Nuclear operations allow habitat for plants and animals to thrive

Duke Energy nuclear stations operate safely with the top priority every day the protection of the public, employees and the environment. With a relatively small footprint, nuclear plants help to create a thriving environment for the plants and animals around them. In fact, protecting the environment is a core part of business in the nuclear industry and at Duke Energy.  

By their very design, nuclear plants generate no carbon emissions, allowing for millions of watts to be generated without any pollution to the earth’s ozone. Nuclear is one of several clean energy sources — hydropower, geothermal, wind and solar — that work together to reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and improve the air we breathe. However, unlike those sources, nuclear energy produces more clean electricity than all other sources combined. Every year, the U.S. nuclear fleet saves our atmosphere hundreds of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.  

Because of the efficiency of nuclear energy, our plants produce more electricity on less land than any other clean energy source. In fact, the Nuclear Energy Institute calculates that powering 750,000 homes requires only 1.3 square feet. Such a small footprint is another impressive environmental benefit.  

Nuclear plants have rigorous programs in place to ensure they have a negligible impact on the environment. In general, the highest radiological waste at a nuclear plant is its used nuclear fuel. At the end of a plant’s operating cycle – 18 to 24 months (about 2 years) – a portion of its fuel is removed. This fuel first sits in a used fuel pool, which is about the size of a tennis court. After some time, it is placed in concrete containers, called dry fuel storage. These canisters are all stored on-site at each nuclear facility. To put this into perspective, if all the nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear industry’s history was stored together, it would only cover a football field about 10 yards high.  

Plant workers also manage the less radioactive materials, such as protective clothing worn by workers, in certain plant areas. These items are carefully sorted and either cleaned for reuse or sent to what is called a low-level disposal site. In the United States, there are four commercial disposal facilities. Some of these sites accept materials from only certain locations, while others accept materials from all over the country. These sites are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and must meet safety standards.  



One other consideration for environmental impact is heat. Nuclear facilities use water in a closed system to cool down components in the plant. For some plants, this water comes from cooling towers. Other plants use water from nearby lakes and rivers. When this water is returned to the body of water it came from, it is warmer. Because of this, nuclear plants have specific temperature limits to avoid impact to the ecosystem. In some instances, plants will construct a canal to separate the warmer water from the larger body of water. As water travels down the canal, it cools down. Regular monitoring of discharge temperatures and water quality ensures no negative environmental impact.  

During normal nuclear power plant operations, gases and liquids are produced and some are released to the environment in a controlled manner. Though small, nuclear plants are required to carefully measure and report any release of gases or liquids to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which publishes detailed data by plant and by element released. As part of routine monitoring and testing, plant workers collect samples from fish, dairy farms, crops and groundwater wells that are independently tested in laboratories.  

While there are dedicated teams of employees that directly manage all these programs to protect the environment, every worker at a nuclear site shares this responsibility. Each worker on-site receives training on all aspects of environmental protection and understands the vital role they play in ensuring cleaner energy for our communities. In this way, you can say all nuclear professionals are environmentalists.  

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