Nuclear energy in US not dead yet

Lots of people in the US want to write the obituary of the nuclear energy industry in the US.  Among their reasons the high cost of new reactors, the low price of natural gas, and a skeptical public spooked by the shadow of Fukushima.

EIS for PPL’s new reactor at Blue Bend

If imminent demise was on the event horizon for nuclear energy, then why would PPL be still in pursuit of a combined license for a new 1600 MW Areva EPR at its Bell Bend site in Pennsylvania.  This week the NRC announced that it had released for comment a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the new reactor. The preliminary NRC staff recommendation, based on the EIS, is that the license should be granted to the utility.

The agency will conduct a separate safety review and a hearing will be held before the Commission makes a decision on the license.

Even so a decision to build a reactor is many years away. Additionally, a separate business unit spun off from PPL would actually take on the financial risk of the project. Finally, there is the question of whether the Areva 1600 MW EPR would actually be selected to built. That firm halted its design review with the NRC and without the agency’s safety stamp of approval, PPL can’t build with that vendor’s technology.

It’s speculative at best, but there is certainly a plausible basis for the idea that the firm may change its reference design to a newly approved GE ESBWR especially since it already has a GE BWR on site.

Duke Energy “optimistic” about building Lee plant

According to a news report in a Charlotte, NC, business journal, Duke Energy is closely watching the progress of construction of four Westinghouse 1150 MW AP1000 nuclear reactors at sites in Georgia and South Carolina. Chris Fallon, Duke Energy VP for Nuclear Development, told the journal that the firm wants to learn how to control costs for the construction of two similar reactors at the Lee Nuclear Station in Gaffney, South Carolina.

Fallon’s optimistic comments about continued progress towards breaking ground for the twin AP1000s planned for the site is at odds with prior “prudent investor” type statements from executives of the giant utility. The general line has been that while Duke is interested in nuclear, given current low natural gas prices, it isn’t setting a date to start work on the Lee site.

According to the NRC schedule for issuing a combined license for the plants, a decision could come from the agency as early as summer 2016.

Fallon thinks that as EPA requirements for clean energy, and a drive to reduce carbon emissions, settle out that states, including North and South Carolina, will be much more interested in the nuclear energy option.

The two new reactors could cost about $6.5 billion each. However, Fallon is betting that improvements in the nuclear energy supply chain resulting from the four units of the same design that are under construction, will result in lower costs for the two planned units at the Lee site.

Green groups seek to overturn license for Ameren’s Callaway reactor

Not taking “yes” for an answer when it comes to extending the license for a nuclear reactor seems to be a default response from green groups. The Missouri Coalition for the Environment is no exception to this rule having filed a federal lawsuit over the NRC’s decision to renew the license for Ameren’s Callaway nuclear reactor for another 20 years.

The NRC defended its decision saying that the reactor met all of the agency’s requirements for environmental protection and safety of operations.

Ameren said that it is confident the NRC will stand by its decision of March of this year. The utility had expected the license renewal in December 2014, but the NRC took more time to consider its basis for the decision when the green group threatened to file the lawsuit it finally brought this week. The current license runs out in 2024 so the 20-year extension goes until 2044.

The green group cites problems it sees with long-terms storage of spent nuclear fuel at the Ameren facility. It disputes the legality of the NRC’s “waste confidence decision” which allows utilities to store spent fuel at reactors until a permanent geologic or other interim repository is available.

Also, in a March 2014 TV interview, the green group compared the risks of the Ameren site to Japan’s Fukushima disaster. It claimed the spent fuel stored at the site could catch on fire.

The so-called threat of spent fuel catching fire has been a staple of anti-nuclear rhetoric since the Fukushima event. However, all of it was directed at the spent fuel pool at Fukushima reactor #4 which turned out to have retained all of its water despite the earthquake.

There is no way spent fuel covered with water can catch fire. Fuel moved to dry storage has cooled off sufficiently, usually for a period of 5-7 years in wet storage, to prevent such an occurrence.

The Missouri green group has also opposed plans by Ameren to partner with Westinghouse to license and build a 225 MW small modular reactor at the Callway site.  Those plans are on hold at this time since the firm shuttered most of its SMR work in February 2014.

Westinghouse is continuing to explore SMR opportunities by sponsoring work in Missouri on supply chain issues and also is continuing its licensing work for the design at the NRC.

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2 Responses to Nuclear energy in US not dead yet

  1. James Greenidge says:

    Can you PLEASE tell me why in God’s name won’t the nuclear industry produce some adult educational mass-media ads to clean-up its Darth Vader image?? Why is BP Gulf and the Natural Gas Lady so artfully successful at this in the face of so many eco-minuses while nuclear PR is such a slaggard?? It’s like the nuclear press and blogs and professional orgs turn tail and run from just bringing up the issue or criticizing an overtly anti-nuclear media! Can own spell being one’s own worst enemy??

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY


  2. James Burkes says:

    I appreciate your optimistic outlook but have to say I see significant headwinds which will make a positive future for nuclear in this country an uphill struggle. The most significant of which are three things which are somewhat connected. The first is that the regulatory regime is simply unworkable. When you have waiting periods of six or seven years for routine matters like relicensing of existing facilities or approval of mature, proven technology on pre-approved sites, the system is obviously flawed and heavily skewed against new ventures. This is particularly true of the current push for SMRs. If the licensing cost is still assessed on a per-unit basis, and licensing actions are taken on a case-by-case approach, I just don’t see the technology going anywhere over the long run. The regulatory burden will smother it. The second is the industry has to do something to bring the costs down for large units, which should have an economy of scale but appear at this time to have dis-economies of scale. I just don’t see how spending six or seven billion on a single reactor is really sustainable, given the uncertainties in the electricity markets, and the fact that we get no price advantage for zero emissions and unmatched reliability. The third headwind is government policy. Some sense has to be brought to the issues of waste management and subsidies for expensive, unreliable technology, i.e., wind and solar energy. The latter cause distortions in the market that basically turn realistic market forces upside down, where the most unreliable energy sources are granted huge price advantages that are neither warranted or justifiable on the basis of performance and economy.

    We all know these things and I for one have been beating my head against the wall for over 30 years and only see things going from bad to worse. Just this past year we had two perfectly functional plants shut down for no justifiable reason (Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee), another with what should have been a minor issue (SONGS), and one that should never had happened if the problem were handled competently (CR 3). That’s four productive reactors hat should have had decades more operation, but were thrown away for reason, or stupid reasons. We’re going to be struggling just to hold onto what we have, it seems.


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