Nuclear Power’s History Has Role In Its Future

Issue 3 and Volume 111.

By Teresa Hansen, Associate Editor

Not long ago, someone from outside the electric industry asked me about my views on nuclear energy-do I really think it is a viable generating technology of the future? I didn’t hesitate to tell him that I think it’s not only a viable option, but possibly the best option for future baseload generation. Of course, I mentioned that nuclear power plants don’t emit CO2 or any other greenhouse gasses and that fuel price volatility doesn’t affect generation costs in nuclear power plants nearly as much as it does in plants that burn fossil fuels.

But I found that to make a convincing case for future nuclear power, all I really had to do was discuss the history of the country’s existing nuclear plant fleet. The story of today’s operating nuclear power plants is truly one of triumph over adversity.

Shortly after graduating from college, I began working at a nuclear site with two operating plants. One of the two plants had been operating for about six or seven years and the other was just beginning its second refueling outage, so it had been commercial for only about two years (the unit was still on a 12-month refueling cycle). The utility that built and owned these plants, like most other owners/operators at the time, was facing a steep learning curve. If that wasn’t enough of a hardship, the Three Mile Island (TMI) 2 accident had occurred just a couple of years earlier and the entire industry was still reeling from the bad publicity and the many NRC mandates that followed.

During the first several years that I worked at the site, it was common for a refueling/maintenance outage to last three months and some lasted six months or more. Our units were not unique in this respect; many plants were operating in similar modes. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, in 1990, the average refueling outage duration was 104 days. In addition to refueling, our outages often included replacing reactor coolant pump seals, inspecting and plugging steam generator tubes, and various other large maintenance jobs. Of course, installing post-TMI retrofits seemed never ending. Design change packages were everywhere.

Keeping the units online and operating efficiently while meeting all the regulatory requirements was a tough job in those days. Trips in between refueling outages were common and at times, we performed scheduled maintenance outages between refuelings. Again, this wasn’t unique to our units, the Nuclear Energy Institute reports that in 1985 the nuclear industry’s capacity factor was at its lowest-about 55 percent.

Nuclear plant owners discovered that generating electricity with nuclear power was a bit different than generating electricity with a thermal plant that burned natural gas, fuel oil or even coal.

Although TMI, along with maintenance and operating issues, ended new plant construction and caused the industry to incur unheard of expenses, many plant owners persevered. With diligent planning and scheduling, well thought-out engineering, better employee training, dedicated management and employees, and a few years of experience under their belts, nuclear plant owners begin to trim the number of trips between outages and shorten outage duration. The plants gradually became more reliable and less costly to operate and maintain.

Today, the story is much different than it was in the 80s when I started working in the industry. It is a true success story. The average capacity factor for nuclear plants operating in the United States is currently more than 89 percent; almost 17 percentage points higher than its nearest competitor, the coal-fired thermal plant. And, several plants are running at more than 100 percent capacity. The average duration of a refueling outage in 2006 was 39 days. Brown’s Ferry Unit 3 (BWR) holds the record for the shortest U.S. refueling outage, which was completed in 14 days and 16 hours during spring 2002. Plants are also running longer between outages. LaSalle 1 set the record for the longest operating period between refueling outages in February 2006 with 739 days of continuous operation.

In addition, today’s operating fleet has an unprecedented safety record. Lessons learned from the TMI accident, government regulations and oversight, and an unequaled commitment to personnel and public safety have resulted in a safety record that is second to none.

If you read my article, “Nuclear Plant Uprates” on page XX, you’ll also see that in the past 30 years, nuclear power plant uprates have substantially increased the power output of the U.S. operating fleet. Since 1977, U.S. operating plants have increased their power output by more than 4,800 MW. This increase is equivalent to construction of about five new plants. In 2007 and 2008, the NRC expects that more than 1,000 MW of nuclear generating capacity will be added by plant uprates that are awaiting its approved. And, based on a survey it conducted in September 2006, the NRC expects that by 2011, another 4,100 MW of capacity will be added through power uprates. If these expectations pan out, the 103 nuclear power plants that are currently operating will have increased their total capacity by nearly 10 GW.

These nuclear industry statistics are pretty amazing, especially when you consider that many plants in the current operating fleet were designed with tools such as slide rules, drafting boards and t-squares, and hand-held scientific calculators-tools that are considered archaic by today’s standards.

These statistics make a compelling case for new nuclear power plant construction. If the current operating fleet of nuclear plants, some of which are more than 30 years old, can overcome the adversity of the early years and attain such incredible reliability, performance and safety statistics, then why wouldn’t we want to build next generation nuclear plants to help meet our future electricity needs?