U.S. nuclear still has good track record despite problem plants, NEI says

The U.S. nuclear power fleet is still among the most dependable, best performing in the world despite lingering, unplanned outages that have kept a trio of facilities offline for a long time, Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) officials said Sept. 17.

That was the word from NEI Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Alex Flint and Senior VP and Chief Nuclear Officer Tony Pietrangelo, during a question-and-answer session with reporters at the trade group’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The NEI officials were asked specifically about long-running outages at Duke Energy’s (NYSE: DUK) Crystal River Unit 3 in Florida; Omaha Public Power District’s (OPPD) Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska; and Edison International’s (NYSE: EIX) dual-unit San Onofre nuclear generating station in California.

New Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chair Allison Macfarlane recently assured a U.S. Senate panel that none of those nuclear plants would restart until the NRC is satisfied that they are safe.

Even with those outages, however, the U.S. nuclear industry has reliability and availability ratings that are far superior to what was common a decade or two ago and is still in the international forefront of nuclear operations, Flint said.

The U.S. nuclear capacity factor was around 70% a few decades ago before climbing above the 90% level in more recent years, Flint said. The figure is still close to 90% and that is unique in the domestic power industry, Flint said.

“We have had a number of plants with prolonged outages,” Pietrangelo acknowledged. But overall reliability is still very good, he added. That’s especially true when you consider all the severe events, such as tornadoes and even an East Coast earthquake, which domestic reactors have withstood, Pietrangelo said.

NEI tackles post-Fukushima efforts, other issues

The NEI leadership called the press conference primarily to update reporters on industry safety efforts following the March 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Plants across the nation have been working to be better prepared for severe events, including seismic incidents and flooding, the officials said. Post-Fukushima there has been increased emphasis on potential loss-of-off-site power events during disasters.

Domestic nuclear plants have already ordered, and started to receive, new emergency equipment, the officials said. During the fourth quarter, NEI expects to announce plans for regional emergency centers that could house emergency equipment that could be transported quickly to nuclear plants experiencing emergencies.

The NEI officials also said that 24 months is a “doable” time period for the NRC to draft a generic environmental impact statement (EIS) on the safety of storing spent nuclear fuel for decades in on-site dry storage casks. The NRC is doing this to comply with a federal appeals court ruling on NRC’s waste confidence rule.

On other topics, the NEI officials said:

  • It’s too early to declare the U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee program a disappointment when it comes to nuclear power. Southern (NYSE: SO) is still negotiating with the federal government in hopes of finalizing the Georgia Power loan for the Vogtle expansion. Pietrangelo also said that state rate recovery programs in Georgia and South Carolina together with low interest rates have enabled the ongoing nuclear power construction.
  • The trade group is optimistic that Congress could eventually approve creation of a new nuclear waste agency as recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.
  • They acknowledged that new nuclear plants probably will only get built by regulated utilities in the near future. Non-regulated markets can only seem to finance natural gas or renewable projects these days, Pietrangelo said.
  • The officials would not speculate on whether the current low cost of natural gas could potentially force the financial idling of some nuclear units or if cheap gas might be making it tough for Dominion (NYSE: D) to sell its Kewaunee project in Wisconsin.
  • Completing reactors on time and on budget will be the key to developing investor confidence, the NEI officials said.
  • Both political parties and their presidential candidates have been generally supportive of nuclear power, they said.
About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.