Reexamining Nuclear Power in the Carolinas and Beyond (2024-2025)


Each year, nuclear power plants not only provide a quarter of the world’s low-carbon electricity, but also prevent 470 million metric tons of CO2 emissions — the same as the exhaust from 100 million passenger cars. Yet, despite such contributions, the use of nuclear power in advanced economies faces an uncertain future. 

Natural disasters, public opposition, regulatory uncertainty, shrinking investment and cheaper (if dirtier) alternatives have all threatened or diminished the largest nuclear fleets just as the global demand for clean energy has surged. The International Energy Agency has predicted that without action, nuclear power in advanced economies could fall by two-thirds before mid-century. 

Such a “nuclear fade case,” as experts call it, will have far-reaching consequences, especially in North Carolina, where nuclear power accounts for almost a third of state-generated electricity supply. There is a need to critically reexamine nuclear power as a cornerstone of low-carbon electricity generation on local, national and global scales.

Project Description

This project team seeks to address the contested role of nuclear power in clean energy systems and in North Carolina’s electrical grid in particular. The first major goal will be to work toward obtaining a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources (HCRR) grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to launch an open access portal project.
Focused on the history of nuclear power in North Carolina and beyond, the portal will bring together unpublished documents currently preserved at Duke, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina. This material will illuminate at least five key aspects of nuclear power, including technological development, business, regulation, education and training, and activism. Thus, the team will create, maintain and grow a publicly accessible resource covering all sides of the ongoing nuclear debate.

The team will adopt a historical approach to research, following a three-phase research plan. First, team members will seek to place the Carolinas’ nuclear history into broader national and global contexts. They will work in subteams to retrace the development of the two states’ major nuclear facilities, emphasizing questions of site selection, construction costs, local responses, environmental impacts, regulatory oversight and larger industry trends. This phase will conclude with the drafting of detailed briefs on each nuclear facility to guide the team’s archival work.

Second, the team will convert its briefs into site-specific inventories of priority material. The subteams will work with Duke historians and librarians to plan their approach and then visit the reading rooms themselves. Their primary goal will be to locate and digitize substantial documents that represent not only the archive’s collections but also key inflection points in nuclear history. This phase will end with a rich collection of digitized documents ready for use in a pilot portal.

Third, the team will prepare a working prototype of its portal and begin drafting an application for an HCRR grant. One subteam will focus on building the portal infrastructure, while the other three will draft comprehensive descriptions of the digitized material. Simultaneously, the team leaders will compose a draft of the grant application’s narrative section. 

Anticipated Outputs

Draft narrative component of grant application; working model of open access portal on nuclear power in North Carolina with curated samples of historical documents; draft article on history of nuclear power in North Carolina

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 8 graduate students and 8 undergraduate students. Graduate students might come from the fields of engineering, computer science, policy, business or environmental management. Undergraduate candidates should have strong reading and writing skills and an interest in navigating academic libraries. Most important, all team members should share a common interest in questions of nuclear power, climate change and sustainable development.

From late August to early October 2024, the entire team will meet weekly to complete a “boot camp” on nuclear fundamentals covering three broad topics in dedicated modules: 1) industry development; 2) major accidents; and 3) national scale-ups. Thereafter, the team will switch to operating in subteams of four students each.

Over the course of the year, students will acquire historical research skills and in-depth knowledge of nuclear power. They will study the anatomy of nuclear reactors, manipulate small samples of naturally radioactive material and analyze primary sources from the nuclear industry’s historical development. They will also take a private tour of the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant. 

Students will not only receive training in archival research from Duke librarians and historians, but also work in archives themselves independently. Throughout the year, graduate and professional students will learn the ins and outs of preparing a grant application for the National Endowment for the Humanities and may earn a byline on a scholarly paper or article.


Fall 2024 – Spring 2025

  • Fall 2024: Intensive instruction on nuclear fundamentals, including radiation safety training; bespoke training in archival research; desktop research on North Carolina’s nuclear facilities; drafting of a historical brief on a nuclear power plant; informal research symposium
  • Spring 2025: Private tour of Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant; independent research trips to Triangle university archives; composition of detailed descriptions of unpublished archival material; review of a draft of the narrative portion of an HCRR grant


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters


Image: NRC Commissioner David Wright at Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant, by Nuclear Regulatory Commission, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Image: NRC Commissioner David Wright at Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant, by Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Team Leaders

  • Tom Cinq-Mars, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability
  • Carson Holloway, Duke Libraries
  • Matthew Shutzer, Arts & Sciences-History

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Brooke Guthrie, Duke Libraries-Rubenstein Library-Research Services Librarian