With the bankruptcy this week of Westinghouse Electric Co., the future of big nuclear power plants in the U.S. isn’t looking good at all. But maybe, just maybe, there is hope for something smaller.
Westinghouse, which was acquired by Japan’s Toshiba Corp. in 2006, has been building the only nuclear power plants currently under construction in the U.S.: two in Georgia for Southern Co. and two in South Carolina for Scana Corp. Huge cost overruns on those projects are what landed the company in bankruptcy court.
Huge cost overruns have become a familiar feature of nuclear projects in this country. That’s due partly to complicated nuclear safety and licensing requirements, but also to the reality that building any big, complex, unique project in the U.S. (a new subway line, for example) tends to generate huge cost overruns.
As a result, the utility industry in the U.S. has turned away from such projects. They have much simpler alternatives, after all. “If you’re a utility and you want a new natural gas turbine, you can sort of order it out of a catalog and get it in about 18 months,” said Jessica Lovering, director of energy at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank in Oakland, California. “It’s a much easier choice.”
Lovering is co-author of a couple of reports that explore ways to make nuclear an easier choice for U.S. utilities: “How to Make Nuclear Innovative,” which came out last week, and “How to Make Nuclear Cheap,” from 2013. After reading them both, and talking to her, I’m intrigued, if still a tad skeptical.
First, a few words on why we might want nuclear power to be an easier choice: It doesn’t produce any carbon emissions, and it is generally pretty clean as energy options go. Unlike even-cleaner wind and solar, it’s a base-load power source that can reliably generate electricity 24 hours a day. Unlike natural gas generation, it’s not affected much by fuel-price fluctuations. And — once you’ve got the reactor up and running — it’s cheap.
In the U.S., nuclear accounts for about 20 percent of electrical power generation, as it has for decades.
All but four of the country’s 99 commercial nuclear reactors predate 1990, and while most of them can probably be kept operating for many decades to come, nuclear’s share of electricity generation seems doomed to decline without some new reactors coming online. And in the wake of Westinghouse’s troubles, that probably won’t happen unless a way is found to build them more cheaply.
One key to this is making nuclear plant construction more standardized and modular — that is, assembled from parts made in a factory. Which is easier said than done! From an article by Bloomberg’s Chris Martin and Chris Cooper:
About ten years ago, Westinghouse came up with an approach it hoped would revolutionize nuclear power: a simplified modular design that could be sold to more than a dozen utilities at a lower cost. It had the less-than-catchy name of the AP1000.
“The AP1000 was supposed to open a new era of reactors with a generic design that can be sold or licensed,” said Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based nuclear energy consultant. “What they did was move the problems to the factory from the construction site, where you’re dealing with a labor force that hasn’t built reactors in decade. And they used extremely optimistic cost and construction estimates.”
It’s possible that some other company could still make this approach work for big reactors. The Korea Electric Power Corp., which has had much more success in reining in nuclear construction prices than most of its developed-world counterparts, has eight APR-1400 reactors completed or under construction in South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, and it has submitted the design for review to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the U.S.
But the new nuclear project generating the most excitement in the U.S. is all about making things smaller. NuScale Power LLC, a company spun out of Oregon State University in 2007, plans to churn out small reactors on an assembly line, then sell them to utilities as six-packs or 12-packs. The company signed a deal last year with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and the U.S. Department of Energy to build a power-generating facility in Idaho, and its design was accepted for review by the NRC earlier this month.