Tuesday, August 22, 2006

American Utilities Weighing New Nuclear Build

In today's edition of the New York Times, a story by Matt Wald compares and contrasts the strategies of two different nuclear power plant owner/operators (Constellation Energy and PPL Corp.), and how they believe nuclear fits into their future generation mix. Here are some excerpts concerning Constellation, the more bullish of the two companies:

Nobody in the United States has started building a nuclear power plant in more than three decades. Mayo Shattuck could be the first.

As the chief executive of Constellation Energy, a utility holding company in Baltimore that already operates five nuclear reactors, Shattuck is convinced that nuclear power is on the verge of a renaissance, ready to provide reliable electricity at a competitive price. He has already taken the first steps toward that goal, moving this month to order critical parts for a new reactor.


[...]


Constellation Energy, the Baltimore company, not only wants to build reactors for itself, it has also formed a partnership with a reactor manufacturer to build and operate them for other utilities.

"This organization has a history of feeling that they have done well in nuclear," Shattuck, its chief executive, said.

Constellation says it will apply for a reactor operating license by the end of next year, probably at either Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, where it runs two nuclear reactors that it built in the 1960s and '70s, or at Nine Mile Point, in Scriba, New York, on Lake Ontario, where it operates two reactors it bought in 2001 from Niagara Mohawk Power and other utilities.

[...]

Constellation, which doubled its nuclear bet in the 1990s by buying more reactors as the utility industry restructured, believes it has demonstrated one marketable skill - running reactors profitably - and that it could quickly follow a new plant with a copycat, building both on time and on budget.

Constellation proposes a fleet of plants, identical down to the "carpeting and wallpaper," Shattuck said, reducing the design costs on subsequent reactors to near zero.

Operating processes would be identical, and operators could be shuffled among the plants, something that is often impossible today even with adjacent reactors. The company wants partners who would offer either equity or operating skills.
Here at NEI Nuclear Notes, we've been following Constellation's progress very closely. For more, click here. And for a look at the power supply situation in the Baltimore-Washington area that depends on the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, click here.

UPDATE: More thoughts from The Oil Drum: New York City.

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8 comments:

Matthew66 said...

As William Hecht, PPL CEO, points out, the tricky bit will be getting the time line between investment and cash flow shorter. I think that once the COL process is demonstrated, and, in UNISTAR's case, the EPR has a proven construction time frame, investors will be more likely to come to the table. Ten years is a long time for a public company to wait for a return on investment. Experience in Asia suggests that once the bugs are ironed out of the licensing process, a nuclear plant can be built on time, on budget, and within a much shorter time frame than was experienced by some US projects in the eighties and nineties.

Does anyone have any information about how many of the current 104 licensed reactors in the US were built on time, on budget? We hear a lot about time delays and budget overruns, but I suspect that there were quite a few projects that more than met expectations.

KenG said...

An approximate answer would be that the units that went on line before 1979 were completed at least near budget and schedule. The units that were completed after 1979 were virtually all well over the original schedule and budget. It was a direct consequence of the change in regulatory requirements and expectations after the TMI event that was not part of the original design and construction plans.

bert said...

Just the other day, Mr. McErlain cited a column by a right-wing pundit, Deroy Murdock, who began by asking why Al Gore opposed nuclear power. Mr. Murdock quoted Gore’s statement “I’m skeptical about it playing a much larger role”—in the bizarre world of Human Events this is supposed to show that Gore opposes nuclear power—before proceeding to ridicule “environmentalists”, “liberals”, and “tree huggers”.

Mr. McErlain himself had earlier criticized Gore because he had “dismissed nuclear energy out of hand”, when what Gore had actually said was: “I doubt nuclear power will play a much larger role than it does now…” and “… if they can design a new generation [of reactors] that's manifestly safer, more flexible, etc., it may play some role, but I don't think it will play a big role.”

But in today’s New York Times, in the very article cited by Mr. McErlain, I read the following:

“But even if a few plants are built, industry insiders do not expect nuclear power to assume a significantly greater role. Roger W. Gale, an electricity expert and former Energy Department official, asks several hundred utility executives each year what they foresee in their industry.

“While they are convinced that a new plant will be ordered soon, the more than 100 senior utility executives who responded also said they do not expect “a future where nuclear generation represents a larger share of generation” than today.”

In other words, on the subject of the future of nuclear power, the views of Al Gore and the views of senior utility executives are pretty much the same.

Uh-oh—I am sure it won’t be long before I see NEI links mocking those senior utility executives.

David Bradish said...

Well Bert you have to define what a greater role means. If you mean that nuclear won't provide more than 20% of our electricity then that's fine. By 2030, if nuclear were to remain at 20% that means we need to build another 50 reactors to meet demand.

