Rethinking Nuclear Power

Flash back 30 years and review the mood about nuclear power. Hollywood had just come out with its prescient anti-nuke film “The China Syndrome” with such A-list actors as Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas. Just a few months later, a real meltdown did occur at the Three Mile Island commercial plant in Pennsylvania.
Here in Virginia, yours truly was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot investigating Vepco’s Surry Nuclear Station, which resulted in a front page article with two full inside pages of text. At the time, Vepco’s badly managed nuclear program had earned the highest level of federal safety fines ever.
So, it was an eerie sense of deja vu that I was being escorted around at Dominion’s (formerly Vepco’s) North Anna nuclear station for an article I was researching in Style Weekly. Dominion officials seemed willing to let a photographer and I see just about everything. Underlying the post 9/11 trauma, from time to time tough-looking men in black flak jackets and evil looking assault rifles sauntered about.
Dominion is considering adding a third unit at North Anna. It needs about 4,600 extra megawatts of power over the next decade or so, thanks in part to the extra heavy loads that the ordinary household demands for our cell phones, desktops, big screen televisions, Wii games, iPods, among other devices. Another issue is that big search engine firms such as Google plan huge server farms in Northern Virginia which is a switching center for half of the Internet traffic in the U.S. The server farms are huge electron hogs.
Another reason is that Its North Anna and Surry units are 1970s vintage, like most of the 104 operating reactors in the U.S. Utilities are scrambling to upgrade aging units while some 17 power companies, including Dominion, are planning 21 new units with newly-designed reactors that may reflect three decades worth of technical improvements. Dominion has applied for a license for North Anna Unit Three and is considering bids from six reactor builders with a winner expected by this spring.
One plus is that as environmentalists concerned about greenhouse gases decry new coal-fired
generation, nukes seem to be getting a clean bill of health globally. Unlike coal, the nukes don’t emit much in the the way of carbon dioxide and that has changed the minds of some ecologists around the world, according to a piece in The Washington Post.
True, experts among nuclear critics point out that nuke’s still have a lot of unsolved issues, such as where to permanently dispose of the extremely toxic waste fuel that is now kept on plant sites. And while there hasn’t been a Chernobyl-style accident since 1986, there have been some near misses.
A notable one had its roots in 2001 when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided to delay inspections of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio. In March 2002, an inspection revealed that boric acid had almost eaten through the 6.5 inch thick pressure vessel enclosing the 32-year-old reactor owned by FirstEnergy of Akron.
Had inspections been delayed by another five to 12 months, the vessel would have been completely breached, causing a loss of coolant accident similar to Three Mile Island. Fixing it took two years and $600 million. The NRC rated the incident as one of 10 that could have resulted in a TMI-style disaster.
For Dominion, which has greatly cleaned up its nuclear program since the Vepco days, the biggest hurdle is cost. Utility officials won’t give a price estimate for Unit Three but experts believe it might be about $8 billion.
That’s a much bigger price tag than Dominion’s highly controversial $1.5 billion Wise County coal-fired plant although it will generate 585 megawatts or about half the power.
Given the complexity and lingering potential for a radioactive disaster, few investment banks are willing to fund multi-billion dollar nuclear stations without federal loan guarantees. Congress did grant $18.5 billion for such guarantees in 2005 but that’s only enough for about four new nukes nationwide. But 17 electric utilities have applied for the guarantees to build 21 new reactors at a cost totaling $188 billion, or many times what Congress originally provided for.
Dominion had been considering a reactor design by GE Hitachi called an ESBWR, but talks broke down early this year. Dominion opened up bidding from six reactor makers, including the firm Areva, which is owned by the French government and has a big Virginia footprint in Lynchburg and Newport News. But the delay meant that Dominion was not included in the first four reactors that were picked in May from across the country to get the federal loan guarantees. That’s a major setback.
Critics have long noted that commercial nuclear power has a lot of hidden costs and trip wires. The loan guarantee issue is just one of them. Much of the development cost of developing nukes has been hidden in Defense Department budgets that funded early reactors in Chicago and at arms plants such as Hanford and Savannah River. Many of today’s reactor designs still are pretty much based on Navy submarine and aircraft carrier reactors originally developed when the testy Adm Hyman Rickover was in charge. And commercial nukes could never have gone forward back in the 1950s and 60s without the Price Anderson Act which capped liabilities for utilities that had an accident at $560 million.
Gov. Time Kaine has noted that nuclear power could play a key role in the state’s energy future. Curiously, GOPers like Bob McDonnell would rather play their Sarah Palin card of “Drill Here, Drill Now,” regarding offshore oil development when nukes seem a much surer bet since they’ve been int he state since the early 1970s while offshore oil is still highly speculative.
True, nukes have a lot of dangers. But if the concerns of global warming are as serious as so many believe, they do deserve another look.
Peter Galuszka

