A nuclear power revival in the United States?

By Matthew L. Wald
The New York Times
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

For the first time in three decades, companies are getting ready to build nuclear reactors in the United States. They intend to do so under streamlined procedures meant to avoid the huge delays and cost overruns that crippled the industry last time around.

But with early jockeying under way to win government approval for this new generation of plants, ominous signs are emerging that the plans may not go smoothly.

In recent years, at a time when nuclear construction was in the deep freeze, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the industry created a method that was supposed to simplify future planning and construction. Under the plan, companies were to win advance government approval for a handful of reactor designs, then later specify where they would put new reactors of each type.

This cookie-cutter approach was meant to ensure that companies would not have to rip out concrete and pipes in the middle of construction to satisfy ever-changing requirements from Washington. That was one of the biggest problems when the industry foundered in the 1980s.

Now, Congress has thrown support behind a new round of nuclear construction and many in the electric industry are eager to get going. Two companies have filed applications for licenses to build and operate two reactors each.

But one marched in with more than a dozen significant changes to a previously approved design. Another picked a design that has yet to win final government approval. And waiting in the wings is a third company that has ordered parts for a design that has not even been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"The good news is that there is a real need for power," said Marvin Fertel, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association. "The bad news is that now we've convoluted the start of the system."

At the commission, Gregory Jaczko, one of three commissioners, said the agency might not have enough staff to do now what it did in the 1970s and '80s: supervise the construction of a couple of dozen types of reactors. The commission has been hiring rapidly to prepare for a nuclear renaissance, but officials there were counting on standardization, if not quite mass production, as a way to manage the work load.

Handling applications for incomplete designs will be an additional burden on the commission staff that could slow approvals, he said.

"I don't think we've gotten to what the commission envisioned back in the late 80's and early 90's when we embarked on this," Jaczko said. A second commissioner, Peter Lyons, said: "There is no application coming in today that is exactly following the process."

Industry executives acknowledge the problem but say they are beginning this round with designs that are far more developed than the ones begun in the 1970s. They contend that the rush to build before plans are complete is unavoidable.

Constellation Energy Generation Group is in a partnership to build a reactor in Maryland using a design pioneered in Finland and France - a design not yet certified in the United States.

"The need for lower-cost electricity and environmentally acceptable electricity from nuclear has experienced so much momentum" that the company needs to move rapidly, said Michael Wallace, Constellation's president.

Ideally, certification of the reactor design would occur before the company goes forward with its plans, he said. But that would slow things down by as much as three years, he added, and Constellation wants to have the plant on line by 2015.

"The reality is we could use the plant on line in 2011," he said.

The industry is painfully aware of a track record of haste making waste. In the 1960s and '70s, it broke ground on scores of reactors with plans only 20 or 30 percent complete, and later had to rip out steel and concrete as designs, and safety requirements, changed during construction, adding huge costs.

The industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say they are determined to avoid that if they are given a second chance to build. In the 1990s, the commission reorganized licensing procedure to try to move design questions to the forefront, before construction.

But NRG, of Princeton, New Jersey, applied in October to build two reactors of a type known as advanced boiling-water reactors at a site in Texas. The design was approved by the nuclear commission in 1997, but NRG wants permission for 16 design changes.

The Tennessee Valley Authority and a consortium of companies in the nuclear business applied to build a Westinghouse design at Bellefonte, Alabama, the site of two abandoned reactor projects. It is a Westinghouse design that was certified in 2006 but Westinghouse is amending it, completing gaps and making changes requested by customers.

Jaczko said that by now, "the designs should have been finalized." But the designs are still "evolving," he said, and design questions may linger even as the commission begins to consider approval of particular sites.

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