We're not at the point for major deployment of new nukes. But maybe in 10-15 years we could be. We'll have to ask the execs the same question in another decade.

Matthew66 said...

Bert, if nuclear reactor vendors, the NRC, DOE and a few lead utilities can demonstrate that new reactors can be built on-time, on-budget, then I am sure that a lot of reactors will be built. Westinghouse is suggesting 36 months from first concrete pour to first fuel load for the AP1000, GE's first ABWR was 39 months from first concrete to first fuel load, it is suggesting 36 months for the ESBWR, Unistar Nuclear is advertising 48 months from receipt of COL to the reactor being online. These construction periods are highly competitive with construction of coal stations. The big sticking point will be the receipt of the COL - which is the process that is currently being tested. Once there is confidence in the construction schedule, then the a lot of the current uncertainty is taken out of the investment decision.

bert said...

For the record, I have no disagreement with the comments made by Mr. Bradish or Matthew66. If the design, licensing, and construction costs of nuclear power can be held down and if the price of carbon-based power plants rises to reflect their true economic cost (that is, one which includes the adverse environmental effects), you will not have to wait 10-15 years. My point was that there are many moderates—like Al Gore or senior utility executives—who have valid reasons for skepticism about some of the claims being made by supporters of nuclear power.

Jim Hopf said...

Bert,

Gore's statement about nuclear's potential contribution is less annoying than the (tired old) reasons he gave for it, i.e., hyping nuclear's phony, so-called problems (i.e., insufficient safety, waste, etc...). If he said that we needed to design a cheaper reactor, that would be one thing..

"I am sure it won’t be long before I see NEI links mocking those senior utility executives."

They probably won't, but I will.

I'd like to ask these executives how, exactly, they think the power demand decades from now (which will be significantly higher than today's) will be met. I doubt they predict a massive renewables share. More likely, they blithely expect both coal and gas generation to be much larger than they are today.

They are in a deep state of denial. They seem to have a blind faith that nothing will ever be done to limit CO2 emissions, despite ever growing evidence of the necessity to do so, and the fact that most of the public now think we should. Public policy is clearly moving in that direction.

They also have a deep faith that conventional (non-IGCC) coal plants will be allowed, forever, despite the fact that they kill ~25,000 people every single year. They apparently think that we will never get sick of that, and require IGCC for new coal plants (IGCC having no cost advantage over nuclear).

Concerning gas, they have a deep faith that it will never start to run out, and that the price will actually be lower than it is today (whereas it will actually be much higher). The believe the price will remain fairly low no matter how high world demand increases.

They also seem to have no problem with the fact that North America is rapidly running out of gas, and almost all new gas supply necessary for expanded use of gas plants will have to be imported from the Middle East (where the great majority of remaining reserves lie). They assume that no policies will ever be put in place to limit, discourage, or penalize the importation of gas just so it can be (wastefully) used in baseload power plants, despite the horrendous economic and geopolitical consequences of doing so.

Like many people, they tend to assume things will always remain as they are, and have a hard time conceiving of major change. This has happened before. Things were different once. In the 70s, everyone had to have a nuclear plant, and it was just assumed that nuclear was the future. People at the time couldn't concieve of the massive (and unwarranted) ratcheting up of nuclear regulations/requirements. Having to provide absolute guarantees that nobody is ever exposed to even a few millirem of radiation (a tiny fraction of background)??!! Who ever would have thought!!

For this reason, utilities were completely blindsided by the massive changes in requirements after TMI, and nuclear, once the favorite, was quickly and completely ushered off the stage. Well, the same type of huge change (in requirements) is about to happen for coal. This time, it's actually for a very good , serious reason (unlike the nuclear case). And there is a good chance that coal will be largely ushered off the stage, and the utilities will be surprised once again.

Should we forgo necessary policy changes just because some utility executives will have to adjust, or because some people will lose investements. Hell no! People have been wrong many times before. They were "wrong" about going overboard with nuclear in the 70s, they were wrong about (overbuilding) gas in the '90s (and many lost their shirts), and they may very well be wrong about coal in the near-to-mid future.

Such is life.

Brian Mays said...

Hmm ... "more than 100 senior utility executives" is rather vague. I seriously doubt that a senior executive of a utility that doesn't operate even one nuclear reactor is in a good position to evaluate the potential of nuclear generation. They are as much in the dark as Al Gore is and, I suspect, are prone to a "business as usual" type of mentality -- which means more coal and natural gas plants.

The utilities that own and successfully operate a sizable nuclear fleet are more favorable to an expanded role of nuclear than both Gore and the average utility executive. As has already been pointed out here, where this ultimately goes depends on how smoothly the the new COL and construction process works.