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Seizing the Opportunity

By Brian Wheeler
“It is an incredibly bright future.”

Jim Miller, Chairman, President and CEO of Southern Nuclear Operating Co., and other nuclear executives confidently delivered this message to the hundreds of attendees during the Opening Plenary Session at the 2011 American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting. The theme of this year’s conference, “Seizing the Opportunity: Nuclear’s Bright Future.”

Some may say that the future for nuclear power is anything but bright following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed portions of the East coast of Japan and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Since, the possibility of a nuclear renaissance in the United States has been questioned. But Miller said that in order for the U.S. to keep pace with the growing demand for electricity, new nuclear is needed. Electricity demand is expected to increase 31 percent by 2035. That is one reason there has not been a pause in the construction activities for Vogtle Units 3 and 4. The project is on-schedule and the new Westinghouse AP1000 units are expected to be online in 2016.

And Southern is not alone. The Tennessee Valley Authority is continuing with construction at the Watts Bar 2 Unit that will add 1,180 MW to TVA’s generation portfolio. TVA conducts the deployment of its nuclear power projects in three phases: a development, or study phase; an engineering and licensing phase; and actual construction. Bill McCollum, Chief Operating Officer for TVA, said the utility will never have more than one nuclear project in each phase at the same time.

“We manage the way we develop projects and the way we execute them so we can deliver on our commitments,” said McCollum.

And in order for new nuclear build to be successful, the existing fleet must continue to be operated both safely and reliably. This year TVA was met with challenges when unusual storm events sent tornadoes throughout the southeast region of the U.S. Over 350 transmission lines were tore down and 108 lines were out of service following the outbreak of twisters. Of those lines were the lines that provided most of the off-site power for the three-unit 3,440 MW Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant. Diesel generators powered a safe shutdown.

“The plant was prepared. The systems and equipment functioned as it should have,” said McCollum.

Watts Bar 2 is expected to be complete and online in 2013. Other than safe operations, in order for the nuclear renaissance to flourish new projects must be completed on time. The nuclear industry has a lot of eyes on it right now and any delays will bring with it harsh criticism. The public must trust the nuclear industry.

“Nuclear technology struggles with explaining the great goods it can provide,” said U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner William Magwood.

And the only way to gain the public’s trust and help them understand nuclear power is by taking the lead in communicating the truth. That is also vital to nuclear’s bright future. Within the first three weeks following the events in Japan, ANS members participated in over 250 interviews with the media to discuss the events.

“As big of a crisis as it is, and continuing to be, I do believe we should be very proud of the response from the country and the industry in attempting to help,” said Dr. Pete Lyons, acting assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Leading Today
The industry will continue to move forward after knowing more about the events in Japan. It will be challenging in a Post-Fukushima nuclear world, but the opportunities are rising. Over $110 million in awards has been granted to 66 U.S. universities for nuclear research. Miller, who is retiring this year, said those students and young people who are just now starting their career in nuclear are starting at the perfect time.

“The nuclear business in this country and in this world is taking off,” he said.

That is being seen with the government’s continued support of nuclear energy research and development. Currently, there is a five-year, $67 million program taking place to select two light water reactor small modular reactor designs to move through design certification. Small modular reactors, like the industry as a whole, face challenges. NRC licensing must be complete. And economics will continue to be a challenge especially with gas prices staying low. But Lyons said the industry may see deployment of the country’s first small modular reactor by 2020.

One success already seen within DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy is the Nuclear Power 2010 initiative, said Lyons. The two main goals of Nuclear Power 2010 were to remove the technical, regulatory, and institutional barriers to building new nuclear power plants in the U.S., and secure industry decisions to construct and operate those plants. Lyons said the industry demonstrated key untested regulatory processes and developed new, advanced, passively safe light water reactors. This, and the selection of sites for new nuclear plants, is leading to a bright future.

“This new technology is real and there is a ton of energy behind it,” said Ferland.

Still, even with the loan guarantee ceiling for nuclear projects proposed to increase to $54 billion in Fiscal Year 2011 the challenge of financing remains. Nuclear power plants are not cheap to construct. Just last year, Constellation Energy pulled out of negotiations for a $7.5 billion federal loan guarantee to build a nuclear reactor in Maryland with its French partner Electricite de France (EDF) stating that the high estimate of the credit subsidy would force Constellation and its partners to pay the U.S. Treasury 11.6 percent, or $880 million, to obtain the loan guarantee.

“Such a sum would clearly destroy the project’s economics (or the economics for any nuclear project for that matter) and was dramatically out of line with both our own and independent assessments of what the figure should reasonably be,” a statement from Constellation read.

Numerous obstacles are still present for the nuclear renaissance. The industry, though, should “Seize the Opportunity” that has arisen to learn from the tragic events in Japan to make sure the U.S. existing fleet and planned reactors will continue to be operated safely. As Magwood noted, to construct these plants is a long process. So there is time to be pro-active and engage with the public. There is time to not only learn lessons from the events in Japan, but to implement them, too. After all, the goal is to have a bright future.
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