New Nukes

At 12:28 a.m. on Tuesday, March 22, 2007, a nuclear reactor in northern Alabama restarted after 22 years off the grid. And with that, 650,000 people changed the channel and continued their lives uninterrupted. Less than three months later, on June 8, the unit reached its full power — 1,065 megawatts electric.

The restart at Browns Ferry Unit 1 required eight miles of piping, 188 tons of steel and 1,200 tests and inspections. It cost the Tennessee Valley Authority, the government-run corporation that supplies much of the power consumed in the southeastern United States, $1.8 billion.[1]

The reactor idled for a year after a 1975 fire and began more than two decades offline in 1985. Just two days after the 2007 restart, Unit 1 was stopped again when a ruptured pipe spilled 600 gallons of fluid into the turbine hall during testing. Operations have stopped five times since then. But protest has been remarkably absent.

"Need drives a lot of behavior," explains Gilbert Brown, coordinator of the Energy Engineering Graduate Program at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "And there's a need for baseload power.[2] That was happening before the 'inconvenient truth' of global warming."

The high cost of fossil fuels and claims of climate change have a sparked a new discussion of energy trends in the United States. The nuclear industry could benefit from the increased interest.

"We need wind," Brown acknowledges. "We need solar. We need to do all that stuff. But nuclear provides baseload. That's 24/7 electricity."

Nuclear power development nearly came to a halt in 1979, when a reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station overheated, belching a cloud of radioactive gas into the Pennsylvania sky. No one died, but the accident — called a "normal aberration" by Metropolitan Edison's then-vice-president Jack Herbein[3] — and public fears, embodied by "No Nukes" concerts and "The China Syndrome," a disaster film starring Jane Fonda[4], stopped virtually all nuclear development in the nation.

But licensed nuclear facilities continued to operate, funneling a record-high 806 billion kilowatt hours into the power grid in 2007.[5] In the same year, nuclear power generated 19 percent of the electricity in the United States.[6] In six states — Vermont, South Carolina, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and New Hampshire — nuclear power provided more energy than any other source.[7]

In Michigan, the nuclear portion is 26 percent.[8]

Demand for electrical power in the United States has nearly doubled since 1977.[9] The U.S. Department of Energy predicts an additional increase of 53 percent — from 3,669 billion kilowatt hours to 5,619 billion kilowatt hours — by 2030.[10]

If the nuclear sector is to hold almost one-fifth of the domestic supply business — and many experts predict it will, especially when set against the high cost of natural gas and the threat of a tax or cap on carbon emissions -20 more reactors will have to be built.

"When you think about what we need to add baseload power, which is what we have now, and you factor in the emphasis on climate change and other global goals and challenges, there is absolutely no way that you can get to where we need to be without a healthy contribution by nuclear power," said Mitchell Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C. "And you know what? We can't get by with baseload."

The industry has noticed an opening. Seventeen companies have submitted or are finalizing license applications for 31 new nuclear power plants.[11] Among them is Michigan's DTE Energy, which filed an application for a new reactor at the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station in Monroe County last September.

The designs are more streamlined than previous models. The AP1000 — a product of Westinghouse, which is in negotiations with nuclear plant operators for 10 to 12 new U.S. reactors[12] — uses half as many safety valves and 85 percent less cable.[13] The company says it can build a working unit in just 36 months.

"This is not your father's nuclear plant," Singer said. "In the old days, back in the '70s and '80s, every one of these was a custom job. Now there are a handful of designs, and they're simplified. They have fewer pumps, fewer valves, less piping and less cable. And that all brings the cost down."

Nuclear facilities are increasingly efficient. The average U.S. reactor operates at 90 percent of capacity. The electricity it generates costs just 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour, a 30 percent price decrease from a decade ago.[14]

The real cost comes in development. Each new nuclear facility will cost around $7 billion[15].

The 2005 federal Energy Policy Act offered a number of incentives, including accident indemnity and "standby support," taxpayer-funded protection against delay costs incurred by the builders of the first six new power facilities.[16] The measure also guaranteed 80 percent of the loans for any project — nuclear included — that employs "new or significantly improved technologies" for reducing emissions.

