published Thursday, December 29th, 2011

In the wake of triple meltdowns, experts say America's nuclear initiative waning

by Chris Carroll
Cooling towers let off steam at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.
Cooling towers let off steam at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.
Photo by Jake Daniels.
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Should the U.S. build 100 new nuclear plants in the next 25 years?

A former nuclear regulator, an economic analyst and a congressional think-tank adviser say 2011 marked the fall of the so-called U.S. nuclear renaissance, despite regulators' approval last week of a new reactor design.

The experts said 2012 likely will bring more challenges for the nuclear industry in the wake of triple meltdowns at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant after a crippling 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in March.

The cost of the accident, now estimated at $250 billion, essentially bankrupted Tokyo Electric Power Co., the world's fourth-largest utility.

The final blow is the emergence of natural gas as a significantly less risky and cheaper alternative, the three say. Former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Peter Bradford, economic analyst Mark Cooper with Vermont Law School and Executive Director Carol Werner comprise the congressional-formed and nonpartisan Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

"The renaissance is imploding," Bradford said. "The collapse was well under way before the accident of Fukushima, and Fukushima should not be wished away or prophesied away [by nuclear proponents]. It's the best 2012 can hope for."

Even before the Japan meltdowns, Cooper said markets and financiers had seen nuclear industry investment -- with $18.5 billion in congressional-backed loan guarantees -- as "a bubble with air rapidly leaking out of it."

The ramifications of thousands of Japanese not being able to return to their homes and businesses for years "reminds financial markets that nuclear power is uninsurable," Cooper said.

However, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., took the opposite position in a phone interview Wednesday. Alexander in 2009 sponsored legislation to earmark $100 billion in loans to build 100 reactors by 2020.

"If we want enough low-cost electricity to create jobs, run our computers and keep the lights on, we're going to need to build 100 new nuclear plants in the next 20 or 30 years," Alexander said Wednesday.

He pushed for a fresh, nationwide nuclear initiative despite financial concerns and safety questions. Those include recent "red" and "white" NRC findings at all three of the Tennessee Valley Authority's operating nuclear plants. "White" is the NRC's lowest safety finding. "Red" is the final step before a nuclear plant is shut down, something the NRC has never done.

A longtime critic of other sources of renewable energy, including wind and solar, Alexander said he doesn't see "any substitute" for "pollution-free electricity."

Federal Election Commission records show a political action committee representing Areva Inc., a French nuclear power conglomerate contracted by TVA for about $1 billion in work on the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant near Hollywood, Ala., gave Alexander a $1,500 campaign contribution on March 14, three days after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster.

Alexander also received at least two $1,000 contributions from the Nuclear Energy Institute Federal PAC in the run-up to his re-election in 2008.

The South is the national leader when it comes to taking Alexander up on prospective new reactors, even as some countries are backing away from nuclear power.

Two new reactors, projected to be operational in 2016 and 2017, are planned at Southern Company's Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Ga. Another two are planned by South Carolina Electric and Gas in Fairfield County, S.C.

The Westinghouse AP1000 is supposed to shut down safely if it loses electricial power, as in the Fukushima event.

The four planned AP1000 reactors are the only survivors in what had been envisioned by Alexander and other nuclear proponents. The field of about 30 had narrowed over the last three years as investors ran into financial and other obstacles.

TVA presently has the only new nuclear reactor under construction in the U.S., Unit Two at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn. The $2.5 billion reactor is over budget and behind schedule, officials have conceded.

On Tuesday, spokesman Ray Golden said the federal utility is not ready to say how far behind and how much over budget.

TVA also plans to begin work on a new reactor at the now-idled Bellefonte plant as soon as Watts Bar is completed and fuel is loaded.

TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said in August the ratepayer-funded utility plans to finance the Bellefonte job by selling and leasing back the Watts Bar reactor and by selling the new John Sevier plant, a combined-cycle gas plant in upper East Tennessee.

On Wednesday, TVA officials did not respond to a question whether it has had nibbles from buyers for either plant. In a statement, utility officials seemed to hedge the prospect of selling the Watts Bar reactor.

"TVA is planning a lease financing on the John Sevier Combined Cycle plant. The financing is expected to take place before the commercial operation of the facility, expected to be before May 2012," according to the statement.

"After the completion of the lease financing on the John Sevier Combined Cycle, TVA will assess the need for future lease financings."

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about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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328Kwebsite said...

Chattanooga State had a good presentation this past fall on nuclear reactor designs; it was given by some officials from the NRC. I thought what they had to say about helium cooled and sodium cooled reactors was very interesting. One of the key points of the designs discussed were that they were much smaller than existing reactors; all of the companies proposing these designs had to have at least part of the reactors built outside of the US.

