The Case: Improved nuclear-power technologies are at hand – but the public is still wary. Entergy Nuclear decided that before proposing a new plant, it should band together with other utilities, lobby for subsidies, and make the link between nuclear power and the “hydrogen economy.”
The U.S. nuclear-power industry has been stagnant for three decades; the last successfully completed reactor order was made back in the early 1970s. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident, and the far worse 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, helped stop the industry in its tracks. Public confidence plunged; regulatory pressures, political opposition, and costs surged. And by the 1990s, fossil fuels were cheap enough that nuclear power – even with more-efficient designs – wasn’t worth pursuing. Instead, U.S. utilities dotted the landscape with advanced natural-gas-fired power plants.
But today, natural-gas prices are three times what they were 10 years ago, making all alternatives, from wind turbines to nuclear reactors, more attractive. Abroad, 24 nuclear plants – including eight in India, four in Russia, and three in Japan – are now under construction. And in the United States, several utilities are reconsidering the nuclear option.
Why not simply build new plants, which would benefit from three decades’ worth of technology advances in materials, sensors, and control software? Today’s 104 operating U.S. nuclear power plants, after all, reflect the designs of the 1960s and the technologies of the 1970s. But the job of actually building plants requires much more than better technology; it requires partnerships, public relations, and lobbying to overcome the ghosts of the recent past.
Entergy Nuclear of Jackson, MS, already operates 10 nuclear power plants over eight locations, and it would like to build more at some of those sites. But as a practical matter, the company realized it needed to band together with others in the industry to reduce its exposure to market risk, promote enough competition between major reactor suppliers to yield an affordable design, sell the communities near the sites on the plants’ economic benefits, and extract federal subsidies.
Entergy also believed it needed to try to replace the “No Nukes” slogan of yesterday with a “No CO2” slogan for today. In essence it’s pushing the idea that the slight risk of meltdown and the proliferation of bomb ingredients are lesser evils than global warming triggered by the buildup of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels (see “Environmental Heresies,” May 2005).
Entergy knew it needed to tread carefully, especially at the outset. “If one utility was to step out [and propose a nuclear plant], they could become the lightning rod for the antinuclear community, and for people’s concerns on Wall Street,” says Dan R. Keuter, Entergy Nuclear’s vice president for nuclear-business development. As the last U.S. nuclear plants were being built in the 1970s and ’80s, delays caused by new regulatory pressures, political opposition, construction problems, and the slow issuance of operating permits caused enormous cost overruns.
So in 2003, Entergy, along with the Chicago-based utility Exelon, took the lead in forging a coalition. The companies called five other utilities and suppliers to a meeting near the Atlanta airport. “We called it the ‘Atlanta seven’ meeting, and our goal was to see if we could respond together to come up with a new reactor design and share those costs and those risks,” Keuter recalls. Out of that meeting came a consortium called NuStart, which now includes nine power companies and two major reactor builders, Westinghouse and GE. Each member contributes $1 million annually to the consortium’s joint operations.
The consortium has revived the approach to nuclear power that prevailed in the 1950s, says Andrew Kadak, a nuclear engineer at MIT. One of the first nuclear power plants, Yankee Rowe in Rowe, MA – completed in 1960 – was built by 10 utilities who shared costs and the resulting power. NuStart “is an important new initiative for the industry,” says Kadak. “The new initiative may end up being the same model [as the one of the 1950s].” But before construction of a plant can begin, the utilities will need two permits from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The first would approve the site selection, the other the construction and operation of the reactor.
The design question is fairly simple. While some farther-out technologies, such as the helium-cooled pebble bed modular reactor – an updated version of the gas-cooled reactors prototyped over the past 30 years in Germany and the United States – are being pursued in China and South Africa, NuStart is betting on so-called evolutionary advances in the tried-and-true water-cooled designs that predominate today. In this basic design, water flows through a superhot reactor core, creating steam to drive turbines.