Nuclear Roundtable: Does US Have Nuclear Future?

Nuclear power generation still fuels debate in 2012. Casually drop the word in normal American conversation ...

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by Kristen Wright, senior editor

Nuclear power generation still fuels debate in 2012. Casually drop the word in normal American conversation—even with people on the same side of the aisle—then stand back and watch the show. Americans still can’t agree whether the seven-letter word has two syllables or three, much less on issues beyond semantics.

Contention expands beyond U.S. borders and English-speaking countries. Global installed nuclear capacity reached record highs of 375.5 gigawatts (GW) in 2010 but fell to 366.5 GW in 2011, according to a Worldwatch Institute report. “Vital Signs Online” attributes the decline to increasing production costs, slowing demand, lower natural gas prices and images of Fukushima’s nuclear meltdown ingrained in memories around the world.

Since the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, China immediately froze construction on 25 reactors. Germany and Switzerland said they would phase out nuclear power generation entirely. Back in Japan, each time one of the remaining 50 reactors was taken off-line for scheduled maintenance, protestors prevented power companies from restarting them. By May 5, 2012, Japan had no nuclear power generation for the first time in 40 years.

The Worldwatch Institute report details other contributions to the worldwide decline: Since the beginning of 2010, nearly 11.5 GW of installed capacity has been shut down in France, Germany, Japan and the U.K.; Germany alone has taken some 8 GW off-line. In January 2011, there were 441 nuclear reactors in operation around the world. By October 2011, there were 433. In addition to fewer nuclear power plants, they are operating longer. The average age of decommissioned reactors worldwide has risen to 23 years.

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Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning, left, tours the Plant Vogtle 3 and 4 construction site near Waynesboro, Ga., in February. With him are, from left, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers and Southern Nuclear CEO Stephen Kuczynski. © Southern Co.

The report also details new installed nuclear capacity. Only four countries—the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia and the U.K.—increased their share of nuclear power by more than 1 percentage point between 2009 and 2010.

China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and South Korea have contributed some 5 GW since January 2010. Sixty-five reactors are being built around the world, but 20 of them have been under construction for more than 20 years.

France has delayed construction until 2016 on its first nuclear power plant to be built in 15 years, and the expected cost has nearly doubled from some $4.4 billion to $8 billion.

In 2010, construction began on 16 new reactors throughout the world—the most in more than 20 years. Ten were in China, currently home to 27 reactors and some 27 GW of capacity under construction. But in 2011, new builds worldwide fell to two. One was in India, the other in Pakistan.

The report predicts nuclear power will continue to decrease in prominence. To maintain current generation levels, according to the report, an additional 18 GW would need to be installed worldwide by 2015, plus another 175 GW by 2025.

In 2009, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission received 26 applications for nuclear reactor permits, but only four sites have construction plans. The following year, the Obama administration OK’d $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for construction of nuclear reactors. In February 2011, the administration increased the amount in its budget proposal by $36 billion.

In light of the stats, Electric Light & Power magazine invited a few nuclear heavyweights to discuss the future of U.S. nuclear power: an attorney and member of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future; an attorney, nuclear engineer and co-founder and CEO of a small-scale modular nuclear power company; and an attorney, former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, former chair of the Maine and New York utility commissions and one of the original “Nader’s Raiders.”

At the Table

Timothy A. Frazier was appointed designated federal officer for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future by Secretary Steven Chu in March 2010. He served at the DOE as director of the Office of Policy, Integration, and Communication in the Office of Nuclear Energy; senior technical advisor to former Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis R. Spurgeon; and associate deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Fuel Cycle Management, under which the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership was managed. With more than 22 years of experience at the DOE, Frazier has managed nuclear programs and nuclear operations both in the field and from headquarters. He works as a senior advisor with Dickstein Shapiro’s public policy and law and energy practices.

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Paul G. Lorenzini is an attorney, nuclear engineer and the CEO and co-founder of NuScale Power. Lorenzini held several executive positions with PacifiCorp and its domestic and international subsidiaries, including president of Pacific Power & Light, CEO of PacifiCorp Turkey and CEO of Powercor Australia. Lorenzini also worked as vice president and general manager of Rockwell’s Hanford operations. (Rockwell employed more than 5,000 people and was responsible for nuclear waste management, fuel reprocessing, the Basalt Waste Isolation Project and major site services.) Lorenzini also was involved in developing safety analysis codes for design of the Liquid Metal-Cooled Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR). Lorenzini worked with a Portland law firm where he represented community leaders in Eastern Oregon who intervened in state regulatory proceedings in support of a proposed nuclear plant. He has a doctorate in nuclear engineering from Oregon State University and a Juris Doctor from Loyola University in Los Angeles.

