Advancing Technology: 'American Idle' - Nuclear Power
New U.S. nuclear power plants will not be operative for years, but the licensing process to allow building the first of new generation plants is nearing approval - September 2010 Control Engineering.
Despite not having brought online a single new nuclear power plant in more than 30 years, the 104 nuclear generators (at 65 plant sites) currently operating in the U.S. still comprise the largest number of nuclear units in one country. Perhaps more remarkable is that refueling improvements, advances in control and safety systems, plus other technology upgrades over time, have raised the capacity factor (CF) of these plants to more than 90% on average. This is significantly higher than elsewhere or for electricity generation from other energy sources. CF is a prime parameter of power plant performance.
Number of Units
% Electric Generation*
* Other small countries with different power demands derive higher % electric generation from fewer nuclear reactors.
Source: World Nuclear Association and Control Engineering.
Cost of neglect
It borders on national oversight that not one new U.S. nuclear plant has been added in all those years. Resulting losses range widely: years of application and operating experience with new plant designs, two generations of new nuclear engineering talent, many potential high-tech jobs, and technology leadership.
Then, we have the spent-fuel storage fiasco. After 30 years of study, investigation, testing, and $10 billion spent to arrive at a solution, the Yucca Mountain, NV, nuclear waste repository site—which included digging miles of tunnels among other facility developments—has been virtually scrapped.
Spent fuel remains stored under water at individual plants, largely unchanged from the initial, temporary containment method. While this has worked on a temporary basis, nuclear waste remains an issue for the industry. Permanent solutions are within reach of engineers but require decision and empowerment.
Cautious optimism ahead
Still, positive developments are in play for the future of U.S. nuclear power. The long legal approval process to build a plant has been shortened by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s adoption of a combined operating license (COL)—a construction permit and operating license in one. COLs for some 17 sites are in process, but fewer plants are expected to be built due to financing difficulties and other industry uncertainties.
Leading the line for new licensing is Southern Nuclear Operating Co.’s application to build and operate two reactors near Augusta, GA, on the site of the two-unit Vogtle nuclear plant. COL approval is not expected before late 2011 or early 2012. Start of commercial operation for Units 3 and 4 is planned for 2016 and 2017, respectively, according to Southern Co.
Limited work under early site permits is ongoing at several sites. Some developers have also started long-lead-time equipment procurement, such as ordering major forgings and other engineering or limited construction activities. The reactors awaiting certification are of several so-called “advanced generation III” designs with U.S. and international origins. Overall, not more than eight new nuclear plants are expected to be online by 2020.
Another possible longer-term development is a “smaller is better” approach to nuclear plant design.
Industry experts say that only two events can stop renewal of nuclear power as part of a realistic mix of U.S. energy sources: a major accident and a terrorist attack on a plant. In the meantime, nuclear power supporters and opponents alike continue to enjoy its benefits—which amounted to 20.2% of U.S. electric power generation in 2009.
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Frank J. Bartos, P.E., is a Control Engineering consulting editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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