Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Nuclear (Power) War Isn’t Over Yet

Georgia regulators remain committed to completing the Vogtle nuclear units and South Carolina’s V.C. Summer plant reaches for a lifeline amid a broader debate over the value of nuclear power in the U.S.

Georgia Power's Vogtle units 3 and 4 under construction (Credit: Engineering News-Record) Click to Enlarge.
When utility partners Santee Cooper and South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) abandoned plans last month to complete two reactors already under construction, it was widely viewed as a crippling setback for the future of modern nuclear in the U.S.

The V.C. Summer Nuclear Station was meant to represent the next generation of advanced and more affordable nuclear power plants.  But it was plagued by delays and cost overruns that developers ultimately couldn’t justify.
In neighboring Georgia, Southern Company said on an August 2 investor call that finishing the Vogtle plant may set the utility and its partners back as much as $25 billion.

Georgia regulator:  "I'm thinking about the future of U.S. safety"

Georgia Public Service Commissioners have attempted to distance their state’s Vogtle project from V.C. Summer’s failed reactors.  In Georgia financing is spread among more companies and the project has a customer base over three times the size of South Carolina’s. 

Commissioner Tim Echols said Georgia is also benefiting from a federal loan guarantee, which their neighboring state does not have.  “Every time that South Carolina went to Wall Street to get money, they were paying a risk premium,” he said.  “We get cheaper money because the DOE's running shotgun with us.”

“It really is apples and oranges between South Carolina and Georgia,” said Echols.
Nuclear still provides nearly 20 percent of U.S. power, following only natural gas and coal.  But if industry trends continue, that could change, said Daniel Kammen, director at University of California, Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory.

Many of the globe’s 447 nuclear plants must go offline by 2040, and only 61 new plants are currently slated for construction -- if they can get off the ground.  “It’s just a drop in the bucket of maintaining operating capacity,” Kammen said.

Both Kammen and Parsons of MIT say there have to be fundamental shifts in technology or affordability for the market to forgive what happened in the Southeast, which could still happen -- if the industry can get its act together.

Kammen points to technologies like molten-salt and pebble-bed reactors as possible opportunities for the industry.  Director of Energy at the nonprofit Breakthrough Institute, Jessica Lovering, said assembly-built modular reactors, like from Oregon-based NuScale Power, could present viable and cost-effective innovation.  During his administration's recent Energy Week event, President Donald Trump also ordered a review of U.S. energy policy to help revive the nuclear industry.

But questions remain about whether change will advance fast enough.  “People are pessimistic about the future,” said Lovering.  “But it could change with the success of the Vogtle project and NuScale.”

Innovations abroad may also turn the tide.  The Korea Electric Power Corporation is building a project in the United Arab Emirates that has mostly proceeded according to schedule.  China is on its way to overtaking the U.S. in nuclear power capacity as that country’s quest for clean energy has the government investing billions in research and development on new technologies and plants.

Read more at The Nuclear (Power) War Isn’t Over Yet

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