What scares you? Heights? Spiders? Small spaces? We're often afraid of things we don't know much about and nuclear energy may be on this list. Since nuclear plants are highly secured, many people don't have a chance to visit a plant and learn how it works. They only know what they see in movies or hear about second-hand. And, that can be scary. Fortunately, nuclear energy is nothing to be afraid of. With Halloween right around the corner, we're dispelling four myths that make nuclear energy seem scary.
Myth 1: Nuclear plants are run by “mad scientists.” If you’ve seen shows like “NCIS LA” or the Season 4 finale of PBS’s “Endeavour,” you may have a less than favorable impression of the people who work at a nuclear power plant. The truth is, nuclear workers are normal people – maybe even someone you know – usually living in the communities around the plant where they work. In any given month, you may see our nuclear workers giving back to their communities by informing local students and helping those in need.
From operators to chemists, engineers and security officers, our Carolinas nuclear plants employ more than 6,000 skilled men and women from many areas of expertise. They’re highly trained, too. Nuclear reactor operators, for example, spend more than 240 hours a year in continuing training, in addition to passing rigorous exams on an on-going basis. Our nuclear workers use their skills, expertise and training to produce electricity around-the-clock so we have the power we need, when we need it.
Myth 2: Nuclear plants are creepy. Decommissioned nuclear plants sometimes form the backdrop of shows and movies, often depicted as dimly lit, deserted and mysterious. But, in many ways, nuclear plants work like a coal or natural gas plant using fuel to turn water into steam that turns a turbine and ultimately a generator. The primary difference is that nuclear plants fission or split uranium atoms to generate steam, rather than burning fuel.
Because of their unique fuel source, nuclear plants are highly secured with multiple physical barriers and experienced security officers, which can make them intimidating places. However, most of Duke Energy’s nuclear plants have energy education centers where visitors can learn how the plant works. In fact, our nuclear plants host thousands of people for on-site events and presentations each year.
Myth 3: Nuclear fuel is dangerous green slime. Contrary to what you may have seen on “The Simpsons,” nuclear fuel comes in the form of solid uranium fuel pellets stacked inside sealed metal fuel rods. The pellets are ceramic so they can withstand very high temperatures. While the fuel in nuclear reactors does not have a “Simpsonian” green glow, it will produce a blue light under the right circumstances.
Once the fuel is “used” (no longer suitable for producing electricity), it’s cooled in enclosed, steel-lined, concrete pools under about 20 feet of water. Used fuel storage pools are designed – like the nuclear plants they are part of – to withstand extreme events such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes.
After seven to 10 years in these robust, secure pools, the used fuel is transferred to large, rugged steel and concrete containers called dry storage containers or dry casks. The containers are stored within the nuclear plant’s protected area and are continuously monitored, even though they are completely passive (require no pumps or fans to provide cooling).
Myth 4: Wildlife around nuclear plants are monsters. Some people worry that nuclear fuel leaks into the surrounding environment, impacting plants and wildlife. As previously mentioned, nuclear fuel is securely stored and continuously monitored. In fact, conservation efforts around our nuclear sites make them ideal places for wildlife to thrive.
Our nuclear plants physically create a small ecological footprint with little impact on their surroundings. The additional acres of land surrounding a plant provide a safe, ideal habitat for diverse and wide-ranging species of plants and animals to thrive. On any given day, you are likely to glimpse some form of wildlife at these locations – from woodland inhabitants such as deer and foxes, to bald eagles and sea turtles.
While entrance to a plant’s heavily guarded and secure, fenced-in properties is restricted, vast acreage of adjoining and associated land is preserved and open for public use and recreation. This open space allows the land to be shared with nature and outdoor enthusiasts as a destination for camping, hiking, fishing, boating, water sports and mountain biking, among many other outdoor activities.