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Duke Considering First New U.S. Nuclear Plant in 30 Years

By Laura Shin

Jun 19, 2009

For the first time since the Three Mile Island meltdown, U.S. interest in nuclear power is heating up.

In southern Ohio yesterday, a coalition of energy companies, including Duke Energy, announced that it is considering ordering the nation's first new nuclear plant in more than 30 years.

Duke's group will have some competition: So far, 17 applications have been submitted to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 26 new reactors, reflecting how concern about energy supplies and climate change have changed the debate over nuclear power.

The plant discussed yesterday would be built near the site of an inoperative in Piketown, about 100 miles east of Cincinnati. Duke's coalition, called the Southern Ohio Clean Energy Park Alliance, brings together nuclear companies , and French , plus the , a group working for the economic stability of the area. 

They plan to seek funding from the Department of Energy, and they could find that federal support.

Nuclear energy has been gaining friends in Washington in recent months. 

Energy Secretary Steven Chu is a strong supporter of nuclear power, and there has been discussion in Congress of financing new nuclear energy projects as the government's emphasis shifts toward cleaner sources of energy. The federal stimulus package proposed earlier this year initially offered a $50 billion loan boost for nuclear power, though that measure was dropped in the final negotiations.

The DOE is now preparing to award $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear facilities, and earlier this week, Chu announced for scholarships and grants for university research into nuclear energy.

“America’s leadership in nuclear energy research will be critical in addressing the country’s longterm energy independence and climate change goals," Chu said in announcing the scholarship program. He referred to nuclear power as an "important zero-carbon energy source.”

A look at nuclear construction under way around the world right now offers a cautionary tale, though.

A survey by analyst Mycle Schneider of the more than three dozen nuclear plants currently under construction found they long lead times, with plants taking over a decade to come online, and that about half ended up with construction delays and several had significant cost overruns. Finland's 3 billion Euro nuclear plant, which submitted environmental assessments in 1998 and saw the first concrete poured in 2005, was 1.5 billion Euros over budget by 2007.

In the U.S., while some state lawmakers have called for more nuclear power, they haven't been as quick amid the economic crisis to allow those project costs to be passed on to consumers, creating another funding challenge. That tripped up for an Areva nuclear reactor in Missouri, where it wasn't allowed to raise its consumers' rates before the plant was completed. AmerenUE announced that it was suspending its Missouri nuclear plans in April.

Currently, nuclear power generated by the 104 existing reactors in 31 states accounts for 10 percent of all the installed electric capacity in the United States. That number jumps to 20 percent of the overall electricity supply and 75 percent of all carbon-free energy, according to Steve Kerekes, spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

It's been years since a new nuclear plant was ordered, though, and there have been no new orders since before March 28, 1979, when a coolant leak led to a partial reactor core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Generating Station near Harrisburg, Pa. (More than 40 plants that had already been ordered were completed in the 1980s and ’90s.)

Kerekes says the lack of new construction isn't entirely attributable to the Three Mile Island meltdown.

Possible errors

This excellent article seems to have a few flaws.

Nuclear power, while not generating carbon dioxide, generates small amounts of some gases which are more powerful greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, so it is actually not a protection from climate change. In the original version of the climate bill, a long list of gases were mentioned and their "carbon equivalents;" some of the most potent were associated with nuclear power.

While the health dangers of nuclear power are mentioned, there is no mention of the fact that some of the elements used in nuclear power are in short supply; we are said to have a 50-year supply of some of them at present usage rates. Given the massive amount of energy required to build a power plant, this should create severe second thoughts.

Most important, the easy alternative to building new power plants of any kind is conservation. Even before changing lifestyles, large amounts of energy consumption could be removed by changing our vehicles, insulating our homes, and the like. In fact, Europe, which has lifestyles similar to our own, consumes half the energy per person that the US does. And there's a lot of room for lifestyle change as well.

Let me come back to the health issue just briefly. Nuclear power, by vastly increasing the incidence of cancer, is very good for business - the medical business. If you like that kind of economic growth - radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, and human suffering - then invest in nuclear energy.

Well balanced article

Laura:

Congratulations on a well balanced article about the possibility of new nuclear power plant construction.

One often repeated, accurate, but misleading statement is the following "there have been no new orders since before March 28, 1979". The reality of the situation in the 1970s was that nuclear power plant orders had almost completely dried up by 1975; there were more cancellations that year than new orders. By 1978, there were no new orders at all.

That slowdown in the industry came about because of a fear of "overcapacity" caused by a slowdown in the rate of growth of electrical power consumption caused by the recession that the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74 initiated. Utilities were fearful that there would be insufficient market for the power that new nuclear plants would provide at a time when they had not yet received full cost recovery for their existing coal fired power plants. The only new plants on order or under construction were nuclear, so that is what got cancelled.

According to many nuclear industry insiders, TMI was actually a boost for vendors and architect engineers. It did not lead to new plant orders, but it led to a lot of new work in retrofitting existing plants under conditions that made it easy for utilities to simply pass the costs to consumers.

I am just a bit too young to have actually been there myself, but I have interviewed several people who were there and have told me the same story. It matches with the historical data available about US nuclear power plant orders.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast

Nuclear insider provides some details

FYI: One of the difficulties with coverage of nuclear power is that once you get past the financial, resource and climate issues (well covered above), you get down to safety and fear - and there's little out there to give the public a true sense of what goes on at a nuclear plant, good and bad. For a free and entertaining look at a US nuclear plant in good and not-so good times, see for my novel "Rad Decision". (No sponsor, no adverts, no $$ for me.) I've been in the nuclear biz over twenty years. Stewart Brand, noted environmentalist and founder of 'The Whole Earth Catalog" was kind enough to say "I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read."

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