Scana's Move to Build Nuclear Reactors Becoming Trendy
NRC Gives Blessing
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted to approve Scana’s license to build two new nuclear reactors in South Carolina. That’s the second time in two months that the agency has given such permission to utilities, which has not happened since 1978.
The utilities have gotten a head start as the reactor designs to be used have already been meticulously researched and developed, earning the NRC's approval. In giving its blessing on March 30, the commission is allowing Santee Cooper, a state-owned subsidiary of Scana, to construct and operate the two facilities that will be located about half hour from Columbia.
“These new nuclear units are a critical component of Santee Cooper’s long-term plan to diversify our generation mix,” says Lonnie Carter, chief executive of Santee Cooper, in a statement. “Access to reliable and low-cost electricity will be key to job creation and economic development opportunities as we continue rebuilding our state’s economy and position South Carolina for the future.”
The dissenting regulatory commissioner’s view is that all Japan-related safety precautions need to first be implemented. It’s the same position he had expressed during the vote in February that ultimately gave permission to Southern Company and its partners to build.
In Southern’s case, it will erect new units at a site where two current reactors are now operating. The first one is scheduled to be functional by 2016, and the second facility in 2017. Each unit will be 1,000 megawatts. This is a $14 billion effort in which the federal government will provide about $8 billion in loan guarantees.
As for Scana, each reactor will have a capacity of 1,117 megawatts. They are supposed to be operational in 2017 and 2018, respectively. This is expected to be a $10 billion project in which Scana will pay 55 percent and Santee Cooper will provide the 45 percent balance.
Beside those deals, the Tennessee Valley Authority is planning to build a new $4 billion nuclear reactor. It would be a 1,260 megawatt facility that it says is state-of-the-art and much cleaner and efficient than the coal plants it would replace. TVA actually started the plant in 1974 but halted construction, citing a lack of demand. It says that it will complete one unit on this existing site if the NRC approves.
TVA has already spent $1.8 billion to restart Browns Ferry Nuclear Unit 1 in 2007, which added 1,155 megawatts to the system. Meantime, it finished Watts Bar Nuclear Unit 1 in 1996. By 2013, it expects to expand generating capacity by 1,100 megawatts with Watts Bar Nuclear Unit 2. All of those plants, which were originally licensed in the 1970s, were also shut down in the 1980s.
“Diversity proved to be the most prudent course in meeting future energy needs in all the various future scenarios we studied,” says Tom Kilgore, chief executive of the TVA. “A variety of electricity sources, rather than heavy reliance on any single source, reduces long-term risks and helps keep costs steady and predictable.” The goal he says is to “reduce carbon intensity.”
Kilgore adds that the territories from which his nuclear units operate -- Alabama and Tennessee -- are not prone to the earthquakes and tsunamis that brought down Japan’s Fukushima units. Moreover, TVA’s plants have safety devices built into them such as emergency power to cool down spent fuel rods. He also says that nuclear power is the cleanest way to supply a large population.
As for both Southern and Scana, the NRC voted unanimously in December 2011 to approve the Westinghouse AP 1000 design. It is equipped with redundant safety features to shut down automatically in case of a radioactive leak. In the works, though, are next-generation reactors that operate at very high temperatures. That, then results, in higher thermal efficiency and the potential use in industrial applications and hydrogen production.
“We are watching this evolution,” says Adam Cohen, deputy associate laboratory director for energy sciences at Argonne National Labs, in previous talk with this reporter. “France, China, India, South Korea and Russia are hard at work. The same companies that are building reactors there will also build them here.”
All of those nuclear reactors on the drawing board in the United States got a push in the mid 1990s when natural gas prices started escalating and when attention began shifting to carbon reductions. Now those dynamics have changed, although they will be certain to evolve again. Last year, of course, Fukushima happened.
Questions about safety and finance will abound as Scana, Southern and TVA forge ahead. For those issues to be properly addressed, the would-be reactors now in the mix need to stay on track and on budget.
EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.