By John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E., Contributing Editor
July 1, 2003 — Many signs point to an imminent rebound for nuclear power in this country. Utility company decision-makers realize, however, that public opposition is not dead, just hibernating. For that reason, company CEOs are even more cautious in approaching new nuclear projects than traditional utility conservatism would dictate.
For the fifth consecutive year, U.S. nuclear power plants set records for reliability and total output in 2002. Nuclear production costs continue to be among the lowest in the business. Thanks to strong support from the White House, and cooperation from a majority in Congress, the high-level nuclear waste issue is now closer to resolution than ever.
Four companies have indicated they will soon apply for construction permits for new nuclear plants. Energy legislation pending in Congress strongly supports nuclear power expansion. In short, there are many positive factors influencing the future of nuclear power in the U.S.
Nuclear industry professionals performed stunningly in reaching last year’s milestone performance. U.S. nuclear plants generated a record 780 billion kWh of electricity and operated at an average 91.2 percent capacity factor. According to the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, for the sixth consecutive year more than half of U.S. plants did not have even one unplanned shutdown. In addition, plant engineers continued to upgrade plant hardware and uprate existing plant capacity levels. In spite of there being no new plant construction, the Energy Information Administration expects total nuclear capacity to increase through 2006.
Unfortunately, new safety and reliability concerns surfaced with the major corrosion problem at Davis-Besse, which has kept the plant out of service since March 2002. A more rigorous inspection regimen at similar Pressurized Water Reactors has turned up evidence that the South Texas Project may have a similar issue to deal with. If these corrosion problems are widespread, they could adversely affect the stunning reliability and economic statistics the nuclear industry has been building over the past several years.
With regard to new plant construction, there is also a downside to the positive news. The proposed National Energy Policy provides for financial assistance to those companies willing to exercise the new and untried regulatory process, but the legislation is stalled in Congress. Furthermore, as the country approaches the 2004 elections it becomes less likely that politicians will be willing to tackle such a politically contentious issue.
The four participating companies have now made it clear that simply applying for – and receiving – a Construction Permit does not mean they are committed to actually begin new plant construction. Many feel the financial risks are still too great. According to press reports, Progress Energy CEO Bill Cavanaugh told the recent stockholders’ meeting that he doesn’t think new nuclear power plants will be built in the U.S. until companies receive environmental tax credits for nuclear plants’ low emissions. This is what it will take to make companies confident that nuclear operating costs will be competitive with natural gas plants.
In spite of the remarkable technical and political progress the Department of Energy has made on the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository, that battle is not yet over. The state of Nevada continues to search for peripheral ways to render the project unworkable, from denying water rights to imposing onerous transportation restrictions. Hopefully, these subterfuges will not fatally wound the project. Nevertheless, they increase costs and create uncertainty. They postpone the day when the nuclear industry has a firm answer to the standard anti-nuclear objection that there is no way to dispose of nuclear waste.
The potential for vociferous opposition to all things nuclear stands behind the hesitancy on the part of utility executives and the lack of courage on the part of many politicians. Although the mass media have not given much exposure to anti-nuclear causes of-late, it wouldn’t take much for nuclear controversies to again become lead stories on television and in newspapers.
The anti-nuclear propaganda continues unabated just below the surface of the general public’s consciousness level: there is no shortage of anti-nuclear Web sites, and nearly all environmental groups remain rabidly anti-nuclear. Industry executives recognize that it would take only one new nuclear power plant project to bring all of this opposition to the forefront.
Often, the opposition’s claims read like something out of a bad 1950s science fiction movie. For example, the news report of a recent public hearing related to cleanup of a former fuel processing plant site in Oklahoma quotes one activist as saying, “When future generations are running around with three arms or three legs, it’s too late …” Industry professionals may laugh at the ignorance displayed by comments such as these, but they leave a lasting impression on the “Joe Sixpacks” who make up the overwhelming majority of the American public.
There are hopeful signs. But the industry’s battle to win over the American people continues. It must succeed if the recent positive developments are to mean anything, ultimately.