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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nuclear Power Comeback?

Air Date: Week of

The AP 1,000 (Westinghouse)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently approved the first nuclear reactor in more than 30 years. Leslie Kass of the Nuclear Energy Institute tells host Bruce Gellerman about the AP 1000, a modular nuclear reactor designed for standardized installation and maintenance.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Three days before Christmas the U.S. nuclear energy industry got a long awaited gift. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted unanimously to approve a radical, new design for atomic power plants.

There hasn’t been a commercial reactor built in the United States in over 30 years.
The AP 1000 reactor, as it’s called, uses a modular design. It's being built by Westinghouse, a subsidiary of Toshiba. The company says modular should make it cheaper to build. The “AP” stands for “advanced passive” - which is supposed to make it safer than previous nuclear power plants.

China has already a dozen under construction, and soon there could be even more in the works in the U.S. Leslie Kass is with the Nuclear Energy Institute. Ms. Kass, welcome to Living on Earth.

KASS: Thank you for having me.

GELLERMAN: Well, you know, people are nervous about Fukushima, and everybody knows about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island - what makes the AP 1000 so safe and special?

KASS: With the new designs, we’ve added new features. For instance, the AP 1000 reactor doesn’t require power or operator action to maintain safe shutdown for up to 72 hours. And in the case of a Fukushima-like accident, you wouldn’t have a fuel melt because you didn’t require any of the off-site power that they so desperately needed.

GELLERMAN: Now, the AP 1000 design is not without controversy. There was the NRC Safety Engineer John Ma, and he said that the shield building around the reactor - the container - could 'crack like a glass cup'. Those were his exact words.

KASS: One of the strengths of the NRC and our regulatory process here is that anyone can raise a concern. And we have that same safety culture out at our plants. It’s good that Dr. Ma’s concerns could be brought to light and vetted and then receive attention all the way up to the top of the commission.

GELLERMAN: Now, I understand what’s also different about the AP 1000 is that it’s modular design. What does that mean?

KASS: So in the construction process, you break down the large structures into modules or pieces so that you can fabricate them in more of a factory-like environment, which gives you better control and a faster build-cycle.

GELLERMAN: So each reactor that goes up is not unique?

KASS: Correct. That is the plan going forward, is to have a standardized fleet of reactors worldwide, which is good for regulators, it’s less systems to learn and comprehend, it’s good economics because it’s repeat build, and it’s easier maintenance because you have similar components and designs.

GELLERMAN: So now the NRC has approved the AP 1000 design, and they’re going through the new streamlined licensing process - that’s kind of a brand new kind of process designed to make it quicker in terms of construction and licensing.

KASS: Well, the licensing so far hasn’t been that fast. We’ve spent over four years on the combined licenses because it’s the first time through. But what’s different is you receive a construction and operating license at the same time up front with full public participation and all the questions about safety and operation are answered before you start to build.

GELLERMAN: So opponents - if they wanted to sue before, they had a lot of opportunities to try to halt construction and the eventual operating license. Will they have those opportunities now?

KASS: Once you get your license, there’s a very high bar to show prima facie evidence that the licensee has not conducted the construction in accordance with their license, that there were true defects. So frivolous lawsuits are kept out.

GELLERMAN: There are utilities in what, five southern states. They want to build 14 of these AP 1000 reactors - what will they cost? What’s the price of an AP 1000?

KASS: (Laughs.) Um, right now for instance, for the two units all-in cost at Georgia Power site, is about 14 billion dollars. Now that includes all the owner’s costs and transmission. I think the two reactors for SCANA and their partners in South Carolina are running in the neighborhood of 12 billion dollars.

GELLERMAN: Is that a pair or for one?

KASS: A pair. Twenty-two hundred megawatts of capability - 1.6 million homes worth of electricity.

GELLERMAN: The Obama Administration is a backer of nuclear power. It’s hoping to provide something upward of 50 billion dollars in loan guarantees to utilities that build reactors. Is that enough?

KASS: Well, over time, we will see. For right now, we’re getting off to a slow start here in the United States. And I think, do a few carefully and then move forward. So once we prove the technology and the licensing process, it should certainly get easier to obtain financing.

GELLERMAN: But, you know, nuclear power has been around for the better part of 60 years. Why does the industry still need federal government guarantees?

KASS: In this case, it’s really a matter of size. As you mention, the projects cost north of ten billion dollars, and the companies we’re talking about - the largest electric utility in the United States is in the neighborhood of 30 billion dollars, market cap. So having that support to help with the financing is key to getting more of these reactors built.

GELLERMAN: But why doesn’t the, you know, the free market pay the freight? Why do I have to come up with the guarantee?

KASS: Certainly the support that we get for the loan guarantee program and for nuclear power is in large part is derived from the number of jobs. We have 3,000-4,000 construction jobs for these two unit sites as well as 800 permanent jobs that can’t be exported. And that’s very attractive and I know the communities that have these reactors are very excited about their economic growth right now.

GELLERMAN: So it will start generating electricity, but it’s also going to start generating nuclear waste. We’ve been kind of storing that waste and we haven’t been able to get rid of it permanently since the industry began. What’s the plan there?

KASS: We like to say - politically, it’s a big problem. Technically, it’s not a big problem. We have the fuel securely stored at our sites, although our utilities would love to have an ultimate solution as much as everybody else. But also, physically, it’s not that large a problem - if you took all the used fuel from the 50 years of commercial operation of reactors here in the U.S., you’d have one football field about ten yards high.

GELLERMAN: I know that Energy Secretary Chu was a big advocate of small nuclear reactors. Anything happening there?

KASS: Yes! We’re excited to say that DOE just got approved in the FY-2012 budget for a new small reactor program.

GELLERMAN: How much smaller would a small reactor be compared to - say - the AP 1000?

KASS: AP 1000 is around 1,100 megawatts and the small reactors top out at 300 megawatts.

GELLERMAN: So why would you want a small one? And where would you put it?

KASS: There are lots of possibilities. The smaller reactors could be used to re-power old coal stations. They could be used - in the smallest cases of 25 megawatts - they could be used in a remote community that doesn’t have access to other electricity sources, it saves them on having to import fuel. There are just a range of possibilities once you get the size down and it certainly helps folks build because the capital cost is correspondingly lower.

GELLERMAN: So, Ms. Kass, are we looking at the long-talked about nuclear renaissance? Is that happening?

KASS: I think it’s happening globally. There are 63 nuclear reactors under construction worldwide, and you see countries like China and India and Russia and several different countries in Europe moving forward with new reactors. Here in the U.S., again, we’re going to start slowly, but I think you’ll see as demand increases and as folks look to diversify their energy portfolio, nuclear certainly is an attractive option.

GELLERMAN: That's Leslie Kass - she's Senior Director of Business Policy and Fuel Supply with the Nuclear Energy Institute.



Westinghouse on the AP 1000


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