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September 3, 2001
Volume 79, Number 36
CENEAR 79 36 pp. 29-32
ISSN 0009-2347
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Can powerful support from the Bush White House and the public's fear of electricity blackouts fire up a new generation of U.S. nuclear power plants?


James A. Lake has a nuclear vision.

The world is at a junction for nuclear power, says Lake, immediate past president of the American Nuclear Society and associate laboratory director of nuclear and energy systems engineering at the Department of Energy Idaho National Engineering & Environmental Laboratory (INEEL).

MORE OF THESE? The three-reactor, 3,733-MW Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona is the biggest in the U.S. and the 12th largest in the world. Built by Westinghouse, the plants are similar to several recently sold to South Korea.
He explains nuclear energy's volatile history in the U.S., starting with the "high expectations" of the 1960s, the "too cheap to meter" phase, he calls it. That period, Lake says, was soon followed by the time of "great disappointment" of the 1970s and '80s, when construction delays, huge cost overruns, regulatory compliance problems, and Three Mile Island put a curse on the industry.

Now after a decade of reassessment, the nuclear power industry, he says, is in a period of recovery.

"The energy crisis has shined a spotlight right on us," he says. "We are sitting at a point where the potential for future contributions is enormous. There are 103 reactors in the U.S. and 438 worldwide, and people are thinking there should be 4,000 in the next 20 years."

A host of forces have combined to bring on that recovery. Chief among them, he says, are the recent increases in efficiency and safety in the operation of old nuclear plants and the new competition among electric utilities to buy up and extend the life of these old power plants (C&EN, Oct. 2, 2000, page 39).

The recovery in Lake's vision, however, also rests on the Bush Administration's perception that the U.S. faces a national crisis in electricity and the willingness of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to help power producers.

The Administration's energy plan glowingly endorsed nuclear power and recommended that the government take several actions to help the industry, from faster approval of new power plant licenses by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to ending the 20-year-old national policy blocking reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

And last, but hardly least, today's nuclear energy recovery is based in large part on a cadre of nuclear energy advocates who, despite the dark skies, never seem to quit in their support of this electricity source.

In July, for the first time in 25 years, three electric utilities signaled their intention to seek preliminary NRC certification for a half-dozen U.S. sites where they may want to build new nuclear energy power plants.

Over the past decade, NRC has quietly overhauled its site-permitting process and approved three reactor designs, which could greatly speed the regulatory review and construction oversight process should the utilities decide to move along and actually build the plants.

Meanwhile, over the past two years, DOE has reformed its R&D activities that support nuclear energy, and the department expects more help from the President and Congress in the future.

Indeed, DOE recently announced a $700,000 program to help nuclear utilities find and scope out possible sites for new nuclear power plants.

Lake_1 Simard 7936cover Jeffmug 7936cov1.magwood

Remaining to be answered, despite decades of debate, are seemingly intractable questions about nuclear energy. What will be done with some 70,000 tons of deadly high-level radioactive waste building up from today's generation stations? Can the public trust this power source? And most important in this new world of electricity deregulation: Can nuclear power compete?

Still, it is a new world for nuclear energy.

Leading the nuclear industry group charged with laying the groundwork for a new round of power plants is Ron Simard, senior director of business services for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

"At least three companies have told NRC they are evaluating sites in order to add new power plants where they already have a reactor running," he says.

The three are Entergy at its River Bend, La., and Grand Gulf, Miss., sites; Dominion at its Surry and North Anna, Va., sites; and Exelon at undisclosed locations.

Simard stresses that the announcements are preliminary and a decision will be made late this year or early next. If they move forward, the companies will seek an "early site permit," he says, which is one of the regulatory changes made by NRC to hasten the review process.

The companies can get NRC pre-approval for the sites, bank them, and see what happens to electricity demands. And since NRC in the past approved other plants at the sites, the process should be simple, he says.

