Sunday, August 28, 2005

Nuke industry seeks more power - York Daily Record

Nuke industry seeks more power - York Daily Record

Consortium to apply for first new reactor since TMI accident
Daily Record/Sunday News
Sunday, August 28, 2005

At bottom: · In it together
Mention nuclear power to a longtime resident who lives within eyeshot of Three Mile Island in Dauphin County and the reaction is usually mixed.
Memories of mass evacuations and news reports of dangerous radiation levels spurred by the March 1979 partial meltdown of TMI Unit 2 has marred the reputation of the nuclear industry.

The U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not approved the construction of a new plant since 1978, said Diane Screnci, an NRC spokeswoman.

A negative public perception of the nuclear industry, the NRC’s strong focus on TMI’s partial meltdown a year after the accident and the drive for utilities to improve existing plants rather than invest in new sites all have delayed the filing of any permit application to build a reactor, said David Lochbaum, nuclear power expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit environmental group.

“The regulatory framework has always been there,” Screnci said. “It was a decision by the utilities not file an application.”

The NRC is the federal regulatory body that issues permits needed to build and operate nuclear power plants.

The need to meet the nation’s hunger for electrical power may make new nuclear reactors at existing plants a reality.

Last month, Maryland state and local officials met with members of a consortium of nuclear power companies to discuss the possibility of building a $2 billion Calvert Cliffs Unit 3.

The Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power plant is a dual-reactor site in Lusby, Md. — located roughly three hours south of York County.

Nuclear power companies have collectively argued for years that benefits such as the reduction of greenhouse gasses would support the building of new reactors.

The five-member Board of Calvert County Commissioners passed a resolution in July unanimously supporting the project in an effort to urge NuStart Energy Development LLC to select the site for the first nuclear reactor to be built in nearly 30 years, said Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, a Charles County, Md., Republican and the Maryland House minority whip.

O’Donnell was a senior at Middletown Area High School at the time of the TMI Unit 2 partial meltdown. Following high school, O’Donnell served in the U.S. Navy and eventually landed a job at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant.

While O’Donnell no longer works for the plant, he continues to live within five miles of the site.

“I think the revitalization of the nuke industry in the United States is long overdue,” he said. “My hope is that this country is building a new plant by the end of this decade. It’s part of the national energy policy to advocate this.”

In Pennsylvania, State Rep. Bruce Smith, R-Dillsburg, said he is disappointed that Calvert Cliffs may soon house the nation’s first new reactor since the partial meltdown of TMI Unit 2. Smith lived in northern York County at the time of the accident.

“The nuclear industry wants to do this as quickly and smoothly as possible so that they can get back into big business,” he said. “Due to my experience with TMI, I don’t support the use of nuclear power in the United States.”

Despite some negative opinions regarding the proliferation of the nuclear power industry, NuStart Energy and its member companies continue to collect data on individual plants.

Constellation-owned Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant is one of six sites now under review by NuStart Energy for the possible construction of a standardized advanced nuclear reactor.

Formed in March 2004, NuStart Energy is a consortium of 11 nuclear power-related companies that joined forces to share the cost of a combined construction and operating license — an NRC permit needed to build and operate a commercial nuclear reactor.

Created by the NRC in 1989, the combined construction permit and operating license requires a detailed site environmental review and a preliminary safety analysis. Those combined studies, along with other required reviews, can cost more than $500 million.

To help offset the cost and encourage the construction of new plants, the U.S. Department of Energy agreed — through its Nuclear Power 2010 program — to use federal dollars to pay 50 percent of the cost to prepare a license application.

In September, NuStart Energy will file two applications with the NRC for combined construction and operating licenses for two of the six sites, said Marilyn Kray, president of NuStart Energy and a vice president at Exelon Generation in Philadelphia.

Exelon owns and operates TMI Unit 1 and Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station.

One license application will outline a design for a General Electric Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor while the other will review plans to build a Westinghouse Advanced Passive 1000 Reactor.

While NuStart Energy will take about three years to complete the license application before it is submitted to the NRC, most utilities have spent nearly 30 years designing steps that would lead to a new nuclear reactor.

Construction fallout

For about a year following the TMI accident, the NRC geared most of its focus on the cause of the partial meltdown and how a similar catastrophe could be averted at other plants, Lochbaum said.

At that time, nearly all of the commission’s officials had been drawn into that investigation and reviews of all operating licenses needed by companies to run their plants were all but postponed, he said. “They did not have resources to review a plant that was under construction,” Lochbaum said. “The accident did not speed up the construction of plants already in the pipeline.”

A year after the accident, the NRC resumed its normal operating license review processes, he said.

Another reason why utilities have not applied to build a plant in nearly 30 years may have more to do with economics and a lack of demand than with the public distrust of the nuclear industry.

Roughly half of the 103 reactors now in operation were under construction at the time of the TMI Unit 2 partial meltdown.

Nuclear power companies brought those plant’s online in the decade following the accident and started to generate enough power to meet demand.

In 1990s, those companies chose to improve the capacity of their current plants rather than invest in new sites, Lochbaum said.

“It was cheaper to improve rather than to build,” he said. “You already had all the concrete and cables paid for. You didn’t need to go through the regulatory process.

