- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 18, 2006

It’s been 20 years since the deadly explosion and fire at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and with the passing of two decades comes a time of renewed interest in nuclear energy, given the high levels of safety and production at U.S. power plants and the advancement of technology.

Industry leaders are calling this the “renaissance of nuclear energy,” and their only regret is that new nuclear power plants can’t come on line to fill the urgent need for more electricity.

“We’ll need additional energy in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast in 2009 to 2011, but the first new nuclear plants won’t come on line until 2014 or 2015 at the earliest,” said Mike Wallace, executive vice president of Constellation Energy, which runs two reactors at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant on the Chesapeake Bay in Lusby, Md., and three other reactors at two other U.S. locations.

Mr. Wallace acknowledges that a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs is a “distinct” possibility. A partnership called UniStar Nuclear, which includes Constellation Energy and Areva, a nuclear plant manufacturer with offices in Bethesda, has told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) it expects to submit applications to build and operate reactors at both Calvert Cliffs and a site in upstate New York in 2008 and 2009.

As for safety, Mr. Wallace said the “safety performance of plants operating today has been exemplary.”

“We have 103 nuclear plants in operation in the United States, the oldest of which goes back 40 years,” he said.

Things always haven’t looked so good. “The outlook for nuclear power was far bleaker in the final decades of the last century,” Mr. Wallace said.

Catalysts for change

The worst nuclear accident in U.S. history occurred March 28, 1979, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. That event, followed by the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl in Ukraine seven years later that killed 30 persons initiallyand spread radiation through a 20-mile radius, chilled many to the concept of nuclear-produced electricity.

Those fears did not readily dissipate.

The sequence of certain events at Three Mile Island — equipment malfunctions, design-related problems and human error — led to a partial meltdown of the TMI-2 reactor core, but only very small off-site releases of radioactivity. The accident, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, brought about sweeping changes involving emergency-response planning, reactor operator training and radiation protection.

As for Chernobyl, “Someone disabled the safety system, and there was no nuclear containment system, as is required in the United States,” said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the National Energy Institute.

The accident sent high radiation levels into the surrounding 20-mile radius and 135,000 people had to be evacuated.

What led up to the Chernobyl disaster was the “height of Soviet arrogance,” Mr. Kerekes said.

Ralph DeSantis, spokesman for the Three Mile Island Reactor 1 near Harrisburg, calls the U.S. nuclear reactor safety record “exemplary” after the accident that occurred in the second reactor at that site 27 years ago.

Safety is a major concern because the purpose of a nuclear power plant is to boil water and generate steam without the use of fossil fuels. The heat used to generate the steam is produced by a nuclear reaction involving uranium, rather than by the burning of a fossil fuel, such as coal.

“You want a uranium-235 isotope, which is very fissionable,” Mr. Kerekes said. “In nuclear plants, we enrich the uranium 3 [percent] to 4 percent, while nuclear weapons are enriched 90 percent and above.”

Nuclear power plants were a pariah for many years after TMI 2 and Chernobyl, but now the mood is changing for these reasons: the overall performance and safety records of nuclear power plants; the fact that they are clean — with no air-pollution emissions at all when they are operated correctly; plus the fact there are already designs on the books successfully being used for even safer reactors being built in Europe and Asia.

“So there is growing support for nuclear power in the future,” Mr. DeSantis said.

Political support

Nuclear power supporters include President Bush; his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Christie Whitman, former Environmental Protection Agency director and New Jersey governor; and Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development.

Mr. Kerekes of NEI agrees the future looks bright for nuclear power.

“We have 103 nuclear reactors operating in the United States, which represent 2,500 combined reactor years. So we have compiled quite a lot of experience.”

The NRC said the last of the operating U.S. nuclear power plants to get a construction permit was Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris plant in North Carolina in 1978. The last plant to receive an operating license was the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar plant in east Tennessee in 1996, said NRC spokesman Scott R. Burnell.

But Mr. Burnell said it appears the NRC could receive 13 applications for combined construction/operational licenses for new power plants in the next few years. Most are likely to be received in 2007 and 2008, he said, and approximately half would seek two reactors.

The 400,000-member Environmental Defense group acknowledges that it is nervous about the next few decades, as “current nuclear plants reach the end of their useful lives … and demand for electricity continues to increase.”

The number of nuclear plants could double, even if nuclear power maintains its current one-fifth share of the energy market, the organization says. “In that situation, current safety standards would not be adequate to protect the public.”

Founded in 1967, Environmental Defense says it is taking a wait-and-see position, even though it calls the safety record of nuclear plants in the United States “impressive.”

Nuclear utilities and their advocates are much more upbeat about safety.

“Some new designs have been certified by the NRC over the past few years, and some of these designs have been incorporated in nuclear power plants that have already opened in Japan and elsewhere,” Mr. Kerekes of NEI said. “The new designs feature a lot less wiring, cable and moving parts. They rely more on convection, gravity and natural forces to enhance safety.”

Mr. Burnell of the NRC agreed. “They are taking basic technology and state-of-the-art computer models and incorporating passive safety features. While the current reactors rely on electrical and mechanical systems, those with passive safety systems rely on natural processes, such as gravity.”