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15 responses to “Rethinking Nuclear Power”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    "…point out that nuke's still have a lot of unsolved issues, such as where to permanently dispose of the extremely toxic waste"

    Isn"t that petty close to the same problem we have with CO2?

    Where to put the waste?

    This isn't a Nuke Problem: it's a politcoeconomic problem.


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Apparently the banks already have implicit federal loan guarantees, why do they need more?

    If we have a real nuclear meltdown, what makes them think the loan guarantees will be worth anything?

    And that could be the least of their problems.


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    "Critics have long noted that commercial nuclear power has a lot of hidden costs and trip wires."

    Total Costs = Production Costs + External Costs + Government Costs

    Look at the big picture.


  4. Anonymous Avatar

    "Much of the development cost of developing nukes has been hidden in Defense Department budgets…. "

    Same as for airplanes and a lot of other stuff. If yu choose a discriminator, you need to apply it indiscriminately.


  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Good post, Peter.

    A number of years ago, I did some work for Exelon, which owns CommEd in Illinois and operates six or seven nuclear plants in northern Illinois and eastern Iowa. Safety was a huge issue with Exelon and it seemed to have a very good record in that area.

    Conservation can and must play a big role in VA's energy future, but we need affordable power for economic activity too. Nuclear plants should be a part of the mix.


  6. Peter – I thought you did a good job articulating the challenges faced by "private" nukes – NOT!

    I hadn't realized that Dominion had come a cropper on qualifying for the government subsidies.

    Is there an implication here that without the Fed subsidies and guarantees that "private" nukes are going nowhere fast?

    Is there an implication that the State of Virginia and Bob dill-baby-drill McDonnell could step up to the plate and grease the skids or Dominion to move forward?

    Neither the Sierra Club nor the Environmental Defense Fund nor the NRDC, by the way, are NOT three of the environmental groups that are rethinking their positions.

    All 3 remain opposed because of security, disposal and the need for government subsidies.

    The point is made that if we are going to subsidize power – why not subsidize renewable(s)?

    I have more confidence that we have a path to storage and reprocessing of nuke material though than carbon sequestration which I consider the modern-day equivalent of snake oil.

    I want to see at least ONE WORKING PLANT.. FIRST.. before I am persuaded that we can "sequester" CO2.

    I'm also concerned that the next most spectacularly awful terrorist hit beyond the twin towers, the Pentagon, WH and Congress would be to turn a 50 miles radius around North Anna (or name your favorite locale) into a people-free zone.

    Do we.. right now INCLUDE the security protection costs for Nukes in their overall costs or is that yet another cost that will be passed on to consumers?

    I can guarantee you that if terrorists manage to put an aircraft into a Nuke Dome – even if not a ounce of radiation escapes – it will be a gamer-changer as far as security is concerned.

    Can you say anti-aircraft missile installations complete with radar and local fighter deployments?

    This is one of those deals where, yet again, it would truly help the issues to have side-by-side comparisons of the cost issues associated with our options.

    It could be that even with all those extra costs – that the nukes would win – but I suspect only if we include global warming as a cost.

    In other words – is the cost of sequestering carbon from coal plants roughly equivalent to the 'extras' required by the Nukes or would natural gas and/or renewables beat them both over the longer run?

