Fueling up for winter

November 25, 2014

In Buffalo, last week’s record levels of snow are giving way to fears of floods with temperatures briefly on the rise. The warmer weather will be short-lived though, as the frigid air that swept through parts of the United States earlier this month is expected to return in time for Thanksgiving travel, hinting that winter’s arrival won’t have the decency to wait until December.

Fortunately, unlike in Europe, the U.S. is fairly independent and insulated when it comes to electricity production. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, coal and natural gas combine to account for 66 percent of U.S. electricity production in 2013, with nuclear energy representing 19 percent—and petroleum only 1 percent—of the 4.058 billion kilowatt hours used that year.

As this Reuters graphic shows, the fall refueling season is winding down for nuclear facilities, with spring forecasts calling for the least offline time since 2006. Fueling outages are routine at nuclear plants: every spring and fall, facilities throughout the country replace roughly one-third of spent fuel rods with new fuel so that the reactors are at optimal strength for the more demanding summer and winter seasons.

It goes without saying that nuclear energy is easiest to appreciate when it is predictable, safe and available. In a world where natural gas is discussed as a “geopolitical weapon,” a graph reflecting the U.S. nuclear industry’s benignly prescribed peaks and valleys is oddly soothing.

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