·The Energy Information Administration projects that the United States will need 28 percent more electricity by 2040. Hundreds of new power plants will be needed to meet this increased demand. In fact, the electric sector in the next two decades will undertake the most significant expansion of the electricity grid—power plants, transmission lines and environmental technology—in its history.
·The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has certified several reactor designs as meeting all safety requirements, and the agency expects to certify two more designs in the near term. All of these designs combine the time-tested light water reactor technology—the basis for all existing U.S. nuclear energy facilities—with advanced features for enhanced safety and efficiency.
·Five reactors are under construction in the Southeast. Georgia Power Co. is building two reactors at its Vogtle nuclear facility near Augusta, Ga., and SCANA is building two at its V.C. Summer nuclear facility near Columbia, S.C. Tennessee Valley Authority also is completing the Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee. The first of these new facilities is expected to start operating by the end of 2015 with two more reactors starting in 2017 and two in 2018. The NRC is reviewing applications to build 14 more reactors.
·The nuclear energy industry also is developing innovative small reactor designs that can be built in modules, allowing flexibility in adding new electric generation to the grid as it is needed. Small reactors also could provide stand-alone power to desalinate or purify water or to create process heat for industrial applications. The industry and U.S. Department of Energy are participating in a cost-shared program to further develop two small reactor designs.
·In a national public opinion survey conducted in September 2013, 82 percent of respondents said they believe nuclear energy will play an important role in meeting the nation’s electricity needs in the future.
Q&A on Future Nuclear Energy Technology
Nuclear energy facilities were often subject to major construction delays and cost overruns. What is different this time around?
Both the technology and the regulatory process have matured since the first generation of nuclear power plants was built over the past four decades. In the past, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a construction permit based on a preliminary design. The technology was new, and reactor designs were still being developed as the plants were built. The NRC established a more efficient process in 1992. A nuclear energy design and site is approved before it is built—not afterward. Safety issues are addressed at the beginning of the process, and the public has greater opportunity to be involved. The NRC monitors construction and, once the agency verifies that the plant is in accordance with the license, the owner can begin startup testing and commercial operation. New reactors being built in Georgia and South Carolina are the first projects to use this licensing process, and there is a learning curve for both the industry and the NRC. By all accounts, the new process is a vast improvement. These first projects are meeting schedule and budget goals, and the industry fully expects that the next construction projects will be even more efficient.
How do smaller reactor designs fit into the energy market?
Small-scale reactors are less than 300 megawatts in capacity—and several designs are half that size or less—compared to the 1,100-megawatt reactors under construction in Georgia and South Carolina. When small reactors are commercially available around 2020, they could replace older fossil power plants of similar size, provide process heat for industrial applications or generate electricity for remote locations. Modules can be added as needed—built in controlled factory settings and easily transported to the site.
What is the status of U.S. efforts to develop advanced reactors?
The United States has two major programs underway to develop advanced reactors. Congress in 2005 authorized research, development and construction of a prototype high-temperature gas reactor. The Department of Energy is pursuing this design through its Next Generation Nuclear Plant project with AREVA’s 625-megawatt modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactor concept. The Energy Department and the industry are participating in a cost-shared program to develop two small reactor designs over five years. DOE selected Babcock & Wilcox’s mPower and NuScale’s Power Module reactor design to participate in this program. Other companies, including investors such as Bill Gates, are advancing nuclear energy options in parallel with this program.