New Nukes are Finally Coming

Posted by: John Carey on September 24, 2007

Since 2001, we and just about every other business publication have written stories on the coming nuclear renaissance. (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/01_17/b3729077.htm?chan=search ) It’s a development that was seen as almost inevitable. The country needs more electricity. And with coal plants being blocked or cancelled because of concerns over global warming, nukes were looking more and more attractive. Sure, there are still lingering worries over waste disposal and nuclear proliferation, but the new generation of plants are safer and, the industry expected, cheaper to build. The question was, who would take the first leap?

Now we have an answer. It’s a Princeton, NJ-based utility named NRG. http://www.nrgenergy.com/

On Sept. 24, the company and South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build two new nuclear units at the site of two existing nukes in Texas. "We think the nuclear renaissance is finally upon us," says NRG CEO David Crane.

Going first is risky. The application will test the NRC's new application process, which will grant both an construction and operating license. (In the past, companies had to first get a construction license, and then, once the plant was built, an operating license). The new approach is supposed to trim the time needed to get a plant up and running by a number of years. But no one knows yet what snafus will appear. If the process takes longer than expected, the utility that goes first could lose money.

That's why the half-joke in the industry has been that everyone was racing to be second. Let someone else test the process, but stay ahead of all the others.

Crane, however, argues that not being first is also risky. One little known fact is that there's only one supplier of the huge forgings that make up the pressure vessel--a Japanese steel company. If you don't snare their upcoming production soon, you won't even be able to build a plant. NRG has already contracted to buy the forgings it needs. "We had to order now for a plant that won't be online until 2014," says Crane. "It is very Machiavellian, trying to secure your forging." NRC was able to get the ones it needs by ordering through Toshiba.

Another potential hurdle for those who follow is finding people who know how to build a complex nuclear plant. "We think filing later is risky because of a shortage of skilled labor," explains Crane.

So it's reasonable to expect that one or two other companies will jump in soon, in the wake of NRG. But those who wait too long will end far behind.

What about opposition? Nuclear power is an uncomfortable issue for the environmental community. Some groups, such as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, have grudgingly accepted that, in the battle against global warming, nukes are a necessary evil. Others remain adamantly opposed. “Building nuclear reactors to solve our energy problems is like going fishing with grenades: it’s expensive, stupid, and dangerous, and there’s a ton of better options,” says Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. With the new plants being built on the site of existing ones, however, the opposition is not expected to be strong enough to derail the plans.

Reader Comments

Roger

September 25, 2007 11:37 AM

This is good news in my mind. I actually would like to have a 'moon shot' type of effort to get solar panels as dirt cheap and efficient as possible. However, in lieu of that it seems irrational to leave such a powerful source of energy untapped out of fear. ("The China Syndrome" was just a movie folks.)

random

September 25, 2007 12:08 PM

I apologize ahead for such a lengthy comment but I felt that anything shorter and less detailed would be misleading and overgeneralized sloganeering.

If using nuclear power to solve our energy problems is like fishing with grenades, not using it to address our need for greater capacity is like trying to power your neighborhood with a bike generator. We simply need more energy and the easiest way to get there is to use higher yielding energy production methods. When nuclear plants reach the economies of scale, they won't be nearly as expensive as they are now. What are we going to do for more power? Stick with low yield, inefficient methods?

Wind power? To provide enough, we'd need an entire mega-grid of monster windmills that are very expensive to build and to install. Having millions of windmills in a grid would also alter the airflow of the troposphere around the country, changing our climate. So just who would pay for all those monster windmills and for their consequences? Could we put up countless windmills in the mountains and hills and find that we're flooding the Great Plans by trapping storms on the continent with a wall of disrupted airflow or drying them out by dispersing the storms coming from the Pacific shore?

Solar? Sure you can put a mega-farm of solar panels in the desert but they'll only be 10% efficient. Solar panels need to be at least 65% efficient to be used as a major energy source. In the meantime, to use it, we'd have to put them in very remote deserts where the sun shines the vast majority of the year, places where they would be difficult to service if something goes wrong. Plus, we'd need extra grid capacity to conduct the power from the hundreds of acres of solar panels in the middle of nowhere. Oh and did I mention that these exposed solar panels would be perfect targets to knock out power to the nation during armed conflicts?

Wave and tide power? And who's going to pay the hundreds of billions of dollars to line the coasts of the world with wave absorbing power generators? How long will it take to complete? How efficient will it be? These questions are still a long way from being answered.

I'm not saying let's not give anything but nukes a chance. In fact, I would be the first person to support just the opposite. Nothing would delight me more then well guarded and well protected solar panels efficient enough to capture more then enough energy to power the whole world. It would be the perfectly clean and efficient power source for a billion years, literally. We'd spend no time worrying about fuel or generators, we'd just capture the energy and turn it into electricity. But we're a long way away from that and while we search for how to make solar panels worth their salt as the chief power source for the planet, our energy needs won't go away. Until we have clean solar power and a backup grid of ultra-efficient antimatter catalyst fusion reactors to cope with any level of power consumption, nukes are a terrific option.

