U.S. Nuclear Renaissance Rockier than Ever

Upcoming NRC and TVA decisions could go against the industry

2 min read
U.S. Nuclear Renaissance Rockier than Ever

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

With nuclear power still controversial at the grassroots and the projected economics of new plants still marginal at best, the approach to rejuvenating the U.S. industry has been to use existing sites. By either building additional reactors at already approved sites or resuscitating old construction projects, utilities hope to reduce the number of regulatory hurdles, avoid public outcry, and cut costs. But this approach also has pitfalls, as exemplified by the Tennessee Valley Authority's plan to restart reactor projects at its Bellefonte site in Jackson County, Ala.

The tawdry history of the Bellefonte complex is detailed in a report released today by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), which commissioned it. According to the report, prepared by nuclear engineer Arnold Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates, TVA originally intended to build two Babcock & Wilcox reactors at the site and got the Atomic Energy Commission's permission to proceed in 1974. Fourteen years and US $4 billion later, TVA stopped construction. Then, in 2006, it asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to terminate the construction permit. The next year, TVA hatched the idea of building two all-new Toshiba AP1000 reactors at the site. But when costs of that project mushroomed, TVA returned to the idea of completing the original two reactors—one of which was 88 percent complete when construction stopped decades ago, the other 58 percent complete—and got the NRC's go-ahead for that in February 2009.

A dissenting voice in that decision was Gregory Jaczko, who is now NRC chairman. So it would not be surprising if TVA opted for the better part of wisdom, as SACE recommends, and dropped the project rather than going back to what is sure to be a more hostile and critical NRC. Today's SACE report enumerates seven categories of problems with the idea of finishing the two reactors, none of them trivial: among them, an obsolete containment made of concrete that's already 35 years old, undocumented cannibalization of reactor components following initial termination of the project, and costly post-Fukushima design changes that will be needed.

The vaunted nuclear renaissance isn't doing much better on other fronts either. Florida ratepayers are restive at being required to pay already for new nuclear plants where ground hasn't even been broken. (One projected plant would be an expansion, the other all-new.) Congressman Markey, a persistent, well-informed and aggressive critic of the industry, is telling the NRC not to approve the beginning of construction of new reactors at Georgia's Vogtle site (where two units already operate) until the Toshiba reactor design has been fully approved. The one reactor likely to come into operation in the foreseeable future is the second unit of TVA’s Watts Barr plant in Tennessee: That project was stopped in 1988 but resumed in late 2007.

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