"Now things are waking up again"
Nuclear Renaissance Has Begun
Perhaps the nuclear renaissance has already begun. The restarting of one of the Tennessee Valley Authority's prominent facilities, in fact, may be a harbinger of things to come.
With the emphasis on meeting the expected future demand for electricity as well as reducing carbon emissions, the dynamics appear to be in place to rebuild the nuclear sector. But it is not that simple. Critics of the movement are arguing that the nuclear industry has a long history of cost overruns that are ultimately covered by taxpayers - a force that has made investors wary and one that has slowed the regulatory process.
"After Three Mile Island, things went quiet. Deadly quiet. Now things are waking up again," says Mayor Ron Littlefield of Chattanooga, where this writer visited with other reporters. "Alstom, Westinghouse and the nuclear industry are having a significant economic impact in this city and state."
Parts of TVA's operations are in Chattanooga. While the wholesale distributor of power uses a mix of fuels, it says that its focus is now on providing clean base-load energy. Therefore, it has begun emphasizing nuclear power , which it says has a 90-95 percent capacity rate - better than any other power source it employs.
It has spent $1.8 billion to restart Browns Ferry Unit 1, which added 1,100 megawatts to the system. By 2013, it expects to expand generating capacity by 1,100 megawatts with Watts Bar Nuclear Unit 2. Those plants, which were originally licensed in the 1970s, were shut down in the 1980s.
When Watts Bar 1 revved back up in 2007, the utility projected a 12-year payback. Now, it says that it will be six years - money recovered from operating revenues as opposed to debt. Next up: Bellefonte, another existing facility where the utility is pursuing an operating license. There, it will go through the structure from "A to Z" and produce what it says is a "plant that will be like new."
It's a function of supply and demand. More people are moving into the region and consuming more energy. The utility's supply is therefore stretched. "Over the long run, nuclear is cheaper than coal," says Gordon Arent, licensing manager for nuclear generation at TVA, in a talk with reporters. "Millions of dollars will be invested that will create high employment and clean power."
If predictions are correct and electricity demand rises by 30 percent over 25 years then nuclear energy's share of the generation mix will likely expand. If the country, furthermore, clamps down on carbon releases then the increased role is even more probable.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, to achieve carbon emissions reductions of 80 percent by 2050, electricity prices would rise 80 percent during that time. If no nuclear or clean coal is used, those prices would climb by 200 percent.
China, Japan and India are already going full force while France now generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear. But in this country the permitting practice is far more rigorous. With the federal loan guarantee process now underway, a major hurdle has been crossed and the resurgence can begin in earnest.
In the case of TVA, it says that it is working with all of its stakeholders to try and satisfy their concerns. Its critics have pointed out that TVA could potentially be pouring billions into nuclear power, which they say has unproven benefits and which may present safety risks. TVA responds by saying that some in the environmental movement are recognizing the new energy paradigm and have been willing to work with it to find solutions.
Nuclear proponents are cautiously optimistic about what the future holds. Beside air quality pressures and the demands for power, a sizable portion of coal-fired generators are getting old and are expected to be retired. Today's nuclear plants have shown themselves to be safer and more productive than ever before, having increased their capacity factors from the 60 percent in the 1970s to at least 90 percent today.
Indeed, a meaningful way to pay for new nuclear units is by demonstrating their efficiency levels. Today, the procedures by which they are maintained and refueled have become standardized. The goal, says Bruce Phares, director of boiling water reactor services for Westinghouse Electric Co. in Chattanooga , is to keep a nuclear plant running for two years before it would need to be refueled. At this point, that process should take 18 to 22 days - far less than what it once did.
Phares, who took reporters on a tour of Westinghouse's training facility, says that refueling is now a science. He explained how the containment vessels are lifted before the older nuclear fuel rods are removed from the core. That spent material is then placed in adjacent cold pools before it is put in above-ground concrete dry casks. It's all "extremely safe."
"Even if the new market for nuclear does not return, we are very confident in the retrofit market," notes Aurelien Maurice, project manager for Alstom's manufacturing facility in Chattanooga . The company has invested $300 million there, which is sized to make steam turbines for the nuclear industry but which can also build ones for coal, natural gas and geothermal.
The nuclear industry is staging a come back. TVA is the first to have forged ahead with its recent rollout. But other utilities are also preparing, prompting those all along the supply chain to gear up for production. They are welcoming the challenges and are determined to prove their product safe, efficient and reliable.
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