Friday, February 10, 2012

U.S. Ushering in an Era of Nuclear Renaissance… or Maybe Not

On February 9, 2012, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a license for the Atlanta-based Southern Company, in a vote of 4 to 1, to build two new nuclear reactors at the Plant Vogtle nuclear power station near Augusta, Georgia.  This $14 billion project (with $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees) is the country’s first nuclear reactor approved since the 1979 partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island plant’s reactor core.  This accident bumped up construction costs of nuclear plants and halted many planned reactors. 

Built by Westinghouse Electric, the two new reactors would be designed “to withstand earthquakes and plane crashes and to be less vulnerable to a cutoff of electricity, which set off the triple meltdown at Fukushima in 2011.”  The only vote against the approval of the project came from NRC’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko, who was not convinced that the project would ensure all safety improvements before reactors start operating in 2017. 

Mr. Jaczko’s concern with nuclear safety may have some grounds in the post-Fukushima era.  In fact, NRC faces a challenge not only to apply lessons from last year’s disaster in Japan, but also to decide what do with America’s all 104 old nuclear reactors, which will need to be phased out and replaced in the next 20 years.  Meeting 20 percent of the U.S. electricity needs, the future of nuclear power maybe at a crossroads where a decision must be made to build new reactors and to find viable alternatives.  Some predict that nuclear power production would shrink in the U.S. before growing.  According to Marvin Fertel, president of Nuclear Energy Institute that lobbies for the nuclear industry, not many new nuclear plants were to be built in the near term.  The reasons are depressed electricity demand, cheap natural gas that can be burned to produce electricity, lack of funding and ambiguity in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown. 

While the future of nuclear power in the U.S. is largely undecided, the preparedness of the existing fleet of 104 reactors for potential earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and potential terrorist attacks is questionable, according to the January 17, 2012, PBS investigative film “Nuclear Aftershocks.”  Nearly 29 nuclear reactors across the country “were identified in the 1990s as seismically under-designed, but the NRC required no corrective action,” and 47 reactors failed to meet new fire protection standards.  Some nuclear plants avoided accidents caused by natural disasters, such as the recent flooding in Nebraska and earthquake in Virginia, only because they managed to boost their defenses and upgraded seismic protection in a timely manner.  Given its mixed track record, NRC is up against its own known weaknesses as much as against unforeseen disasters.

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