Utilities show keen interest in building new nuclear plants
A handful of companies are pursuing permission from the government.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- For two months, Ray Ganthner took to the road, visiting a dozen power companies to find out if his bosses should take a $100 million gamble.
Asking executives "eyeball-to-eyeball" about their future generating capacity needs, he wanted to know just how serious utilities were about building a new nuclear power plant in the United States for the first time in three decades.
"I was surprised at the consistency of the answers," Ganthner, a Lynchburg, Va.,-based senior executive for the French reactor manufacturer, Framatome, said in an interview.
Based on what he found, AREVA, Framatome's parent company, is now investing $100 million on U.S. marketing and to get a design certificate from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its newest reactor, one already being built in Finland.
It may be a long shot. Two other manufacturers, Westinghouse and General Electric, have a head start. But the French company's decision to make it a three-way race demonstrates the resurgent interest in nuclear power in the United States, where no new reactor has been ordered since 1973.
The 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, followed by the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine ended any U.S. interest in more reactors beyond those already under construction.
Recently a consortium of eight U.S. utilities, called NuStart, announced potential sites where one or more of its members might put a new reactor. Two other American utilities are pursuing separate licensing efforts.
While no one has yet committed to construction, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman recently told an industry group, "If all goes well, we could see new plants on line by 2014."
Westinghouse Electric Co., a subsidiary of the British company BNFL, already has approval from the NRC for its new 1,000 megawatt AP1000 reactor design and General Electric will submit an application for its 1,500 megawatt ESBWR reactor later this year.
Both companies are working hard to line up customers, convinced that electricity demand a decade from now will require more large power plants, and that some will be nuclear.
"We think everything is heading in absolutely the right direction," says Vaughn Gilbert, a Westinghouse spokesman. "Nuclear has to be part of the energy picture. We expect the U.S. market will come back and eventually be robust."
The new reactors are described as "evolutionary" advancements over the 103 now in operation in 31 states. They basically use the same technology, but with fewer valves, pipes and pumps, and -- in the case of Westinghouse and GE -- passive safety systems that, if needed, can shut the reactor down and pour in cooling water without human intervention. Other modifications such as setting the radioactive fuel lower into the ground were added in response to post-Sept. 11 worries about terrorism.
President Bush has pushed nuclear power as a way to take the pressure off fossil fuels -- oil, natural gas and coal. While the United States gets 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors, France meets 78 percent of its electricity needs with nuclear power.
Even some environmentalists have abandoned their opposition to nuclear power, arguing that it is needed to address climate change because reactors do not produce so-called "greenhouse" gases as do fossil fuels. Other environmentalists are not convinced, citing worries about reactor waste and safety.
At the heart of the resurgent interest in nuclear power are the high cost of competing energy sources and improved reactor efficiency. A University of Chicago study concluded that a new fleet of reactors can be expected to produce power as cheaply as coal and natural gas, given's today's prices.
"People are getting comfortable with nuclear," Paul Dabber, a vice president for mergers and acquisitions at J.P. Morgan, told a conference on new reactor technology in February. One reason is that existing nuclear power plants have been making profits, he said.
Wall Street has long been skeptical about committing $2 billion or more to a new nuclear reactor and investors still consider such a venture risky unless the government provides tax breaks or other incentives to get the first group of reactors started.
Without some government help, no new reactors are likely to be built before 2025, says the Energy Information Agency, the government's energy statistical agency.