Though signs abound that the U.S. energy industry is expecting a nuclear energy renaissance, sharp questions have been raised about the ability of the domestic power plant construction industry to deliver. Now ace energy reporter Rebecca Smith is reporting in The Wall Street Journal evidence of substandard counterfeit components being sold to operating atomic power plants. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has alerted utilities of two cases.
One case involved sale of circuit breakers designed to protect equipment from electrical surges: in all, 140,000 breakers sold in the United States as products of France's Schneider Electric Co. turned out to have been made in China, and a few may have found their way into a nuclear power plant operated by Duke Energy Corp. A second case involved water valves for the Southern Company's Hatch nuclear power plant in Georgia.
At present, according to Smith, applications for 15 new U.S. nuclear power plants are pending in eight states. But how fast could manufacturers actually deliver all the parts needed? The NRC chairman notes that the number of U.S. suppliers has declined from 1,350 in 1977 to about 700 today. Last year, an executive with Southern Company told this reporter that the U.S. industry could initiate at most two or three new reactor projects per year, for the time. In terms of energy delivery, that is roughly equivalent to the rate at which wind power currently is being expanded in the United States.