U.S. Nuclear Energy: Comeback or Meltdown?

Until a couple of years ago, prospects for the U.S. nuclear power industry were in what the engineers call a “cold shutdown” mode. For nearly 30 years, no new reactor construction projects had been started in the United States. And every time the nuke sector looked like it might get back on its feet, it was dealt another body blow.

The industry’s problems began in 1979 with the near-miss at Three Mile Island, which for a few tense days threatened to contaminate a region including Harrisburg, PA. It took a visit from President Jimmy Carter–who had served in the Navy as an engineer on a nuclear submarine–to assure everyone the facility and Pennsylvania’s capital were safe.

This was followed by NY Gov. Mario Cuomo’s stunning decision in 1983 to veto the Long Island Lighting Co.’s nearly completed Shoreham plant. At literally the last minute — the $5-billion plant was ready to go into operation (they were on the verge of loading the fuel rods into the reactor core) — Gov. Cuomo asked LILCO to produce its contingency plans for an emergency evacuation of the NYC metropolitan area. When LILCO admitted they had no idea how to move 20 million people quickly out of harm’s way, Mario dropped the hammer on Shoreham.

Then came Chernobyl, the world’s first Level 7 nuclear event. The 1986 explosion at the aging and poorly designed plant in the Ukraine sent a plume of radiation reaching all the way to Scandinavia. Hundreds of firefighters and emergency workers suffered radiation poisoning as they battled to put out the fire and seal the shattered facility in a concrete tomb.

Calming the fears raised by Chernobyl was a hard enough task for the nuclear industry, but utilities also had to contend with rising construction costs that were adding billions to the price tag for new reactors. For the next two decades, it looked like nuclear power had reached a dead end.

The late 2000s brought new hope to the industry: rising concerns about climate change and the push for clean energy gave utilities a compelling reason to give nuclear power a second look as an alternative energy source; new modular assembly designs also promised to keep the cost of building a nuclear plant from climbing past the $10-billion per reactor threshold. The modular designs, which involve assembling plants from huge prefabricated sections, are said to be much safer than older facilities (according to industry experts, modular plants are as tenth as likely to have an accident) and easier to operate.

In 2010, a consortium of utilities moved forward with plans for two new reactors to be built with new modular assembly methods at the Alvin W. Vogtle nuclear power complex near Augusta, GA. The U.S. Department of Energy backed the project by offering up to $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees drawn from stimulus funds. Also moving forward were plans to build two new reactors at the V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina.

In addition to these utility expansions, the U.S. DOE began construction on a $4.9-billion factory on the Savannah River near Aiken, SC that was designed to make reactor fuel from plutonium extracted from decommissioned nuclear bombs.

It was looking very bullish for U.S. nuclear power until early in 2011, when a tsunami spawned by an earthquake swamped the Fukushima Daiichi complex in Japan and the world experienced its second Level 7 event. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the U.S. nuclear power industry — perhaps even worldwide nuclear energy — seems to have everything riding on the completion of the projects in GA and SC. But some recent developments may be tilting the odds against those betting on success:

–Two deadlines for completion of a formal loan guarantee agreement between the U.S. government and Vogtle’s owners (Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, Municipal Electric Authority of GA and Dalton Utilities) have passed without the financing deal being finalized. A third extension was granted by the DOE on June 30.

–Opponents of the $14-billion Vogtle project have compared the promised federal financing to DOE’s stimulus-funded debacle at Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturing facility in California that went belly up. Meanwhile, the recent boom in the production of natural gas has sent gas prices to historic lows, raising the bar for advocates of nuclear power who contend it still can be cost-effective compared to other energy sources.

–DOE suddenly has reversed course on the Savannah River project. The Energy Department revised its cost estimate for the project to $7.7 billion and is now proposing to eliminate funding for it in the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, effectively abandoning the half-completed factory after $3.7 billion already has been spent.

Fueling the other side of the debate is the inexorable rise in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Supporters of expanded nuclear power now can cite recent estimates from scientists that the ratio of greenhouse gases in the air has reached an average of 400 parts per million, considered by some experts to be a tipping point beyond which global warming may become irreversible.

According to a report in The New York Times, several major utilities are watching the Vogtle project closely as they consider investments in new nuclear facilities. The Florida Municipal Electric Association reportedly is mulling a major investment in a new plant (similar in design to Vogtle 3 and 4) proposed by Florida Power and Light.

The Vogtle expansion, being built using modular sections prefabricated in Lake Charles, LA, is about one-third complete. The two new reactors are scheduled to go online in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Joseph A. Miller, VP of nuclear development at Southern Company (Georgia Power’s corporate parent), says Vogtle’s backers are fully committed to finishing the job.

“It takes leadership to do something like this,” Miller told the Times.

In our opinion, comparisons between the Vogtle project and the lavishly equipped Solyndra solar panel plant (a robot for every panel and a hot tub for every worker) are ludicrous. The successful completion of a truly modular nuclear power plant may herald the long-awaited arrival of safer and more cost-effective nuclear energy, which unlike coal, gas and oil can generate electricity without generating carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases.

The only way we’re going to find out whether Vogtle and similar projects can deliver on these promises is to finish building the reactors and turn them on. That indeed will take leadership, and we hope DOE keeps its promise to the uilities in Georgia.