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Changing the Fuel Mix: Time for a Nuclear Rescue?

Gas-fired power is king today, but fuel diversity needs and new technologies may open the door for nuclear and coal.
Fortnightly Magazine - September 1 2002

Commission (NRC) sent officials to South Africa to investigate.

The future looked bright for the first time in a long time for the nuclear industry. In fact, in a January 31, 2001 presentation to NRC staff, Exelon boldly announced it had taken the first steps toward building a new nuclear plant in the United States. Exelon indicated it wanted to build seven new 110-MW pebble bed reactors beginning by 2004, but stopped short of stating a final decision had been made.

But suddenly the new future of the nuclear industry crashed and burned-at least in this country. In m id-April 2001, Exelon dropped out of the project in South Africa. Exelon didn't say much about the depar ture from the project, just that management decided reactor development would not become part of its cor e business strategy. But the following week, Exelon chairman and co-CEO Corbin McNeill retired, promptin g speculation that the changing of the guard fueled the new priorities.

It turns out that Exelon may have been prescient. An international task force studying the feasibili ty of the pebble bed modular reactor released its report the week after Exelon's withdrawal, finding th at lack of clarity prevailed on certain technical and financial aspects of the project. Overall, the re port found it uncertain whether the plant was feasible to build.

A Move Toward Standardization

While the nuclear industry in the United States appeared to have lost its brightest hope, it continu ed to move toward more improved reactor technologies with standardized designs. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the advanced nuclear plants contain many features that make them safer and mor e efficient than currently operating plants. And the standardized designs significantly reduce constr uction and operating costs.

Three standardized, advanced light-water plant designs have been certified so far by the NRC. In fa ct, on July 2, the NRC formally accepted an application from Westinghouse Electric Co. for the certifi cation of an advanced reactor design-the AP1000-that the company believes will be safer to run and che aper to build. The application was submitted on March 28, but the NRC finally determined in July that the application contained enough information to be formally processed.

The new AP1000 reactor would be capable of producing 1,100 megawatts of electricity, and is somewh at similar to the AP600 reactor that the NRC certified in 1999 after a seven-year review. Like the AP6 00, which is a 600-MW design, the new 1,000-MW version of the plant would contain safety features that are more passive than in existing plants, and so do not require as many pumps and valves.

AThe two other standardized designs approved by the NRC are for larger, 1,350-MW plants. The NRC iss ued certifications to General Electric and Westinghouse for those plants in 1997. Such plants are not be ing built in the United States, but are being built in foreign countries.

According to NEI, it is the standardization of nuclear plants that holds the key to the U.S. nuclear future. NEI says that one of the most important