NORTH AMERICAN REPORTS
The Real Nuclear Option
There are currently 104 licensed-to-operate nuclear power plants in the United States, which generate about 20 percent of the nation's electrical use. But of those, 73 are more than 20 years old, and 39 are more than 30 years old.
High prices and availability concerns with other energy sources have prompted calls for new nuclear generation capacity worldwide, with 23 new plants now under development in eight foreign countries.
The planned hiring of 350 new employees in 2006 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is one of the surest signs of that comeback in the U.S., with the express purpose of assigning those employees to new license applications. That hiring and the horse race to build the first handful of new reactors come in the wake of new incentives that are part of the federal energy bill passed in 2005.
The bill promises loan guarantees, production tax credits and regulatory-delay risk insurance to the first 6,000 megawatts of new nuclear generation, with lesser amounts available thereafter. That capacity level was based on the standard nuclear reactor capacity of 1,000 megawatts. But with model reactor designs now ranging up to 1,500 megawatts, utilities are awaiting clarification on whether the law stipulates that exact wattage, or the construction of six plants.
Hefty Price TagsIn addition to approving several 20-year license renewals in 2005, the NRC has seen another handful of combined operating and construction license (COL) application processes begun by such firms as Entergy, Progress Energy, Duke Power, Dominion and the NuStart Energy Development consortium, made up of eight utilities, reactor vendors GE Energy and Westinghouse and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
North Carolina-based Duke and Progress have both announced their intent to file applications for the Carolinas, with Progress filing a separate one for Florida.
Carl Crawford, Entergy Nuclear spokesman and the lead spokesman for the NuStart consortium, says just the COL process can cost as much as $50 million, with the engineering and design work by vendors totaling as much as $400 million for the initial installations of their new "advanced passive" designs. But he says incentives offers of more than $1 billion and more than $800 million were among the packages NuStart considered as it examined six finalist sites in six states.
Over a four-month period, NuStart's site selection team evaluated the finalists against 75 criteria, after having picked them from all member company sites based on 11 criteria. NuStart's final picks were TVA's Bellefonte Nuclear Plant near Scottsboro, Ala., and Entergy's Grand Gulf complex near Port Gibson, Miss.
On the same day that NuStart announced its selections, Entergy announced it would pursue its own COL for its River Bend facility in St. Francisville, La., one of the six NuStart finalists. Crawford says the opportunity to use the same contractors and application details at River Bend that NuStart's Grand Gulf project will use nearby might cut the cost of Entergy's own application in half.
Crawford says existing nuclear sites carry multiple advantages. One is already purchased land bought with multiple units in mind. In addition, when transmission lines can cost as much as $1 million a mile to install in some areas, having them there already represents an instantly quantifiable savings.
"NuStart was pleasantly surprised, if not astounded, at the scale of the offers" that came back, he says. "These states know that nuclear energy is needed, and being the first with the new generation of plant may well give them an advantage of having low-cost energy — they saw it helping them attract other industry in 10 to 20 years."
Crawford says the local and state incentives only had about a 15-percent weighting in the overall decision. "The biggest factor is the estimated future price of a kilowatt-hour in the region where the plant is located," he says. The irony now is that the dearth of U.S. activity has caused a dwindling of nuclear business infrastructure. Not only do the vendors number a mere two, but the only firms that construct the reactor vessels are located in France and Japan, "and they're getting booked up," says Crawford.
The irony doesn't end there. Among a similarly growing portfolio of possible nuclear projects in Canada are two advanced nuclear reactor proposals for industrial nuclear reactors in Alberta. Their end uses, however, are not consumer power: Instead, they may be used to power the extraction process for oil from the province's oilsands.
— Adam Bruns
©2006 Conway Data, Inc. All rights reserved. SiteNet data is from many sources and not warranted to be accurate or current.