Can a nuclear power plant be beautiful?

We are at an interesting crossroads in the nuclear industry. Just as experienced workers are retiring after 20, 30 or ever 40 years at our plants, the industry is ramping up to build new reactors. More than ever before, people are entering the nuclear workforce with fresh perspectives and a hopeful future.  

Known as “new to nuclear” employees, sometimes there is as much to unlearn as there is to learn. Meet one of our newest nuclear communication managers, Kelly Woods. She is part of the leadership team at Harris Nuclear Plant, responsible for internal communications, community outreach and the Harris Education Center. In this article, Kelly shares some of her initial perceptions about the Harris plant and how we make electricity using carbon-free nuclear energy 

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When I first noticed the local nuclear plant’s cooling tower, I thought it was a factory chimney spewing smokey pollution into the air, and I was dismayed. I had recently moved from Texas to central North Carolina, and it was Duke Energy’s Harris Nuclear Plant that I was seeing from a distance across picturesque Jordan Lake. A friend soon corrected me and told me that it was only water vapor – not pollution at all – and I was relieved.  

She said, “It’s a cloud maker!” 

You may remember from elementary science class that clouds are made when water vapor evaporates into the air. When air rises in the atmosphere it gets cooler and is under less pressure, so some of the water vapor condenses. The vapor becomes small water droplets, and a cloud is formed. Not all nuclear plants use towers to cool steam back to water – some use bodies of water, such as a engineered lake or a river. 

Since I had never lived near a nuclear plant before, I had not really given nuclear energy much thought. Like a lot of people, I just imagined electricity happened by elfin magic.  

A brief time later, I was hired as the site communicator at Harris Nuclear Plant. The site communicator helps keep plant employees informed and shares the value of nuclear energy with the local community. 

I now understand that 24/7, 365 days a year, rain or shine, nuclear is powering America’s clean energy future. It does so no matter what is happening outside—regardless of rain, snow or weather. 

How is electricity made, anyway? 

Like everything else, electricity is made up of atoms. Nuclear energy comes from the energy in the core of an atom after it is split in a process called “fission” to create energy. Atoms of enriched uranium are split when they are hit by a neutron, releasing heat and more neutrons. And the process repeats itself all over again in a chain reaction. The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) | NRC.gov.  

Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR), like at Harris Nuclear Plant keep water under pressure so that it heats, but does not boil. Water from the reactor and the water in the steam generator that is turned into steam never mix. The heat produces steam which is then used to generate electricity that is sent out to a switchyard connected to transmission lines. These lines travel across the land to deliver the electricity that we use to power the technology and appliances that make life more convenient…even lifesaving. 

A chance to enter an idle cooling tower 

Our plant was recently briefly shut down for a scheduled refueling outage which happens every couple of years. During a refueling outage, a portion of the nuclear reactor’s fuel is replaced along with preventive maintenance of plant equipment. The inside of the cooling tower also gets its own maintenance to clean any algae that has accumulated during operation. 

I took the opportunity to go inside the 523-foot-tall cooling tower and take photos. Looking up into the hole of the cooling tower, seeing the blue sky and white clouds reminded me of the hole – the oculusin the coffered concrete ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome. I found it to be awe-inspiring and so beautiful. I think about the strong, brave people who constructed both buildings and can sense their kinship across the ages. 

cooling tower
The view from inside the cooling tower at Harris Nuclear Plant. This view is only accessible every couple of years when the plant is shut down for a refueling outage.
Pantheon
The view from inside the Pantheon in Rome is like the opening in our cooling tower.

 

Nuclear provides clean, reliable and secure energy we can count on for our energy future and independence. 

 

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