THE RENAISSANCE OF INTEREST IN NUCLEAR GENERATORS may seem counterintuitive given the problems that stymied new plant development 30 years ago. But to borrow words from Mark Twain, reports of nuclear power's death were greatly exaggerated.
Most EnergyBiz readers know the story. Energy surpluses coupled with massive cost overruns leading to plant cancellations, public concerns following Three Mile Island, the shift to fossil fuels and the growing emphasis on conservation and renewables in resource plans all combined to convince us that nuclear power was no longer a serious alternative for new generation.
Still, by the end of the 1980s, there were more than 100 nuclear plants operating in the United States supplying roughly 20 percent of our electricity. While the nuclear industry entered a quiescent period, it was far from idle. Plant operators and nuclear scientists made improvements. In the ensuing decades, scram-related shutdowns were cut by a factor of 80 and plant operators succeeded in raising capacity factors that had hovered below 70 percent through 1990 to over 90 percent during the past decade. As capital costs were paid off, existing plants became cash cows.
Consumers today reap the rewards. The production costs of nuclear plants in 2008 averaged 1.87 cents per kilowatt-hour compared with 2.75 cents for coal and 8.09 cents for natural gas.
With these improvements, nuclear power was poised to respond to the global challenge of climate change. Indeed, as leading environmentalists Stewart Brand, James Lovelock and Patrick Moore have announced their support of nuclear power, it has taken on a green complexion. Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu has noted that nuclear energy produces 70 percent of the carbon-free portion of our electricity needs and will be “an important component of our energy mix” as we move ahead.
This was reinforced recently when President Barack Obama backed over $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for two nuclear plants planned in Georgia. For the first time since the 1970s, U.S. utilities have submitted several applications for new nuclear plants. But it's not all roses. Virtually all major plant offerings today are well over 1,000 megawatts, almost three times that of a typical natural gas-fired plant. The investment required is daunting, with costs of $11 billion to $17 billion to build a project.
That's why there is growing interest in a new class of smaller reactors. Analogous to the shift from the main frame computer paradigm that brought us the flexibility and cost savings of network systems in the 1980s, innovators today are seeking similar advantages by introducing a new generation of smaller nuclear plants known as small, modular reactors. By grouping small, factory-built units in a single facility, utilities can achieve flexibility, reduced costs and lower financial risks.
At NuScale Power we are going commercial with one such design developed at Oregon State University in a partnership with Idaho National Laboratory and Nexant Engineering. At 45 megawatts per unit, as many as 12 units can be clustered to produce up to 540 megawatts. The entire unit, including reactor pressure vessel and containment, comes as a factory-built package delivered to site.
It is estimated that one of these plants could be put on line at a cost of between $2 billion and $2.5 billion. Operation and maintenance costs will also be less because one unit can be taken out for refueling or repairs while the others remain in operation.
Meanwhile, interest grows in Congress. Late last year, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held hearings on two pieces of legislation that would provide financial support for new small, modular reactors. Recently in the Wall Street Journal, Energy Secretary Steven Chu proposed a similar program.
So the prospects for small, modular reactors and nuclear power in general are promising. NuScale Power plans to file for Design Certification in 2012, to be completed in 2014. The design testing and cost studies we've done give us confidence that a plant could be online by 2018. Other companies are also busy developing new designs.
Nuclear power clearly is making a comeback, and that's good news for our economy and our environment.
This article was written by Paul Lorenzini.