The United States produces more electricity from nuclear power than any other country in the world. While "only" 19% of the nation's total electricity needs are fulfilled by the energy source -- which pales in comparison to France's 75% -- America's capacity of 102 gigawatts is nearly more than the next three countries combined. Atomic energy has been, and will continue to be, an important piece of our energy future; but have you ever stopped to think about where the largest power plants are located? Or who owns them?
You may be surprised to know that, despite owning one-fifth of America's capacity, none of Exelon Corporation's 10 power plants rank in the top five. Facilities from Southern Company (NYSE:SO), NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG), and Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) do make the list, however. Here's the rundown of the five largest nuclear power plants in the United States.
1. Vogtle: 4,536 MW
The top spot goes to Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Georgia from Southern Company. While the power plant operates two reactors with a capacity of 2,302 megawatts, two new reactors under construction will boost capacity by an additional 2,234 MW -- or about the equivalent of adding the nation's fifth largest power plant to the existing site. The reactors were the first approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission since 1978, although not everyone is ready to predict a nuclear renaissance after seeing the $15 billion (and growing) price tag. Can smaller, next-generation reactors eventually prove critics wrong?
2. Palo Verde: 3,937 MW
The Palo Verde power plant in Tonopah, Arizona is technically the largest in the nation, but will slip to No. 2 several years from now. Owned by Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, the three-reactor facility gained some unfortunate publicity in 2013 when a radioactive water leak was discovered. While incredibly small, and posing no threat to the public or workers on site, repairs were estimated to have cost $15 million. I would be more worried about the fact that Palo Verde is the world's only large nuclear power plant not located next to a large body of water (it's in the middle of the desert), which would come in handy during an emergency.
3. Browns Ferry: 3,310 MW
This three-reactor facility sits on the Tennessee River in Athens, Alabama, and is owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is owned by the federal government. When Browns Ferry opened its doors in 1974, it was the largest nuclear plant in the world, and the first to eclipse the 1 GW capacity watermark. A tornado in 2011 ripped through the facility and surrounding area, but emergency procedures at the nearly 40-year old power plant worked as designed. The biggest worry to utility customers at the time was downed electric transmission lines, which prevented the plant from providing power to the grid.
4. South Texas Project: 2,560 MW
The South Texas Nuclear Generating Station in Bay City, Texas became the first nuclear power plant in the Lone Star State in 1988. It has several unique features, such as the utilization of a 7,000-acre reservoir in lieu of cooling towers, and extra emergency core-cooling systems for each of its two reactors. NRG Energy was attempting to expand the facility with two 1,358 MW reactors, but abandoned the plans in 2011 due to escalating costs, and the painfully slow regulatory review process. However, financial and publicity problems for its Japanese partner TEPCO, shortly after the Fukushima accident, can likely be attributed to the decision, as well.
5. Oconee: 2,538 MW
Rounding out the top five is Duke Energy's Oconee Nuclear Station in Seneca, South Carolina. The three-reactor facility was the first in the United States to generate over 500 million MWhr of electricity, and can power 1.9 million homes each day. It also became just the second nuclear power plant to have its original 40-year operational license extended for an additional 20-year period, which will keep it running through 2031.
Foolish bottom line
Nuclear energy is controversial and expensive, but unlike other energy sources, costs are heavily skewed to construction. Additionally, there has been a major lack of widespread investment in new nuclear technologies, which also contributes to high costs of new reactors. You can argue that wind, solar, or natural gas are better or cheaper options now, but nuclear energy will continue to be a dominant force in America's energy future.
Not convinced nuclear energy belongs in your portfolio?
You may not want to own a piece of the nuclear power industry for any number of reasons. Luckily, there are other options. Consider that record oil and natural gas production is revolutionizing the United States' energy position. Finding the right plays, while historic amounts of capital expenditures are flooding the industry, will pad your investment nest egg. For this reason, the Motley Fool is offering a comprehensive look at three energy companies set to soar during this transformation in the energy industry. To find out which three companies are spreading their wings, check out the special free report, "3 Stocks for the American Energy Bonanza." Don't miss out on this timely opportunity; click here to access your report -- it's absolutely free.
Fool contributor Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio, his CAPS page, his previous writing for The Motley Fool, or his work for the SynBioBeta Blog to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology industry.
The Motley Fool recommends Southern Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.