A nuclear renaissance

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By Garry Kranz

Nuclear power is undergoing a quiet renaissance in the U.S.  Not built in large numbers since the 1980s, clean-burning nuclear plants are re-emerging as viable alternatives to other power sources as debate continues about climate change and potential damage caused by fossil fuels.

Emblematic of the renewed interest in nuclear energy is Areva NP Inc. Business is booming at the Lynchburg company, which manufactures components and sophisticated equipment for the building of nuclear reactors. These days, the company can’t manufacture products fast enough.  Existing inventory is presold through 2018 as utilities gear up to meet power demand across the country. 

To expand output, Areva announced a $25 million expansion last month. It’s also adding 500 jobs to its engineering/nuclear service staff, with the majority of those slots going to engineers.

By 2030, Areva expects to participate in the building of nearly 30 new nuclear plants in the U.S., says Andrew Cook, the company’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “This expansion will provide much of the space we need to accommodate our growth,” the company’s CEO, Thomas Christopher, said in a statement. 

Areva NP is the North American subsidiary of the Paris-based Areva Group, a leader in the design and construction of nuclear power plants.  The company expects to play a leading role in the nuclear renaissance with its EPR (Evolutionary Pressurized Reactor) which was submitted to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for design review late last year.

Areva has been aggressively recruiting engineers throughout the U.S., including candidates that complete a special engineering curriculum at Lynchburg’s Central Virginia Community College. The company already employs about 2,000 people in the city and also has engineering facilities in Charlotte, N.C.Boosting interest in nuclear power is a streamlined licensing process at the Commission, new government subsidies and possible action by Congress to tax carbon emissions, which have been linked to global warming. Nuclear plants wouldn’t have to pay the taxes, since they don’t emit
carbon gases. 

However, one concern is that a new generation of nuclear power plants would be built at a time of rising costs for building materials such as cement, steel and copper. This could spike construction costs to as much as $5 billion to $12 billion per plant. 

Areva’s EPR plants here will be based on a design developed by the company’s France-based corporate parent. EPRs are currently being built in Finland and on France’s Normandy coast. The state-of-the-art reactor technology uses 7 percent less uranium per kilowatt hour and includes four independent safety systems, “any one of which is sufficient to keep reactors safe,” Cook says.

Cost overruns reportedly have pushed Areva’s EPR in Finland beyond its projected $4 billion construction cost. With construction commodities costs soaring, it’s likely any new U.S.-based EPRs would exceed that figure.

UniStar Nuclear Energy, a consortium of energy companies that includes Baltimore-based Constellation Energy and French utility company EDF, is seeking federal approval to erect the first EPR-based nuclear reactor in the U.S. Adjacent to Constellation’s existing Maryland plants at Calvert Cliffs, the project could break ground by the close of 2008, says Mike McGough, UniStar’s vice president of business development.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest utility, Dominion Virginia Power, is considering a third nuclear reactor at its North Anna Power station in Louisa County. The company received a site permit for a 1,500-megawatt unit (enough to power 375,000 homes) from the NRC last year. It has applied for a combined operating license to build and operate the reactor.  Federal action could come as soon as 2010. At this point, Dominion says it’s just trying to get federal approvals in place and the paperwork done.

“We have not yet decided as a company to build this unit,” says David Heacock, president of Dominion Virginia Power. “That will be a business decision, a finance decision to be made at a later date.”

If the company moves ahead, 2016 would be the earliest a new reactor could go into production, he says. It would provide energy for Virginia customers, generating more than a quarter of the 4,000 megawatts of additional electricity Dominion says will be needed over the next decade.


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