Nuclear Regains Lost Momentum

Regaining momentum.

This was the theme of the keynote session at POWER-GEN International and NUCLEAR POWER International 2010 as the energy industry seemed to be turning the corner and coming back after the economic collapse in the U.S.  This same theme came to mind when putting together the March issue of Nuclear Power International magazine. Since the January-February issue was published, several new announcements have helped restore optimism for a promising future.

In February, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the Construction and Operating License for Units 3 and 4 at Plant Vogtle in Georgia.

While it has been a long process, especially after the disaster in Japan, the approval of the first new reactors in the U.S. in over 30 years is great news for the industry. Not unexpectedly, several groups plan to challenge the NRC’s decision in court. Just one week after the NRC vote, 12 organizations said they were going to sue NRC for “violating federal law by issuing the Vogtle license without considering important public safety and environmental implications in the wake of the catastrophic Fukushima accident in Japan.”

These groups said they will ask federal judges to order the NRC to prepare a new environmental impact statement for the proposed reactors that explains how cooling systems for the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors and spent fuel storage pools will be upgraded to protect against earthquakes, flooding and station blackouts. Ironically, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko was the lone dissenter on the decision, saying the new units should include recommendations from the NRC’s post-Fukushima task force.

While the industry should take the recommendations from the NRC task force seriously and implement any needed safety enhancements, comparing the new Vogtle units to units that were built in the ‘70s is out-of-touch. New passive systems in the next generation of reactors take away the need to rely only on operators.

Nuclear power is important for power generation in the U.S. today and will continue to be as demand for clean-energy continues to rise.

Right now, nuclear provides about 20 percent of the nation’s total electricity and roughly 70 percent of carbon-free electricity in the States.

“The resurgence of America’s nuclear industry starts here in Georgia, where you just got approval for the first time in three decades to build new reactors,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu during a tour of the Plant Vogtle construction site on Feb. 15. “Nuclear energy is a critical part of President Obama’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy that will help build an American economy to last. The Fukushima disaster reminds us that nuclear safety and security require continued vigilance, and we are committed to harnessing nuclear energy – and all our energy resources – in a safe and responsible manner.”

One issue that remains is the disposal of used nuclear fuel in the U.S. The government and industry must find a way to come to common ground on what to do with spent fuel.

The U.S. has more than 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at about 75 operating and shutdown reactor sites around the country, with more than 2,000 tons being produced each year. The Department of Energy also is storing an additional 2,500 tons of spent fuel and large volumes of high-level nuclear waste at a number of government-owned sites.  When touring Voglte, Chu said the DOE has committed up to $10 million in new funding for the research and development in advanced nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technologies.

“Finding a workable way to end the stalemate over the safe and secure storage of used nuclear fuel is one of the most important things we can do to support this vital industry,” said Chu.

In late January, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, a panel of experts given the task of finding an answer to spent fuel storage, delivered its final report to Chu, providing recommendations for creating a long-term solution for managing and disposing spent fuel and waste.

“The need for a new strategy is urgent, not just to address these damages and costs but because this generation has a fundamental, ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe, permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating,” the commission wrote.

In February, the DOE requested more than $770 million for nuclear in 2013, re-confirming the administration’s support for nuclear.

The industry will watch as Vogtle Units 3 and 4 come to life. Employees of South Carolina Electric and Gas Co. will be paying extra close attention. The SCANA subsidiary, along with Santee Cooper, also has plans to construct two AP1000 units at the existing V.C. Summer plant. The NRC could issue the COL for this project in this same year.

The key to completely “Regain Momentum” for the nuclear industry is to build the units on-time and within budget. If not, the industry will once again be the punching bag for those same groups who are trying to deter the resurrection of nuclear power in the U.S.

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