New Projects, Nuclear

Nuclear Energy’s ‘Brilliant’ Future

Issue 7 and Volume 110.

By 2020, approximately 13 GW of new nuclear power will be ordered by electricity generators in the United States. This is according to Andy White, GE Nuclear Energy’s president, who spoke at the recent American Nuclear Society’s (ANS’s) Annual Meeting, “A Brilliant Future: Nexus of Public Support in Nuclear Technology.” White, along with other experts who spoke at the event, believes the nation will soon begin to see a strong trend in new nuclear energy projects.

White emphasized that no single energy source is going to fill the nation’s future energy needs, but instead it will require a combination of technologies. However, White believes nuclear must be a healthy part of the mix. GE predicts that by 2010, 6 GW of nuclear capacity will be ordered and that the number will increase to 9 GW by 2015. If these predictions come true, then nuclear power could indeed be headed for a renaissance in the United States.

“A global renaissance is already underway,” White said. “It may not be in the United States yet, but it will be.”

Gaining Momentum

“The biggest problem with nuclear energy is that we don’t have enough of it,” said Skip Bowman, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s (NEI’s) president and CEO, who also spoke at the ANS event. “Ten years ago, no one would have guessed that nuclear energy would be getting the attention it is today.”

Bowman attributed much of nuclear energy’s new momentum to its operating record. The average capacity factor for the entire U.S. nuclear power plant fleet is greater than 90 percent, and the fleet’s top quartile plants are operating at a capacity factor greater than 97 percent, Bowman reported. No other electricity generating technology can claim such a performance record, he said. “The challenge now is to sustain this excellent performance.”

Nuclear energy also has an exceptional safety record. “Although the media still doesn’t recognize the improvements and technological advances made since Three Mile Island, there is a great story to tell,” said Spencer Abraham, former Secretary of Energy, in his address to the meeting.

Nuclear energy’s biggest problem is we don’t have enough of it, said Skip Bowman of NEI. Photo courtesy of South Texas Project Electric Generating Station.
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Another issue that is improving nuclear energy’s status in the United States is its resistance to fuel price volatility. As the price of natural gas (and coal to some extent) increases, nuclear energy becomes more appealing.

Another advantage of nuclear energy is its ability to produce large amounts of electricity around the clock with no harmful emissions release. Abraham believes that to meet the current and future environmental standards and continue to provide enough electricity to fuel the nation, nuclear energy must be part of the generation mix. “We cannot fight global warming and nuclear energy at the same time,” he said. “All the (environmental) standards can’t be met by renewables alone.”

The investment community is also beginning to recognize nuclear energy’s many positive attributes, bringing more good news to the industry.

Avoiding Past Pitfalls

For a nuclear renaissance to occur, experts agree the industry cannot repeat the pitfalls of the 1960s and 1970s when the current fleet of nuclear power plants was built. Edward Hubner, Shaw/Stone and Webster’s Nuclear Services vice president outlined differences between how things were done 30 to 40 years ago and how they need to be done today. The next-generation nuclear power plants must be designed and approved before the construction process begins, he said. In the past, licenses were issued and construction begun before the design was finalized, resulting in many changes and multiple Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approvals. Also, with the first generation of nuclear power plants, each plant was custom designed for a specific site or utility. This lack of standardization along with the multiple changes increased both the construction costs and schedule.

Future nuclear plants must be built to one of the NRC approved standard designs, Hubner said. This will require much of the design engineering to be completed only once and then allow it to be carried over to the other sites, greatly reducing costs.

During the first generation, many plant components and parts, such as valves, pumps and controls, were supplied by different lowest-bid vendors. Many of these parts and components were also ordered on a just-in-time strategy (bought when needed), resulting in construction delays due to delayed deliveries. Hubner said he believes that during construction of next-generation plants, parts and components will be specified early in the design process and furnished by only a few pre-qualified and pre-selected vendors. These parts and components likely will be ordered early and stored on-site to assure they are available when needed, Hubner said.

The first generation U.S. nuclear power plants were built on-site from the ground up. Many took five to 10 years to complete. In fact, according to John Polcyn, Bechtel USA’s New Nuclear Generation vice president, Watts Bar Unit 2, which began operating in 1997, was the last U.S. nuclear plant to be brought online-23 years after construction began. All experts agree that for a nuclear renaissance to occur, construction schedules must be greatly reduced; most believe it must take no longer than 48 months from ground-breaking to fuel loading.

To meet such an aggressive construction schedule, Hubner said that besides standardized designs, many next-generation power plant components must be modularized and prefabricated off-site, then shipped to the site for construction. According to Hubner, such a strategy will allow construction personnel to schedule and manage work phases rather than individual craft personnel and commodities. If these strategies are followed, Hubner said he believes experiences and lessons-learned can be transferred from site to site, reducing each successive plant’s construction schedule and costs.

Polcyn said he also believes the nuclear industry cannot afford to repeat past mistakes. “Expectations are high. Whoever goes first must have the backing of the entire industry,” he said. “The first project must succeed; it must be on schedule and within budget if a second, third or fourth project is going to be built. If the first plant isn’t successful, we may not get another chance.”

More Challenges

Still other challenges stand in the way of a true nuclear renaissance, ANS presenters said.

According to Polcyn, Bechtel conducted a study and determined that construction of 15 new nuclear power plants by 2015 will create about 250,000 jobs. Filling this many positions means that recruiting and training must begin immediately.

Experts at the event also agreed that the Department of Energy (DOE) must stop dragging its feet when it comes to building a repository for spent fuel. Not everyone agreed, however, on whether or not this issue might delay construction of the first new nuclear power plants. Louis Long, Southern Nuclear’s (a subsidiary of Southern Co.) technical support vice president, said he doesn’t believe the lack of a permanent spent fuel storage facility will hinder construction of the first few power plants. “The issue won’t be solved on a single new plant or even a few new plants,” he said. “New plants shouldn’t have to address the issue any more than the existing operating plants. It is a national issue.”

Dan Keuter, Entergy Nuclear’s business development vice president, agreed with Long. “A long-term spent fuel storage facility isn’t a challenge to a specific plant,” he said. “However, the DOE must sign a contract agreeing to accept any new plant’s spent fuel.”

While these two executives believe spent fuel storage is an issue, they didn’t seem to be as concerned as other experts who spoke. Abraham for example, said he finds the delays in moving forward with the Yucca Mountain repository “very distressing.” And Polcyn expressed similar feelings. He said he doesn’t believe the DOE will sign a contract with a new plant to accept its spent fuel unless the long-term spent fuel storage issue is resolved first.

Speakers also agreed that a simpler, more streamlined licensing process will be necessary. The Bush Administration reportedly recognizes this and has urged the NRC to shorten its licensing process. “I think the president believes a three to four year licensing process is too long,” Bowman said.

Dr. Nils Diaz, NRC Chairman, emphasized that his agency is committed to continued safe operation of existing, as well as future plants. And he said it is prepared to support the nuclear industry and is ready to review new licensing applications and construction and operating licenses (COLs). “We have hired 363 new engineers this fiscal year. We are breaking the old mold and changing to be more responsive,” he said. He emphasized that the agency is standardizing applications and is ready to review applications in parallel. “The NRC has a better system now,” he added.

The nuclear energy industry still faces challenges, but speakers as well as attendees at this year’s ANS Annual Meeting were upbeat and positive. After nearly three decades of little positive attention, the industry is experiencing a rebirth in the United States. If substantial issues are successfully addressed, it looks to have a brilliant future. – Teresa Hansen