|Fig. 1: Brunswick Nuclear Plant (Source: Wikimedia Commons)|
With tensions between the United States, North Korea, Iran, and Russia running high due to the threat of nuclear weapons, "nuclear" has become a dirty word. But in many places around the globe, including here in the United States, nuclear power is an incredibly important source of energy. This rings true in my home state of North Carolina. Though most people conjure up images of coal when they hear Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states mentioned in the same breath as energy--which isn't too unsurprising given the prevalence of the coal industry in West Virginia--coal is far from the only source of power in the region. Indeed, in North Carolina alone, the Energy Information Administration estimated in 2010 that 31.7% of total energy output was attributable to nuclear power. 
There are currently five operating nuclear reactors in North Carolina: Brunswick Unit 1, Brunswick Unit 2, McGuire Unit 1, McGuire Unit 2, and the Shearon Harris Unit.  The Shearon Harris plant is the most well-known one because of its close proximity to Raleigh, the state's capital; only 22 miles to the southwest, many people live close by. Though it took sixteen long years to construct, the plant eventually opened in 1987 and has been generating power for both North and South Carolina ever since.  The Brunswick plant, which is located near the coastal city of Southport, has been operating for slightly longer than the Harris unit. As Brian Chaffin notes, it is the state's largest plant.  The two Brunswick units are shown to the right in Figure 1. And finally, like the Brunswick plant, the McGuire plant has two units; located outside of Charlotte, the state's largest metropolitan area, these units provide critical energy to millions of people. 
|Table 1: Spent fuel stored in pools and dry casks for each reactor in North Carolina, as of the end of 2011.  The Harris plant has additional pools that store spent fuel from other reactors.|
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is the federal agency that regulates civilian nuclear activity in the United States, has noted several safety issues at the five nuclear power plants in NC; however, the agency has no strategy to fix them. State officials, unfortunately, have no power to actually change anything: that power is reserved only for federal authorities. 
Currently, far too much of NC's nuclear waste - 85% - is being stored in pools rather than dry casks. Each nuclear reactor would be much safer if more of its waste was stored dry. Table 1, located above, shows how much waste at each NC plant is stored in pools vs. dry casks.  As noted, North Carolina has over three thousand metric tonnes of nuclear waste that is still too radioactive to be stored in dry casks. This number is terrifying when one considers the deadly effects that fuel waste can have on the human body.
In addition, there are significant fire hazards at multiple plants; neither the Brunswick nor McGuire plants are in compliance with federal fire standards. This is especially dangerous, since a fire outbreak could destroy critical systems, as well as their backups, which prevent radiation from seeping out of the reactors. 
Fortunately, as long as the federal authorities cooperate, finding a solution for these issues is not too difficult. There are multiple fire codes in existence that have been found to reduce accidents, and moving waste from pools to dry casks is certainly possible once the waste cools. If the NRC ensures that these regulations are followed, the risk associated with these NC power plants would diminish drastically. Because state officials cannot compel reactor operators to do anything, these orders must come from the NRC itself; however, once the federal officials decide to act, compliance will be swift. 
© Andrew Ziperski. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
 "State Nuclear Profiles 2010," U.S. Energy Information Administration, April 2012, p. 34.
 "Nuclear Power Safety in North Carolina," Union of Concerned Scientists, May 2012.
 "Harris Nuclear Plant," Progress Energy, October 2006.
 B. Chaffin, "North Carolina Nuclear," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.