Since 1990, nuclear power plants have been able to improve their average electrical generation capacity from 65 to 90 percent, Lochbaum said.

“That does not leave too much room from growth,” he said. “(Utilities) have to start building more plants to produce more electricity and meet the demand of growing population.”

A powerful need

Nuclear power companies have offered many reasons why the United States needs more power plants.

Aside from the fact that a nuclear power plant produces no greenhouse gasses, some utilities argue that more sites would allow for additional power output and eventually help to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Such logic is problematic.

Dick Dubiel said Northeast residents who use oil to heat their homes would need to switch to electricity to support the argument that more power plants would help reduce the need for foreign fuel.

In the northeastern United States, more people use heating oil as a main fuel source compared to other sections of the country, he said. Dubiel is a co-owner of Woodstock, Ga.-based Millennium Services Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants.

Between 1974 and 1982, Dubiel supervised Three Mile Island’s radiation, protection and chemistry program.

More electricity generated by additional power plants will not reduce the need for gasoline, he said.

“When you talk about the dependence on foreign energy, you are talking about gas,” Dubiel said. “Unless everyone switches to electric-powered cars, (more nuclear power plants) won’t be much of a help.”

About 80 percent of imported oil is used for domestic transportation, according to

One expert contends additional reactors would likely replace plants that are on tap to be decommissioned by the NRC within the next 20 to 40 years.

Lochbaum said utilities do not need to prove that additional nuclear power reactors are needed immediately. Rather, those companies need to show that new-generation reactors would be ready to replace many aging power plants that will most likely be decommissioned in the near future, he said.

“These newer reactors can help shoulder the burden and continue to help meet demands (for energy),” he said.

These new plants do have the potential to satisfy the nation’s hunger for electricity, but the projects also have potential to boost the economy.

If approved by the NRC and NuStart Energy, the Calvert Cliffs expansion would create 2,000 to 3,000 construction jobs during the four years that are needed to build the advanced reactor, according to the Calvert County Department of Economic Development.

Utilities are not expected to face work shortage delays similar to those that arose when commercial nuclear power was more widely accepted. In the 1970s, when multiple plants were under construction, a manpower shortage of welders and engineers caused widespread delays, Lochbaum said.

Costs went up and schedules slipped, he said.

“There were dozens of projects going on at the same time,” Lochbaum said. “We drained the tanks dry in terms of manpower. This time around, you’ll only have two projects going on at the same time so staffing shouldn’t be a problem.”

Aside from construction jobs, a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs does promise to boost permanent employment. Constellation Energy could hire an additional 250 to 400 people to help operate the advanced reactor, said Keith Cunningham, director of the utility’s communications.

Should the commission issue a combined permit for a new reactor to be built at Calvert Cliffs, the new site could be operational by 2014.

Electricity generated by the new reactor would flow to the PJM Interconnection power grid.

All of York County’s power flows through PJM’s grid.

Regardless of the approved permits, Constellation Energy or any other member of NuStart Energy would not be obligated to build a reactor, Kray said.

The utility could sell off that particular portion of land to another company or build a reactor it intends to sell or operate, Cunningham said.

“There would be a lot of options,” he said. “It is still too early to make any sort of conclusions or decisions. We are very pleased our site was chosen (among the finalists).”

Reactor strength

In the past, NRC officials struggled to regulate a motley crew of reactor designs.

Often, the commission had to retain a large engineering staff with a diverse knowledge of reactor designs, Dubiel said. The task of regulating several reactor designs often slowed the licensing process, he said.

Since the accident at TMI Unit 2, engineers have worked to standardize reactor designs that rely more on the laws of physics than on laws of engineering.

“The laws of physics can’t make mistakes,” Dubiel said.

Both proposed reactor designs — the General Electric Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor and the Westinghouse Advanced Passive 1000 Reactor — allow for fewer pipes and valves compared to their older counterparts, Kray said.

The operation relies on natural circulation, gravity feed and heat transfer, she said.

“Safety is improved if you have less failure mechanism,” Kray said. “The less equipment you need to buy and maintain.”

Lochbaum said engineers have based several of their modern reactor designs on the lessons learned from the 1979 TMI Unit 2 partial meltdown.

For example, at the time of the accident, the reactor’s feedwater pumps shut down, and plant officials switched on the plant’s auxiliary systems.

Initially, the auxiliary or backup feedwater system experienced problems. Valves were closed that should have been open, Lochbaum said.

Modern systems are designed as dual purpose, and several of the components can act as primary and secondary equipment, he said.

An advanced reactor would have enough equipment within a dual purpose system that if one pipe did malfunction, other mechanisms could still adequately pump coolant to the system, Lochbaum said.

“You are not supposed to be one broken pipe from a disaster; that’s too thin,” he said. “This dual-purpose system works to prevent that.”

In it together
Members of the NuStart Energy Development LLC consortium:

Constellation Energy of Baltimore

Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C.

EDF International North America, Washington, D.C.,

Entergy Nuclear, Jackson, Miss.

Exelon Generation, Philadelphia

Florida Power & Light Co., Juno Beach, Fla.

Progress Energy, Raleigh, N.C.

Southern Co., Atlanta.

Tennessee Valley Authority, Knoxville, Tenn.

GE Energy, Atlanta

Westinghouse Electric Co., Pittsburgh


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