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OPINION

Diverse power grid is a stronger one, and Wolf Creek pulled its share during extreme cold

By The Editorial Advisory Board
Wolf Creek Generating Station

The recent polar vortex highlighted the need for a diverse mix of energy sources powering the state. Every method of energy production in Kansas has strengths and weaknesses that have the potential to withstand different kinds of challenges.

A diverse grid is a stronger grid, since the more sources we have, the better chance something can keep the power flowing.

Renewable energy sources, especially wind, have been unfairly maligned during this crisis. Wind provides over 40% of our state’s energy through a wide range of weather conditions, and many wind turbines did continue to operate during the crisis. Wind or solar might be the best energy source for a future crisis.

When Kansas needed energy in the extreme cold, nuclear power was our unsung hero.

Nuclear energy, produced in Kansas by Evergy’s Wolf Creek Generating Station, was not impacted by the record cold weather in Kansas, maintaining full output throughout the crisis, although nuclear plants were impacted in other states. The plant produced 18% of Kansas energy in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and would have pulled an even larger percentage of the load during a time when other energy sources were struggling.

Nuclear power’s status as an unacclaimed workhorse of the power grid is nothing new. Indeed, nothing brings out our nation’s collective ambivalence more than an energy source that we both fear and depend on.

Nuclear undoubtedly suffers from a public relations problem brought on by the inherent risk involved in producing nuclear energy and highly public failures. Modern nuclear facilities in the United States, however, pose very low risks, with fail safes built into every aspect of plant engineering.

Wolf Creek’s reactor operates encased in layers of steel, inside a 20-story concrete containment building with walls three feet thick. The carefully maintained, highly secure plant has operated safely since 1985 and was relicensed in 2008 to operate through 2045.

Nuclear power is an even larger part of the energy infrastructure in other countries, particularly France, where about 70% of power is produced from nuclear plants. France has also pioneered new ways to recycle nuclear fuel, a critical technology to help reduce nuclear waste.

In the United States, spent nuclear fuel rods, too weak to produce energy but dangerously radioactive, are stored at plants. It’s worth noting that few, if any industries, are required to capture, store and manage their own waste products to the extent that nuclear power producers are. Our environment may be better off if others were as well.

Expansion of nuclear energy is a complex question, but maintaining and investing in existing nuclear facilities can only help us strengthen the diverse energy portfolio we need to best withstand threats to the power grid.

Perhaps some wish we didn’t need it, but we do, and for that reason it’s seldom lauded. We give credit where credit is due. Thank you to the 900 employees at Wolf Creek, whose safe operation of the plant kept the heat on for thousands of Kansas families in the dangerous cold.