Happy Days for Nuclear Power?

The first license to construct a new nuclear power plant in the U.S. in 34 years was granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Feb. 9. Has the elusive nuclear renaissance finally begun?

There was justification in early February for the U.S. nuclear industry to be humming the famous Depression-era song “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

Feb. 9, 2012, in Washington’s Maryland suburbs was a bright but chilly day following a quick blast of cold Canadian air and a dusting of snow that stuck on lawns and fields but not roads. At noon, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted 4-1 to approve a combined construction and operating license for Southern Co.’s two new units at its existing Vogtle nuclear station in Georgia (Figures 1 and 2). It marked the first new construction license for a nuclear plant since Jan. 27, 1978, when Carolina Power & Light won a construction license for its Shearon Harris Unit 1 in central North Carolina.

1. Long time coming. The NRC granted a combined construction and operating license for Southern Co.’s Vogtle Units 3 and 4 on Feb. 9, 2012. The construction site for the new Units 3 and 4 is shown with Units 1 and 2 visible in the background. Courtesy: Southern Co.

2. Reactor construction under way. Southern Co. received an Early Site Permit and Limited Work Authorization (LWA) from the NRC in August 2009. The LWA allowed safety-related construction at the site prior to receiving the combined construction and operating license. Shown is the assembly of the Unit 3 containment vessel lower ring. The photo was taken Jan. 30, 2012. Courtesy: Southern Co.

That February moment was sweet. The industry’s long nuclear nightmare appeared to be over. The long-depleted project pipeline was getting an injection. The NRC was expected to soon approve a license for another new two-unit project, in South Carolina.

Industry Insiders Meet

Across a busy Rockville Pike from the NRC at a swanky Marriott hotel, Platts was holding its 8th Annual Nuclear Energy conference Feb. 9 to 10. Despite the NRC action, there was a slightly bittersweet aftertaste that colored the Platts gabfest. The version of the Happy Days song that seemed most appropriate for the nuclear business that day was Barbra Streisand’s slow-tempo, ironic, and somewhat somber 1960s version, not the ebullient 1929 original that became the theme song for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s successful campaign for president in 1932. Depressing the nuclear buoyancy was the nightmare of Fukushima.

The NRC vote, a pro-forma affirmation of action the NRC had already discussed and taken informally, came in the context of the catastrophe in Japan just 11 months earlier. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko made the connection clear both in his keynote address at the Platts conference and at the commission meeting where he dissented on the Vogtle license. Jaczko told Platts event attendees that the U.S. atomic power industry is at a crossroads, where it can fully understand and embrace the meaning of the Fukushima disaster and move forward, or it can give only lip service to the lessons learned and go on with business as usual. Down one path, he said, is a vital, growing industry that enjoys public support; down the other is stagnation.

Three hours later, in his dissent, Jaczko detailed his position: “I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened,” he said with no show of emotion. In written comments attached to the NRC order, he elaborated, “I simply cannot authorize issuance of these licenses without any binding obligation that these plants will have implemented the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident before they operate.” (The sidebar offers a time line of events that led up to the Fukushima accident and looks at the disaster’s ongoing impact.)

The other four commissioners respectfully disagreed, arguing that the lessons from Fukushima that the NRC staff has identified will be incorporated into operating procedures at Vogtle and across the industry, without the need to put the Southern Co. application on hold. Commissioner Kristine Svinicki said, “There is no amnesia, individually or collectively, regarding the events of March 11 and the ensuing accident at Fukushima.”

Given the turmoil that has characterized the NRC in recent months, including public complaints by the other commissioners about Jaczko’s allegedly authoritarian and temperamental management style, the meeting was calm, not confrontational. Svinicki, frequently Jaczko’s chief adversary, congratulated him on the “orderly manner” he displayed leading the years-long Vogtle proceeding.

Fukushima Not Forgotten

All five of the NRC members appear to understand the significance of the challenge brought by the March 11, 2011, destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan. It was a $40 billion act of a capricious nature, reminding everyone in the power industry that “low probability” decidedly does not mean “no probability.” The specter of Fukushima was clearly part of the backdrop, from Jaczko’s opening address at the Platts meeting to the vote at the commission to the final Platts session the following morning.

But it is not just a terrible accident in Japan that has tempered optimism in the nuclear business, despite the positive boost from the landmark Vogtle vote. The context for the nuclear industry today includes low growth in electricity demand, record and sustained low natural gas prices, uncertainty about nuclear waste, public policy preferences for renewable electricity generation, and an economy that may or may not be recovering from the worst contraction since “Happy Days Are Here Again” made its debut in 1929.

Chip Pardee of Exelon Generation told the Platts meeting that he recalled being at similar events in 2007 when his job was “to get up before a group of people and talk about the advantages of nuclear power.” That was an easy task at the time. Today, five years later, he said, “It’s not impossible, but it is more difficult.” Five years ago, he noted, the talk was about the security of nuclear plants in the face of terrorist threats; today, it’s about nuclear accidents. Five years ago, the environmental concern was greenhouse gases; today, it is nuclear waste.

Westinghouse’s Jim Ferland commented that Fukushima “has pushed out ‘new build’” as a current topic and moved it into the future, although the NRC vote gave his company a major victory.

The heart of the Vogtle project is the Westinghouse AP1000 advanced reactor, which won NRC approval Dec. 30, after years of review and multiple redesigns. Four projects using the AP1000 reactor—the two approved in February and the two planned for Scana Corp.’s application, which will likely face the NRC next—are on the stage in the U.S.; four are under construction in China. “It would help a lot if we can bring those in on schedule and under budget,” Ferland said with ironic understatement.

Five years ago, the phrase “nuclear renaissance” was on the lips of many in the industry, as the NRC geared up to license as many as two dozen new units. Art Lembo of URS recalled that one of the pressing questions then, “when we were on the doorstep of renaissance,” was whether the industry could find the skilled people it needed to support that endeavor. Today, those plant numbers have been dramatically reduced; meeting the demand for human resources is no longer daunting.

Marvin Fertel, a realist who heads the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s Washington lobby, told the Wall Street Journal after the NRC Vogtle vote that the Southern Co. plants in Georgia and Scana’s planned South Carolina units are probably the only new nuclear plants that will get built in the U.S. before 2020. Ultimately, Fertel said he believes that the prospects for nuclear power will rebound. “The long-term fundamentals haven’t changed,” he told the newspaper. One can almost hear the words in his head: “Let us sing a song of cheer again.”

Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER.