World wants reactors ~ can anyone build them?

NRG is thinking creatively,
but needs investors for new Texas build

By: Nancy E. Roth, Managing Editor, Fuel Cycle Week

One of the things we are doing with this blog is giving readers an opportunity to see what we're printing for our subscribers to Fuel Cycle Week. Each week I'll post a blog entry that will provide highlights to articles printed in recent issues. Here's our offering for the issue published January 16. Our theme is that the world wants more reactors, but we ask whether just anyone can build them?

Texas presently has on the boards as many new nuclear plants, or perhaps even more, than China. Check out this chart from Dan Yurman’s article we published in the January 16 issue of Fuel Cycle Week.

Now, it’s true that the projects in Texas are at widely varying stages, and even the most advanced one, that of merchant generator NRG Energy and the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company, is aggressively hunting for investors. Because no nuclear plants have gone up in the U.S. for decades, domestic investors are a little chary. The nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

No doubt investors in the U.S. will change their minds when they see some successfully completed plants. Meanwhile first-mover NRG is weighing whether to apply for a loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

It is not clear if the gambit would work, as the bank was founded to support Japanese exports to developing nations. After all, GE-Hitachi designed the reactor of choice for the South Texas Project, and none other than Toshiba is slated to supervise its construction, so maybe NRG can make the case that the reactor is a Japanese export. As for the developing nation criterion, well, NRG is going to have to be a little creative.

Yurman also described the fledgling reactor project in the Amarillo area, pioneered by cattle rancher and real estate developer George Chapman. His outfit, Amarillo Energy, is planning to build a pair of AREVA’s new EPRs. Amarillo has allied in this enterprise with the Constellation Energy-Electricit√© de France joint venture UniStar, which is promoting the construction of a new fleet of EPRs in the U.S.

Even though the AREVA design is only in the very initial stages of certification by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the UniStar connection gives Chapman’s project more gravitas than some of the pie-in-the-sky nuclear projects elsewhere in the U.S. “I don’t like to talk about what I’m doing until I do it, but this one is really going to open some eyeballs,” Chapman has told the press.

Incidentally, UniStar has reportedly just signed a memorandum of understanding to discuss backing one of the least credible would-be reactor projects out there, that of Alternative Energy Holdings, Inc. (AEHI) in an Idaho green field. Considering the immense obstacles that project faces, we confess to being a mite mystified.

U.K. Goes Nuclear, Spurring Rethink in Sweden

Speaking of bold new nuclear ventures, can you believe how far and fast the U.K. has vaulted into the new world of nuclear development? Roger Murray, FCW’s U.K. correspondent, laid out the government’s timetable for its new-build projects in the January 16 issue.

The U.K. move has spurred a rethink of nuclear policy among EU members. In Sweden, where current law allows no more new-build and phases out the country’s existing 12 reactors, the Swedish Liberal Party has called for four new reactors and the replacement of the existing ten, Reuters reported last week.

Sweden now gets about 45% of its electricity by way of nuclear generation. A recent poll revealed that a majority of Swedes favor keeping or expanding nuclear. The Liberal Party, the most pro-nuclear member of a four-party central-right alliance in Sweden’s parliament, has taken up the jawbone in support of nuclear before, but appears to have taken courage from the U.K.’s decision to commit to building a whole new generation of reactors.

Dumping on Nuclear

By: Andrea Jennetta and Nancy E. Roth

Why do respected reporters and editors so often use the word “dump” in mainstream news stories on any kind of radioactive waste, including spent fuel from civilian reactors? “Dump” appears in reports on the Yucca Mountain project, proposed interim storage sites and even low-level waste facilities in South Carolina, Utah and Washington. The word is endemic in the popular media. No one gives it a second thought. But does “dump” fairly characterize these sites? No.

Spent fuel and radioactive waste have some of the most extraordinarily exacting oversight of any regulated substance. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary the word “dump” means:
  • to let fall in or as if in a heap or mass
  • to get rid of unceremoniously or irresponsibly
  • a disorderly, slovenly, or objectionable place

After an eye-opening dialogue with a well-regarded environmental journalist who has frequently used “dump” to characterize the Yucca Mountain Project and other radioactive-waste disposal sites we gained the startling insight that reporters and editors see neutral words like “repository” or “facility” as euphemisms in reporting on nuclear. In their minds, “dump” is an accurate word for Yucca Mountain, and “repository” is a soft-sell word that the nuclear industry and its regulators use to dupe the public about the true nature of the facility.

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary the word “repository” means:
  • a place, room, or container where something is deposited or stored : depository

Check out these two pictures of nuclear waste storage facilities. The first is the spent fuel storage facility at Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear power plant. The second is the low-and intermediate-level waste containers stacked in the rock cavern of Sweden’s repository. Hardly a depiction of irresponsibility or disorder, is it? These images argue, perhaps better than the written word, why “repository” more accurately characterizes the meticulously engineered facilities in which nuclear waste is managed all over the world.

Not only is radioactive waste not dumped into these facilities, it is carefully placed so that it can be later retrieved. In fact, in the U.S., federal law requires that the material be retrievable—and that the Department of Energy monitor the facility for 100 years after it is closed. Radioactive waste cannot be “dumped” and yet be retrievable.

Our interlocutor did know about the law, it turned out, but has discounted it when writing about waste disposal. We wonder if most journalists who use the word “dump” do this. Or whether most journalists covering nuclear even know about the law.

By the way, this journalist has covered nuclear for well over a decade for a general readership publication—and is also in involved in teaching other journalists how to cover nuclear.

This leads us to ask: if journalists for publications and programs read or heard by the general public are truth-seekers and myth-busters, why then do they insist on using inaccurate and biased language? And make excuses about why they should continue to do so, as this journalist did, even when the error is pointed out and a reasonable, accurate term is available?

Could it be that the very people the public most needs to clarify and explain complex issues of energy policy have another agenda?

On the Net - news stories that illustrate our point

Associated Press

Las Vegas Sun