A brief history of nuclear power in the U.S.
As he discusses his rise through the ranks of Carolina Power and Light, Smith recalls some of the fluctuations in the growth of the nuclear power industry. The energy crises in the early 1970s and late 1980s prompted pushes for nuclear power plant construction. But these pushes coincided with increasing concerns about nuclear energy, and as the federal government became more involved in plant construction and the environmental movement took hold, construction slowed down.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Sherwood Smith, March 23, 1999. Interview I-0079. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
SS: That was February of '71.
JM: ‘71. Okay.
SS: In the ensuing four or five years, the company continued to expand. I continued to do more and more in administrative, managerial, business work, not strictly legal work, and was named president in December of 1976. I guess I was named executive vice president in '74. At that time the development of nuclear power in the southeast preoccupied the electric utilities serving the southeast. Every large electric utility was involved in the nuclear power plant expansion. We'd had an energy crisis that started with the Arab-Israeli war in the fall of 1973. The national government had announced a program called Project Independence, and there was a great push from the national level to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil and natural gas and to build nuclear power plants. We built the first nuclear power plant in the southeastern United States. Our Robinson plant near Hartsville, South Carolina was completed in 1971. That was one of the projects that I'd worked on as a lawyer. We'd also built the first two power nuclear stations to be completed in North Carolina. They were completed in--. One was completed in 1975 and the other in 1977 at a little town called Southport, south of Wilmington near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. We had other nuclear units designed and in various stages of planning. The second OPEC oil crisis began in the late 1980s -- about 1988, '89 -- sort of contemporaneous with the Iran revolution, the seizing of the Embassy there, and so forth.
JM: Late '70s?
JM: You said '80s.
SS: Thank you. Yeah. Late '70s. I remember when the Federal Reserve raised the discount rate in October of 1979. We were preparing to sell some common stock. All of a sudden the markets took a turn for the worse. The interest rates began to go up sharply. The prices of all equities began to drop. We went through a period of inflation and energy shortages again, and much higher prices. At that time, we began cutting back on our planned expansion because the growth slowed down. We realized we weren’t going to need as many plants as soon as we earlier anticipated we would based on the earlier, more rapid growth. This was true for our company, for Duke Power Company, and for Virginia Power Company, which serves the northeastern part of the state. We focused on the completion of our fourth nuclear power plant, which is located south of Raleigh at a site we call our Harris Plant site. The changes in nuclear regulation at the federal level were enormous in the 1980s. The federal government moved away from approving a design and letting a company build it. They constantly were involved in the design as construction progressed. This was in an effort to better ensure reliability and safety -- particularly safety.
JM: The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission]?
SS: The NRC. At the national level when Mr. Carter became President, his posture was quite different from that of President Nixon and President Ford. Times were different. The growth and the demand for energy was beginning to slow down. We took a posture, nationally, to back away from the idea that we needed to build more nuclear power plants as quickly as we could. That was reflected in the NRC actions. The foreign policy program of the Carter administration was one of non-proliferation. One of the exciting events that had happened was about the time that Mr. Carter was elected President. The government of India had detonated a nuclear device. There was reason to be very concerned about nuclear proliferation, so the Carter years were focused on two things. One [of the things we were focused on] was trying to slow down the development of weapons. We were still in the Cold War race with the Russians. We were trying to isolate Russia and prevent other countries from developing any sort of nuclear technology that could lead to weaponry. And in the domestic scene, [we were] not pursuing nuclear power plants because of, in some cases, concern that the civilian use of nuclear power in some way might be supportive of more military development of nuclear power. The Greer reactor was cancelled because it required uranium to be reprocessed, which would produce plutonium. On the domestic side, the rise of the environmental movement [also impacted policy]. The Environmental Policy Act had been adopted in the '70s, [this included] the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act. So, the environmental movement was directed at slowing down some industrial expansion -- particularly power plants. So, you had those two factors: the change in the national posture [from a position] which had supported nuclear power, to one of being neutral, to cool, to negative on nuclear power, with the environmental movement to slow it down. You had reduced growth, higher inflation, higher interest rates. The early 1980s were a very difficult time.