T Nation

Oil Independence

Won’t happen in the next 30 years without some investment in new nuclear power. Good to see that something is finally happening in that area:

Nuclear-Power Industry Sees
Signs of a U.S. Revival
Utilities Face Opposition
Over Safety and Storage;
A GE-Westinghouse Contest

November 9, 2004; Page A1

The nuclear-power industry is laying the groundwork to build new plants in the U.S. for the first time in more than two decades.

Buoyed by the re-election of President Bush, whose administration has pushed to expand nuclear power as part of its national energy plan, the industry sees a window of two to three years in which the political environment could make it easier to win approval for new projects.

Late last week, two separate consortiums consisting of power companies and reactor makers received word that the Department of Energy would share in the cost of obtaining regulatory approval for new nuclear reactors. The two groups expect the cost of winning that approval to be about $500 million apiece, due to the detailed engineering and testing required by regulators for new reactors.

“There’s lots of enthusiasm for what we’re trying to accomplish here,” said William D. Magwood IV, director of the Energy Department’s office of nuclear energy, science and technology. “If both of these goes to fruition, we could see new nuclear plants by 2014.”

In part, the revived prospects for nuclear power stem from the volatile energy market and concerns about global warming, which are forcing utilities and their power-generation vendors to consider alternatives. Faced with skyrocketing natural-gas prices and uncertainty about the costs of containing carbon emissions from coal-fired plants, electric companies believe nuclear plants are becoming more economically competitive and safer.

They are also being driven by manufacturers – General Electric Co. and its longtime rival Westinghouse Electric Co., along with a new entrant, Canada’s Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., or AECL – who are looking to sell newly designed reactors into the long-dormant U.S. market, which dried up in the early 1980s amid public outcry over safety and investors’ dismay over high costs. Since then, the companies have continued to build reactors overseas in Asia and Europe; GE currently is nearing completion of new reactors in Taiwan. But the U.S. remains the most coveted market because of its economic might and hunger for new sources of energy.

While opposition to new plants is likely to be fierce, the companies and Energy Department hope to win approval for construction from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as early as 2009.

The Energy Department also is pushing to overcome legal and regulatory hurdles to establish a depository for used nuclear fuel in Nevada. Power companies say they won’t build new plants without a storage site. They currently store spent fuel at their plants.

To be sure, the power companies and their reactor makers are being cautious not to commit formally to new plants. Longtime proponents of nuclear energy, fearful of being burned by policy changes, are seeking solid government guarantees before proceeding. The collapse of support for nuclear power in the 1980s cost the industry billions of dollars.

So far, the proposed new plants would be built at existing facilities. One group, led by Virginia’s Dominion Resources Inc., is proposing to build a new reactor, designed by AECL, on a site in Mineral, Va., where a nuclear plant has operated since 1980.

A second, much larger consortium led by Exelon Corp. and Entergy Corp., plans to select in 2007 a newly designed reactor from either GE or Westinghouse for a potential new plant. The consortium, NuStart Energy Development LLC, hasn’t selected a site but is considering existing locations in Clinton, Ill., and Port Gibson, Miss.

GE and Westinghouse, longtime competitors since they built their first reactors in the 1950s, are marketing new reactors that they say are more economical to build and operate. GE says its design takes a new approach to safety, relying on an automated system triggered by gravity instead of human operators to release 360,000 gallons of water to flood a core containing radioactive fuel if it becomes necessary to prevent a meltdown. The design attempts to eliminate human error, which contributed to the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa.

Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse, which was acquired by the British government in 1999, recently received approval from the NRC for its own new reactor design, which has safety features similar to those of the GE reactor. The approval enables it to begin offering customers clearer cost estimates and construction schedules, and the company, which has invested close to half a billion dollars on its latest reactor, is hoping to land contracts to build new reactors for China in the next year. “This opens up possibilities for us,” said Westinghouse Chief Executive Steve Tritch.

By contrast, GE has so far invested about $100 million in its new design. But under Chairman and Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt, it is aggressively pursuing regulatory approval for its new design. “The opportunity exists for the industry to come together around the right technology for a new nuclear plant,” said John Rice, chief executive of GE Energy, one of the conglomerate’s two biggest businesses.