Nuclear companies have found an even more efficient route: extending the life span of existing plants. The operators of 91 percent of nuclear reactors in the U.S. have requested license renewals. Forty-eight have extended their original licenses by 20 years.[17]

The $380 million Palisades Nuclear Generating Station in Van Buren County had been scheduled to shut down in 2011, but is now expected to operate until 2031.[18] Unit 2 of the Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman was to shutter in 2017. It is now licensed through 2037.[19]

Critics say that's courting disaster. "We're living on borrowed time," said Kevin Kamps, a Kalamazoo native who works as an analyst for Beyond Nuclear, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "These plants are badly deteriorated. At some we've seen equipment falling off the ceiling.

"It's pretty dramatic stuff," he said.

Gilbert Brown has a different view. "It's like an old car," he said. "A car today and a car from the '70s are pretty much the same machine. There's an engine, some oil, a fan belt and a transmission.

"With a new car, you get seat belts, air bags, antilock brakes — all these features that add to the safety of a car. And that's nice. But you can retrofit the old car. You can put in a better seat belt and upgrade the existing safety features. And that's exactly what the nuclear industry is doing."

Nuclear companies also are hiring new workers. For years, public worries steered would-be nuclear engineers into other fields, including medicine. Now, an aging workforce and a sudden demand for increased capacity have brought a full press from the nuclear HR department.

"They are in a very aggressive hiring mode," said Larry Foulke, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering. "It's almost obscene, the way they try to recruit these students."

Foulke takes his classes on a tour of the Beaver Valley Nuclear Generating Station, a 500-acre facility in Shippingport, Pa. Students spend the first hour with human resources staff who cite the benefits of FirstEnergy employment, which range from medical insurance and pension plans to assistance for adoption and continuing education.

The stigma against the nuclear field is fading. "The public perception is much more positive today," Foulke said. "It's been 30 years since Three Mile Island. My students weren't even alive then. And now you have the bugaboo of global warming, which is a much bigger fear in people's minds."

His fall class — Introduction to Nuclear Engineering — has 80 students. That's up from 72 in the fall of 2006. This trend is even more drastic at the national level. The U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education reports that enrollment in undergraduate nuclear engineering programs more than doubled between 1999 and 2007.[20] The same study also found that post-graduate degrees were on the rise.

By that measure, and by the full-page help wanted ads for Westinghouse, FirstEnergy and DTE Energy, the future of nuclear power is already here.


[1] http://www.tva.gov/power/nuclear/brownsferry_unit1_facts.htm

[2] Base-load power refers to the minimum amount of power that must be produced to meet all expected power demands of a utility or distributor. See http://www.energyvortex.com/energydictionary/ baseload__base_load__baseload_demand.html for more information.

[3] "A Nuclear Nightmare." Time Magazine, 9 April 1979.

[4] Directed by James Bridges. Released on March 16, 1979.

[5] "Safety Indicators Show U.S. Nuclear Industry Sustained Near-Record Levels of Excellence in '07." Nuclear Energy Institute, April 2008.

[6] Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review 2007, Table 8.2a, http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/pdf/pages/sec8_8.pdf.

[7] "Nuclear Statistics: U.S. Nuclear Power Plants." Nuclear Energy Institute. http://www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/nuclear_statistics/ usnuclearpowerplants/

[8] Katz, Diane and Theodore Bolema, "Michigan's Electricity Market," May 2008 http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=9493

[9] "Annual Energy Review 2006," Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy.

[10] http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/ieo/ieohecon.html

[11] "Status and Outlook for Nuclear Energy in the United States," Nuclear Energy Institute, April 2008.

[12] "New Commercial Reactor Designs," U.S. Energy Information Administration, November 2007.

[13] http://www.ap1000.westinghousenuclear.com/ap1000_glance.html

[14] "Nuclear Power Plant Contributions to State and Local Economies," Nuclear Energy Institute, January 2008

[15] Dolley, Steven. "NEI sees up to 8 new reactors running by 2016; restates need for US backing," Inside Energy, February 2008

[16] http://www.doe.gov/about/EPAct.htm

[17] "Status and Outlook for Nuclear Energy in the United States," Nuclear Energy Institute, April 2008.

[18] http://www.nrc.gov/info-finder/reactor/pali.html

[19] http://www.nrc.gov/info-finder/reactor/cook2.html

[20] http://orise.orau.gov/sep/files/NE-Brief-62-2007-data.pdf