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Is a U.S. Nuclear Revival Finally Underway?

Four new reactors are under construction in the U.S.--on time and on budget--today



© 2010 Southern Company

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The first new nuclear reactor ordered in the U.S. in roughly three decades is beginning to take shape in the red clay near Augusta, Ga. Southern Co. and its partners have dug 27.5 meters down into that soil to reach bedrock and are now filling up the hole to provide a stable foundation for what is likely to be the first of a new generation of reactors in the U.S.: two new AP-1000 models at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant that stand next to two older pressurized water reactors, which came online in the 1980s.

"The nuclear revival is underway in Georgia," says Jim Miller, chief executive of Southern Nuclear Operating Co., the subsidiary charged with administering the corporation's nuclear power plants. "It will provide safe, clean, reliable, low-cost electric energy to our customers for generations to come."

In addition to charging its current customers $3.73 a month for the construction of this reactor until costs are recovered Southern received an $8.3-billion loan guarantee from the federal government to help make up the cost difference compared with building a natural gas–fired turbine, for example. The total cost of the two new reactors is expected to be $14 billion in the end, Miller says.

And Southern is not the only corporation in the U.S. expanding its nuclear portfolio. Energy company SCANA subsidiary South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. (SCE&G) plans to add two AP-1000 reactors to its nuclear power plant near Jenkinsville, S.C., by 2016 and 2019, whereas the Tennessee Valley Authority will finally complete Watts Bar Unit 2 near Chattanooga, Tenn.—more than 30 years after construction began, including a nearly two-decade hiatus—next year.

There are also applications for at least 20 other reactors under scrutiny at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—the government agency charged with monitoring the nation's reactors—including final approval of the AP-1000 design.

But that doesn't mean its boom time for the U.S. nuclear industry. In October Constellation Energy pulled out of a bid to build a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, among other U.S. nuclear projects that have recently been dropped or delayed.

"In the near term we will not see large-scale construction like in the 1970s and 1980s when we had 40 [nuclear power] plants coming online in a decade. Our electrified economy does not require that at this time," says Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbying group for the nuclear industry. "There will be a lot of plants between now and 2050, just not a lot between now and 2020." Similarly, a variety of nuclear reactor project plans have been shelved, such as plans to build a new reactor at a new site in Victoria, Texas, largely due to falling natural gas prices that make nuclear reactors uncompetitive economically compared to gas-burning turbines.

So, if the trend falls short of a true U.S. nuclear renaissance—given that it is starting with so few reactors and is regionally confined—it is still a new beginning for a sometimes controversial electricity source, one that could make a contribution to cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

On the plus side, for instance, the U.S. is benefiting from a true nuclear boom abroad, with at least 60 reactors under construction worldwide; Southern and SCANA have picked up engineering and construction practices from the ongoing rapid construction of four AP-1000 reactors in China over the past two years, for example. Both companies are assembling massive sheds next to their reactor foundations for assembly of the various forgings. That is so the reactor modules can be assembled upright and indoors. "They built them horizontal and uprighted[sic] them," explains Steve Byrne, executive vice president of generation at SCE&G. "That put a lot of stress and strain on the bolts."

And Southern is also benefiting from growth overseas in buying its nuclear forgings from a facility in Dusan, South Korea, a site that did not exist a few years ago when only one place in the world—Japan Steel Works in Hokkaido—was producing such massive steel forgings. "It takes three to four years from first iron to arriving on site," Byrne says.

As for fuel, there are now new made-in-America options. For the first time in decades a new uranium rod fabrication plant is operating in New Mexico and it may soon be joined by as many as three others in the U.S. That's because 2013 will see the expiration of an agreement with Russia that allows the U.S. to blend down the highly enriched uranium from decommissioned Russian nuclear warheads into the lower level enriched fuel used in U.S. nuclear reactors—a program known as "Megatons to Megawatts" that currently provides as much as 50 percent of U.S. nuclear fuel.

At the same time, the U.S. still lacks a long-term solution for nuclear waste due to the cancellation of a disposal facility being built at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, although President Obama has appointed a blue-ribbon commission to make recommendations. In the interim—which could stretch for a century—used fuel rods will remain where they are: at nuclear power plants themselves either in spent fuel pools or in giant concrete casks on pads.

Meanwhile, the NRC is certifying the safety of the AP-1000 design and is expected to issue a license to the additional Vogtle reactors in Georgia "later this year," Miller says, although concerns continue to be raised at public hearings by opponents. If the license is issued, the first new design reactor in the U.S. in decades would start delivering 1,100 megawatts of power by 2016.

Ultimately, what's driving both Southern and SCANA to build reactors is a combination of increasing federal and local regulations on fossil fuel–fired power generation, particularly coal-fired plants; the possibility of more stringent emissions regulations, including CO2 emissions, within the next several decades; and a desire for a diversity of electricity generation options, according to Miller and Byrne.

"If you look at nuclear over a 40- to 60-year life, it becomes desirable," Fertel says. "Many of today's reactors will be producing electricity well past 2030 and a reactor that starts producing in 2016 will end its 60-year life in 2076. It's a hedge against future [emissions] regulations and a hedge against fossil-fuel prices almost until the end of this century."

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