US Nuclear Industry Inches Toward New Construction
Author: Chris Baltimore
Now, the US nuclear industry is hoping that its troubled
building history will not repeat itself as it takes baby steps
toward ending a 30-year nuclear construction hiatus.
There are signs that things will be different this time
around, and many industry observers are talking openly about an
approaching "nuclear renaissance."
"It's going to be significantly different from how it was
in the 1970s," said Bill Borchardt, who will oversee the
lengthy licensing process to build new nuclear plants at the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
US companies in coming weeks are expected to file the
first of about 30 anticipated new reactor license applications
at the NRC to serve soaring US electricity demand with
greenhouse gas-free nuclear energy.
Most of the building interest is centered in Southeast
states like Georgia, Virginia, Alabama and Florida, where land
is plentiful and a population shift from northern states is
driving electricity demand through the roof.
Dominion Resources, Duke Energy and Southern
Co are among the utilities in the process of seeking
plant licenses, according to a list provided by the NRC.
The NRC is expected to take about 3 years to process
applications, and construction could take 4 years, putting the
first new US reactors online sometime around 2015.
When it happens, the license filing at the NRC will be the
first step in a long dance with regulators that hasn't been
initiated in the United States since 1975.
But obtaining a plant license -- which costs about US$50
million -- is much cheaper than buying the massive quantities
of steel, concrete and reactor equipment that puts the cost of
building a new commercial-scale plant at about US$5 billion.
"The decision to build is where the real money kicks in and
I think they'll enter into that gradually," Borchardt said.
The global nuclear industry -- along with Wall Street
financiers and bondholders who will foot the bill -- will watch
the fate of the first new plants, said Richard Cortright, a
managing director at Standard and Poor's rating service.
"If it's a relatively smooth process you're going to have a
lot more nuclear plants," Cortright said. "If it's disrupted
and a political nightmare it could spell the finality of this
Nuclear power is now seen as a candidate to replace
electricity generated from coal, which accounts for about half
of US power supplies but also makes up about 40 percent of
heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.
ONCE BURNED, TWICE SHY
When the first wave of US nuclear plants was proposed in
the 1960s, utility officials said that their product would be
"too cheap to meter." In reality, the industry's experience
proved much harsher than their rosy expectations.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the Watts
Bar plant about 50 miles south of Knoxville, was plagued with
whistle-blower safety complaints that delayed construction and
drove up costs to over US$6 billion.
The second unit still sits idle, after TVA mothballed
construction plans in 1985 due to safety concerns after the
1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania sent a
shockwave across the industry and canceled dozens of planned
To minimize construction delays, the NRC has set up a
streamlined process that allows companies to obtain a license
to construct and operate a nuclear plant in one fell swoop,
minimizing possible delays.
To get the so-called Combined Construction and Operating
License, applicants must use pre-approved designs from
builders like Westinghouse, which standardize plant
construction down to the color of the wallpaper.
That's a vast departure from the nation's 104 operating
nuclear plants -- each of which was built from scratch.