New Nuclear Reactors Get the Go-Ahead

Last week the U.S.  Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a construction permit for two new reactors at the Southern Company's Vogtle complex, near Augusta, Georgia. Though the decision does not herald the once-trumpeted "nuclear renaissance," it is significant on several scores. It is the first new construction permit to have been issued by the NRC for a reactor since 1978. It inaugurates a streamlined licensing procedure, meant to expedite approvals for plants built to pre-certified standardardized designs. And the design in question, the Westinghouse AP1000, has passive safety features meant to make it more immune to the kinds of misadventures experienced in the Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents.

A reservoir of water for emergency cooling is located above the core, so that water can be injected without active pumping, and natural convection can cool an overheated core.

Still, even though Southern Company and its partners already have spent hundreds of millions of dollars preparing the Vogtle site, this is no guarantee the plant will ever be finished, as critics have observed. The history of the nuclear age is littered with half-finished reactor projects.

Certainly, despite the generous Federal government loan guarantees that make it possible to find financing for the $14 billion project, Vogtle will not spark a new wave of reactor construction. Large nuclear plants still are too expensive and take too long to build for them to be attractive candidates to achieve energy independence or greenhouse gas reductions.

Vogtle will take on the order of a decade to complete. Meanwhile, as reported here last week, offshore wind farms in the UK of comparable total capacity--roughly a gigawatt--are being installed in less than a year.

And still looming over the whole industry, despite decades of debate and attention, is the still unresolved question of final spent fuel disposal. The plan for a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada having come unglued, a blue ribbon panel recently recommended selection of a new candidate site on the basis of a more consensual political process. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said that several  nuclear fuel repositories may be required.

The chairman of the NRC cast a lone dissenting vote against Vogtle on the ground that post-Fukushima seismic security concerns may not be adequately taken into account--another nagging issue.

Until all the fundamental issues concerning nuclear energy have been fully addressed, it is scarcely conceivable that a real renaissance will occur, and that the number of new reactors under construction will exceed the number being decommissioned. At most, the Vogtle decision helps keep the U.S. nuclear industry alive and hoping for better days.

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