A New Day for Nuclear Energy

Carbon-free source of baseload electricity rises to meet the climate-change challenge    

Posted on Nov 16 2009 in Features

nukeartNuclear power in the United States has experienced a roller coaster ride of booms and busts. When the first wave of commercial reactors was built in the 1950s, Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission — forerunner of today’s federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission — envisioned a future where nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter.”The vast amounts of electricity nuclear plants could produce seemed like a perfect, homegrown solution to the nation’s skyrocketing power needs, especially when the federal government restricted use of natural gas for electricity generation during the energy shortages of the 1970s and early 1980s. Nuclear power plants were built by the dozen. But by the mid-1980s, the worldwide plunge of energy prices, slower-than-expected growth in electricity demand, and, following the accident at Three Mile Island, expensive safety mandates imposed on new reactors had taken the competitive edge off nuclear power.Indiana’s lone excursion into nuclear power — the Marble Hill plant near the Ohio River south of Madison — became a victim of the fallout. Canceled more than halfway into completion in 1984, mostly because of skyrocketing costs, Marble Hill forced cooperative power supplier Wabash Valley Power Association, a 17-percent owner of the project, into bankruptcy and reorganization. The effects were felt by the power supplier and its member systems in the northern half of Indiana well into the 1990s.

Today, nuclear power seems poised for what some call a renaissance. Driving the renewed interest is a growing demand for electricity coupled with federal climate change legislation that will likely boost the price for every kilowatt generated by fuels that emit carbon dioxide — notably coal and natural gas.

“As a zero-carbon energy source, nuclear power must be part of our energy mix as we work toward energy independence and meeting the challenge of global warming,” U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Stephen Chu recently noted.

Since 1993, increases in generation capacity and improved efficiencies at the nation’s 104 commercial nuclear power plants have accounted for one-third of voluntary carbon dioxide reductions from U.S. industries, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Energy Institute. In 2007, nuclear power accounted for about 74 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions-free electric generation.


Dawn of the nuclear age

The basic principle of electricity generated by nuclear energy is the same as with other types of power plants: use heat to boil water, create steam and turn a turbine attached to an electric generator. With nuclear power, the heat comes not from burning a combustible material such as coal, but from releasing energy stored in uranium atoms.

In 1934, it was discovered that when tiny particles called neutrons were fired at a uranium atom, the atom split into parts that didn’t equal the original atom’s mass. At the time the result provided a mystery: where did that missing mass go? Using Einstein’s famous formula — E=mc2 — researchers soon realized the mass had been converted to energy. Within eight years, the world’s first nuclear reactor was constructed on a squash court at the University of Chicago. On Dec. 2, 1942, a self-sustaining nuclear reaction was triggered, and the age of nuclear power began.

Today’s nuclear reactors, while utilizing the same physics, are far more sophisticated. Called “light water reactors” (simply because they use ordinary water as a coolant), they churn out electricity with heat created by interactions with uranium fuel rods.

The first generation of these reactors was built in the 1960s largely for demonstration and research purposes. Two generation and transmission co-ops (G&Ts) were actually a part of this groundbreaking effort: La Crosse, Wis.-based Dairyland Power Cooperative built a 50-megawatt reactor, while a predecessor to Maple Grove, Minn.-based Great River Energy brought a 22-MW unit on-line. Neither remains operational today, although with no national repository for nuclear waste available, Dairyland Power still maintains its plant as a waste storage facility.

Although less than 3 percent of the nation’s electricity was produced by nuclear power in 1971, by 1988 that share had grown to account for more than 19 percent of the nation’s power supply, where it remains today (behind coal at 49 percent and natural gas at 22 percent). For the nation’s electric co-ops, 15 percent of all power requirements are supplied by nuclear facilities.

All nuclear plants currently operating in the U.S. rely on second-generation technology. They were built during a 15-year spurt that spanned the late 1960s to the early 1980s.


A fall … and its fallout

Nuclear power lost its luster following the potentially-catastrophic accident at Three Mile Island in March 1979. Safety retrofits required by regulators increased construction costs, and lagging electricity growth led to a major public pushback. As a result, no new nuclear plants have been ordered and built from scratch since 1973.

Three Mile Island and the downturn in the nuclear industry were a one-two punch to Indiana’s lone nuclear plant project — Marble Hill.

In February of 1978, Wabash Valley, the Indianapolis-based cooperative power supplier to REMCs in the northern half of Indiana, became a 17-percent partner in Public Service Company of Indiana’s Marble Hill Nuclear Power Station. The first of Marble Hill’s two units — each capable of producing 1,100 MW or enough to pofourgenerationswer some 800,000 average homes — was to begin generation in 1982. The second was to come on-line in 1984.

