Pillars of North Carolina: Sherwood Smith Jr. led the nuclear charge
Photo by Christer Berg
By Vanessa Infanzon
When he left a Raleigh law firm to join Carolina Power & Light in 1965, Sherwood Smith Jr. didn’t envision leading eastern North Carolina’s dominant power company. But eight years later, the Jacksonville, Fla., native was named president and in 1979, he started a 17-year run as CEO, overseeing the company’s push into nuclear energy.
Smith, who has a law degree from UNC Chapel Hill, considers the $4 billion Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant in southwest Wake County as his greatest professional achievement. Named after a former CP&L CEO, the 900-megawatt plant overcame opposition sparked by the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear site. Smith recalls a town hall that attracted 1,400 people concerned about the potential safety and environmental issues at the site. Shearon Harris started producing power in mid-1987 and is now licensed to operate through 2046.
As one of Raleigh’s most prominent CEOs, Smith served on multiple boards including North Carolina Community Foundation, Research Triangle Foundation and Triangle Universities Center for Advanced Studies. In 1998, he was inducted into the North Carolina Business Hall of Fame. In 2011, CP&L successor Progress Energy named its group of Richmond County power plants the Sherwood H. Smith Jr. Energy Complex.
Smith, 85, discussed power and rivalry in comments edited for length and clarity.
I didn’t think of myself as a manager when I went to work with CP&L. I saw myself as a lawyer who might or might not be involved in management at a later time, and that was the way things worked out.
I can’t separate the impact that I may have had on CP&L from the impact it had on me.
Your company is going to be as successful as the area, and the customers that you serve can grow and expand. You are in the business of providing a regulated public service, so you’re conscious of the needs of the community.
I spent a great deal of time with the Research Triangle Foundation here and with what’s called the Triangle Universities Center for Advanced Studies. It’s the 120 acres in the middle of the park that is devoted solely to the things that the universities are involved in. I chaired a study commission of 23 leaders of the community college system from around the state with a few other people. I was involved in the formation of the North Carolina Public School Forum in the mid-’80s to strengthen public education.
[Regarding Duke Energy,] I didn’t think of them being rivals the way two banks would be, one across the street from the other. Duke was the larger company and served a more densely populated area. Both companies were very interested in the importance of maintaining the combination of generation transmission and distribution systems as an entity. I worked very closely with some of the Duke executives, particularly [Bill Lee, Duke’s CEO from 1982-94].
Nuclear power was something that came close to dominating my business life for a number of years.
Nuclear energy is essential. We need to continue to operate and extend the life operations of our nuclear power plants. There is room and opportunity for the use of solar power, perhaps wind in some locations, but we don’t have the technology yet to store that electricity, and there are many times that you can’t generate it.
Our government wanted to encourage the sharing of this information with China. We wanted them to have a cooperative, certainly successful but very peaceful development of nuclear power. I went to China in 1983 as part of a delegation that had been sponsored by our government to talk with the Chinese about how we had built and operated nuclear power plants. Then the Chinese purchased some equipment that we had outgrown at one of our plants.
I certainly realized that the use of high-sulfur coal would be very controversial and would need to be reduced in order to maintain air quality. Low-sulfur coal and the emissions-control equipment were progressing along very well, and I did not foresee that the use of low-sulfur coal would become something that would be as big an issue as it has become now. In my working days at the company, we generated electricity — and this was true for Duke as well — primarily from coal and then later from nuclear energy, some hydroelectric.
I think when we had the energy shortage crisis, and it was a crisis in the early ’70s, that was a big change and encouraged conservation. It encouraged looking for sources other than fossil fuels to generate electricity.
Air quality had become a topic of national interest and national concern. So I think all of those things were sort of moving along together. The need to conserve because of constraints on supply, and then the observed problems that could arise if air quality [suffered], whether it was smog in a big city or whether it was air quality out in the mountains. I think the public generally became more aware and more concerned, which is a good thing.
I read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us a long time ago. That’s viewed as one of the awakening bells, I guess, for society. The general realization that the planet has to be like a garden, has to be tended, has to be cared for, if it’s going to last.
The single most important thing to me over the last 20 years is being able to spend more time with my family because when I was working from ’65 to ’95, that 30-year period, I was busy.