After a tsunami created a nuclear crisis in Japan, Germany announced plans to phase out its nuclear plants, and France, which now gets three quarters of its power from nuclear reactors, recently said it would reduce its reliance to 50%. Here in Virginia, however, Dominion Power is giving serious thought to expanding its nuclear capacity. Sandy Hausman talked with experts who have doubts about that plan.
Faced with federal regulations that will limit air pollution from burning of coal, oil and gas, Dominion says it will up its reliance on wind and solar power – getting up to 8% of its energy from those renewable sources by 2030. Future plans call for generation of up to half of Dominion’s electricity from natural gas and at least a quarter from nuclear plants near Norfolk and Richmond. What’s more, the company could build a third reactor at North Anna at an estimated cost of $20 billion. Paris-based energy consultant Mycle Schneider is surprised. There are 60 reactors being built around the world, he says, but three quarters of them are behind schedule.
“There are only five reactors under construction in the United States, all of them being delayed," he says. "Watts Bar Two in Tennessee started construction in 1973!”
One problem he cites is a lack of expertise.
“In the United States the last reactor dates from 1996, so we don’t have the skilled workforce, managers and decision makers that have experience to deal with those large projects.”
Without an experienced team, he says, quality control is a real issue.
Security may also be a problem. In France, drones have been seen buzzing nuclear power plants, and at the Union of Concerned Scientists, David Lochbaum thinks federal regulators need to look at that.
“The security measures that were ordered by the NRC after 9/11 considered suicide aircraft," he explains, "but drones really weren’t out there as they are today.”
He also thinks this country must find a better way to dispose of radioactive waste from existing plants before building new reactors.
“The federal government has yet to come up with a place for spent fuel to go, and as a result, spent fuel is stacked up everywhere at plant sites where it’s not supposed to be,” Lochbaum says.
Safety aside, there might be financial reasons for Dominion to pull back from plans for a new reactor. The price of renewable energy is coming down, but the cost to build nuclear is rising.
“Construction cost estimates have skyrocketed over the past 10-15 years," says independent energy consultant Schneider, "but it’s also increasingly expensive to operate these things.”
Dominion has signaled its continued support for nuclear energy. At a White House conference last week, the company announced it would become the first utility in the nation to request a second 20-year extension on its license to operate the Surry Plant near Norfolk. Schneider thinks that’s crazy.
“You know if a reactor has operated for 40 years, it means it has been designed 50 years ago. That's in the 1960’s. In the 1960’s that was a different technology age altogether.”
But UVA Professor Houston Wood sees nothing inherently wrong with older technology.
“Air Force One is still a 747,” he says.
Dominion fired up its first reactor at Surry in 1972, with an assurance that it could operate safely for forty years. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says okay, the plant could continue to supply power until it turns 80. Some experts say good maintenance can minimize the risks of operating an old nuclear plant. Others are not so sure. We’ll hear from them in our next report.