Designing for safety

Two new plant designs that use passive safety systems are the AP1000 from Westinghouse and the ESBWR from General Electric. The AP1000 is a 1,000-megawatt advanced pressurized reactor. The ESBWR, which stands for economic simplified boiling-water reactor, is a 1,390-megawatt boiling-water system that enhances natural circulation through various methods.

Both the AP1000 and the ESBWR have above the reactors large reservoirs of water, which can flow downward by gravity in an emergency, according to an official of the Entergy Nuclear group. Entergy is part of a consortium called NuStart that wants to operate a single ESBWR system in Mississippi and expects to apply for a permit late next year or early in 2008.

Meanwhile, Constellation Energy has a design known as the Evolutionary Pressurized Reactor (EPR), which its partner, Areva, is using for a new power plant it is building in Finland and another it expects to build in France. The EPR is a large 1,600-megawatt pressurized water reactor, whose design does not rely on passive safety systems.

Most nuclear reactors in use in the United States, including the two at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, are pressurized water versions. They are like a pressure cooker in that they keep water under pressure so it heats but does not boil. Electricity is made by splitting uranium atoms to produce steam. The steam is piped to the main turbine, which spins a generator to produce electricity. The steam is cooled in a condenser and reverts to water, which is pumped back to the reactor to begin the process again.

“Our [EPR] design is already being built, and we’re the big backers of the global standard technology … standardization is very important because all the equipment can be done at once,” Mr. Wallace said.

Before TMI and Chernobyl, the nuclear power industry was confident its plants would emerge as a cleaner, less expensive and more popular alternative to fossil fuels. Industrialists predicted 1,000 nuclear reactors would be operating by 2000, a figure nearly 10 times greater than the number now in operation.

The accidents increased the anxiety of would-be investors who added safety risks to their existing concerns about high interest rates and excess capacity.

“When existing nuclear reactors were built, there was a two-step approval process [by the NRC] that took many years,” Mr. Kerekes said. “For example, it might take eight to 10 years to [get a license to] build the reactor, and then the applicant had to wait another two to three years to get an operating license.

“But, now there is a one-stop approach, where an applicant can get a combined construction and operating license,” which eliminates some of the delay, he said. Estimates of the cost of a nuclear power plant range from $1 billion to $2 billion.

But even with the consolidated approval process, Mr. Burnell said it can take three years or more for the NRC to review applications for so-called “early” site permits, which address environmental-safety issues. After that, he said, “It can take up to five years for us to review construction/operations permits.”

Mr. Burnell said many utilities planning new nuclear power plants “want to be ready for business in 2015 or 2016.” Such a deadline is “achievable,” he said, but not necessarily realistic.

Mr. Domenici said the 103 reactors now operating in the United States supply electricity to one-fifth of all U.S. homes and businesses. Coal remains the market leader, providing a 51 percent share, said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association.

He said the coal industry does not believe it will be hurt by the gains made by nuclear power. He cites projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration that coal’s share of the electricity market will continue to climb because it is so abundant and cheaper than natural gas. What’s more, he said, emissions from coal-fired power plants have fallen significantly since the early 1980s.

“Coal and nuclear can both run 24/7,” said Mr. Kerekes of NEI. He predicts that following completion of the first few new nuclear plants, they should be financially competitive with “cleaner coal” operations.

Still unanswered are the questions of where and how to store nuclear waste that remains radioactive for centuries. President Bush strongly supports storing the waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but officials and residents in that state oppose the plan,

“We’re frustrated that the federal disposal plan has not moved,” Mr. Kerekes said.

Some critics of nuclear power fear the plants and their technology are prime targets for terrorists. But it’s known that Mr. Wallace and other industry leaders are on the front lines of high-level efforts to address that threat, a spokesman for Constellation Energy said.

Public coming around

A national survey last summer confirmed that Americans view nuclear energy favorably. In a poll of adults living within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant, 83 percent said they favor nuclear energy, and 85 percent gave the plant near them a “high” safety rating. Seventy-six percent said they would be willing to see a new reactor built on the site near their home.

“This survey confirms … that most nuclear power plant neighbors support their local plant,” said Ann Bisconti, president of Bisconti Research Inc., which conducted the poll of more than 1,100 Americans in collaboration with Quest Global Research Group.

In addition to Mr. Domenici, a growing chorus of political leaders that includes President Bush and Mrs. Whitman, his former EPA director, have called for building more nuclear power plants to help meet the huge energy needs of the United States.

Jeb Bush has proposed reducing and removing barriers to the construction of nuclear power plants in Florida, and at least two utilities are interested.

Last year, Congress passed energy legislation that provides billions of dollars of tax incentives and loan guarantees for utilities that build the next six nuclear reactors in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the NRC knows it will be busy with all the movement afoot related to applications for new nuclear power plants.

“We’re aggressively recruiting and hiring staff with particular skills to review these applications,” Mr. Burnell said. “The agency is looking to hire 300 people in this fiscal year, and a third will be for the new reactors. Similar levels of hiring are expected in 2007 and 2008.”

Researchers Amy Baskerville and John Sopko contributed to this report.

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