BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Unlike the infamous headlines Duke Energy has faced for its coal-ash issues over several years, the Charlotte-based utility’s nuclear fleet has garnered less interest. But with an ambitious goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, Duke’s 11 nuclear-powered units at six plants in both North and South Carolina are in the news as the company announces it will pursue license renewals.
It will file its first application in 2021 for its largest Oconee Nuclear Station. Thereafter, it will follow suit with the McGuire Nuclear Station, Catawba Nuclear Station, Harris Nuclear Plant, Robinson Nuclear Plant and Brunswick Nuclear Plant.
Altogether, the operations produce over 10,000 megawatts and power electricity for half of its Carolina customers.
“These plants generate clean and cost-effective power, provide thousands of well-paying jobs and produce substantial economic benefits for the Carolina,” Duke Energy officials stated in a news release on the future of its nuclear operations.
The decision by Duke to extend the life of its aging nuclear fleet hits home in southeastern N.C. The Southport plant operates two reactors that power the Wilmington area’s electric grid. As the largest private employer in Brunswick County, it also powers the economy with 1,000-plus well-paying jobs.
The two reactors at the 1,200-acre plant produce 1,870-megawatts with minimal pollution. In comparison, the fairly new natural-gas-fueled Sutton Plant, just north of Wilmington, produces 625-megawatts and still emits pollution, though much less than its coal-powered predecessor.
The Brunswick Plant has two reactors — the first unit’s license expires in 2034 and the second in 2036.
The nuclear-fueled power stations produce more than electricity. In 2018, Duke paid more than $300 million in property and payroll taxes associated with the nuclear stations.
As Duke Energy and other utilities push toward zero net carbon emissions, nuclear is expected to play a big role. About 20% of America’s electricity comes from nuclear energy, but the balance between the clean-energy alternative and the risk associated with it — such as radioactive waste — remains a hurdle for an expansion of nuclear power in the United States.
The license renewal process can take up to five years.
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