    Anyone have any idea at all?

    My view is – if we all knew the numbers – we'd know more than most of us know right now.

    One good thing about the debate – FINALLY – the cost associated with pollution is starting to become part of the dialog.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    "Is there an implication here that without the Fed subsidies and guarantees that "private" nukes are going nowhere fast?"

    Probably the same as for wind, no?

    There is also the insurance issue, aside form loan guarantees. In Canada government backed insurance for nukes around Toronto was just raised to $650 million.

    Sounds like a drop in the probability bucket to me.


  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Global warming (from man) – hahahaha. Okay, so now that that is over.

    As for nukes AND 'drill-here-drill-now' I support both of them. I KNOW that solar and wind will never fulfill our needs. I would like to see us less and less dependent upon foreign countries for our energy. I have no problem with solar, wind, nukes and drilling. And man-made global warming, ha, yeah, that's a good one.


  9. Groveton Avatar

    Good post. Fair and balanced. Only two additional points:

    1, While oil is rarely used in the generation of electricity, electric cars would seriously reduce the need for imported oil. score a point for the nukes.

    2, The disposal of nuclear waste is an issue. So are the tailings from the mining of uranium. This is really ugly stuff. Score a point against the nukes.

    Like you wrote – this deserves another look.

  10. J. Tyler Ballance Avatar
    J. Tyler Ballance

    I served as the Radiological Controls Officer on the USS Long Beach (CGN-9) back in 1980-1984. We had Westinghouse reactors, and a perfect nuclear safety record, but…

    nuclear power is not safe.

    Neither is getting too much sun, or eating a fatty diet.

    It is well past time for Americans to pull themselves together and recognize that we can mitigate risks associated with all sorts of industrial activity, and that we must stop the current practice of merely shipping our manufacturing and other heavy industries to Communist China.

    Their pollution still lands on us anyway.

    We can use fission power, along with alternative fuels. These power sources should be used as a comprehensive energy independence policy, and not to the exclusion of any cost effective energy source.

    Spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed into plutonium nuclear weapons, that we could use on others, or we could dispose of the material in subduction zones, where the material would eventually be returned to below the tectonic plates in the earth's surface. Most of the waste material is very low level and really doesn't warrant the fear that has been generated in the hysterical media about it.

    Had we not gone into full anti-nuke hysteria mode back in the 1970s, America would have achieved energy independence by now.

    We mustn't chastise the environmentalist community for the error, but we need to quickly get our house back in order and move quickly towards a comprehensive energy independence solution. Such an effort should be like one hundred Manhattan Project level development programs.

    With energy independence, our future generations will be able to unshackle America from the Middle East and all of their idiotic political intrigues.

  11. all things being equal folks – including all the good things you might like about Nuke Power – should it be subsidized if it cannot compete in the marketplace against coal?

  12. ted rorrer Avatar
    ted rorrer

    Just follow France. They are the leaders in nuclear energy and the disposal of spent toxic fuel.

  13. the reason I asked about whether folks support subsidies is that electricity in France is about 16 cents per kilowatt hour compared to about 11 cents here.

    If your electricity rates were to go up by half again to pay for Nukes – would you still support Nukes?

  14. ted rorrer Avatar
    ted rorrer

    If cap and trade is enacted coal will be the most expensive fuel a utility can burn. I think tidal power has great promise. Duke Energy in NC is beginning to experiment with it. Biomass is an up and coming fuel of choice. The technology is finally beginning to make alternative fuels cost effect with coal and natural gas.

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    "…coal will be the most expensive fuel a utility can burn."

    Don't confuse the issue.

    Coal will still be cheap, but the comparison to be made is what will be chepest including the cleanup required to get us to a desired and acceptable level of pollution.

    You are really paying for power and the external costs of power and the cost of government regulation/inspection/subsidy.

    What you are looking for is the system that gives you the lowest combination of the three.

    New technologies are going to require huge investments of money and land and time: we are going too have to invest ins ose old technolgies to tide us over.


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