into the air.  No one was killed, but it put a chill on nukes.

Plans to build more plants were put on the shelf including a Duke Power site that was mothballed in Cherokee county, South Carolina near Gaffney.

"We are announcing roughly $8 billion in loan guarantees to break ground on the first new nuclear plant in our country in nearly three decades," said President Obama at an event last month.

It came up in the presidential campaign, at the time of $4 a gallon gas.  Now there are promises being made to resuscitate the nuclear industry.

While nuclear plants dot the country none's been built since the mid 80s.

And with the population growing and computers, electronics and even plug in cars on the horizon, the Department of Energy estimates by the year 2030 the U.S. will need 20% more power.

Coal, most would agree, is too dirty.  Wind and solar many believe can't produce enough power, which leaves us nuclear.

It's why Duke Energy and other utilities want to begin building again.  Duke is seeking a license for a facility it's naming in honor of the late Bill Lee, near Gaffney where it planned to build a nuclear station decades ago.

Says Duke's Tim Pettit, "We're taking a much more standardized approach to building these plants.. much like the French.. so there's much greater certainty overall with building these plants. So we believe we will be very successful this time around as a whole in the U.S."

France gets 80% of its power from nuclear, the United States just 20%.

There are still hurdles.  Nuclear power plants are expensive.  Duke's Lee plant could cost upwards of $9 billion.  And there is still a stigma associated with nuclear.

But as Congress grapples over what to do about climate change, nuclear is something we're going to be hearing a lot more about in the future.

What's the timetable for Duke if it gets approval to build?

The utility should hear back from the federal government on whether it'll be granted a license in about two years.  Building the plant would take about 5 years.. so you're looking at the earliest about 2018.

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