Sunday, January 24th, 2010
ROCKVILLE, Md. – The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is bursting out of its headquarters in the box-store, strip-mall northwestern suburbs of Washington.
Buses shuttle among four structures where the commission has leased overflow space, but that’s not enough to relieve the feel of a college that badly underestimated the size of its incoming freshman class. Portions of the main cafeteria are partitioned off before and after lunch to form makeshift conference rooms. The actual conference rooms are off limits because they've been pressed into service as offices.
The commission’s beleaguered staffers call the cause of all this uproar "the tsunami." It’s been 25 years since a new nuclear power plant was licensed in the United States, but applications started arriving in 2007, spurred by incentives launched during President George W. Bush’s administration. By the end of this year, the Energy Department expects to have applications in hand for 31 new reactors. For each application, a couple of DVDs land at the NRC, containing tens of thousands of pages of technical data that must be scrutinized.
Fifty-two years after the first American commercial nuclear-power generator opened at Shippingport, Pa., 104 units in 31 states produce about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. The licenses being sought would increase generating capacity by about 25 percent.
To accommodate the tsunami, the NRC stuffed nearly 500 new hires and more than 150 contractors into a freshly created Office of New Reactors.
The safety reviews in this empire are overseen by an engineer named Dave Matthews, right (photo by Lucian Perkins), who sublimates a deep yearning to indulge his hobby – foxhunting – by affecting the appearance of a country squire, a dapper anomaly among the cubicles: glen plaid shirt, brown suede vest, a silver pin and yellow tie with horse-and-rider themes. His screensaver photos are the closest he gets to his beloved thoroughbreds; 60-hour workweeks are routine.
Some utilities backing away from plans for new plants
But is the tide turning again? Matthews got an unexpected call last February. A vice president of Exelon, the Illinois utility, told Matthews to put his company's application for a new project in Victoria County, Texas, on ice. The company had changed its mind about which reactor design it wanted to use. The turmoil in financial markets and its failure to win loan guarantees, at least in the first round, also prompted the company to slow down its licensing process.
Three more projects have been suspended: Entergy’s Grand Gulf Unit 3 in Port Gibson, Miss., and River Bend Unit 3 in St. Francisville, La., and AmerenUE’s Callaway Unit 2 near Fulton, Mo. A request arrived in June for two new reactors at Florida Power & Light Co.’s Turkey Point complex south of Miami. The total number of license applications under active review dipped, however, from 17 in 2008 to 13 currently.
Even the most recent application has hit some bumps. On Jan. 13, Florida regulators slashed Florida Power & Light's request for a record $1.27 billion rate hike, granting one for only $75.5 million. The utility is continuing to seek an NRC license, but it's halting work on design, engineering and supplier contracts for the proposed new reactors.
So if there are licensing delays, the NRC doesn't want to be blamed.
“We’re the victims of those indecisions and changes,” Matthews said. "We are not the cause.”
Indeed, licensing is expected to take three to four years rather than 14 as in the past, according to Matthews. These days, a utility with a license can go ahead and build the plant and turn it on as soon as it’s done. In the 1970s and 1980s, companies had to qualify for one license to build a reactor and a second one to operate it. That left some partly completed nuclear behemoths standing tall – but dark. Now a utility with a license will be able to build and turn on the unit.
New system can steamline reactor application process
The 2005 energy bill instructed the NRC to pre-certify new reactor designs. The older reactors were all custom-designed.
The NRC is reviewing four new reactor types. Once the first licenses for each type are granted, about 70 percent of any future application in that category will be standardized.
One sign of how far the U.S. has turned from nuclear is the provenance of the new designs. Two are partnerships between American and Japanese firms – Westinghouse/Toshiba and General Electric/Hitachi. A third comes from Mitsubishi and a fourth from Areva, the French government’s nuclear company.
Twelve operating plants requested license renewals, but even with extensions, most would be expected to go dark by 2060 because there are open technical questions about extending licenses for additional renewals. Without new reactors, the industry would whiter.
Matthews said that 2016 was the earliest that he expected a new unit to go on-line, using the industry's estimate of about five years for construction. “If they were to do that, they would build a plant as fast as it’s ever been done.”
The first few nuclear reactors to go online – which will probably be whichever proposals receive the first $18.5 billion in government-backed loans – will make or break the case for nuclear, said Buddy Eller, a spokesman for the South Texas Project, a nuclear plant south of Houston that is a finalist in the competition for the federal aid. “The projects on the table will show the cost of building and the benefits,” he said. If they succeed, “people will accept that nuclear needs to be part of the future.”