Electric companies also won’t have to carry the entire financial burden this time around. GE, Westinghouse and government-owned AECL say they will share the financial risks of building new nuclear plants. That could include providing loans or equity to utilities that build new plants or construction budget guarantees. Such support was missing in the 1970s and 1980s when utilities got clobbered by billions of dollars in cost overruns, among other things.

Nuclear power currently accounts for nearly 20% of all the electricity produced in the U.S., compared with 51% coal and 17% natural gas. To maintain that mix, the industry says new plants must be built in the U.S. as older ones are retired.

One big challenge, however, is convincing the public that nuclear energy is safe. Opponents charge that utilities aren’t adequately maintaining existing plants to prevent possible accidents.

The nuclear industry points to a strong overall safety record since the Three Mile Island accident, in which no one was killed, though a small amount of radioactive material leaked into the atmosphere. But the 1986 explosion and deadly aftermath at the former Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear plant – which was caused by major design flaws and by engineers who were conducting unauthorized tests – continues to haunt the public’s view of nuclear power. More recently, a deadly explosion in Japan this year, in which a steam pipe broke because of poor maintenance, caused five deaths.

“Reactors aren’t inherently safe,” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union for Concerned Scientists, a group that monitors the industry.

Mr. Lochbaum, who has sat in on hearings on the new reactor designs, said he thinks they are safer because they have fewer pieces of equipment to operate and maintain. But “a lot of those new features haven’t been tested yet except in cyberspace,” he said. Nuclear opponents also worry that new plants could become targets of terrorist attacks.

Said GE’s Mr. Rice, “You’ve got all this hysteria. You still have in the rearview mirror Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, which people haven’t forgotten about.”

Reactors made by Westinghouse and GE already dot the U.S. landscape. Of the 103 reactors currently operating, 49 use Westinghouse-owned designs and another 34 have GE-made models.

For now, utility executives are hedging their bets on the new reactors, saying each has its pros and cons and they prefer to make a final judgment when they see pricing and final designs. Though Westinghouse is ahead with design approval, some executives expect that GE’s new model could be cheaper because it will produce more electricity and spread capital costs across bigger plants.

GE’s new design has no large water pipes entering the lower portion of a reactor below the fuel core. The risk in older models is that if those pipes, which carry water in and out of the vessel, burst, water could flow rapidly out of the container’s bottom and leave the core uncovered. GE’s new design places the pipes above the core so water can’t drain out as quickly in case of an accident.

In case of accidents, both GE’s and Westinghouse’s designs use gravity rather than operator-run pumps to force water in and out of reactor vessels and flood the area surrounding the core containing fuel. GE’s reactor also holds more water.

The NuStart consortium says that cost as much as design will determine its choice of a reactor. A new GE reactor that can provide power to about 1.5 million households could cost roughly $1.8 billion, or 20% less than its current model. Westinghouse’s reactor, which is smaller, could cost about $1.14 billion once the costs associated with doing detailed engineering plans are recovered.

Building two of AECL’s newest reactors, which would produce the same amount of power as one of GE’s, would cost about $1.89 billion. But Canada stresses that unlike other reactors, its design doesn’t require the plant to be shut down during regular, lengthy refuelings. They argue to utilities that that will increase their revenue during the several weeks such refueling typically takes.

The Department of Energy cautions that these construction estimates are overly optimistic and new plants are likely to cost more. Still, proponents argue that nuclear power is efficient. Nuclear power, they note, costs about $1.71 a kilowatt-hour to operate over the life of a plant, compared to $1.85 for coal and $4.06 for gas, according to industry estimates. In addition, nuclear doesn’t emit pollutants, while coal’s carbon emissions contribute to global warming.

“I cannot see any energy future … without an expanded nuclear base,” John Rowe, Exelon’s chairman and chief executive, told a group of managers at a climate policy meeting this summer.

Write to Kathryn Kranhold at kathryn.kranhold@wsj.com

Nu-qu-ler plants should be built. I am sure that the decades since these older plants have been built that technology can produce much safer plants then before.

Chernobyl was a major design flaw. Scientists from other countries working in the nu-qu-ler field were complaining about the plant when it was being built. This was a result of ignorance, and nothing else.

People do want to blow these things out of proportion though. Maybe they will make another China Syndrome movie. You remember the movie made by the unbiased Jane Fonda.

