The summer is a high-demand period for electricity not only here in the United States, but also in Japan. Public utilities across the globe are fully operational trying to make sure they can provide enough power to their customers and keep them cool.
This past week, nuclear power fired up again in Japan’s energy mix after a safety moratorium following its national disaster. The Ohi plant fired up its No. 3 reactor in western Japan after it passed structural and safety inspections.
Nuclear power plants are synonymous in their purpose to other electricity-generating facilities that burn coal, oil or natural gas. The major difference is that nuclear power plants do not burn their energy source, but produce electricity by boiling water into steam. A process called fission boils the water and produces steam; uranium is placed in pellets cased in ceramic material and other elements, creating a nuclear reaction.
Generally, there are two types of water-based plants in the United States: boiling reactors and pressurized water reactors. The boiling reactors are those in which the uranium rods or pellets are submerged in water to create steam that ultimately drives turbines to generate electricity. Pressurized water reactors prevent the water from boiling in response to the nuclear reaction, and transfer that water to another vat of water, where it then boils to generate steam that likewise turns the turbine.
It is estimated that there are 440 operational nuclear power plants in the world. Before the crisis in Japan, it was expected that there would be an additional 158 ordered or planned, with another 326 proposed, in late March of 2010. An estimated 14 percent of the world’s electricity generation comes from nuclear power.
France generates the most electricity from nuclear power at an estimated 78.5 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear power. China generates the least, at its last reported estimate in 2006, with just under 2 percent of its load coming from nuclear power. Size, population and other geographic factors play a role in determining the proportion of the cocktail of electricity generation relative to the entire demand.
The nuclear energy industry has been forced to undergo enormous scrutiny and subject itself to enormous re-evaluation following the crisis in Japan. However, nuclear power generation is a methodology that is growing in its prevalence and many countries, particularly those described as developing, are turning to nuclear power. For many countries like Japan, it is seen as the only viable energy source. Especially for countries otherwise constrained by limited natural resources, it has the ability to provide power with enormous capacity to big population centers. Stay tuned.
Jim Roth, a former Oklahoma corporation commissioner, is an attorney with Phillips Murrah P.C. in Oklahoma City, where his practice focuses on clean, green energy for Oklahoma.