Stormy weather for nuclear plants?

Japan’s disaster changes the debate, with natural gas the new short-term power source in Virginia.

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Print this page by Garry Kranz

David Heacock had just sat down to dinner with his family on Saturday, April 16, when his text pager buzzed at 6:50 p.m. The 53-year-old chief nuclear officer for Dominion Resources read the automated message with mild surprise. Unit 2 at Dominion’s Surry nuclear power station near Newport News was shutting down.
The unit was scheduled to go offline for routine maintenance and refueling, but the work was supposed to begin around midnight. When the message arrived five hours early, Heacock chalked it up to Dominion’s technicians running ahead of schedule.

Thirty seconds later, his pager buzzed again.  Surry’s Unit 1 reactor also had lost electric power, and it wasn’t on the maintenance schedule. Heacock thought, “This is not right.”  He immediately called his senior vice president in charge of nuclear operations, Dan Stoddard. Within 10 minutes, the two executives learned that a tornado had ripped through Surry, causing tremendous damage and knocking out electricity to both nuclear units. Of all the places to touch down, the tornado hit the switchyard, where power lines connect the station to the electric grid.

What’s more, the violent storm ripped through a garage, trapping inside a truck used to transport diesel fuel from an above-ground tank to a “station blackout generator” — a redundant system that supports a series of backup diesel generators in the case of an emergency. Fortunately, the truck was not needed, but the tornado “could not have picked a worse path,” Heacock says.

Dominion’s bout with Mother Nature came at an inopportune time. Just weeks before, headlines around the globe followed the near-meltdown of three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which had been crippled by two freaks of nature: an earthquake and a tsunami. While Dominion restored service within hours, the unforeseen tornado at Surry presents an apt metaphor.  Post-Japan, there’s stormy weather ahead for nukes. It’s a dramatic turn of events given the renaissance predicted for the industry just a few years ago, one fueled by fears about global warming.

Some European countries are backing away from nukes altogether. Germany announced plans in May to shut down its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022, with plans to replace atomic power with renewable energy sources. Currently, Germany’s nuclear power stations supply just under a quarter of its electricity, about the same share as in the U.S. Switzerland also has approved a plan to forgo building new plants. In June, Italy joined the roster by thwarting a government effort to revive that country’s nuclear industry — abandoned in 1987 after the Chernobyl accident — during voting on a series of referendums. 

France, on the other hand — a country powered largely by 58 nuclear reactors —  is standing pat and has two new plants under construction.  In the U.S., there has been no major change in policy. Sixteen applications for new nuclear power stations remain pending with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), though some companies have delayed construction timelines since Fukushima. “The response here has been more measured to make sure that what we are doing incorporates any lessons learned from Japan,” says Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the NRC in Atlanta. 

In response to the crisis, the NRC already has inspected all of the country’s 104 existing nuclear plants to assess their ability to respond to catastrophic emergencies, including Dominion’s two plants in Virginia. (See Safety check.)

NewsEven as Dominion keeps its option open to build additional nuclear generation, the company in the short term is turning to other energy sources.  “What you are seeing to some extent is people are defaulting to natural-gas plants, because they can be built in a shorter time horizon,” says Heacock.  A case in point is Bear Garden, Dominion’s natural-gas plant in Buckingham County, which began commercial operations in May. It cost $619 million to build, compared with a $6 billion to $10 billion price tag for nukes. The 585-megawatt facility will generate enough power for 146,000 homes.

Natural gas is appealing for other reasons; namely, it does not pose as many safety concerns. More than 130,400 people live within a 10-mile evacuation zone around the Surry plant, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Unlike what happened in Japan, where residents within nearly 20 miles were forced to evacuate, no such procedures were needed on the night of the tornado.  Dominion officials say the incident underscores the varied and intricate safety “redundancies” the federal government imposes on nuclear plant operators.

For example, both nuclear reactors at Surry automatically shut down, as they are designed to do. Also by design, four on-site diesel generators kicked in to power the units’ emergency loads.  The NRC was notified immediately, hastily dispatching two local inspectors to the Surry plant.

Dominion work crews, meanwhile, had their hands full, using chainsaws, bulldozers and dump trucks to clear fallen trees and remove downed wires, thus enabling plant operators to safely access the switchyard. As all this took place, Heacock and his team engaged in extensive “what if” scenarios to ensure that sufficient fuel and water were on hand to prevent damage to the reactors’ cores. As a precaution, Dominion had a replacement fuel truck ready at its North Anna Power Station in Louisa County, about 2½ hours away.