"UTILITIES COULD pick a 'worst case' value for a potential design, and then that level would be established for any design eventually selected," Simard says.

And if a company picks one of three nuclear designs already certified by NRC in the 1990s, it could quickly move ahead to seek a "combined construction and operating license" even before construction begins. The license is another NRC reform to speed things up and limit financial risk, as well as narrowing topics and opportunities for delays caused by public review.

"So the bottom line is," Simard says, "that instead of taking eight or 10 years to construct the plant while a design evolves and instead of having some open-ended time for post-construction public hearings, where people raise and re-raise the same issues, we now have a process where you can bring a plant to market in five or six years."

He predicts that the first plant will be built by a consortium of investors led by an energy merchant company because of the economics of energy deregulation. Partners might include construction and engineering firms, a few industrial electricity customers, and possibly some private investors, all trying to make some money and spread around the risk.

He also thinks that more than one plant will be built in order to lower the costs and risks that would come with a single, first-time project. "Nobody wants to go first" is a view frequently repeated, even among nuclear advocates.

Indeed, the high-profile public comment phase is gone, says David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists who worked for the industry for 17 years and now criticizes it.

Remaining to be answered, despite decades of debate, are seemingly intractable questions about nuclear energy.
UNDER THE NEW NRC rules, he says, there is little to comment upon during the siting process since no one will know exactly what size or kind of nuclear power plant may eventually be built at a site. And further along in the process, if nuclear opponents try to challenge a certified design, he says, "you'd be told you missed your chance" since the design was certified a decade ago.

"You can comment at the end if you want to waste a postage stamp," he says. "People will complain, but not to NRC," he continues. "They will go to the media, to Congress, and to people who still believe this is America and not the old Soviet Union.

"This time around, however, I don't think public opposition will be the big factor," Lochbaum says. "I think it will be economics that decides if nuclear power will proceed."

Economics is also the bottom line for Howard Gruenspecht. Gruenspecht is an economist and resident scholar at Resources for the Future, an energy and environmental economic think tank. Formerly, he led DOE's Office of Economic, Electricity & Natural Gas Analysis.

The problem for nuclear power, he says, is construction costs and time. In the end, nuclear success will come down to the price of natural gas.

"You can't build these things cheap enough or fast enough to be profitable unless you have a vision of natural gas prices being very, very high," he says.

Currently, with natural gas at $3.00 to $4.00 per million Btu, nuclear power can't compete. A gas-fired plant can be built in two years for $500 per KW, he says, with 50% or more efficiency. A nuclear plant is averaging $1,600 per KW and can take a half dozen years to be built.

Since a nuclear plant has the advantage of emitting no greenhouse gases, a carbon tax or trading system could help, but to make a difference carbon emissions would have to have a very high monetary value, Gruenspecht says.

It isn't like the old regulated days anymore, he says, where utilities just added the costs to the rate base. "In a deregulated world, it is highly unlikely that any private party is going to start laying out all this money," he says. "Any stretch-out at all in construction time would be brutal in terms of returns. The economics just aren't there."

Despite the tall talk, the nuclear industry is well aware of the economics of nuclear power.

"With possibly one exception, I don't think you are going to see any utility stand up tomorrow and say, 'I am going to order a six-pack of nuclear power plants,' " says George Davis, director of government programs in the Westinghouse Electric Co. nuclear systems division.

Davis notes that Westinghouse has two reactor designs precertified by NRC: a 1,350-MW unit and a smaller 600-MW design. The third NRC-certified design is a 1,300-MW unit made by General Electric. All are light-water reactors and none have been sold in the U.S.

THE JAPANESE HAVE purchased two of the GE units, similar to the NRC-certified model. And a design similar to Westinghouse's larger certified power plant is in operation or under construction at eight plants in South Korea.

The 600-MW unit, however, is a new approach, Davis says, and one that Westinghouse thought would lead to big sales in the U.S. market. The company was wrong, and the plant has not been built anywhere.

