And so we can now ask the question, "What are the prospects for nuclear energy in the United States?" The news is not great but perhaps not quite as bad as might be expected.
After almost eight years of deliberation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finally gave approval to the design of the Westinghouse AP1000 last December—the model that is already being built in China. If, as expected, the NRC also issues a construction-and-operating license to Southern Electric this year, then the utility will be able to start work on twin reactors at its Vogtle site in Georgia. It would be the first newly licensed project since 1976. Southern already has 1,500 construction workers on the job doing site preparation.
Flamanville-type delays can be expected. When bulldozers leveled the first mounds of fresh earth last year, the NRC made them do it all over again. Then it suspended operations for a month because two employees had given oral assurance that they were not addicted to drugs instead of filling out a written form. With this kind of oversight, the project could take more than a decade to complete.
Still, nuclear construction may not be impossible. Flying under the radar, the Tennessee Valley Au-thority has completed two reactors in the last six years using licenses originally issued in the 1970s. Both were completed on time and on budget. But then, the projects didn't attract much attention from opposition groups.
The real problem is that the American nuclear industry has become one giant corporation operating out of central headquarters in the 11-story offices of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nothing can be done without processing it through Beltsville, and the pace is glacial. Over the past two years, Constellation Energy of Baltimore and NRG Energy of New Jersey have abandoned major projects out of despair of ever gaining NRC approval.
Such centralization makes innovation almost impossible. Over the past decade, inventive engineers have adapted the small modular reactors we have been putting on submarines since the 1950s into commercial designs. There are almost a dozen proposals for such reactors on the drawing boards but none has much of a chance of making it through NRC licensing over the next decade. The Russians are mounting a 150-megawatt reactor aboard a barge to be floated into an isolated Siberian coastal village to provide power. South Korea, Japan, and China are all moving ahead have similar designs. It is no wonder that Bill Gates decided to develop his Travelling Wave abroad.
So there is a distinct possibility that we could wake up in ten years to find the giants of Asia have passed us by in nuclear technology and we have no choice but to buy it from them—just as we are now buying our nuclear infrastructure from France. As one blogger commented to the CNN story announcing the opening of China's Integral Fast Breeder, "In case you missed the 19th century, this is what the transfer of world domination looks like."
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