What about the waste? Well the waste is harmful for 50 years and not the 10,000 that opposition activists claim. It will be radioactive for 250 million years, but after 50, it will be only as powerful as an X-ray machine. We're bombarded with so much radiation from space that the old guard environmentalists' attempts to defend us from the radioactive menace seem just plain strange. Every second you spend in sunlight, you're hit with UV rays which are a mutagen capable of causing melanoma. At this point in history, the sun is a far more deadly and dangerous source of radiation then nuclear waste. But harping on how nuclear waste could create six legged babies and seven eyed fish even if it's buried 5 miles into a mountain range makes a much splashier headline and gets more donations. The environmental groups just seem paranoid when they try to use these scare tactics. And of course that brings us to Chernobyl...

What happened there was a case of uneducated workers making a mess and melting the reactor core by pressing the wrong buttons. For all the fear and worry, the actual toll of the blast was far smaller then was predicted and while residents in the area are still panicking about the radiation, the Red Cross declared that the worst of it was over and that the populace was generally safe in 2006. Oh and see how well Japan is doing after nuclear attacks bigger then any possible reactor meltdown. Yes, they have a higher rate of birth defects and cancer but overall, the Japanese have some of the longest and healthiest lives on the planet. American burgers seems to be far more lethal to the average American then the legacy of nuclear warfare is to the average Japanese. We have to stop living in hysterical fear of radiation which is already poisoning us throughout our lives in the form of infra-red and UV rays beaming to our planet from the sun.

Nukes are a path to the future and a means to support our energy needs while we get to clean, abundant and efficient energy sources that would let us play with advanced physics, power our homes and offices and charge up our Teslas with batteries with a thousand mile range per charge. To hold back our progress with hysterical fears and scaremongering is nothing short of a disservice in the grand scheme of things.

Although we could always drill five or six miles into the Earth and live off the geothermal power of the mantle for the next few hundred million years... Anyone have a few trillion bucks laying around to build the machines and hire a few million workers for a three decade long project? Sure it would be the most expensive undertaking in the history of humankind, but hey, no nuclear waste. But what would we use to power all this infrastructure for 30 years non-stop?

John Carey

September 25, 2007 2:02 PM

Good points. There are also a couple of other interesting angles to the news. It had been thought that the first new nuke would come from a regulated utility--i.e. one that's able to pass along costs to its ratepayers. That would remove some of the risks inherent in jumping back into nuclear power. Instead, NRG is a so-called merchant power company. It sells electricity at on the open market, and thus must take on the risk of cost overruns or delays in construction that would raise the price. NRG has tried to minimize these risks by building a proven design (it's the same as a number of existing Japanese plants) and getting an experienced builder -- Toshiba -- for the construction.

It's fascinating, though, that the expected cost of the power from the plant will be in the range of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. That's in the same ballpack as a peaking natural gas plant, but is considerably higher than coal. There are even suggestions the the solar thermal plants will be able to get down to that level (or below) as well--opening up new clean alternatives. As "Random" points out, we shouldn't rule out any technology that offers benefits.

Sherwood Martinelli

October 2, 2007 2:10 PM

What this article, and the various comments fail to address, are the two fatal flaws of a Nuclear Renaissance.

1. The dismal failure of the industry to find a way to deal with the lethal waste streams of Nuclear Energy. The NRC and NEI are now trying to change the rules so that these waste streams would simply be left where they sit for periods in excess of 100 years.

2. You cannot build a new nuclear future on the backs of failing, aged nuclear reactors, yet that is exactly what is happening as the NRC grants license renewals to plants that are not safe.

More disturbing, is the NRC's weakening of various rules meant to protect host communities around dangerous sites such as Indian Point, which is leaking tritium, strontium 90 and Celsium 137 into the environment, and our Hudson River. A perfect example of rule weakening is the NRC's press release today (Oct 2) proposing to weaken the rule on Thermal Shock. This rule revision is being proposed for one reason only...over half of the 104 aging reactors in America will be unable to meet the standards of the rule in the 20 year license renewal period...under the current rule, this would be cause to SHUT SAID REACTORS DOWN.

Another example, is the 1,000's of exemptions from 10 CFR Rules and Regulations that the NRC has granted its reactor licensees. It is simple suicide to wave a rule every time a licensee cannot abide by it...that is standard practice at the NRC, and amounts to regulatory dereliction of duty.

Business Week does a disservice to the public, and to its reputation in not adequately reporting BOTH SIDES of the nuclear coin.

Sherwood Martinelli

random

October 4, 2007 7:42 AM

Goggle Sherwood Martinelli and take a look at his long running campaign to shut down Indian Point by any means necessary...

Post a comment

 

About

BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!