We expect to see TVA replace some of its aging reactors with some of those newer, smaller models.

One of our concerns as taxpayers is that the trend in reactor design leans towards helium cooled reactors. Well, anyone who's seen "The Colbert Report" knows that helium scarcity has increased in recent years. To include a decision made during the Bush administration for us to reduce our efforts towards maintaining a national helium reserve. One can't help but wonder if this was some sort of artificial scarcity ploy on the part of Vice President Cheney to help make his friends rich.

December 29, 2011 at 12:32 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

Peter Bradford says natural gas is the solution! So much for controlling CO2. Long term gas or coal-fired or any carbon-cycle power plants are dinosaurs. Why not look at some of the other modern reactor designs such as the thorium-cycle molten salt reactor? Hardly any nuclear waste, not useful for terrorists but a good reactor, no helium.

The NRC guy with helium and sodium reactors at Chatt State is just pushing old technology.

There are a lot of ways to solve the problem, it just takes creative minds, something of a scarcity in Washington.

December 29, 2011 at 8:16 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

We're glad to see that the NRC sends officers to give lectures at our local colleges. We welcome them and hope that they will continue to participate in our intellectual community.

The NRC officer discussing small helium and sodium cooled reactors at Chattanooga State was discussing reactors like Toshiba's 4S, which is undergoing review right now. It is not "old technology."

Many of the designs discussed and presented at that lecture were so new and tentative that some of the power companies themselves had not thoroughly planned out their designs completely. Some of the technology systems discussed were so new as to not be completely born yet.

It is also the role of the NRC to regulate, not create, engineering designs for power generating companies. Trying to suggest that the NRC is not smart enough is a distraction from the matter at hand: that we need new nuclear reactors in order to support our power generation needs.

Trying to sell people on the idea that Thorium reactors will somehow work as a perpetual motion machine with a fission/fusion exchange is not practical. China and India may experiment with those ideas, but we all know that fission works to generate heat which can turn a turbine. If someone gets cold fusion to work well enough to support power generation, then maybe we should consider those ideas. Until then, we need to ground our public policies in observable reality.

We should encourage our people to focus on what's practical and proven, not experimental, when it comes to power generation. Those small reactor types, put forth by companies like Westinghouse and Toshiba and General Atomics are good ideas.

We need to continue to lead the world in nuclear technology. The Bush administration created many setbacks for science and business; but, we should do all we can to repair the damage created by those poor public policies. We should progress towards using proven sciences for meeting the needs of our people.

December 29, 2011 at 10:01 a.m.
GarryMorgan said...

Lets take a closer look at Tennessee Senator's nuclear bucks bag of cash. Sen. Lamar Alexander's link: Baker, Donelson et al- total- $34,150

This organization is a route for the Nuclear Energy Institute's (NEI) Cash flow. Link: (note Baker, Donelson et al listing)

Also note Baker, Donelson et al contributions to Sen. Bob Corker, $45,800

December 29, 2011 at 2:24 p.m.
rolando said...

Why not just end all commercial power production altogether? That's where we are headed in any case. Before it is over, every homeowner/business will have solar-paneled roofing...if they can afford it. Everything else will be EPA'd to death...literally.

We are, or soon will be, indistinguishable from any European country picked at random.

December 29, 2011 at 3:22 p.m.

Let me check..McDonald's, Starbucks, everybody watching Idol on TV and the only book being read is the Harry Potter one.

I can't tell the difference NOW!

But seriously 100 billion for the construction of nuclear power plants? Lamar Alexander better not have protested the mere idea of a solar company getting a loan.

December 29, 2011 at 6:58 p.m.
rolando said...

It isn't the loan itself, happy. It is how it was done against knowledgeable advise; to say nothing of the deals cutting out the taxpayers who paid for them and the lining of executive pockets.

December 29, 2011 at 10:32 p.m.

Note how I expressed it as "the mere idea of a solar company getting a loan" which is particular towards the idea of such a loan in and of itself, and yes, that is how many people did say they objected to it, which is why I said...Lamar Alexander better not have done so himself in those particular terms.

If he chose a more nuanced objection, then good for him. If he did not, then there's a problem with hypocrisy there.

And actually, you can take away the word "solar" to just "a company" since it's really not that it's a solar company, but any company at all, that putatively upset some people.

December 29, 2011 at 11:05 p.m.
rolando said...

Your reference to solar panel companies getting a loan was a rather obvious reference to the Solyndra Caper, happy.

Are there other companies getting the deal on loans that Solyndra executives and investors got?

It's the blatant ripoff of taxpayer funds in return for campaign contributions and pocket-lining that is the issue surrounding this administrations government-backed loans. Done against all informed advice and behind closed doors.

December 30, 2011 at 8:03 a.m.
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