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Nuclear Powers Up

Entergy Nuclear treads carefully in proposing a new nuclear power plant.
September 1, 2005

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.

The goal of the evolved design is to keep things as simple and affordable as possible without compromising safety. Today’s U.S. nuclear plants include at least two redundant sets of safety equipment, including auxiliary pumps to supply cooling water to the reactors and auxiliary diesel generators to keep the equipment humming. One way of reducing the need for such systems is to make safety systems “passive.” For instance, huge tanks of water placed uphill can, in an emergency, flood reactors without the use of power or pumps.

“You can make [nuclear power plants] cheaper with less equipment, and that was the reason for the focus on passive safety,” says Keuter. Improvements in a range of supporting technologies, he argues, have enabled the construction of very safe plants. “Instrumentation and control systems have become much smaller and faster and solid state and more reliable, all of which allow you to monitor the operation more precisely.”

In its drive to execute a new power plant design, the NuStart coalition is benefiting from generous federal subsidies. NuStart and the U.S. government are splitting the $400 million to $500 million cost of coming up with the detailed designs for two versions of evolutionary water-cooled reactors, one from General Electric and the other from Westinghouse. The NRC has already approved a Westinghouse design for a 1,000-megawatt reactor; General Electric is readying the design of a 1,500-megawatt reactor for NRC approval later this year. Both of these reactors incorporate passive safety features.

After settling on a pair of possible designs, the consortium approached the delicate question of where to actually build a new plant. It was helped by a 1992 change in federal law that streamlined the permitting process. Previously, the NRC would authorize the construction of a reactor and then, when it was finished, issue a separate operating permit. The 1992 change created a combined construction and operating license.

In May, the NuStart coalition announced it had settled on six potential sites: Entergy’s Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Port Gibson, MS, and River Bend Nuclear Station in St. Francisville, LA; Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Lusby, MD, and Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in Scriba, NY; and two federally owned sites, the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in northeast Alabama, owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Savannah River Site, a U.S. Department of Energy facility near Aiken, SC. Of these, the coalition plans to pick two by October 1; it will then apply for construction and operation permits for both.

Now that NuStart has broken the ice, some utilities – members of the consortium and nonmembers alike – have gone ahead with their own permit applications or announcements. Three companies have applied for site permits: Entergy at Grand Gulf; Exelon Generation at a site in Clinton, IL; and Dominion Nuclear – which is not a member of NuStart – at its North Anna plant in Virginia. Finally, though it hasn’t applied for a site permit, Duke Energy of Charlotte, NC, says it is planning to seek an NRC combined construction-operation permit for an undisclosed site. Each of these plants would use one or the other of the two competing NuStart designs. The companies also say they need the U.S. Congress to continue subsidizing the process; subsidies are part of the president’s proposed energy bill.

Of course, technologies such as wind turbines and hybrid cars also make a good case for government subsidies. The nuclear industry is promoting itself as a pathway to the hydrogen economy. The electricity produced by a nuclear power plant can split water into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis, without creating air pollution. And hydrogen can also be produced directly: the extremely high temperatures inside nuclear reactors can be used to split water molecules.

None of the utilities applying for NRC permits has ordered a new reactor. But if one or more actually goes ahead, it could open the door to investments in a new generation of more efficient plants. “If they are successful in getting new plant construction started in the United States during the next three to five years, that will open the door for other nuclear technologies,” says Regis Matzie, chief technology officer and senior vice president at Westinghouse, who is also a director of the South African consortium seeking to build a pebble bed plant in that country. “Further, restarting nuclear build in the United States will have a profound impact on new nuclear build around the world.”

In a pebble bed reactor, the uranium fuel is encased in billiard ball-sized graphite spheres. The reactor is cooled by helium gas, so it can operate at much higher temperatures than water-cooled plants do, greatly increasing its efficiency. In addition, the technology’s advocates argue, pebble bed plants are ideal for hydrogen production because their operating temperatures make it easier to split water into oxygen and hydrogen without electrolysis. “The success of NuStart should be of great value to [the South African consortium] for the future,” says Matzie.

But there is an inescapable problem with any nuclear-energy strategy: waste. In the past two decades, the U.S. government has spent some $6 billion to develop an underground storage repository at Yucca Mountain, about 140 kilometers from Las Vegas. But there are serious questions about whether the mountain is dry enough to prevent waste containers from eroding for many thousands of years (see “A New Vision for Nuclear Waste,” December 2004).

“The industry should be trying to solve the waste problem. If they want more nuclear power plants, there’s not going to be enough space at Yucca. They are going to have to keep visiting this issue over and over again. If they don’t, it will come back to haunt them,” says Allison Macfarlane, a geologist at MIT and editor of a forthcoming book on Yucca Mountain (Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste).

While the waste problem remains unsolved, current trends favor a nuclear renaissance. Energy needs are growing. Conventional energy sources will eventually dry up. The atmosphere is getting dirtier. But resurrecting the industry will prove to be a delicate task. Neither Entergy nor any other U.S. company has committed to actually building a nuclear power plant. Entergy says that it will wait to see whether Congress approves subsidies before making its next move.

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