Mainers should develop a strategy to capitalize on our assets and determine how they can be used to stimulate the state’s economy and generate good-paying jobs. I believe nuclear energy can be an important part of that strategy.
We had the right idea when Maine Yankee began operating in 1972. It generated electricity for 25 years before it closed prematurely. If you compared Wiscasset, a thriving community when Maine Yankee was operating, to the economically stressed place it has become, there would be plenty of evidence of the huge economic benefits that a nuclear plant provides. The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that each of the nation’s nuclear plants pays approximately $40 million per year in wages and generates $470 million annually in sales of goods and services in the local community.
In the years since Maine Yankee shuttered, there have been many technical advances in the design and operation of nuclear plants. We also now know that nuclear energy’s carbon-free electricity is an essential part of the solution to address climate change.
When Maine Yankee was designed and constructed, engineers still were using slide rules, typewriters and pencil on Mylar drawings to perform the calculations and prepare the documents that led to the remarkable achievement of harnessing the power of the atom for the benefit of humankind. Today, the tools available to engineers coupled with the wealth of knowledge garnered from years of outstanding nuclear operation in the United States allows engineers to conceive of reactor designs that were unimaginable years ago.
Four large capacity advanced nuclear units are under construction in the southeastern United States. They are pressurized water reactors that do not rely on active components to shut down and keep the reactor in a safe operating mode, qualifying as “passively safe” reactors.
Another innovation conceived by the current generation of engineers is the commercialization of smaller so-called modular reactors. The concept is to assemble modules manufactured at offsite locations and transport them to nuclear sites for assembly. These units are smaller in size and output. NuScale, a start-up established by a group of nuclear engineers at Oregon State University, recently asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to certify the safety of its design for a 50-megawatt reactor. After the first module begins operating, a utility could order a second or third module as the need for more electricity arises. As many as 12 modules could be placed in a cluster to generate 600 megawatts of electricity. With this phased approach, nuclear energy would be more affordable because less up-front capital would be needed for construction.
At least 20 other nuclear companies are developing advanced designs. Among them is TerraPower founded by a group of visionaries led by Bill Gates. They believed “business interests could develop a scalable, sustainable, environmentally friendly, and cost-competitive energy source that would allow all nations to quicken their pace of economic development and reduce poverty.” Maine has the characteristics to make a case to be part of that vision.
A group of engineers, economists and local business people should be designated to assess whether the Legislature should put in place policies that promote the role of nuclear technology in our economy.
I believe that developing nuclear energy in Maine has the potential to not only contribute to a noble vision but also to boost our economy by attracting industries that provide an opportunity for our youngsters to be gainfully employed and fulfilled near the communities where they grew up.
John Tuohy Jr. earned a bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering at Manhattan College in New York and a master’s in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He lives in Bridgton.