Hard Slog. Labor demand for U.S. nuclear construction will peak in 2013. (Photo: Areva NP)

When environmentalists advocate constructing new nuclear powerplants, you know the climate has changed for an energy source that many once thought was on its way to extinction. A subtle shift to green is occurring in the public’s view of nuclear energy, and the electricity industry is responding like a lane of traffic to a changing signal.

Generating companies have announced plans for as many as 29 new nuclear units, and possibly more, at about 20 U.S. sites, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, with capacity totaling between 29,000 and 40,000 MW. On Aug. 31, Dallas-based TXU Corp. announced plans to develop 2,000 to 6,000 MW at up to three sites. Industry sources and analysts now are predicting construction starting as early as 2010 on the first new nuclear plants in the U.S. since 1973.

GE Energy’s nuclear business, Wilmington, N.C., expects construction starts on no less than 7,000 MW of new nuclear capacity in the Americas by 2016 and considers 15,000 MW “likely.” The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts just 6,000 MW will be added in the U.S. by 2020, with construction halting after the Energy Policy Act’s production tax credit expires. But “we’re not expecting just one or two nuclear plants, we’re expecting one or two per year” to come online after 2015, says Lawrence J. Makovich, managing director of the power group at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Cambridge, Mass. He says 64% of power-producing company CEOs surveyed by CERA said they expect binding limits on carbon-dioxide emissions to be in place by 2015. “If that’s the case, you can see why that buildout has to be nuclear,” he adds.


Now, a few key environmental thinkers believe the issue of global warming fueled by carbon-dioxide emissions trumps the long-running debate over nuclear energy and the long-term disposal of spent fuel. “I advocate an aggressive program of renewable and nuclear energy,” says Patrick Moore, chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd., Vancouver, British Columbia, and a founding member and former national director of Greenpeace. “I believe nuclear energy is the only cost-effective baseload electric-energy source that can effectively reduce fossil-fuel consumption, principally coal,” he says. “I find it ludicrous that Greenpeace would oppose it.”

Demand-side management, wind energy and cogeneration using industrial waste gas all have better economics than nuclear, says Christopher Paine, senior analyst for the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear progam. Still, he says, “We think the climate situation is dire enough that all low-carbon options need to be considered.”

Today’s nuclear-energy industry substantially differs from the industry that built the Generation II reactors of the 1960s and ’70s, and these are not your father’s nukes. They have been standardized, modularized, simplified and redesigned to rely on natural forces like gravity, not pumps and operator intervention, for operational safety.

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  • Licensing, engineering and construction also are changed. The searing experience of Long Island Lighting Co., which completed the $5.6-billion Shoreham Nuclear Generating Station at Wading River, N.Y., in the face of intense community opposition and was forced to shut it down before it sold a single kilowatt-hour, will not be repeated. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s streamlined combined construction and operating license (COL) allows utilities to build with confidence that they will be able to operate the completed plant.

    Still, utilities are facing many unknowns. No one has ever filed a COL application or engineered and constructed one of the new Generation III+ units, and Wall Street’s attitude toward new construction is wait-and-see. To share the risks, utilities and equipment suppliers have formed a consortium, NuStart Energy Development LLC, comprising nine member companies, the Tennessee Valley Authority and two reactor suppliers—Westinghouse Electric Co., Monroeville, Pa., and GE Energy.


    NuStart was formed to address the uncertainties of the regulatory process and the reactor design, says Marilyn C. Kray, NuStart’s Philadelphia-based president and vice president of project development for Exelon Nuclear. As a development company, NuStart lacks the authority to construct a new plant, but it aims to demonstrate the COL application and approval process. To prepare the applications, Enercon Services Inc., Tulsa, is leading a team that includes Burns and Roe Enterprises Inc., Oradell, N.J.; William Lettis and Associates, Walnut Creek, Calif.; MACTEC Engineering and Consulting, Charlotte, N.C., and McCallum/Turner, Evergreen, Colo. Kray estimates that 75% of the applications by NuStart members will be identical, allowing them to share risk by sharing their experience and applications.

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    Track Record. GE’s Advanced Boiling-Water Reactor, already built and operating in Japan, has been proposed for two sites in Texas. As many as 29 new-generation powerplants are proposed for construction.

    NuStart has targeted two sites for COLs. TVA will apply for one by October 2007 for two 1,117-MW Westinghouse AP1000 units at the Bellefonte site in Alabama, where construction was halted in the 1980s on two partially completed plants. The new units, estimated at $2 billion each, will be able to use the cooling towers, switchyards, river intake and some other infrastructure for savings of $50 to $100 million, says Jack Bailey, TVA vice president of nuclear generation development and business support. But the standardized design of the AP1000 can’t be adapted to use other existing construction. Entergy Nuclear, Jackson, Miss., will apply by February 2008 for a license to build a 1,500-MW GE Economic Simplified Boiling-Water Reactor (ESBWR) at the Grand Gulf plant in Mississippi. Entergy last month selected Burns & Roe as its owner’s engineer to assist with technical and project management functions for the new unit’s development.

