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Keep the Surry nuclear power station operational

Dominion Virginia Power says it plans to seek permission from federal regulators to operate both reactors at its Surry nuclear plant for another 20 years. If approved, this would be the second time the Surry units would have their operating licenses renewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And it would mark the first time in America that an electricity company would be allowed to operate a nuclear plant for a total of 80 years.

Without doubt, opponents of nuclear power will do their best to ensure this doesn’t happen. Many argue that renewable energy sources and improvements in energy efficiency alone can meet Virginia’s future energy needs. But that’s wishful thinking, based more on hope than reality. Despite federal tax credits and other incentives, solar and wind power supply less than 1 percent of Virginia’s electricity. In contrast, nuclear energy is now Virginia’s No. 1 source of electric power, accounting for 39.1 percent of the state’s power supply, a larger share than either coal or natural gas, each of which provide about 27 percent.

Thanks to a move toward cleaner sources of energy, along with emissions controls, Virginia’s air quality has greatly improved over the years. Acid rain and smog are no longer the problems they once were. And the state’s electrical energy sector is now on the path to meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s target of reducing carbon emissions over the next decade to a level of at least 32 percent below what they were in 2005.

But there’s been little celebration or even mention of this accomplishment. That’s because reductions in emissions of air pollutants and carbon dioxide have been achieved largely through increased use of natural gas for electricity generation and the greatly improved performance of the Surry and North Anna nuclear plants. Over the past decade, the Surry and North Anna plants have supplied power about 90 percent of the time, among the highest capacity factors for nuclear plants in the country, according to the Energy Information Administration. This is zero-carbon energy.

Nationally, since 1990, increased operating efficiency at existing nuclear plants has been equivalent to adding 25 new, 1,000-megawatt reactors to the nation’s electricity grid.
Virginians are healthier as a result of improvements in air quality, and nuclear-generated electricity can share the credit, while giving consumers affordable power at the same time. One statistic might joggle the mind a bit: According to the Energy Information Administration, more than 22.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually are prevented by Virginia’s Surry and North Anna nuclear plants. That equals the amount that would be released in a year by more than 5 million passenger cars, more than all the registered cars in the state.

For all the hype they get, solar and wind energy cannot match nuclear power’s environmental record. And because renewable energy is intermittent — solar and wind produce only when the sun shines and the wind blows — the rest of the power plant fleet must compensate for this unpredictability. Power plants have to be kept running on standby as backup power to compensate for any unanticipated shortage of renewable energy. Nationally, solar arrays and wind turbines, on average, produce electricity 35 percent of the time.

In addition, wind power requires 360 times as much land area to produce the same amount of electricity as the Surry or North Anna nuclear plant, and solar requires 75 times the land. Indeed, compactness is a major nuclear advantage over renewables.

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