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Q&A with joint professor David McNelis on using nuclear energy

David McNelis, a joint research professor at UNC, is a proponent of using nuclear energy as much as possible. He recently wrote an op-ed in the (Raleigh) News & Observer explaining the dangers of overlooking nuclear energy.

Staff writer Kelsey Mason spoke with David McNelis about his thoughts on nuclear energy in North Carolina.

THE DAILY TAR HEEL: How is nuclear energy currently used in North Carolina?

DAVID MCNELIS: We have five nuclear plants in North Carolina and they produce about 36 percent, roughly, of the electricity that we use.

DTH: How does North Carolina compare to other states in using and developing nuclear energy?

DM: So about 20 percent of the electricity (in the U.S.) comes from nuclear power. And like I said, in North Carolina we’re about 35 percent so, on the average, we have more electricity coming from nuclear power.

DTH: Why do you think we’re not utilizing nuclear energy as much as we could be?

DM: The upfront costs are very expensive to build a major nuclear power plant. There are designs, but there is a lot of work being done worldwide on small modular reactors. And they would be safer, you get into a lot of other discussion here, but they tend to produce less waste and to consume existing waste.

DTH: How do you think nuclear energy can be marketed towards the public so as to increase popularity?

DM: Most of the nuclear programs are over at N.C. State. I’m an adjunct professor of nuclear engineering at N.C. State. One of the things we’ve been doing for a number of years is we have a grant from Duke Energy — it was Progress Energy before, now from Duke, to do public lectures to the public... But I do nuclear talks... Their interest is to increase the literacy of the public, with respect to energy. And people, when they vote or participate in discussions, at least they’ll have some information — valid information — that they can be basing their comments on.

DTH: How has public perception of nuclear energy changed?

DM: It goes up and down. One of the biggest concerns initially was safety, of course. Certainly with the Chernobyl accident and Hiroshima, those were great causes for concern. Having said that, we’ve actually had no loss of life in the United States due to commercial nuclear power plants. We’ve had one accident in Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania where we had a partial meltdown, but as of now, there have been no deaths attributed to that.

DTH: What are the pros and cons of nuclear energy?

DM: The pros to nuclear energy is that it is a constant source of energy that is free of greenhouse gases. The only greenhouse gases that would be associated would be security vehicles driving around or a remote generator or something that they have. It’s also relatively — the operation of the nuclear power plant and the cost of electricity is quite reasonable. It’s very low. It’s comparable to burning coal in terms of the operational costs. The cons of this are of course the cost of the reactor, concerns that people have with safety — and personally I don’t discount safety... I don’t discount it, but at the same time, I think the potential of any accident that would be serious to even a small population is extremely small. Another concern is proliferation of nuclear materials ... to rogue countries. And the last one is: what are we going to do with all the waste?


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