I just can?t wait until the fusion reactors go online. It might be the last half of the century before one fully goes online, but you will se an evolution equal to what the computers produced, and are producing.

The following quote should point out how important it will be:

?For example, 10 grams of Deuterium which can be extracted from 500 liters of water and 15g of Tritium produced from 30g of Lithium would produce enough fuel for the lifetime electricity needs of an average person in an industrialized country.?


Though it would be nice if we could do it with wind and solar, I’d be happy to wean off the oil with nuclear power.

There is of course the slight problem of waste disposal.

It’s possible that new nuclear plants will be coming online at about the time that alternatives to it become more viable.

I’m not trying to get too political, but…ah, who the hell am I kidding?

The left-wing no-nuke radicals have done a hell of a job in the past 2.5 decades of spreading fear and ignorance of nuclear power. Maybe it was needed balance, maybe it was just left-over peaceniks.

Regardless, I’d really like to see us take full advantage of our nuclear capabilities, and wean ourselves from the middle-east oil tit.

Would our energy independence affect the the terrorism situation? My argument would be that they would then hate us for NOT sending billions of dollars to their countries, and the war would continue.

[quote]vroom wrote:
Though it would be nice if we could do it with wind and solar, I’d be happy to wean off the oil with nuclear power.

There is of course the slight problem of waste disposal.

It’s possible that new nuclear plants will be coming online at about the time that alternatives to it become more viable.[/quote]

Yeah, waste disposal is a problem. But it is a temporary solution.

We should look at all options. Solar, wind, collecting cow farts… At least to get us through to the point that these reactors go online.

All of these things will slow our use of oil. And that will help keep energy prices under control, and decrease our dependence.

Also efficiency has been increasing. I believe I heard that the new refrigerators use 30% as much energy as 15 years ago. (Forgive me if I am off, but this is from memory.) Those front loading washers save enough energy to save about $100 a year.

There is no way to avoid the fact that we will have an ever increasing need for energy. If this is dealt with right, then we may never have a major energy crisis.

I have to admit I am stoked about the revival of nuclear power. My father owns his own engineering company that does work for both nuclear power plants and waste disposal. Business has been down, but the last few years, they are making bank again on the expanded interest in this cheap, renewable, safe energy source. Look at the french, they get close to 75% of their electricity from reactors, they use alot less oil. If we used more nuclear power it would be alot cheaper to fill up at the pump.

This is very interesting stuff – bacteria to eat nuclear waste?

Position Available:
Indestructible Bugs
To Eat Nuclear Waste
Scientists Envision New Role
For Sturdy Bacteria Breed;
Creating ‘Super Conan’

November 16, 2004; Page A1

SAVANNAH RIVER SITE, S.C. – Eight years ago, scientists using a metal rod here to probe the radioactive depths of a nuclear-waste tank saw something that shocked them: a slimy, transparent substance growing on the end of the rod.

They took the specimen into a concrete-lined vault where technicians peered through a 3-foot-thick window and, using robot arms, smeared a bit of the specimen into a petri dish. Inside the dish they later found a colony of strange orange bacteria swimming around. The bacteria had adapted to 15 times the dose of radiation that it takes to kill a human being. They lived in what one scientific paper calls a “witches’ brew” of toxic chemicals.

It was a step forward for the U.S. Department of Energy, which has been looking for a few good bugs – in particular, members of an emerging family of microbes that scientists call “extremophiles.” These microbes can survive in some of Earth’s most inhospitable environments, withstanding enormous doses of radiation, thriving at temperatures above boiling, and mingling with toxic chemicals that would kill almost anything else.

That makes them a potentially valuable tool in the Energy Department’s effort to clean up vast amounts of nuclear waste, including the Savannah River Site near Augusta, Ga., and the Hanford Site near Richland, Wash. The department says it could cost as much as $260 billion to clean up its messes with conventional methods, which rely heavily on chemical treatment and robots. Using extremophiles could slash that bill.

Extremophiles eliminate toxins by ingesting them and breaking them down into relatively harmless components. The microbes also can reduce the hazard of radioactive wastes by changing them into insoluble forms that are much less likely to leak into aquifers and streams.

