A Slow Slog Ahead for U.S. Nukes

There is a certain tentativeness about new nuclear power in the U.S. these days, a low-grade anxiety, as demonstrated by the comments made by electric utility representatives at May’s ELECTRIC POWER Conference in Baltimore.

One rarely hears the words “nuclear renaissance” anymore. When the phrase appears, it is often with an ironic twist. Gone is the heady optimism of the first few years after a Republican Congress passed and a Republican president signed the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

From Sprint to Crawl

The walk in the nuclear park envisioned by the enthusiasts for a revival has turned into a long, difficult slog. Once, folks talked about maybe 30 new reactors, following a jump-start provided by federal loan guarantees for as many as eight plants. More recently, some Republican enthusiasts, seeking a political wedge issue to use against the Democratic administration in Washington, called for 100 new nukes in the U.S. Now it looks unlikely that federal largess will bolster the prospects for more than maybe two new plants by 2017. At most.

The one federal “award” of a loan guarantee, some $8.3 billion to Atlanta-based Southern Company for two new units at its existing Vogtle site in Georgia, so far represents less than meets even the most optimistic eye. But no actual award has yet been made. The utility continues in long-running negotiations with the Department of Energy (DOE) over a final deal, as Southern Company executive Michael Smith made clear at the opening panel of the nuclear track in Baltimore, curiously titled “Shovel Ready.”

Neither Southern nor the DOE will discuss the negotiations, but the DOE on the day of the panel extended the deadline for a deal by another 30 days.

Southern’s Smith told reporters that his company definitely would go it alone on new units at Vogtle if the DOE loan guarantee falls through. Was he being candid? Who knows? It may have been a negotiating ploy. It may reflect company policy.

The most peculiar aspect of the “Shovel Ready” panel was that no new plants are truly shovel ready. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not signed off on a full range of advanced reactor designs. None of the companies or utilities involved (the Tennessee Valley Authority, Unistar, Luminant, and Southern Company) has full NRC approval. Nor do they have the money in hand, as estimates for the cost of new units continue to skyrocket, now in the range of $7 billion per unit. One attendee leaned to a reporter during the session and whispered, “Shouldn’t they have had a question mark for the panel’s title?”

Maximizing Existing Nuclear Plants’ Output

Though no spades of dirt have turned on new nuclear power plant projects in the U.S. in decades, the contribution of the atom to U.S. power supplies continues to grow. That was the theme of the “Maximizing the Value of Nuclear Assets” session. How could this be?

One part of the answer is planned plant upratings, which add usable new capacity to existing power reactors. Exelon, owner of the nation’s largest nuclear generating fleet, plans to add 1,500 MW in uprated capacity by 2017. By 2017, said Exelon’s Sharon Eldridge, uprating activities will have “touched all of our units in one way or another.”

Nationwide, according to industry figures, some 3,500 MW of new nuclear capacity will appear in the U.S. in the same time frame through plant uprates. “We are getting more MW from existing power plants,” Eldridge said. “That comes through new technologies and materials and half a century of operating experience.” Exelon added 60 MW in new nuclear capacity in 2009 and has added another 50 MW so far this year.

Plant uprating is also a path to lower production costs, noted Eldridge, yielding lower costs per MW of generated electricity. That’s because the uprated plants require no additional operating personnel, and newer equipment means lower maintenance costs. So there is no overall increase in operating and maintenance expenses.

Big Plans for Small Nukes

As new, big iron looks increasingly problematical, many in the nuclear industry are reviving a long-standing interest in small and modular plants. The session on smaller reactors had a standing-room-only crowd.

The reasoning for the interest in little machines is straightforward: Smaller plants require less money up front and, presumably, enable faster in-service (meaning in-the-money) dates. Smaller machines also mean spreading the risk if demand does not materialize soon enough to justify gigawatt and larger investments.

It is clearly serious business. Several global companies are working on small, modular reactors, and the DOE is putting resources into the concept. The DOE’s main R&D thrust is the Gen IV program of new, large reactors, but the shop is looking at smaller, modular units, aimed mainly at export markets. Enough serious players in this market mean that smaller, more quickly deployable units will get a thorough vetting. Their success in the market is far from assured, however.

One market player is Hyperion Energy, a privately held company developing a small, modular unit using technology developed at the DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. Another is Babcock & Wilcox (B&W), which is developing the “mPower” design (see photo). It is a 125-MWe module that would be built in a factory and then delivered to a site, with a four-plus-year fuel cycle and a containment completely underground. B&W claims the modules enable building a scalable plant of anywhere from 125 MW to 1,000 MW.

Banking on modular. Program Manager John Ferrara explained that Babcock & Wilcox is targeting the U.S. market with its small, modular mPower reactor, which it hopes to deploy by 2020. Source: POWER

Looming Obstacles for Small Nukes

Smaller and modular units are the latest nuclear flavor du jour, but there are also convincing reasons why small may not be beautiful when it comes to new nukes, though the downsides were downplayed during the session. For example, the “pebble bed modular reactor” has been under development for more than a decade, with its program headquartered in power-short South Africa (see this issue’s first Global Monitor story). But the consortium running the effort is running out of money and announced a major financial restructuring early this year. The CEO recently resigned.

Another potential hang-ups for smaller, cheaper, more nimble nukes according to industry officials: Licensing would be a major obstacle, along with financing construction of new, novel designs. “The NRC has its hands full right now with the new generation of large light-water reactors, and the possibility of Gen IV machines,” a nuclear industry official told POWER. “I can’t see the NRC also spending time and money on revolutionary designs that present new safety challenges and don’t yet have a market.”

Southern’s Smith said, “It makes more sense for the industry to focus on the current generation of large units, and get those right, before it steps into a brave new world of smaller is better.”

—Kennedy Maize ([email protected]) is a contributing editor to POWER and executive editor of the online magazine MANAGING POWER. Gail Reitenbach PhD, POWER’s managing editor, contributed to this article.

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