Surry1By Peter Galuszka

Here’s a new twist on the carbon emission debate: Dominion Virginia Power is considering seeking federal approval run its 40-plus year-old Surry nuclear power station for another 40 or so years.

The arguments in favor are that keeping the two-units at Surry (1,600 megawatts) going would be a lot cheaper than building a brand new plant. Nukes do not contribute much at all to greenhouse gases and climate change compared to coal or natural gas plants.

The huge issue, however, is safety. Can you really expect a nuke whose design dates back to the 1960s to run until 2054? Surry’s plants near Jamestown were once the most heavily fined in the nation because of their repeated safety problems. Constant use can affect any number of crucial components such as making reactor metal brittle, pulverizing concrete and becoming more susceptible to earthquakes and storms.

According to the New York Times, Dominion hasn’t decided whether to apply to extend Surry’s life span. Other possible extended life reactors are Duke’s three Oconee units near Seneca, S.C. and Exelon’s Peach Bottom not that far from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Dominion is also pushing ahead with a third new unit at North Anna, but the price tag for that apparently would be many times what extending Surry would be. But there are no hard figures about the cost of the new nuke ($10 billion to $14 billion, maybe) or how much Surry would cost.

The news is curious coming just as the staff of the State Corporation Commission came out with a curious report slamming proposal EPA rules on cutting carbon emissions. Although the SCC’s opinions are murky and badly-documented, it raises fears that a bunch of coal-fired generation in Virginia will be shut down due to EPA regs. Hot flash: a bunch was going to be shut down anyway because it dates back to the 1940s and 1950s.

I don’t know enough about the current Surry operation to know what and how extending its life would proceed and whether it would be safe.

That said, I refer to my own reporting past – the 1979 when I was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. Another reporter and I spent weeks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s archives in Bethesda, Md. poring over safety documents. This was back when newspapers had the money to do that kind of reporting.

Our result was a big investigative piece that made banner headlines on the front page one Sunday with two full pages inside. I’d include the cite since it is too old to have one. We found a multitude of issues at Surry ranging from faulty radiation monitoring for workers to faulty snubbers which are rod-like shock absorbers to mitigate earthquake-like movements.

Dominion, then Vepco, hated the story and tried to tear it down. But Vepco was undergoing a corporate sea-change away from its institutional arrogance related to some extent by the former Navy submarine officers were not used to being questioned by outsiders. Vepco was getting hit by Wall Street because its sloppy nuclear program resulted in extended outages. They ended up hiring a ringer engineer who cleaned up their act and later the company transformed into something more modern.

Even so, a decade after we did our story, there were still plenty of concerns about safety at Surry.

The big question is how can you keep a car designed in the 1960s going strong nearly 100 years later? Maybe they have the answers in Havana.

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4 responses to “Could Surry Be an 80-Year Nuke?”

  1. I think Nukes can last that long – they last 40-50 years on Aircraft Carriers but they are dangerous and suseptible to natural and man-made disasters .

    You can swap out parts til the cows come home.. and keep them going indefinitely and hopefully some day they will shut themselves down ratther than melting down.

    but the irony is this:

    ” Why the U.S. Power Grid’s Days Are Numbered”

    ” There are 3,200 utilities that make up the U.S. electrical grid, the largest machine in the world. These power companies sell $400 billion worth of electricity a year, mostly derived from burning fossil fuels in centralized stations and distributed over 2.7 million miles of power lines. Regulators set rates; utilities get guaranteed returns; investors get sure-thing dividends. It’s a model that hasn’t changed much since Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. And it’s doomed to obsolescence.

    That’s the opinion of David Crane, chief executive officer of NRG Energy, a wholesale power company based in Princeton, N.J. What’s afoot is a confluence of green energy and computer technology, deregulation, cheap natural gas, and political pressure that, as Crane starkly frames it, poses “a mortal threat to the existing utility system.” He says that in about the time it has taken cell phones to supplant land lines in most U.S. homes, the grid will become increasingly irrelevant as customers move toward decentralized homegrown green energy. Rooftop solar, in particular, is turning tens of thousands of businesses and households into power producers. Such distributed generation, to use the industry’s term for power produced outside the grid, is certain to grow.”

    So what the SCC is doing – basically – is carrying water for Dominion on what they fear – will become stranded investments.

    and they want the SCC to charge all ratepayers to pay more to pay for the existing plants – if more people start using Solar

    and some are saying that Nukes are threatened even more than coal plants because they are so expensive and take even longer to pay off.

    the more than SCC agrees to increase the price of electricity – the more that action will make solar even more appealing price-wise.

    the higher the price of electricity to get back what is lost to solar, the more people are going to buy LEDs, hybrid water heaters that run on solar and “on-demand”, more efficient heat-pumps and smart thermostats.

    It’s going to be similar to what has happened to fuel efficiency in automobiles …

    So this whole deal with the SCC is not really about Co2..and the EPA, it’s really about an attempt to save Dominions bacon on stranded investments for power plants – including Nukes which are likely to become technological dinosaurs.. similar to room-sized computers.. that got replaced by desktops.