Peter A. Bradford was sworn in as a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1977 after being nominated for a five-year term by President Jimmy Carter and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He is a 1964 graduate of Yale University and received his law degree from the Yale Law School in 1968. He also participated in a 1968 Ralph Nader-sponsored study of the Federal Trade Commission and is the author of “Fragile Structures: A Story of Oil Refineries, National Security, and the Coast of Maine.” He is vice chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and he served on a panel advising the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development on how best to replace the remaining Chernobyl nuclear power plants. He also advised the Austrian Institute for Risk Reduction on issues associated with the opening of the Mochovce Nuclear Power Plant in western Slovakia. He teaches energy policy and law at the Vermont Law School and has taught at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

ELP: Are U.S. nuclear power plants safe, and can they withstand simultaneous natural disasters such as the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima, or an F-5 tornado and flood combination, or an earthquake and fire combination?

Frazier: The nuclear power plants in the United States are safe. In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the effect on Fukushima, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its first regulatory requirements based on lessons learned from Fukushima. These regulatory requirements are intended to increase the margin of safety of the operating nuclear plants and those currently under construction.

Lorenzini: Nuclear plants are extremely safe—even Fukushima withstood the earthquake and only failed to handle the tsunami because they failed to design for tsunamis that had historically been known to occur in that area. They are all designed for these major events, individually and in combination. As important, today’s large nuclear plants are designed with so-called “passive” safety features, which do not require the operation of emergency diesels to maintain cooling of the reactor after shutdown. For these plants, loss of the emergency diesels, which led to the core meltdown, would not have caused loss of the decay heat removal capabilities. Fukushima will be studied, and lessons learned will be integrated into new plant designs.

Bradford: Nuclear power plants are relatively safe. They are not absolutely safe. Their ability to withstand disasters depends on the strength of the disasters and the skill of the operators. One can always imagine disasters that would cause serious radiation releases.

ELP: The buzzword was “nuclear renaissance” in the United States until Fukushima, then nuclear proponents cringed and critics told them they’d told them so. As it stands, the first new nuclear reactors in 40 years will be built in South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia soon. What did Fukushima change in the United States?

Frazier: Fukushima did not stop the “nuclear renaissance” in the United States. Fukushima did, however, remind people in the United States of the potential impacts of an incident at nuclear power plants. The nuclear renaissance in the United States is being slowed by the historically low price of natural gas, which is being used to generate cheap electricity.

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Construction is underway at Southern. Co.’s Vogtle 4, in foreground, and Vogtle 3 with Vogtle 1 and 2 in the background. Vogtle 1 in this March 2011 photo is shown during a scheduled refueling and maintenance outage. © Southern Co.

Lorenzini: Somewhat surprisingly, public opinion about nuclear power has stabilized since Fukushima and did not experience the negative impact people might have expected. (See attached chart). What it has done is invigorate the discussion of small modular reactors such as NuScale, which, due to their simplicity and size, have made significant enhancements to the safety of nuclear power. What has not changed is the need for reliable, economic sources of electricity that are available 24/7 and offer a low-carbon footprint. The only such resource available on scales required to impact carbon production is nuclear power.

Bradford: The first sentence is wrong. The second is prophesy disguised as fact. The answer to the question in the third is “not much.” The nuclear renaissance was on the rocks well before Fukushima, as industry leaders like John Rowe had acknowledged publically. The reasons were economic.

Fukushima has made it harder for the nuclear industry to justify the economic subsidies that it must have to offset the economics. It has raised costs for the operating reactors. It has affected public opinion. It has not affected the nonexistent nuclear renaissance.

ELP: What about smaller, modular nuclear generation? How will that fit into the U.S. generation mix, and how would the entire process differ from current U.S. nuclear generation?

Frazier: Small modular reactors (SMRs) have great potential. I believe that SMRs could play a major role in niche power generation markets. For example, appropriately sized SMRs—or multiple SMRs—could benefit remote areas of the United States that currently require electrical power to be transmitted over long distances, areas with limited water resources or areas with limited transmission grids. SMRs could also be used to replace coal-fired plants that are reaching the end of their life and drastically reduce carbon emissions. The near-term SMRs being considered for deployment should be based on existing light-water reactor (LWR) technology. That being the case, the process of generating electricity is not fundamentally different from the current process.

Lorenzini: Small modular reactors offer three main advantages: They significantly reduce the demand for front-end capital outlays; they offer enhanced safety, critical post-Fukushima; and they reach markets which have, until now, been inaccessible to nuclear power because they were not suitable to large plants.

Bradford: Those who claim to know the answer are kidding themselves. No SMRs are licensed or ordered. We have no idea what they will cost. They have no likelihood of being competitive with natural gas for many years if current gas price projections are accurate.

ELP: What are your biggest concerns about nuclear power generation in the United States?

