Plan to Build Reactors Is Running Into Hurdles

New York Times
Published: December 5, 2007

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 - 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 long delays and cost overruns that crippled the industry last time around.

NRG has applied to build the type of reactor in Texas that Chubu Electric Power operates at the Hamaoka nuclear power station in Omaezaki City in central Japan.

Hamaoka nuclear plant
Photo: Robert Gilhooly/Bloomberg News
NRG has applied to build the type of reactor in Texas that Chubu Electric Power operates
at the Hamaoka nuclear power station in Omaezaki City in central Japan.

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 Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the industry created a method that was supposed to simplify future planning and construction. Under it, manufacturers were to win advance government approval for a handful of reactor designs, and power companies would specify later 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 its support behind a new round of nuclear construction, and many people in the electric industry are eager to get going. Three companies have filed applications for licenses to build and operate five reactors.

But one company marched in with more than a dozen significant changes to a previously approved design. Two picked designs that have yet to win final government approval. And waiting in the wings is a fourth 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 S. Fertel, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association. "The bad news is that now we've convoluted" the steps for getting plants approved.

Gregory B. Jaczko, one of the federal agency's three commissioners, said it might not have enough staff members 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 workload.

Handling applications for incomplete designs will be an additional burden on staff members that could slow approvals, he said. "I don't think we've gotten to what the commission envisioned back in the late '80s and early '90s when we embarked on this," Mr. 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.

The 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 J. Wallace, the generating group'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, and Constellation wants to have the plant on line by 2015, Mr. Wallace said, adding, "The reality is we could use the plant on line in 2011."

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 vast costs.

The industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say they are determined to avoid that if there is a new round of construction. In the 1990s, the commission reorganized its licensing procedure to try to move design questions to the forefront - before construction.

But NRG, of Princeton, N.J., 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, Ala., the site of two abandoned reactor projects. The Westinghouse design was certified in 2006, but the company is amending it, closing gaps and making changes requested by customers.

On Nov. 28, the power company Dominion, of Richmond, Va., applied to build a new reactor adjacent to two existing reactors at its North Anna power station in central Virginia. The site itself won early approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but Dominion chose a reactor design not yet approved by the agency. A company spokesman, Jim Norville, said, "We anticipate it will be certified well before we break ground."

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

Power company executives share his concern, although they say they are far better prepared for construction now than in the last round.

Other problems are emerging in the budding nuclear renaissance. The industry had hoped to limit the number of cookie-cutter designs to two or three, but there are five already, and more on the way.

And if the industry succeeds in winning approval for as many new reactors as it wants - 31 and counting - the capacity of nuclear suppliers is likely to be strained. By most estimates, they can fabricate enough parts for only three or four reactors a year, and the United States will be competing with other countries that want to build nuclear plants.

Some of the most important parts can be cast only by a single foundry, Japan Steel Works. "The global supply chain is going to be the pacing item," Mr. Wallace said.

Mr. Fertel, of the trade association, said that any company that wanted to have a reactor on line by 2015 would need to have ordered some parts by now. Even in the best case, some plants on the industry wish list will take as long as 2020 to be built, he said.

As of now, the industry cannot even build the simulators it needs for the complex, time-consuming task of training new nuclear operators. "You can't build it till the design is firmed up," Mr. Wallace said.

David Leonhardt, whose Economic Scene column normally appears on this page, is on assignment.

Fair Use Notice.

Copyright © 2007-2009
SEED Coalition 1303 San Antonio, Suite 100
Austin Texas 78701, 512-637-9481
Public Citizen-Texas 1303 San Antonio
Austin, TX 78701 512-477-1155 All Rights Reserved