Sixty years ago this month, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his historic “atoms for peace” speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations. In it, he introduced the nation and the world to his vision of the commercial use of atomic energy to produce electricity and lead America to greater prosperity.
On another December day four years later, our nation’s first commercial nuclear power plant came on line in Shippingport, Beaver County. This plant was designed and built by Westinghouse and became the cornerstone of a new era and a new industry — one that forever will be rooted in Western Pennsylvania.
Today, there are 100 nuclear power plants in the United States that together supply one-fifth of America’s electricity.
While much attention is given these days to natural gas from Marcellus shale in Western Pennsylvania, it’s worth remembering the profound impact that nuclear power has played — and will continue to play — in the quality of life of this region.
Not only was the first commercial pressurized water nuclear reactor built here, but the first industrial “atom smasher” was also invented and built here by Westinghouse in 1937, a milestone that led to the company becoming the world leader in commercial nuclear energy technology and later fulfilling President Eisenhower’s vision of its potential for civilian use. Additionally, in 1953 Westinghouse prototyped the engine that powered the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine.
In the decades since the atom smasher, Shippingport and the U.S.S. Nautilus came to be, tens of thousands of jobs have been created here in Western Pennsylvania as a direct result of nuclear power. Today, Westinghouse alone employs about 6,000 people in this region, with thousands more in other parts of the United States and around the world.
That doesn’t even include the thousands of jobs created in the construction of nuclear power plants, or the untold number of supplier and ancillary jobs created in the supply chain for such things as concrete, steel, electrical components and other materials.
The jobs in today’s nuclear power industry, by the way, pay annual salaries well above the national average of $45,000 and the per capita income for this region of $31,000.
Consider also that there were 138 fatalities in oil and natural gas drilling and 35 coal mining deaths in 2012, the lowest in history. Yet there has never been a single radiation-related fatality in the United States as a result of commercial nuclear power production. Not one. Even the accident resulting from the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake — which crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactors — did not result in a single radiation-related fatality. I challenge any industry to match that safety record.
The Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear plants that are being built around the world today feature more advanced technology and design that take safety to even higher levels. Construction is even at lower costs relative to the 1970s and 1980s, when most of today’s U.S. plants were built.
Furthermore, nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gases or other carbon-based environmental pollutants. In fact, many highly respected environmentalists are now convinced that embracing nuclear power is the surest path to meeting the world’s growing energy needs without contributing to the problem of global climate change.
So, by just about any measure, President Eisenhower’s bold vision of 1953 has become a reality.
The problem is that the United States has been slow to make the necessary policy decisions that will keep us from facing a critical shortfall in electricity supply in the coming years.
Coal-fired power plants and nuclear power plants together represent over 60 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. The U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that somewhere between 35 and 60 gigawatts of coal-fired plants will be shut down by 2018 because of low natural gas prices and rigorous enforcement of clean air standards.
The Shippingport plant was decommissioned in 1985 (although Beaver Valley Units 1 and 2 remain), and several nuclear plants that were built in that generation already have received extensions to their original 40-year operating licenses from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and will soon reach the end of their design life cycle. That means a sizable portion of domestic energy production will be gone and need to be replaced over the next 10 to 25 years.
So, 60 years after President Eisenhower called for the peaceful use of atomic energy, one thing is now certain — we need the power that the new generation of nuclear power plants can provide to meet the energy shortfall looming in the years ahead. Nuclear power is the only energy source that can safely meet this shortfall in a reliable and environmentally responsible manner.
The private sector and government policy makers alike must recognize that nuclear energy will have to be an essential cornerstone of any national energy policy and is the most certain solution for meeting our electricity needs now and well into the future.
Mark Marano is president, Americas, of Westinghouse Electric Co., headquartered in Cranberry.