Frazier: My biggest concern is related to the slow pace of the expansion of nuclear power in the United States. As the expansion has slowed—for a variety of reasons—the infrastructure necessary to support the expansion has now been placed at risk. The nuclear work force is aging and could impact our ability to license, construct and operate nuclear power plants. The rest of the world is aggressively pursuing nuclear energy, and we should as well.

Lorenzini: My first concern is the continued need to correct the ongoing flow of misinformation—about safety, radiation, the nature and character of nuclear waste—that hampers sound public decisions. Today’s Internet is creating blogs, which have helped offer multiple sources of information so the casual reader can see both sides and compare, but it takes a lot of work. The second is more basic: We need to get the waste issue resolved, meaning a clear path forward around which policymakers can get aligned.

Bradford: Visions of new nuclear construction as the solution to climate change are an expensive distraction from measures—like a carbon tax—that would actually make a difference. Time is running out for embarking on real solutions to climate change, and fighting over new nuclear reactors is an expensive and fruitless distraction.

ELP: Nuclear power generation is one of those political issues that fires people up; they’re either for it or against it, and seldom does one hear anyone say he or she has no opinion on the subject, regulators being the exception. If the U.S. did away with all nuclear power generation—20 percent of total generation—what would be able to replace it, and what would be different?

Frazier: Since nuclear power plants provide baseload power, the only alternatives are fossil-fueled plants—natural gas or coal—and a very limited number of biomass, geothermal or other renewable plants. Replacing the current nuclear power plants with fossil-fueled plants would dramatically increase the carbon emissions. At this point, I don’t believe that renewable energy should be seen as being able to replace all the nuclear baseload power. Renewable energy alternatives such as wind and solar might become more baseload-like, but only with advancements in energy storage.

Lorenzini: The first is we would be forced to use more coal and natural gas, and our carbon footprint would be much larger. Renewables cannot fill this void by themselves for two reasons: They have limited capacity to do so economically; and second—and more important—they operate intermittently and cannot provide stable, consistent power at all times.

The second is electricity prices would be higher because uneconomic renewables would be forced into more service than they have today—not enough to fill the hole, but more.

Bradford: Again, the first sentence has little to do with the question. If existing reactors were phased out over a decade or so and if low-carbon energy policies were adopted, the impacts would not be large. If no low-carbon policies were in place, the result would be a modest increase in U.S. CO2 emissions during a time when reductions are urgently needed.

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Vogtle units 3 and 4 are shown under construction in this March 30, 2012, photo. © Southern Co.

ELP: Yucca Mountain virtually fell out of conversations after President Obama came into office and Steven Chu became energy secretary. Will Yucca Mountain resurface if Mitt Romney wins in November?

Frazier: The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recognized in our final report, available at www.brc.gov, the value of a consensus-based approach to locating a storage and/or disposal facility for spent nuclear fuel or high-level waste. Our view of consensus was very broad-based and included local governments, local communities, tribes and the state. Governor Romney is reported to have made statements in support of a community’s and a state’s right to accept or decline these facilities. Yucca Mountain may resurface if Governor Romney wins the presidency, but the outcome remains unclear.

Lorenzini: My guess is yes, but it would be resurfaced, I believe, in the context of a larger solution hopefully aligned around principles suggested by the Blue Ribbon Commission.

Bradford: Perhaps, but it would take many years to reassemble the needed teams at the NRC and in DOE, especially if Harry Reid remains the majority leader of the Senate. It is more likely that the U.S. will move toward interim storage while rethinking the disposal program.

ELP: Estimated costs of building a new nuclear power plant vary a lot depending on the source, but even the lowest estimates are high. Many experts say there are few U.S. utilities with balance sheets large enough to raise the capital needed to build the next-generation plant. Do you agree? Will utility mergers be required for a true nuclear renaissance?

Frazier: I agree with the many experts and believe there probably are just a few companies with balance sheets sufficient enough to build large new nuclear power plants; SMRs might be a different story given their projected lower capital cost. While utility mergers might be one path for funding new nuclear plants, federal loan guarantees could also be successful in supporting the construction of new nuclear power plants.

Lorenzini: Large plants are difficult to build because the capital required is so large. This could be relieved by better regulatory treatment by which utility commissions would provide some risk protection, although the politics would be difficult. The other answer is SMRs, which can meet new nuclear demand with similar economics and much lower financial risks.

Bradford: This is ridiculous. Nuclear power’s economic problems reflect risk, not size. Consortia could be formed to build new reactors if they were economically justified. The combined assets and/or revenues of companies interested in new reactors are larger than the economies of most of the nations of the world combined. Facilities that can sell their output at a competitive price can be privately financed and built. New reactors have no prospect of selling competitively priced electricity and therefore will bankrupt the builders if they must be privately financed. That’s why they will only be built under arrangements that shift the risks to the taxpayer or the customer.

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