Wabash Valley initially borrowed $361 million from the federal government’s Rural Electrification Administration (now Rural Utilities Service) to help pay its $700 million share. Marble Hill broke ground in April 1978.

But the Three Mile Island accident investigation and then allegations of shoddy construction at the Marble Hill worksite forced multiple delays. Faced with skyrocketing costs and growing concerns about the plant from the public and public officials, including a governor’s task force, PSI canceled Marble Hill in January 1984 with the plant more than halfway complete. Left with no way to repay REA for its portion of the project, Wabash Valley defaulted on its debt repayment and, in May 1985, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and reorganization. In the meantime, Wabash Valley also sued PSI (which is now part of Duke Energy).

Litigation surrounding Marble Hill lasted into the 1990s as Wabash Valley successfully fended off REA’s repayment demands that both the not-for-profit co-op and the courts said would harm consumers. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear REA’s final appeal in late 1996, Wabash Valley exited from Chapter 11. The courts that said Indiana ratepayers should not be responsible to pay for a project that would never provide electricity, and accepted Wabash Valley’s reorganization plan.

The last new nuclear reactor to become operational was the long-delayed Watts Bar Unit 1 in 1996 operated by Tennessee Valley Authority, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. In 2007, TVA restarted its 1,200-MW Brown Ferry Unit 1 reactor in northern Alabama after a five-year, $1.8 billion refurbishing project.




A new morning

As the first decade of this new millennium enters its final year, the nation’s electric utilities are taking a second look at nuclear power. Increasing fossil fuel prices coupled with potential federal fees on carbon emission are shining a new light on the nuclear option.

“The feeling is that these factors, which directly impact prices, will make nuclear competitive once more,” explained John Holt, senior principal, generation and fuels at Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Currently, utilities are seeking to break ground on 26 new reactors in 16 states, mostly in the South, with another 11 in the planning stages. These plants will draw on third-generation technology that includes more cost-effective standardized designs, more power output, and significant safety improvements over the boiling water and pressurized water reactors used today.

For example, the facilities will reduce the potential for human error with digital control rooms, as well as emergency systems that use gravity or water flow to open and close valves to cool reactor cores; many emergency cooling systems in older plants rely on pumps and diesel generators to do the job.

“I don’t expect to see all 37 plants currently in the wings to be built,” Holt emphasized. “There are a lot of potential roadblocks in the permitting process. But I could easily conceive of 10 to 15 being built. That’s a huge change compared with the last 30 years.”

And while third-generation nuclear plants are planned and built, research on the fourth generation has already begun. A recent report co-authored by Idaho National Laboratory and the Electric Power Research Institute, a non-profit, utility-sponsored consortium whose members include electric co-ops, outlines a series of goals to meet an aggressive increase in nuclear generation. More than 40 percent of the nation’s electricity could be produced by nuclear power plants by 2050, according to the report.

“The report recommends that research and development be focused in three technical areas: light water reactors, high-temperature reactors, and advanced fuel cycles,” said Chris Larsen, EPRI vice president of the nuclear sector. “In essence, it establishes a set of options for deployment of nuclear energy through this century.”

The report anticipates a needed $3.5 billion in research and development funding from both government and private industry during the next five years.

In 2009, $354 million went to nuclear research and development, split evenly between federal allocations and funding from private industry. Although 2010 budget numbers aren’t set, the U.S. Department of Energy alone has requested $383 million — half for fuel cycle research and half for research toward fourth-generation reactors. Private industry sources have proposed putting up $121 million with hopes of a federal match.

“You have to remember, this is a global market,” NRECA’s Holt said. “Nuclear reactors are under construction worldwide. Even though the United States stopped building reactors 30 years ago, other countries didn’t. The companies designing these plants – primarily General Electric, Westinghouse and French government-owned Areva – have been putting their own money into reactor advancements for years.”

In Indiana, nuclear power came back into the conversation this summer as lawmakers met to discuss how utilities can best meet the state’s future demand in carbon-neutral ways. While there are no nuclear projects now in the works, how Congress, federal regulators and the Indiana General Assembly deal with fossil fuels and carbon emissions in the coming months could motivate the state’s utilities, including cooperatives, into considering these latest generations of nuclear technologies for the coming decades.

Most analysts agree that fourth-generation nuclear power plants should be an available option by 2030. Although no major breakthroughs in the basic principles of nuclear generation are expected, the new stations will boast more computer control and be able to operate at higher temperatures and higher pressures, making them more efficient overall.

“My expectation is that the fourth-generation nuclear power will further improve on technology available today,” Holt speculated. “It will be an evolution, not a revolution.”


Composite digital artwork by Richard G. Biever/original illustrations by Jupiterimages Corporation ©