If you’re tracking the nuclear power revival in America, last Tuesday, September 25, was a milestone. For the first time since 1973, a new application for building a reactor was placed before the federal government.
The applicant was NRG Energy, Inc., an 18-year-old “merchant” corporation headquartered in New Jersey’s Princeton Corridor. A one-story steel-and-glass structure in the Carnegie Industrial Park, NRG has the look of a West Coast firm. The 300-or-so employees work in one vast room sectioned by neat rows of parallel workstations. The place could be a fine arts classroom, with employees casually strolling past each other’s computer screens and kibitzing over their work. “This place has a collegial atmosphere,” says Lori Neuman, communications manager at NRG. “It’s very conductive to getting things done.”
David Crane, the 45-year-old CEO, is a cultured Princeton graduate who looks like he would be at home on the squash courts. “We’re the new breed of energy company,” he says. “We’re not a utility, we don’t sell to retail companies, we just generate energy. We’ve got everything in our portfolio — base load, intermediate, peaking and cogeneration. We use oil, coal, gas and nuclear. We’re looking at windmills and even exploring an algae system that recycles carbon dioxide into a renewable fuel. We’re going to need all these things to meet the future demand in this country.”
The proposal submitted Tuesday is to build two new reactors with a total capacity of 2,700 megawatts at the South Texas Project site in Matagorda County, where two nuclear units have already operated for 25 years. The size of the reactors is unprecedented — the biggest American plants generally produce about 1,200 MW.
“This is a historical event,” said Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, long the Senate’s strongest supporter of nuclear. “Consumers around the world are benefiting from clean nuclear power. Finally our nation is on the verge of taking greater advantage of this technology. I hope it is the first of many.”
The statement has its irony. Nuclear technology, of course, was invented in this country. In the 1980s we gave it up for fear of accidents, which caused endless regulatory delays. One common argument among nuclear opponents at the time was that nuclear energy was only an illegitimate offspring of nuclear bomb technology cooked up by scientists who felt guilty about building the atomic bomb. Over the last two decades, Japan (along with France) has become the world’s technological leader. Toshiba, which enhanced its nuclear technology by buying Westinghouse, will build NRG’s new reactors. The vessel heads will be manufactured by Japan Steel Works, the only forge in the world now capable of casting these huge structures. America is playing catch-up on our own technology.
NRG’s choice of Texas is also a bit of a surprise. For years, industry analysts have predicted the first new reactors would be built in the South, where the Progressive tradition continues of regulating utilities while guaranteeing them a return on their investment. The argument was that nuclear would need this regulatory protection in order to attract money from Wall Street. In Texas, NRG will be entering a freewheeling deregulated market where the South Texas Project will have to stand and fall on its own. “We’re confident these projects can be built on schedule and on budget,” says Crane. “With natural gas prices rising and coal being pressured to reduce its carbon emissions, nuclear is going to be competitive.”
Nuclear power has gone through an extraordinary renaissance over the past decade after the abyss of Three Mile Island. In 1997 the Clinton Administration’s Department of Energy zeroed out nuclear research for the first time since World War II. The Federal Energy Information Administration confidently predicted that existing plants would phase out over the next three decades. That same year, however, Entergy Corp. of Jackson, Mississippi, became the first merchant energy company to purchase one of the supposed white elephants from a utility company. Exelon, spun out of Commonwealth Edison of Chicago, and several merchant companies from the South (Dominion Resources, Constellation Energy, Southern, and Florida Power and Light) followed suit. Soon these new owners — heavily staffed with veterans from the nuclear Navy — were revitalizing the industry.
The results have been stunning. Whereas power plants traditionally ran at a “capacity factor” of 60 percent — meaning they are up and running 60 percent of the time — the nation’s 104 reactors now run at a previously unimaginable capacity of 90 percent. (In South Korea, where nuclear provides half the electricity, the figure is 95 percent.) The average nuclear plant now runs uninterrupted for nearly two years before shutting down for refueling. Safety improvements have been spectacular. While there were 26 shutdowns of more than a year for safety reasons from 1987 to 1997 and 21 in the decade before, there has only been one over the past decade.
“The utility companies didn’t really understand what kind of resource they had,” says Gary Taylor, president of Entergy, which now owns eleven reactors and operates one other for Nebraska Public Power. “These plants had far more potential than they realized.” Almost half the reactors in the country have now successfully applied for twenty-year extensions on their original operating licenses and many more are standing in line. Meanwhile, reactors are making money hand-over-fist. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has become so exercised at the success of Dominion’s Millstone 2 and 3 that he has proposed a windfall profits tax on reactors.
And so the question becomes, will the anti-nuclear forces — Greenpeace, Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and so forth — be able to mount one last-ditch campaign against the nuclear revival?
While continuing to play brazenly on public fears (NRDC’s latest position paper has the word “Radioactive” emblazoned across the top), environmental groups have also become more circumspect in their arguments. Rather than conjuring up “silent bombs” and nuclear holocausts, they now make the following arguments:
1. Nuclear is too expensive. Investors will never go for it.
2. The money would be much better invested in conservation and solar energy.
3. Nuclear power is not carbon-free. The mining, processing and transportation of uranium consume vast amounts of energy supplied by fossil fuels.
Nuclear reactors are indeed expensive to construct. NRG is projecting $3 to $5 billion with cost overruns likely. But coal plants currently cost $1 billion and that’s without the least effort at controlling carbon emissions. If “carbon sequestration” — essentially digging a hole a few miles deep and pumping the exhaust into it — becomes a reality, coal plants will become equally if not more expensive. (The technology is completely unproven anyway.) In any case, when did environmental groups become so frugal about protecting the environment?
Energy conservation, on the other hand, has great potential that is just being fathomed. Last May, Progress Energy of North Carolina announced it would delay the projected opening of two proposed reactors from 2016 to 2018 because of more success than anticipated in conservation efforts. Yet even the best conservation scenarios only stabilize current consumption. (California has been able to accomplish this.) That still leaves us producing for 50 percent of our electricity with coal — a billion tons a year that put three billions tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gases and 20 percent of the world’s. “When it comes to providing our baseload electricity, the only choice is between coal and nuclear,” says David Crane, of NRG. “You simply can’t be serious about global warming and against nuclear power.”
Finally, the argument that nuclear is not completely carbon-free is puerile. Nothing is completely carbon-free, not windmills, not solar collectors, not even conservation devices. All involve capital investment that consumes energy. If the uranium enrichment plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, consumes the output of two large, polluting coal plants (a favorite environmental citation), then the solution is to replace those coal plants with nuclear reactors.
NRG’s courageous proposal is the opening gong for what should be the most passionate debate of the rest of the decade — can nuclear power prevent global warming? As Al Gore would say, the fate of the planet may depend on it.
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