The small-size approach came from an industry survey in the 1980s that showed utilities wanted smaller, simpler units that would be faster and cheaper to build and could be added in small bites to the electric grid. Westinghouse tried for a 300-MW unit, Davis says, but quickly found it to be far too expensive.

To save money, Westinghouse developed what grew to be called a "passive system," which is a simpler design with half the valves, 80% less piping, 35% fewer pumps, and 70% fewer control cables than other power plants. It also turned out to be safer, NRC and Westinghouse say, and it could be built faster.

Unfortunately for Westinghouse, it was too expensive for anyone to find out how well it really worked in the U.S. marketplace and too small for the Asian market.

"The U.S. electricity market probably is the toughest in the world due to cheap natural gas and deregulation," Davis says. "We are blessed and cursed with cheap power."

Hence GE's and Westinghouse's success selling large, expensive nuclear plants to the Asian market, where electricity is dear.

Davis says U.S. nuclear plant costs must drop by at least one-third to be competitive in the U.S. And without a domestic market, Davis says, it is hard for U.S. companies to develop a robust market elsewhere.

"The rest of the world sees us as the technical leader, and asks, 'If nuclear is so wonderful, why isn't the U.S. building nuclear?' " Davis says.

"Nuclear energy takes a pretty substantial infrastructure commitment, and not a lot of countries are going to make that investment if they don't see this happening in the U.S.," he continues. "They don't want to be alone, and they want the U.S. to lead."

Westinghouse is now designing a 1,090-MW version of the newer plant, Davis says, aiming to hit a $1,000-per-MW construction figure.

The concept of small, modular units is far from dead, however.

A consortium of companies, including Westinghouse's parent company, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), is working to resurrect an older technology, the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR). While the pebble bed design goes back to a German demonstration plant, shut down in the 1980s because of safety concerns, it has been infused with new life through a project in South Africa.

Led by Eskom, a South African utility, the consortium includes the U.S. utility Exelon with a 12.5% share as well as BNFL with a 22.5% share. Westinghouse is providing design support, Davis says.

Exelon has begun the NRC process to precertify a site for the pebble bed and gain approval of the design. The consortium is expected to decide this fall whether to build the South African demonstration project. If the companies go ahead, Exelon is likely to seek NRC approval for a similar project in the U.S.

"This could stand the industry on its head if the pebble bed performs like we hope," Davis says.

The PBMR comes in 110-MW units, which should be cheaper and faster to build. It can be refueled during operation, uses fuel encased in graphite spheres rather than control rods held in a large containment structure, and has a host of other advantages.

Exelon has told NRC in a proposal that if the South African project gets a green light, it will seek a permit to construct 10 units at one of its 10 nuclear power plant sites. Exelon is the largest nuclear power-based utility in the U.S.

Under its scenario, Exelon would have the first module built and ready to load fuel about six months after the end of prototype testing in South Africa, which would be about 2006 or so. In a preliminary response letter to Exelon, NRC looked favorably upon its plan.

PBMR has drawn few detractors during this early stage. As Union of Concerned Scientist's Lochbaum notes, "It is the safest reactor on the planet right now since it only exists on paper."

NUCLEAR POWER WAS given a big boost when Bush and Cheney took over the White House, says William D. Magwood IV, director of the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, Science & Technology. "Nuclear R&D is coming back.

"If you go back to the 1980s, DOE used to spend a half a billion dollars on nuclear research." But that plummeted to what Magwood laughingly calls "our favorite year"--1998--when DOE nuclear R&D spending was barely $2 million.

With no money, Magwood's operation reformulated how it does business, he says. He created several advisory committees, worked more closely with industry and the science community, and relied more strongly on peer review and merit when assessing proposals and grants.

