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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
far, so good. Or is it?
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.
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.
few other items of concern:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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