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Nuclear Progress Requires Risk Sharing

Issue 9 and Volume 109.

In visiting Calvert Cliffs recently, President Bush became the first U.S. president to visit a nuclear power plant since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. While addressing the group assembled there, the president made a strong case for more nuclear power plants to be built in this country. And the recent passage of the administration’s Energy Bill, after a four-year standoff with the Senate, establishes at least some minimal incentives for constructing a new nuclear plant. But after an industry hiatus of more than 30 years, what kind of plant will be built, and who will build it? A recent web posting by the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency (EIA) gives some clues.

The first thing that strikes an observer about the EIA analysis is that the next U.S. reactor will have a much more international flavor than those currently in operation. In order to survive these past 30 years without selling a new domestic power plant, U.S. reactor manufacturers have had to focus on their overseas projects. And as often as not, getting business overseas requires partnering with a “local” entity. So, thanks to lousy U.S. business and strong competition internationally, the former “big four” manufacturers, Westinghouse, General Electric, Babcock & Wilcox and Combustion Engineering, are now either part of international consortia or have simply been absorbed by foreign companies. Babcock & Wilcox has sold much of its technology to Framatome. British Nuclear Fuels Limited combined with Westinghouse Nuclear and Combustion Engineering to form Westinghouse BNFL, choosing to maintain the industry-leading Westinghouse name. General Electric has partnered with Toshiba and Hitachi to develop its currently offered product line.

Many years of operating experience and many dollars spent on plant modifications and upgrades have turned the 1970s vintage U.S. nuclear plants into reliable, economical power generators. Manufacturers do not want to replicate their older designs, however, now that they know newer and better ways to design and build reactors. Generating companies, consortia, or whoever, wishing to build a new plant, will most likely choose from one of the advanced designs. Although these new plant designs offer major advantages, both economically and operationally, their purveyors must overcome the traditional customer reluctance to be the owner of “serial number one” of any new technology.

So what are the new plants offerings? For starters, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has already certified three of the new plant designs. This means that a company that wants to license one of these for construction in the United States already has a head start on the process. The NRC certifications apply to the Westinghouse BNFL System 80+ and AP600, and to the GE/Toshiba/Hitachi ABWR. An additional Westinghouse unit, the larger AP1000, is in the final stages of the certification process. Westinghouse BNFL is not promoting the System 80+ for U.S. applications, although there is some indication that Korean interests may offer a variation of this design for export. The Westinghouse AP600 and AP1000 are based on current Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) designs, but have passive safety features that greatly simplify the design, requiring fewer plant components and promising lower capital cost. No plants of either the System 80+ or the AP-series have been built, yet. The NuStart Energy consortium hopes to obtain support for a construction and operating license for the first 1,000 MW AP1000 under the process established by the recently passed Energy Bill. The consortium makes it clear, however, that it is not now committed to actually building a plant of a particular design.

The Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) is the only advanced, NRC-certified design that has been built. Three of these units currently operate in Japan and three others are under construction elsewhere in Asia. There are several variations on this design, and its vendors claim construction costs are now competitive. Perhaps of more interest, however, is the next iteration of this design, the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR), which is in the NRC pre-certification stage. As the name implies, the designers have tweaked the ABWR design to further reduce its construction costs. Dominion Resources is evaluating the ESBWR for potential construction at its North Anna site, but the company has not yet applied for a constructing and operating license from the NRC.

The EIA web site www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/nuclear/page/analysis/nucenviss2.html offers more information on these and other, more-speculative reactor designs as well as links to details of each type plant.

Reactor vendors have managed the technology risk by industry consolidation and by seeking international business. As a result, international reactor manufacturers have pretty much defined what will be built. On the customer side, the first entity to begin construction on a new domestic nuclear plant will be taking a huge commercial risk. Perhaps risk-sharing between the government and consortia such as NuStart can facilitate that process. But as of now, it is unclear who will be willing to take the first big step.

John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E., Contributing Editor