U.S. heat wave causes new look at nuclear energy

Watts bar nuclear power plant, near Spring City, Tenn.
Watts bar nuclear power plant, near Spring City, Tenn.

Temperatures began going down Sunday in the eastern half of the country, dropping from last week's record triple-digits and easing a heat wave blamed for at least 34 deaths.

Power suppliers are also breathing easier.

CBS News correspondent Whit Johnson reports that the nation's two biggest grids, serving 100-million consumers in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, both broke peak usage records last Thursday.

Demand was said to be ten percent higher than the average for July, and with demand only growing, going nuclear is getting another look.

The nuclear power comeback could be fueled with the fact that U.S. energy demand is expected to increase by 21-percent in the next two decades.

President Barack Obama said not long ago: "We've got to recognize that nuclear power, if it's safe, can make a significant contribution to the climate change question."

Mr. Obama has called for billions in loan guarantees to build new nuclear reactors.

But past disasters like Fukushima, Japan, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have made Americans fearful of nuclear energy.

There has not been a single new nuclear plant that has gone on-line since 1996, but that's about to change. Westinghouse CEO Aris Candris showed CBS News the simulated control room for the AP 1000.

"The U.S. fleet right now is about twice as safe as required by law. The AP 1000 is one hundred times safer," Candris said.

That claim will be put to the test when the very first goes online in China in two years.

Then by 2016, in Vogtle, GA, two AP 1000 reactors are scheduled to begin operation. The design uses two forces of nature: gravity and convection.

In an emergency, a giant tank above the reactor is supposed to slowly release water. The water heats up, rises, collects as condensation, and then falls back down.

Westinghouse says this repeating cycle would allow operators like those in Japan, who worked through life threatening conditions, to stay out of the plant and out of danger for three days.

Critics, however, aren't buying it.

"No nuclear power plant is walk away safe, and I think it is deceptive to paint any technology in that light. These plants have not been operated yet. These calculations are based on paper studies," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Still, construction on new plants in the U.S. is moving forward. The next disaster may be impossible to predict, but we know the cost of miscalculation.