Arkansas Nuclear One, a few miles northwest of Russellville, is among 61 commercial nuclear power facilities in the U.S. operating ninety-nine nuclear fission reactors. Constructed in the late 1970s and currently owned by Entergy, Arkansas Nuclear One operates two pressurized light water reactors with the capacity to generate 1,776 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 355,000 homes and businesses.
The reactors are cooled by water drawn from Lake Dardanelle. Thick white steam rising from the power plant's iconic six-story hyperbolic cement tower is visible for miles. Locals, Russellville Mayor Randy Horton says, divine weather conditions from the plume.
“In the old days, we would drive to the base of the cooling towers and fish in the hot water discharge stream. It never was threatening, never been scary.”
Horton says the power plant is a good neighbor, providing jobs--and lots of clean safe energy.
"It's really safe," he says. "My mom lives just one mile away."
Arkansas Nuclear One, like all U.S. nuclear facilities, are exclusion zones, off-limits to the public, monitored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Multiple requests for a media tour were denied. But Horton says lots of locals work inside the plant, being the third largest employer in the region. And during annual maintenance and refueling cycles, Horton says, Russellville is booked with more than a thousand contract workers who boost the local economy patronizing the city's motels and restaurants.
“Locals call it ‘nuclear traffic,’” Horton says, when employees and contractors stream into and out of the thousand-acre nuclear power campus.
Two years ago, two dozen inspectors from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission also showed up. They came to examine the facility, then ranked the worst in the nation, after a crane, two years earlier, hoisting a 1 million-pound generator component collapsed, killing one worker, injury eight others, and rupturing a water pipe resulting in a four-month shut-down of both reactors. Flood protection at the plant was also flawed, according to commission quarterly performance records.
“Entergy operates an emergency siren,” Horton says, “and we do routine emergency management training and drills. But as far as I know there’s never been any radiation leaks. It’s not a ticking time bomb as some people think. In fact, the facility is licensed to accommodate two more reactors on site.”
When nuclear energy power plants were first being built in the 1960s, experts believed average operating lifespans to be no more than 40 years. Arkansas Nuclear One, built in 1974, was scheduled to be shut down, decommissed in 2014. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which maintains oversight of U.S. nuclear power installations, has licensed Arkansas Nuclear One's reactors to operate for 20 more years.
Currently, 17 U.S. nuclear power plants are undergoing decommissioning by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But Gary Kahanak, an Arkansas pro-nuclear energy activist, hopes more nuclear power plants remain operational, like Arkansas Nuclear One.
“Nuclear is the safest major form of energy per power produced, in terms of deaths per terawatt-hour.”
Kahanak is referring to mortality rates traced to energy production and resource development, comparing coal and biomass emissions and minerals mining accidents, where rates are higher, to nuclear energy production which some, but not all, rank much lower. A residential energy-efficiency expert based in Fayetteville, Kahanak travels the state crunching nuclear power numbers for activist groups. But changing minds has proved challenging, he says.
“When I am in a crowd of folks my age, in their 60s, who grew up hiding under their desks during air raid drills, a lot of those folks say everything nuclear is bad, which is a carryover of the Cold War.”
Kahanak concedes solar and wind energy is crucial to reduce Earth's atmospheric carbon loading, but solar panels and wind mills eventually degrade, he says. Nuclear plants, he says, are built to generate power for generations, more safely than coal and methane which emit toxic particulate and greenhouse gas.
“Nuclear power plants are not given any credit for producing clean zero-emission power,” Kahanak says.
Last autumn, Kahanak traveled to Chicago to march in a pro-nuclear energy demonstration staged by the west-coast organization, Environmental Progress which seeks to maintain and grow the U.S. nuclear energy complex.
“I think every American should be proud of the U.S. nuclear fleet and operating history in this country,” says John Keeley, senior media relations manager for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry's trade group.
Keeley says consumers are unaware that nuclear power, which generates 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, represents 60 percent of America’s zero-carbon energy production. And, he says, reliable electrical output from nuclear power plants is significant.
“We generate steam in fairly complex fashion but it’s a very reliable and safe way to turn a turbine and produce a massive amount of electricity.”
John Keeley says the Trump administration has yet to overtly support nuclear power. But the administration did recently release a preliminary budget request to Congress to devote significant resources to restart and finish licensing for Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a proposed underground burial site for more than 70,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste, currently stockpiled on power and weapons plant sites across the nation, including in Arkansas. The Trump administration requested $120 million dollars to restart the planning process to build a centralized nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, signaling, experts believe, an interest in future nuclear power deployment.
Congress is also considering HR590, the “Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act of 2017,” to restart research on less expensive and unconventional nuclear energy systems, ranging from small modular fission reactors to nuclear fusion. (Nuclear fission splits uranium or plutonium atoms while fusion, the reaction that powers our sun, combines atoms).
“Just yesterday," John Keeley says, "the Nuclear Regulatory Commission docketed the first ever design application for small modular reactors,” under development by NuScale, headquartered in Portland, Oregon.
Keeley says a glut of cheap natural gas used to replace dirty coal fuel has impeded U.S. nuclear energy development. But over the past five years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued licenses to construct four new reactors in South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee which NEI reports will produce nearly 6,000MW of low-carbon electricity to power 10 mid-sized cities.
Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, is an expert on nuclear power safety as well as nuclear terrorism and proliferation.
“Nuclear energy can pose serious safety risks to the general public,” Lyman says, pointing to the 2011 tsunami natural disaster that destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility on the northeastern coast of Japan.
“Fukushima is estimated to cost $200 billion dollars in compensation for evacuees, as well for decontamination and decommissioning,” Lyman says. While no radiation-related deaths occurred from the Fukushima accident, he says, several thousand cancer deaths are anticipated.
The worst nuclear accident in history occurred at the Chernobyl, Ukraine power station in 1986. It killed 47 workers and exposed more than 600,000 residents to atmospheric radiation.
“Chernobyl is projected to result in probably 30,000 thousand cancer deaths or more, and it has already resulted in 6,000 thyroid cancers among children,” Lyman says. “So there’s no question that nuclear power plant accidents cause significant harm to public health and to the economy.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists as well as Citizens Climate Lobby, a leading national non-profit grassroots organization focused on national policies to address climate change, do not advocate for or against nuclear energy. But Citizens Climate Lobby expects the low-carbon energy marketplace will, in the end, decide whether nuclear energy will be a viable player in the post-carbon fuel era.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.