    For that reason – I think Nuclear is probably doomed unless they have find a safer, smaller, and cheaper type of reactor that works more like natural gas turbines in terms of locally sited power.

  2. The SCC and those obsessed with the EPA and carbon rules and climate change – in a 2020 timeframe – ought to be paying attention to this:

    “A July report by Navigant says that by the end of 2020, solar photovoltaic-produced power will be competitive with retail electricity prices—without subsidies—“in a significant portion of the world.”

    if this turns out to be the reality -and solar ends up as cheap or cheaper than grid power – what happens to Dominion if their revenues start to drop?

    if they raise their rates – they’ll accelerate the trend – similar to what has happened to highway money and required taxes on general sales taxes to make up the loss.

    If this were Kodak or Blockbuster – they’d go broke and competitors would take their place – but because it is Dominion a govt-regulated provider, – we have the SCC actually trying to help Dominion protect it’s “investment” in older power generation technologies – by stating in their comments to the EPA – that the stranded costs will have to be borne by ratepayers not investors.

    By 2020 – the timeframe that the SCC is complaining about for the new carbon rules -solar is going to be breathing down the neck of dominion and coal – and nukes… and the SCC whose job is the “balance” the interests of industry with consumers – will be in the role of trying to protect Dominion from solar – along with Virginia legislators.

    Where is the Smart Grid that would allow Dominion to dynamically load balance from different power sources – including solar, wind and natural gas?

    We have the SCC presiding over and running interference for an industry that has chosen NOT to keep up with important changes that benefit consumers.

    here’s another example: ” Materials That Will Change the World -Graphene”

    ( it’s a Forbes article you can get by googling the title)

    and it has a certain irony to it in terms of “carbon”:

    “Graphene is a pure form of carbon that is very thin, very strong and very expensive.

    When I say thin, I mean VERY thin – graphene is one atom thick (almost transparent).

    And when I say strong, I mean VERY strong. For its very low weight, it is 100 times stronger than steel, as stiff as a diamond, and yet also flexible and even stretchable.

    But its other characteristics are most interesting. It conducts heat and electricity with great efficiency (faster at room temperature than any other known material), and it charges and discharges 100x to 1000x faster than traditional batteries.

    So, what’s all the fuss about?

    Why is graphene useful?

    Graphene’s unique properties are valuable in many different industries and applications.

    Here are two examples (there are 7 in the article):

    Energy Storage: Graphene may hold the key to an energy storage revolution (which changes everything). Batteries can store lots of energy, but they are large, clunky, and charge and discharge relatively slowly. Capacitors, on the other hand, can’t hold a lot of energy but they charge and discharge very quickly. Researchers out of Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology have developed highly porous graphene-based super capacitors that they, “can fully charge in just 16 seconds and have repeated this some 10,000 times without a significant reduction in capacitance.” Imagine charging your iPhone in 30 seconds, or your Tesla in a few minutes.

    Photovoltaics/Solar cells: De la Fuente also sees benefits for solar cells: “Offering very low levels of light absorption (at around 2.7% of white light) whilst also offering high electron mobility means that graphene can be used as an alternative to silicon or ITO in the manufacture of photovoltaic cells.”

  3. My father before me, as a nuke engineer, started up the first nuke power plant in Shippingsport PA under the watchful eye of Admiral Rickover. But I am a little ambivalent about commercial nuke power as we know it today…so was my father and I believe the Admiral was too. Tell you what, if we could get Rickover to run the older plants, I am sure operations would be flawless. As a pragmatist we should extend life if possible to do safely. But I have no problem replacing it with a new nat gas plant, if it comes to that.

    1. Rickover was the Robert Moses of nuclear reactors (and nuclear submarines) and suffered no fools or for that matter anyone who disagreed with him! He was eventually forced out because for him – it was his way or the highway.

      It is said that some of the Nuke executives at Dominion are retired Navy guys…with nuke experience…

      I’m conflicted on the extend to which Dominion influences energy policy in Va and the SCC especially when I see that folks in other states can sell power from their solar panels back to the utility and in Va – there are restrictions with more planned…

      Dominion has chosen, and SCC has joined them – to not develop a smart grid and to continue to pursue a coal-based grid philosophy that is ultimately doomed – no matter what the EPA does and yet instead of looking forward – both the SCC and Dominion want to engage in what amount to – attacks on the EPA..

      If you actually look at the proposed rule – it has a LOT of flexibility in it – a lot of ways to meet the standard – and as already pointed out – we are already well on our way to that standard.

      think of this the same way we convinced the auto-makers to start producing more fuel-efficient, less polluting cars and despite all their protestations that we’d be killing the car – what actually happened was people LIKE the idea and now, it’s so successful that we are actually running short of highway money because of fuel not being used.

      the very same thing is going to happen to the electric generation industry. electricity usage is going to go down, not up.. even with population – as more and more people buy LED and computer-controlled appliances.. and solar panels – and we have Dominion, and the SCC, and the General Assembly all battling to force people back to coal.

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