Maligned nuclear power fights to remain a U.S. option

Westinghouse’s AP1000 nuclear plant, shown in this rendering, is the choice for Levy County.

Toshiba/Westinghouse

Westinghouse’s AP1000 nuclear plant, shown in this rendering, is the choice for Levy County.

Big electric utilities pining to expand further into nuclear power are quietly hunkered down on purpose, conventional wisdom says.

They're biding their time until the fear and furor over Japan's nuclear disasters dim in people's memories. Later, when people clamor for more electricity in a rebounding U.S. economy, nuclear power can be repitched to the public in a more favorable light.

This is pretty much the stance of Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light, the two biggest and expansion-minded nuclear power players in Florida. It is also the view of North Carolina's pro-nuke Duke Energy, another big power company that will finish its planned purchase of Progress Energy late this year.

Unconventional wisdom says the backlash from Japan's nuclear nightmare, extraordinary costs of building nuclear power plants and new regulatory concern over the design and safety of the type of nuclear power plant Progress Energy wants to build in Florida's Levy County and elsewhere will slow the acceptance of nuclear power in the United States. How long? Long enough, some say, so that next-generation nukes may never happen here.

Responding to Japan's crisis, some European nations already plan to phase out nuclear power. Germany is one. Switzerland is another, deciding last week to abandon plans to build new nuclear reactors.

The Swiss scenario could win advocates. The Alpine country will let its existing generation of nukes run until they are scheduled to be shut down. By then, the thinking goes, the country will have had the time to develop new energy sources and improve energy efficiency. By then, nuclear energy may have lost its competitive advantage over renewable sources of energy.

Pie in the sky? Just last week, Mark Little, the global research director for General Electric (a company big in all sorts of energy fields, including nuclear power), said innovations may drive solar power to become cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years. That's 2014 to 2016. Not far away at all.

That's a lot of maybes. But it must worry utilities so closely wed to nuclear power.

For Duke Energy and Progress Energy, the main reason to merge into one of the country's biggest power producers is to gain the added clout they claim they need to afford the enormous costs of building nuclear plants.

The United States has not approved a construction license for a commercial nuclear plant in more than three decades. The revival of the U.S. nuclear industry, urged by U.S. presidents Bush and Obama, appeared on track only a few years ago. Now it seems temporarily derailed.

In the wake of Japan's disaster, the latest blow was struck this month when the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission that oversees (and sometimes promotes) the nuclear power industry said it has new reservations about the Westinghouse AP1000. That's the same popular model of nuclear power plant that Progress Energy, Duke Energy, Southern Co. and Scana — all big electricity providers across the southeastern United States — want to build in abundance.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko stated on May 20 that his agency's "efforts to confirm its review of Westinghouse's amended AP1000 reactor design have resulted in the uncovering of additional technical issues."

Put simply, the NRC wants better proof from Westinghouse that the concrete outer, or "shield," building that protects the reactor is engineered tough enough to withstand external attack and contain peak pressures from inside if something goes wrong. The trick, of course, is that no shield building exists yet since no reactor has been built. Westinghouse's analysis for the NRC is based on computer models.

Westinghouse, now owned by the Japanese giant Toshiba, told the NRC it will work with the federal regulator on any design question. But the company insists the AP1000 design has been well vetted and is safe.

New NRC concerns could complicate final approval for the AP1000. In addition, utilities like Progress Energy will have to decide anew if the extra costs associated with any required design change still make nuclear power a competitive energy source.

Mike Hughes, Progress Energy spokesman on nuclear matters, says his company supports the NRC's certification process.

"We have not changed the intended technology for Levy County," Hughes says, "but importantly, we also have not made a final decision to build. That decision is still a few years away."

In addition to its Levy site, Progress Energy wants to add new nuclear reactors to its existing Harris nuclear plant about 20 miles southwest of Raleigh, N.C. The company expects the NRC to decide on the license in 2014, but the reactors would not become operational until after 2025.

Looking further ahead, beyond the AP1000, Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson has expressed interest in the idea of adopting smaller modular reactors, when such technology develops.

In December 2006, Jeff Lyash, then CEO of Progress Energy Florida, told the St. Petersburg Times, "It's important to have a new nuclear plant in Florida." He would soon be promoted to the company's Raleigh headquarters.

That was just before the start of the Great Recession — before population growth stalled in Florida, slowing the state's demand for new energy sources.

That was before the feds waffled on financial support for new nuclear power. Before they mothballed the long-planned Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada for dangerous radioactive waste from nuclear plants.

That was before experts elevated the damage to Japan's nuclear power plant reactors to the same disaster level as the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown.

Before fresh eyes began to have concerns about the AP1000.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Maligned nuclear power fights to remain a U.S. option 05/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 27, 2011 7:35pm]

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