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Nuclear Energy Revs Up

NRG Energy kicks off an expected rush of nuclear-reactor applications.
October 9, 2007

Nuclear power hit an important milestone late last month as NRG Energy, based in Princeton, NJ, filed a licensing application to build a new nuclear reactor. It is the first such filing in the United States since 1978. There is good reason to anticipate more: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), in Washington, DC, expects to receive four more applications this year to build and operate nuclear reactors, and another fifteen in 2008.

Powering up: If NRG Energy gets its way, there may be two more reactors operating at this Texas nuclear-power station by 2015. Last week, the company filed the first application for new nuclear reactors in the United States since 1978.

Nuclear-industry advocates say that NRG Energy’s application and those in the pipeline show that a nuclear renaissance is under way. Many observers credit the Energy Policy Act of 2005. NRG Energy says that the law’s loan guarantees and tax incentives could cover up to 80 percent of the cost of its $5.4 to $6.8 billion project. “The purpose of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was to help jump-start the revitalization of nuclear infrastructure, and that’s what it’s doing,” says NRG Energy spokesman Dave Knox.

NRG Energy’s application seeks permission to build two new reactors beside two existing reactors at the South Texas Project nuclear-power station, in Bay City, TX, adding 2,700 megawatts of capacity capable of powering about two million homes. NRG hopes to begin construction in 2010 and to be operating the reactors by 2015, assuming there are no significant regulatory or construction delays.

Concern over such delays means planners are favoring updated versions of tried-and-true reactor designs. NRG Energy and its partners say that concerns over the risk of licensing and construction delays drove their selection of a reactor design that NRC certified a decade ago: GE’s advanced boiling-water reactor. Four of these types of plants are operating in Japan, and two more are under construction in Taiwan. “What was most important to us was having a very complete application that answers all the questions,” says NRG Energy’s Knox. “I just can’t overemphasize the value of that proven design.”

A majority of the 16 other utilities known to be preparing licensing applications for nuclear plants have opted for a similarly conservative approach. Six utilities plan to use a pressurized water reactor from Westinghouse, which NRC certified in 2006. Another six plan to use French nuclear-technology giant Areva’s EPR, which is not yet certified by NRC but is under construction in France and Finland. A joint venture of Electricité de France and U.S. utility Constellation Energy plans to build the first EPR in the United States.

The utilities’ risk-averse reasoning is well founded, says Ray Ganthner, senior VP for new plant deployment at Areva Nuclear Power, based in Lynchburg, VA, a subsidiary of Areva. He points to the experience of GE, which is experiencing delays with design certification for its economic simplified boiling water reactor, which uses passive water circulation to protect the reactor core. Such passive safety designs may be safer than current designs that rely on pumped cooling water, but they are as yet unproven. GE’s design application has bogged down since the company filed in 2005, as NRC sought more engineering detail, asking for nearly 3,000 additional pieces of information. Design approval, once projected for 2007, is now slated for 2010.

Even conventional projects could face delays if NRC is overwhelmed by the anticipated flurry of applications.

A study released in August by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s research arm, lauded NRC’s aggressive hiring to staff its new Office of New Reactors, raising NRC’s overall workforce from 3,100 in 2004 to 3,500 today (the agency expects to hit 4,000 by 2010). But GAO also advised NRC to plan for trouble, setting criteria by which it will triage applications if it becomes overstretched.

If NRC becomes overwhelmed, the first projects in the pipeline are likely to win out. That could mean delays for Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which notified NRC in August that it intends to seek certification for its latest pressurized water-reactor design. Mitsubishi hopes to file its application in early 2008, but Ganthner says that NRC needs more notice to plan for major projects such as reactor-design reviews. “They came into the NRC’s picture for the budgeting process about a year late in the cycle,” he says.

Watchdog groups, for their part, worry that safety quality will get lost in the shuffle if NRC shifts focus and resources away from enforcement. “NRC is approaching new reactor licensing with a near-exclusive focus on schedule, not quality,” says David Lochbaum, director of nuclear safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in Washington. He believes that NRC is already stretched too thin. “The NRC lacks sufficient resources to undertake too many tasks,” Lochbaum says. “They can cover any half they want but can never cover it all.”

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