New Projects, Nuclear

On the Road Again

Issue 8 and Volume 109.

Slowly but surely, the nuclear industry is paving the road that it believes will lead to the promised land – the next round of commercial nuclear power plants in the United States. Significant, almost surprising, progress has been made in building the road, although the industry will undoubtedly have to negotiate many more obstacles and potholes to convert the promise of a “nuclear renaissance” into reality. Weighing these risks against the benefits of new nuclear power plants should not be a trivial exercise – such risks have to be acknowledged – but it’s time to start laying pavement.

The nuclear industry is convinced it has the technology, the track record and the discipline needed to commercialize the next generation of safer, cost-effective nuclear power plants. Industry data from 2004 indicate performance is at record levels. The nation’s 103 nuclear power plants produced 788.5 billion kWh of electricity in 2004, a record high, and those plants operated at an average capacity factor of 90.6 percent, the third-highest total ever. Average production costs from U.S. nuclear units fell to 1.69 cents/kWh, lowest on record and more than 50 percent less than they were in the mid-1980s. A recent OECD study also found that nuclear plants had lower levelized lifetime costs than coal and natural gas plants, even after including decommissioning costs.

Indicators compiled by WANO (the World Association of Nuclear Operators) for 2004 demonstrate a remarkable safety record as well. Safety system performance which assesses the availability of three standby systems used to respond to unusual situations at nuclear facilities matched its highest level ever, at 97 percent. The median number of unplanned automatic shutdowns (scrams) was zero across the U.S. nuclear fleet, and collective radiation exposure for both boiling and pressure water reactors matched or closely approached the lowest levels on record.

Discipline and vision are also evident in recent industry actions to promote new nuclear development. Various consortia have been assembled to pave the way for a new round of nuclear power plants. NuStart Energy, for example, consists of nine nuclear utilities, GE Energy and Westinghouse. Its mere existence reflects a systematic effort – a roadmap if you will – long absent from the nuclear scene to project a common voice, posit a common objective, and pursue a common goal. In May, NuStart signed a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to demonstrate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s untested licensing process for a combined Construction and Operating License and to complete design engineering for two reactor technologies. NuStart and DOE are both contributing $260 million to the project.

Despite these positive developments, what the nuclear industry doesn’t yet have – on a national scene – is a clear mandate. Concerns about cost, waste disposal and safety remain.

Although numerous advanced nuclear power plants have been successfully developed and built over the past few decades (all overseas) within reasonable cost and schedule constraints, there is no track record in the United States for the nuclear technologies likely to be proposed. Neither the financial community, nor the public in general, are fully convinced that the capital and operating cost projections supplied by the nuclear vendors will match reality.

Regarding the politically charged waste disposal issue, many believe a new U.S. nuclear plant will not be built in the United States unless and until a nuclear waste facility is up and running. The running argument is that the public, the financial community, and regulators need to see a year or two of successful, safe nuclear waste shipment and disposal to stomach a new nuclear reactor. I used to be in that camp. Now I’m not so sure. Via government/industry programs such as the NuStart/DOE project, legislative support in an energy bill (if passed) and the recent media buzz surrounding nuclear, it is far easier – psychologically at least – to separate the up-front financial risk of a new nuclear plant from the downstream financial risks associated with waste disposal and ultimate decommissioning.

The U.S. nuclear industry’s safety record has indeed been encouraging since the Three Mile Island accident, but it simply can’t afford to be anything but exemplary – any accident would almost certainly cripple the industry. Repercussions from the more-recent Davis-Besse incident were surprisingly mild from a public relations point of view, but the rapid industry response, and the billions of dollars quickly invested by operating nuclear utilities on inspections, repairs and replacements, illustrate how tenuous the safety record can be.

For better or worse, the nuclear industry is and must be held to a higher standard, even if many more people have been killed and hurt in accidents at coal plants and dry cleaners than at nuclear plants. Near-miss events, for example – episodes in which nuclear plants narrowly avoid serious plant damage and possible radiation exposure – are sobering, even scary events, and it is in everyone’s best interest to learn from them and keep driving the risk level toward zero. Near-misses, however, are a fact of life in all industrial sectors. The U.S. nuclear industry is actually an exception in that it has kept its near-misses in the near-miss category for the past 25 years.

The nuclear industry is not perfect. No industry is. Should imperfection, however, stymie future development? Building a road that can satisfy looming power demand requirements while emitting no greenhouse gas emissions almost sounds like a no-brainer, especially when it can be done using a proven technology.

The dynamics aren’t that simple, of course. The unique interplay on technical and psychological levels among politics, perceived nuclear plant vulnerability, and the risk of a nuclear accident (however remote) makes the road to the nuclear future a dangerous one. In my opinion, however, the nuclear industry’s track record, and its promise of emission-free electricity, give it the right to set out the orange construction cones and build that road. p