Shortly after midnight — roughly when maintenance had been planned to start, and before many Virginians even knew the event had occurred — full power was restored to the plant. “My reaction was, ‘This is exactly how things are supposed to work,’” Heacock says.

Hannah says the agency’s on-site inspectors also were satisfied with Dominion’s safety procedures on the night of the tornado. “At this point, we haven’t identified any issues that require additional oversight. They addressed all the short-term issues and got the plant back up and running.”

Afterward, Dominion said the incident did not cause the release of radioactive material, “beyond minor releases associated with normal station operations,” which begs the obvious question: How long could Dominion’s reactors be without power before radiation would begin leaking into the atmosphere?

“The answer is simple: forever,” Heacock says. The reason, he explains, is a thermodynamic process in which three loops of water continuously circulate and recirculate, using the reactor’s power to also help keep it cool. “It’s using the reactor core’s energy to drive it, essentially,” he adds.

Unlike Japan’s boiling water design, Dominion’s pressurized water system does not require that water be pumped into the reactor, nor does it need backup battery power. “You don’t have to pump water into the reactor to cool the reactor,” explains Heacock. “You need to pump water into the steam generator, which in turn then cools the reactor by natural circulation.” 

Such assurances do little to convince those who oppose Dominion’s plan to add more nuclear power in Virginia. “What happened at Surry should be a wake-up call on the future of nuclear power. It’s the most expensive energy source there is. That’s why government subsidies are always needed to get them built,” says Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

A recent Fox News poll found that 83 percent of American voters believe a nuclear disaster on the scale of Fukushima-Daiichi could occur in the U.S.  In another Washington Post-ABC News poll, a slim majority of people said they view nuclear power plants as a safe energy source, although nearly two-thirds oppose building new reactors in the country at this time. 

Power has to be derived from somewhere, though, especially as America leans more heavily on technology to communicate and to power business and industry.  According to PJM Interconnection, a Valley Forge, Pa., company that operates the electric power-supply system for the District of Columbia, Virginia and 12 other states, Dominion Virginia Power will need to generate 4,500 megawatts of new capacity during the next decade to meet demand.

In addition to two nuclear units at Surry, Dominion operates two reactors at North Anna, with plans to add a possible third unit there capable of producing 1,300 megawatts of electricity.  Altogether the four existing reactors — which began operations in the 1970s — provide 42 percent of the electricity produced for Dominion’s customers.

Publicly, Dominion won’t commit to building a third reactor, but it clearly hasn’t been ruled out. Heacock acknowledges that substantial site preparation is under way, including rerouting service roads and other major infrastructure work.  “We are preserving the option for the customers in Virginia to have that unit available,” Heacock says. “It’s valuable to have a diversity of supply so if something happens to one source, it doesn’t affect the bills as much.”

In the interim, Dominion waits for the laborious NRC license approval process to wend its way toward a decision. (Dominion contributed to delays last year after modifying its choice of reactors, swapping out one made by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy for a design by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.) A decision is expected by the NRC sometime in 2013, “and we’ll make a decision at that time,” Heacock says.  If Dominion proceeds, the soonest a new unit could begin operating, after construction and environmental reviews, would be at the end of the decade, or around 2020 — several years later than Dominion originally projected.

Should federal regulators bless the project, Dominion is likely to need an equity partner to share the enormous construction cost. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, which already owns an 11.6 percent stake in North Anna’s existing reactors, originally signed on to help underwrite a third unit. Citing cost and other concerns, however, the Glen Allen-based wholesale supplier pulled out of the deal in February. At Dominion’s annual meeting in May, a failed shareholder proposal asked the company to “stop wasting shareholder money by pursuing the increasingly costly and unnecessary risky venture of a new nuclear unit.”

Going forward, funding is expected to be a challenge for the nuclear industry.  The federal government has offered up to $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to help utilities with the cost of building new plants, and the Obama administration has requested more, but Wall Street remains jittery about investing in new reactors.  “If there is going to be a roadblock to building new nuclear reactors [in the U.S.], it will be the economics. It’s hard for a utility to put that much of their shareholders’ capital at risk, especially for only one source of power,” says Ali Azad, president and CEO of Generation mPower, which is developing prototypes of smaller, less expensive “modular” reactors in Bedford County. The company is part of Charlotte, N.C.-based Babcock & Wilcox Co.

Others have a more sanguine take. Despite worries about cost and health risks, nuclear energy represents a middle ground between fossil fuels and alternative sources, says Maureen Matsen, Virginia’s deputy secretary of natural resources. “Nuclear is a carbon-free, energy-efficient source of electricity. For that reason, I think it’s a matter of when, not if” Dominion adds a third reactor.

