Inside “NCIS: Los Angeles”: Nuclear myths and truths

If you watched the Jan. 4 episode of “NCIS: Los Angeles,” you got an inside look at a decommissioned nuclear energy facility. Well, sort of. The team investigates the radiation poisoning of a sergeant moonlighting as a security officer at a fictional decommissioned nuclear plant. And, while the popular CBS show accurately portrayed many details about nuclear energy, it took a few liberties to further its storyline. Here’s the truth about some of the nuclear myths spotted in this season’s 21st episode.

Working at a nuclear energy facility is safe and rewarding. Many scenes in this episode portray the fictional Santa Flora Nuclear Plant as a hazardous work environment with less than enthusiastic employees. For example, Callen suggests the security officer lied to his wife about the fact he was working at a decommissioned nuclear plant so she wouldn’t worry. Additionally, Hanna requests fast food rather than eating at the plant’s cafeteria saying “I prefer food that doesn’t glow in the dark.”

Duke Energy employee at Catawba Nuclear Station

Duke Energy employee at Catawba Nuclear Station

While these details may make the plot more interesting, the truth is, nuclear plants are among the safest and most secure industrial facilities in the United States. Cafeteria food at nuclear sites does not glow in the dark and radiation is limited to specific areas of a nuclear site only accessed by highly trained workers.

In addition, nuclear energy facilities support local economies by offering a variety of interesting careers with competitive salaries. In fact, nuclear is the largest job creator of any power source. Duke Energy’s nuclear fleet alone employs nearly 7,000 people in the Carolinas.

Decommissioned nuclear plants are actively monitored. The episode plays off the common misconception that safety and security is relaxed at decommissioned nuclear plants. Disgruntled employee, Dr. Leo Chadmont, explains his concerns about the fictional plant’s problems to Callen and Hanna: “We’re decommissioned, which means the water chemistry is never checked, tubes can rust, safety and contingency plans have been relaxed, cooling and back-up systems are never tested.”

Duke Energy's Crystal River Nuclear Plant

Duke Energy’s Crystal River Nuclear Plant

Chadmont’s depiction of the decommissioned plant, however, could not be further from the truth. Take, for example, Duke Energy’s Crystal River Nuclear Plant (CR3), which announced its retirement in 2013. Safety remains the plant’s top priority and CR3’s comprehensive emergency plans and around-the-clock security force remain in place. Radiological and environmental monitoring programs also continue during the entire decommissioning process.

Nuclear power plants responsibly manage used fuel. The climax of the show hinges around an explosion that threatens to drain water out of the plant’s used fuel pool, thus causing the fuel rods to melt. The lack of security and convenient access to the used fuel pools create a dramatic scenario found only on television.

In reality, not only does substantial security limit access to used fuel pools, but the pools themselves are constructed with several feet of steel-lined, reinforced concrete designed to withstand extreme force. The design and other safety measures would mitigate any effects of the unlikely actions seen in the show.

Although the real everyday operation of nuclear facilities is not dramatic, it’s certainly important. After all, without reliable, 24-7 power, how would you catch the next NCIS episode?

Nuclear: A Clean Air Energy Leader

If you were to guess which low-carbon energy source produces the most electricity in the U.S., what would you choose? Hydropower? Solar? That’s one of the questions the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) asked the public this fall.

The NEI opinion poll revealed that 85 percent agree “we should take advantage of all low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear, hydro, and renewable energy, to produce the electricity we need while limiting greenhouse gas emissions.” However, most of those polled (70 percent) were unaware that nuclear power plants produce the most clean air electricity in the U.S.

Nuclear power plants provide the majority of low-carbon electricity in the U.S.

Nuclear power plants provide the majority of low-carbon electricity in the U.S.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), nuclear energy generated about 63 percent of our country’s low-carbon electricity in 2014. But, not everyone knows this, despite the fact Americans say clean air is one of the most important considerations when it comes to electricity generation.

Like renewables, nuclear power plants produce no carbon emissions when they generate electricity. This is particularly important in states like South Carolina, where nuclear provides more than half the state’s electricity. Independent studies from organizations like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show that nuclear energy’s life-cycle carbon emissions are comparable to renewable energy sources, too. Life-cycle assessments take into account construction, mining, processing and disposal of fuel, routine operation and facility decommissioning.

Nuclear energy also has the advantage of being the only low-carbon power source capable of generating electricity 24 hours a day, every day of the year. As former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham recently explained at a Nuclear Matters event in South Carolina, the state’s nuclear energy plants “are critical for ensuring dependable electricity service for consumers.” Secretary Abraham also emphasized nuclear energy’s importance in reaching carbon reduction goals in the Carolinas noting that it’s “reliable, efficient and not intermittent.” Nuclear plants, therefore, help provide the power we need without the air emissions we don’t need.

All sources of low-carbon electricity are important for a clean and reliable energy future. As Duke Energy continues to invest in renewable energy, our nuclear plants remain an important part of our diverse mix of energy sources to provide increasingly clean electricity for our customers.

That’s a wrap: Nuclear Science Week by the numbers

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While Duke Energy supports its nuclear plant neighbors in a variety of ways, Nuclear Science Week provides a special opportunity for employees to inform others about their work and share their enthusiasm for nuclear energy. This year, volunteers reached out to more than 1,800 students and … Continue reading