    Constellation Energy, Baltimore, a NuStart member, is pressing ahead with its own developments. Last year, Constellation and Areva Inc., Bethesda, Md., formed a joint venture, UniStar Nuclear, Annapolis, Md., to develop and deploy powerplants using Areva’s U.S. Evolutionary Power Reactor, a 1,600-MW American version of Areva’s Generation III+ pressurized-water European Power Reactor (EPR). Bechtel Power Corp., Frederick, Md., UniStar’s architect-engineer and constructor, is preparing a COL application for up to five units Constellation proposed last year. The JV last month signed up BWX Technologies, Inc., Lynchburg, Va., to manufacture components for the plants.

    In addition to Constellation, Bechtel is preparing COL applications for Dominion Resources Inc., Richmond, Va., and South Carolina Electric & Gas, Columbia, S.C. The engineering firm prepared an application for an early site permit (ESP) submitted last month by Southern Nuclear Operating Co., Birmingham, Ala., and probably will prepare the COL application as well for submission in 2008, says a Bechtel spokesman. In February, Progress Energy, Raleigh, N.C., awarded a contract to a team led by Chicago-based Sargent & Lundy LLC that includes Denver-based CH2M Hill and Reading, Pa.-based WorleyParsons to prepare COL applications for two sites.

    More than just licensing and relationships have changed. Experts say standardized design will reduce costs as subsequent projects benefit from experience gained on similar plants. Modular construction also will lower costs, improve quality control and shorten field construction schedules. GE already has demonstrated the benefit of modularization. Construction took just 39 months from first concrete to first transmission to grid for the 1,315-MW GE Generation III Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWR) at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Unit 6 and 7 in 1996 and 1997, respectively, for Tokyo Electric Power Co.

    Step by Step. Modular design of reactor allows faster construction in the field, with quality enhanced by fabrication under controlled conditions.
    (Rendering: Westinghouse Electric Co.)

    Owners will look to the equipment vendor—Westinghouse, GE, Areva—to share more risk, such as design issues that could result in construction delay, says NuStart’s Kray. “Now, the vendors have a relation with the owner through the life of the plant,” including fuel services and license renewal, she says. “It is truly a partnership and a relationship that is sustained throughout the life of the plant.” Also, the owner will select a vendor who will then select an engineer-constructor, she says. Previously, the vendor typically supplied the nuclear island and the utility hired a design-constructor to complete the design based on the vendor’s specifications, she says.

    But few if any constructors or suppliers have filled their dance cards. “I think everybody’s working with everybody,” says George Nash, senior vice president of business development at Washington Group International, Boise.

    Sources agree that new technology tools and advances in reactor design have set the stage for nuclear power’s comeback. The tools available for design, document management and other complex functions have become far more sophisticated in the last 30 years. Engineers now can use 3D models to manage interferences and laser grammetry to determine the locations and dimensions of existing equipment, notes Al Smith, vice president of engineering for WorleyParsons, Reading, Pa. And the improvements in safety and operational simplicity of Generation III and III+ reactors have reduced the public’s fear of nuclear accidents.

    Slowed. Lungmen’s problems are political more than technical, engineers say.
    (Photo: Black & Veatch)

    Actual construction of new-generation reactors also has supported their makers’ claims, though not uniformly. Five ABWRs totaling 6,326 MW have come online in Japan and two 1,350-MW units, modeled on the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa units, are under construction in Taiwan. But political opposition has delayed construction progress at Lungmen units 1 and 2 for Taiwan Power Co. since it began in 1999. Their cost estimate has risen from $5.16 billion to $7.1 billion and they are scheduled for commercial operation in 2009, three years behind schedule. In Finland, construction of $4-billion, 1,600-MW Olkiluoto Unit 3, the world’s first EPR, has slipped 12 months behind schedule since beginning in April 2005 because of design delays and problems with component suppliers and quality (ENR 5/29 p. 13).

    Industry sources are neither surprised nor deterred by the cost and schedule overruns. Such problems are to be expected with first-of-a-kind projects such as the nuclear-energy industry now is launching, they say. The production tax credit, standby financial support and other incentives for nuclear energy in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 are designed to cushion the impacts of such costs.

    Worries about global warming, and the CO2 emissions widely thought to be a major cause of it, have prompted some environmental leaders to promote new nuclear construction. Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, foresees abrupt climate change and advocates nukes “to save the natural environment and civilization from as much of the horrors of climate change as we can.” A Pentagon study on abrupt climate change in which he participated several years ago encountered the fact that the Gulfstream “turned off” 8,200 years ago, and its northern part already is slowing down, he says.

    “Outside the environmental community, the issue is not just green, but fuel,” says Robert Bellemare, president and CEO of utility consulting firm UtiliPoint International Inc., Albuquerque. He cites the rising cost of fossil fuel, volatility in gas prices and the unpredictability of supply as principal drivers in the renewed interest in...