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Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


 

Rethinking North Anna

 

Sure, Dominion’s third nuclear unit would have a small carbon footprint and be politically correct. But there are plenty of unanswered questions, from safety, to unproven new technologies, to cost, to fuel. 


 

Building a new nuclear power unit at the North Anna station owned by Dominion certainly may seem like a great idea. Nuclear stations emit minimal amounts of the carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. Nuclear is free and clear of the entanglements of foreign oil. U.S. nuke plants seem a lot safer than they did in the Three Mile Island days of 1979.

 

Or are they? There’s plenty to give pause, from the lack of certification of new reactor designs, to uncertain costs, to a weakened federal regulatory agency, to continued concerns about terrorism and spent fuel. And despite claims that the new reactor would be cheaper than older ones, one of its designers puts a price tag on it that could exceed $4.5 billion. That's only slightly better than the old nukes and a lot higher than the cost of a new coal-fired plant.

 

Playing up to popular concerns about global warming, Dominion is laying the public relations foundation for new nukes. The effort is needed because commercial nukes have been political anathema for years. Nuclear power became a non-starter after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 in Pennsylvania, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine which so far has killed more than 50 and, some groups predict, could result eventually in nearly 100,000 fatal cancers.

 

The Richmond-based power company is one of four utilities to participate in a fast-track program to build the first new reactors since the 1970s. In late November, Dominion applied for a combined operating license to build a third nuke at North Anna. The new 1,520-megwatt unit could electrify up to 350,000 more homes, helping meet burgeoning energy demand that Thomas F. Farrell II, the utility’s CEO, chairman and president, says could overwhelm the Virginia in coming years.

 

"Dominion firmly believes that advanced nuclear technology can and must play a leading role in reducing carbon emissions and the release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere,” Farrell said.

 

Although no solid cost estimates are available, the reactor Dominion is considering is a so-called “Third Generation” model that is deemed safer and cheaper than earlier ones.  Called an Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR), the model is designed by Bechtel Corp. and General Electric-Hitachi.

 

It is said to have more passive safety systems that would automatically kick in at the first sign of trouble. According to GE, it has 25 percent fewer pumps than earlier designs and eliminates 11 systems used previously. More systems and pumps mean more chances for human error that contributed to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, boosters say.

 

One safety feature that might help stop potential meltdowns is the placement of coolant-water tanks over the reactor core, so, if there is a “loss of coolant accident” that could presage a meltdown, water will automatically pour down and cool the reactor without needing human intervention, says Claire Zurek, a GE spokeswoman in Wilmington, N.C.

 

Pre-licensing plans and standardized nodes allow the reactor, which is much smaller than earlier versions, to to be placed in service faster, she says. The nodes would be built off site, transported and fit into place, Zurek says.

 

A Dominion spokesman notes that the new plant, although physically smaller, would have an output that is almost twice a much as either of the two existing North Anna units.

 

Dominion insists that it hasn’t made a final decision about the third unit but could start building it in 2010, if the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves a license by then as expected. The unit could be online by 2015.

 

So far, so good. Or is it?

 

Some problems persist. A big one is that the NRC has not yet certified the ESBWR, which is one of the two main “Third Gens” being touted. GE predicts certification by 2010. The other design is the AP1000 being developed by Westinghouse, the U.S. Department of Energy and Oregon State University. The AP1000 prototypes, like the ESBWRs, would have fewer working parts and would not need such equipment typically associated with commercial nukes such as redundant pumps and backup diesels whose failures have created some of the radiation scares in the past.

 

Performance estimates have been based on scale-model tests, but engineers can't say with confidence and accuracy how the reactor will perform until an actual unit can be operated. The NRC won’t know how well the ESBWR operates until it finishes its certification review.