Nuclear options
Atomic energy started to regain momentum in the U.S. in recent years, sparked by concern over potential environmental and health risks associated with fossil fuel plants. Virginia companies were poised to cash in on the resurgence.  In 2009, France-based Areva joined forces with Northrop Grumman Corp. and its shipbuilding subsidiary in Newport News — now Huntington Ingalls Industries — to build a massive $363 million manufacturing facility. The plan: employ about 550 people in high-end jobs making the heavy components used to build next-generation nuclear power plants.

The much-celebrated announcement was viewed as a huge windfall for Newport News. For now, however, the project is dead in the water, postponed indefinitely after Areva lost a bid potentially worth $20 billion to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates. Instead of Areva (or General Electric Corp., the other finalist), officials in the Dubai government stunned the industry by choosing a relative unknown in the nuclear field: Korea Electric Power Corp. “That was a tremendous loss for us. It was four plants’ worth of capacity,” and would have provided a kick-start for the new facility, says Areva Inc. CEO Michael Rencheck, who heads up the company’s largest North American office in Lynchburg.

Areva continues to market the facility, hoping to find a blue-chip client that would justify restarting operations, he says. Should that come to fruition, the plant could be made operational within 18 to 24 months.

If nuclear reactors have a future in America, it could be due to the emergence of smaller reactor technologies, such as one being developed by Babcock & Wilcox in Lynchburg. The company in April received a $5 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. The money will advance development of smaller, scalable reactors at the company’s Integrated System Test facility in Bedford County.

The compact design will cost about one-tenth the price of large reactors, Azad says. In addition to making new reactors more affordable, modular design would enable utilities to convert older fossil-fuel plants to nuclear power, thus helping with federal mandates on carbon emissions. Babcock & Wilcox intends to submit design specifications for the technology to the NRC next year, Azad says, with commercial deployment possible by 2020.

Stepping on the gas
If the NRC does not approve Dominion’s application for a third reactor, the Richmond-based energy giant has other ways to meet its statutory requirement of keeping the lights on in Virginia at a reasonable cost.
Natural gas, suddenly abundant after discoveries of huge shale reserves in several locations in the U.S., is a logical choice to make up the difference.  But it has some downside, too. One is price volatility. “That’s the risk factor,” says Heacock. “What’s the price of natural gas going to be 30 years from now? The reality is that we don’t know what it’s going to be 30 weeks from now or 30 minutes from now in some cases.”

Developing new sources of natural gas is crucial for Virginia’s future economic growth, says Carl Levander, president of Chester-based Columbia Gas of Virginia, and would reduce the risk of price volatility.  The company serves about 240,000 residential and industrial customers statewide. “We have enough natural gas to serve current needs, but we are just at the edge [of capacity] on peak days,” he says. 

Yet while natural gas appears to be the go-to source, there’s growing environmental concern about “fracking.” The terms refers to a drilling process that breaks apart underground shale by injecting a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals, allowing the natural gas to surface. Some of these drilling pits have contaminated water sources, and environmental groups fear more contamination of the Chesapeake Bay.  Also, while natural gas is cleaner than coal or oil, it’s still a fossil fuel, a fact often noted by supporters of renewable energy. 

Dominion recently filed an application with the State Corporation Commission to build a 1,300-megawatt natural-gas plant, estimated to cost $1.3 billion, at an unspecified location in Warren County, near Front Royal. Dominion also this year will begin converting three older coal-fired plants — in Altavista, Southampton County and Hopewell — to burn wood chips, otherwise known as biomass. Also planned are “up rates,” referring to newer technologies designed to squeeze greater efficiency from older plants.

But the most welcome news, at least to environmentalists, is Dominion’s stated commitment to investigate the time and money needed to capitalize on Virginia’s abundant offshore wind. During a recent conference sponsored by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Dominion officials presented a report that showed up to 1,500 megawatts of offshore wind-driven electric power could be added to the existing transmission system if a wind farm were built off Virginia Beach.  “We plan on pursuing wind energy in a big way,” says Jim Norvelle, a Dominion spokesman.

Still, state officials say a major offshore-transmission line is years away, with cost, environmental impacts and other issues requiring further study.  In the meantime, look for all energy sources in Virginia to
be on the table, including nuclear and natural gas.

Matsen, the state’s deputy secretary of natural resources, points out that “Virginia’s historically low cost of power has always been a strong selling point in economic development. Anything that dramatically changes that would make us less competitive.”

True enough, but it may be a lot harder for Dominion to invoke the nuclear option now. As Japan cleans up its atomic mess and residents near Surry’s reactors discuss the tornado in their backyard, the topic may just be too radioactive.

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