Nuclear energy is enjoying a renaissance
By H.J. CUMMINS, Star Tribune, September 15, 2008
With oil costing about $100 a barrel, nuclear energy is enjoying a public-opinion comeback. But not everyone is warming to nuclear as the new ‘green’ energy.
Once the stuff of disaster movies and picket lines, nuclear energy is enjoying a renaissance.
But for 30 Minnesotans in a Red Wing public library last week, at the first public meeting over Xcel Energy’s proposed expansion of its nearby Prairie Island nuclear power plant, it was clear they want no part in the revival.
Many stood to tell state regulators and Xcel executives that they oppose any expansion of the plant. Even after living next to it for 35 years they don’t feel safe, they said. Charlotte Eastin of Lake City even suggested it’s time to shut it down, “before the unthinkable happens.”
They were harsh words for a plant that has operated without a major problem since it started up in 1973. And Xcel’s director of nuclear regulatory policy, Terry Pickens, said afterward that all the concerns raised about the expansion will be addressed through the long application process.
But some version of the evening’s exchange — between skeptics and utilities that are increasingly calling nuclear power the clean, carbon-free energy of the future — is going to play out in many more communities around the country as the push for nuclear grows.
After 30 years without a single application to build a new plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission received 12 over the past 12 months, and expects another five by year-end, said spokesman Scott Burnell in Washington. And while those wouldn’t come online for years — adding to the 104 reactors operating today — federal regulators point to another, current phenomenon: “upratings,” when utilities get permission to push more output from their existing nuclear reactors — part of Xcel’s plans. Over the years, these have added 5,200 megawatts of electricity, the equivalent of more than five new reactors.
Minnesota has had a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear plants since 1994.
Politics will have a hand in sorting out the future energy mix. Republican presidential candidate John McCain is calling for 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030. His Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, said he will make nuclear power part of his climate-friendly mix, but only if the country comes up with a safe way to store the waste. Also, government subsidies will give strong development and pricing advantages to whatever form of energy — from solar to nuclear — that public policy picks.
For now, the energy industry is putting nuclear power back into what it says will have to be a diverse — and preferably, domestic — portfolio of energy resources. “All of that adds up to a new role for nuclear energy going forward,” said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group.
A bigger Prairie Island
The Prairie Island proposal has three pieces, projected to cost a total of $486 million. The company is seeking a 20-year extension for the plant’s two reactors, whose original licenses are set to expire in 2013 and 2014. It’s also asking to ramp up production at Prairie Island’s two reactors from 1,100 to 1,264 megawatts. And it wants to store more spent fuel — also called nuclear waste — on the site, adding up to 35 casks to the current 24.
The proposals, which need approvals from several state and federal agencies, are starting with an environmental impact statement by the Minnesota Office of Energy Security, which called last week’s public forum.
Xcel estimates that 28 percent of the energy consumed by its Upper Midwest customers is now nuclear-generated, and the Prairie Island expansions would allow it to maintain that level as demand grows. Nationwide, about 20 percent of energy is nuclear.
In support of the plans, Brian Zelenak, manager of Xcel’s regulatory administration, described nuclear energy to his Red Wing audience as both “green” and safe. Expanding Prairie Island “does keep us an environmentally friendly utility,” he said.
But he also said the expanded storage will lead to more low-level radiation, and the expanded production will raise the plant’s water discharge up to 3 degrees. Both are within regulatory limits, and did not bother Alberta Suter, who lives within half a mile of the plant, and said air and water monitors on her property have never registered any contamination.
But the news alarmed others. “You’re going to drastically affect the ecology of plant and fish life in the river,” said Andru Peters, of Lake City.
Standardizing new plants
Better technology and operations management make it safe to ramp up production at the working reactors, helping raise their output from 54 percent of full capacity in 1980 to almost 92 percent last year, according to the World Nuclear Association, a London-based trade association.
The option is also faster and cheaper than building a new plant, utilities said.
For those building new — and Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed lifting the state’s moratorium — construction will be faster than in the past, however, said Kent Mortensen, industrial analyst at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans in Appleton, Wis. Instead of designing every plant separately, as in the past, the NRC is approving a handful of technical designs — from firms including Westinghouse and Mitsubishi — and power companies will choose from one of these standard approved designs.
“What I’m hearing is you don’t want to be the first person to build, because it is a new process, but you don’t want to be the No. 8 guy, either, because there is not yet the supply chain necessary to build the components,” Mortensen said.
H.J. Cummins • 612-673-4671
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