 

A few other items of concern:

  • The Generation III and IV reactor designs are supposed to be safer than current ones, but the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group, says that none is a real quantum jump in safety. None has the double-containment protection of some French designs, the UCS says in a new report. France is believed to have the most efficient and safest commercial nuclear power program in the world. The French program is state-supported, which eliminates the temptation for profit-oriented nuclear utilities to skim on safety to improve margins, the UCS says.

  • Edwin Lyman, senior staff scientist at the UCS in Washington, says his organization hasn’t looked in detail at the ESBWR design because it is very much a work in progress. “The NRC had about 3,000 questions, about two thirds of which were resolved,” he says. “To me, this design has a lot of unanswered questions.” Among them are whether the back-up system will suffice if the gravity-driven water coolant system fails and whether utilities will skimp on costs for metal or concrete to save money. The point, he says, is that the nuclear industry should be required to make a next-generation of reactors that are significantly safer than earlier ones, not just a little bit safer.

  • Don’t be deluded by utility industry claims that there hasn’t been a major nuclear accident in the U.S. since Three Mile Island. While substantially true, the claim is tainted by a near accident in 2002 that came close to becoming another TMI. An old reactor head nearly ruptured at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio that is owned by First Energy Corp.

  • The Union of Concerned Scientists says that budget cuts and lax enforcement have made the NRC a weak regulator. In the Davis-Besse case, the NRC knew about dangerous corrosion in the reactor head in 2001 and could have required its operator to shut it down. Instead, the utility kept operating into 2002, UCS says.

  • The issue of nuclear waste from spent fuel used in commercial plants remains unresolved. The best solution for the disposal of highly radioactive waste seems to be placing it deep in caves at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but no permanent program has begun. A Dominion spokesman acknowledges that the plant will produce spent fuel and it will be stored on site before it is eventually transferred to Nevada.

  • Building new nuclear reactors can be a lure for terrorists who could either attack the reactor itself or somehow steal spent fuel for use in bombs.

  • No one really knows how much the Third Gens really will cost. The Associated Press says that they may come in at under $1,500 per kilowatt, better than new coal plants at $1,800 per kilowatt. Older nukes used to cost up to $3,700 per kilowatt and that may not include the massive federal subsidizes over the years. Zurek of GE says that her company now estimates the cost of its ESBR to be from $2,500 to $3000 per kilowatt. A Dominion spokesman says the utility told the NRC the price would be about $3,000 per kilowatt in 2007 dollars. If so, that would put the cost of the new North Anna unit at as much as $4.5 billion. Lyman of the UCS says that a sister Third Gen system – the AP1000—has been reported as costing as much as $9 billion for a Florida utility and its megawatt capacity would be lower than North Anna. If those costs go, the cheaper argument goes out the window.

There is one other thing that I bring up reluctantly. Historically, Dominion has a lousy nuclear safety record. By the summer of 1979, its Surry and North Anna nuclear stations had built up an unenviable reputation of having garnered the highest aggregate fines for safety violations from the NRC. The runner up was Commonwealth Edison in Illinois. Virginia Electric & Power Co., Dominion’s predecessor, had been cited for security weaknesses such as not locking doors and letting guards snooze, design and operation flaws and withholding information. Online units were offline so often that the company was on the watch list of both Wall Street’s and the U.S. Department of Energy.

 

I know of this personally since I was one of the co-authors of the investigative report that appeared on the front page of The Virginian-Pilot on Aug. 12, 1979.

 

 

Our team had spent about a month at the NRC up in the Washington D.C. area reviewing files. That’s something few newspapers in the state would support today given their emphasis on cutting costs and serving up dumbed-down soft news. Then-Vepco president, the late Stanley Ragone, counter-attacked with a harsh retort, but our facts held and the Pilot backed us. Eventually Vepco hired an outside ringer from the nuclear power industry who helped the utility clean up its act.

 

To be sure, Dominion is a far different company today than it was 30 years ago. Expanding nuclear power plants, however, isn’t something to take lightly – even if current trends tend to favor it.

 

-- December 27, 2007

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County. View his profile here.

 

(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)