Outgoing Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham predicted this year that “in the not-too-distant future,” extremophiles will be cleaning up nuclear waste and munching the pollutants of coal-fired power plants, including carbon dioxide, one of the causes of global warming. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration thinks if it can understand the mechanism that the bugs use to survive radiation, it might be able to use it to protect space crews against radiation on long voyages. The National Institutes of Health hopes the microbes’ peculiar powers might help cancer patients survive more-intensive radiation therapy.

So far, scientists say that the extremophiles they have found in nature aren’t harmful to humans. Laboratory-engineered modifications of these bugs, however, are likely to cause some controversy because no one knows what their long-term effects might be.

The berry-shaped bug discovered at the Savannah River Site was christened Kineococcus radiotolerans. Scientists have probed 95% of its genetic structure. They know what it does and what it eats – it loves malt sugar – but after 50 years of studying these sorts of bugs, they have no idea how they survive. Radiation shatters the genetic structures of living things, but extremophiles snap themselves back together in a matter of hours.

Christopher Bagwell, a microbiologist here, says Kineococcus has shown the ability to break down herbicides, industrial solvents, chlorinated compounds and other toxics, all while growing in a radioactive environment that shrivels other living things and turns glass brown.

Scientists know of at least a dozen extremophiles. The first was discovered in 1956 in Corvallis, Ore. Scientists were zapping cans of horse meat with high radiation, trying to establish the preservative value of food irradiation. One can developed an ominous bulge. Inside, the scientists isolated pink bacteria they had never seen before.

They gave it the scientific name Deinococcus radiodurans. But researchers were so amazed by the bug’s resilience that some years later, they nicknamed it “Conan the Bacterium,” spawning a folklore and debate among scientists that continues today. Because the microbes endure radiation at levels higher than any natural source, some scientists have argued that they must have ridden in on comets. Others speculate that they were the Earth’s first residents after the planet was born in a radioactive explosion.

“Because of the amazing abilities of these organisms, they sort of bring out the poet in people,” says John R. Battista, a microbiologist at Louisiana State University. He says speculation about outer space origins is like engaging in “mythology.”

Extremophiles have recently been found on barren mountain tops and in the frozen plains of Antarctica, Dr. Battista says. He believes they are simply harmless, opportunistic creatures that have found a way to survive in conditions of severe drought, which, he says, damages cells in much the way radiation does. “It just waits until it gets dried out and then it gets blown somewhere else.”

The original Conan proved to be a wimp among extremophiles. It could handle radiation, but not the solvent toluene and other chemicals normally found in bomb makers’ wastes. So, in 1997, the Energy Department started work on a genetically manipulated bug that researchers called Super Conan.

Super Conan now lives in a petri dish at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a U.S. military research facility in Bethesda, Md. It can handle nasty chemicals as well as radiation, but the researcher who developed it, Michael J. Daly, says the government is afraid to let it out.

“We’re at a point where we could do some field trials,” he says, adding that his sponsors at the Energy Department doubt the public is ready for the release of this laboratory-engineered bug into the environment. It might eat nuclear wastes, but they worry about what else might it do, he says.

Rather than confront such touchy matters, the department is confident it can find Super Conan’s equivalent in nature, says Ari Patrinos, the department’s director of biological and environmental research. He estimates that fewer than 1% of the Earth’s bacteria forms have been identified: “There are plenty out there for our needs. We just have to pick and choose.”

That’s where Kineococcus comes in. The Savannah River Site, slapped together in the early 1950s to keep the U.S. ahead of the Soviet Union in the race to produce hydrogen bombs, has 49 underground storage tanks containing 35 million gallons of radioactive waste. The Energy Department has a much bigger mess at the Hanford site, a World War II weapons plant where leaking tanks have contaminated 80 square miles of groundwater with radiation and toxic chemicals.

Because the new orange bug made its home in nuclear wastes, no one can argue that putting it back there would be unnatural, say the scientists here. They believe they can grow kineococcus in petri dishes and then inject it into tanks and underground plumes of leaking wastes.

But Dr. Bagwell thinks it will take five more years of peering into the bug’s genes before attempting such experiments. Twenty percent of the microbe’s genetic structure, he says, involves “unknown functions.”

Write to John J. Fialka at john.fialka@wsj.com