This year's R&D budget is around $47 million, with most funding development of new technologies and about $5 million supporting technologies to upgrade today's reactors, which could become a growing problem if utilities relicense all the current reactors. Magwood believes this is likely, which would mean a 60-year life for today's systems and significant upgrades to continue operations.

"We break the nuclear world into two chunks--before and after 2010," Magwood says, and he has created advisory committees to provide R&D direction for near-term industry needs before 2010 and long-term needs.

The near-term group plans to release a report by the end of September, and the long-term group plans to present a "road map" late next year, Magwood says.

THE LONG-TERM GOAL, he says, is a "world reactor," a design to satisfy the needs of multiple markets throughout the world. To this end, the U.S., Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, South Korea, and the U.K. have joined in an international forum to develop a road map that they hope leads to a new generation of reactors and fuel cycle technologies that could be deployed by 2030.

Within DOE, nearly all the large national labs are conducting some R&D in support of Magwood's office. Lake says his lab, at INEEL, is particularly looking at fuel cycle technologies, both to minimize the amount of radioactive waste and to extract the potential energy still remaining in spent nuclear fuel.

He predicts that a new generation of U.S. reactors will require waste reprocessing, currently blocked in the U.S. This could lead, he says, to technologies such as pyroprocessing or even transmutation of the waste to separate elements and to transform the most radioactive materials.

DOE programs are investigating these approaches at Los Alamos and Argonne National Labs as well as at INEEL. The costs and nuclear nonproliferation problems inherent in these approaches are huge deterrents, but Lake remains upbeat. And noting today's growing interest, it is wise never to say never when it comes to nuclear energy.

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Are There Pebbles In Our Future?

Cheap, small, and "meltdown proof" are among key hoped-for advantages of the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) being considered for construction at a site in South Africa.

AROUND AND AROUND Technicians prepare to start up the first pebble bed modular reactor demonstration project in West Germany in 1983.
The PBMR is designed to hold nearly a half a million billiard-ball-sized spheres. Of these, about 330,000 are fuel spheres of enriched uranium dioxide, encased in graphite and coated with silicon carbide and pyrolitic carbon, and another 110,000 are pure graphite spheres to moderate the nuclear reactions. The pressure vessel is also lined with graphite brick reflectors.

With this unusual design, the fuel moves. Fuel pebbles drop into the pressure vessel from the top, circulate through the vessel, and eventually exit the bottom. They are then inspected and head back to the hopper until they run out of fissile material. Each fuel sphere is expected to make the trip 10 times during its three-year life.

The aim is to operate the unit continuously without maintenance for six years, refueling on-line without a shutdown.

And also unlike traditional reactors, which use water or steam as a coolant, PBMR is cooled with helium and generates electricity by using the heated gas to drive a turbine. Maintenance is reduced by avoiding water's phase change.

Helium is heated to 1,600 °F, higher than water in traditional reactors, and supporters say the high temperature means the gas also can supply heat for an industrial cogeneration process after generating electricity.

If built, the South African unit will be 110 MW, one-tenth the size of most nuclear reactors. And it is to be modular, giving utilities the option of scaling up the power plant depending on electricity needs as well as avoiding huge construction costs and tying up funds during long construction.

The vessel lacks a containment structure, because the radioactive fuel is already contained by being enclosed within the pebbles. And it is a passive system, supporters say, meaning that, even during a runaway accident, the unit is designed to shut down by itself and not reach high enough temperatures to melt the pebbles.

The units are designed so spent pebbles can be stored on-site for the 40-year life of the plant and an additional 40 years while they lose some of their radioactivity.

The South African project is led by Eskom, a South African utility, with British Nuclear Fuels and Exelon, a U.S. power company, for partners. If the consortium decides to build a demonstration plant, Exelon says it may build one in the U.S.

Critics have been quiet so far, with most concerns focused on the lack of a containment structure and graphite's ability to burn. If Exelon moves ahead with its U.S. plans, the lack of criticism is likely to change.


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