NEW YORK—America’s nuclear energy facilities operated safely and reliably in 2011, with solid performance in electricity production and operating efficiency in spite of a year of numerous challenges from natural events in the United States and Japan.
In a briefing sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry told Wall Street financial analysts today that U.S. nuclear power plants were subjected in 2011 to extreme weather events that included a series of tornados, a major hurricane, Midwest flooding and an unusually large East Coast earthquake. But through all of these events, America’s nuclear energy facilities either continued operating or shut down safely when necessary.
“The nuclear plants posed no safety concern, despite billions of dollars of damaged infrastructure in other areas from these violent acts of nature,” said Marvin Fertel, NEI president and chief executive officer.
Even with last year’s extreme weather events and 11 more refueling outages in 2011 than the year before, preliminary data show that the nation’s 104 reactors produced nearly 790 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity with an electric sector-leading capacity factor of 89 percent, Fertel announced.
The industry’s commitment to safety as its top priority took on even greater significance due to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan. The industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are in general agreement on the lessons learned from the accident and on key technical areas for additional enhanced safety features and procedures at U.S. reactors, Fertel said. These include additional portable safety equipment, additional used fuel pool instrumentation, and improved emergency planning for multi-reactor events.
The industry has proposed a path forward to provide the maximum benefit to safety in the minimum amount of time, Fertel said. The approach is known as the “diverse and flexible coping capability” or FLEX. The industry’s FLEX approach is based on having multiple sets of portable equipment in diverse locations at each nuclear energy facility and additional equipment and supplies at offsite centers that would supplement the onsite equipment, if needed.
“Our primary goal is to prevent fuel damage and preserve containment integrity,” Fertel said. “The added layer of protection from the additional portable equipment that comprises FLEX is the best thing to do in response to Fukushima.”
Progress continues on the construction of new plants in the United States, with the NRC’s recent approval of the design certification for the Westinghouse Electric AP1000® reactor. Also, the NRC is expected to vote today on the combined construction and operating licenses for two new reactors to be built at Plant Vogtle in Georgia. The NRC also is expected to vote in the near future on the construction and operating licenses for two new reactors at the V.C. Summer facility in South Carolina. In addition, the Tennessee Valley Authority is completing its Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee, a facility where construction started many years ago but was never completed.
“These new plants are becoming a reality in large part because of the investments and care we take in the long-term operation of our current plants, where we continue our pursuit of even safer, more reliable operations,” Fertel said.
Public support of America’s nuclear plants is on solid ground, he noted. To no one’s surprise, the accident at Fukushima adversely affected public attitudes toward nuclear energy in its immediate aftermath. But favorability has since risen to 62 percent nationally, and public perceptions of U.S. nuclear plant safety are at a high level. Two-thirds of the public assign U.S. reactors a high safety rating, according to a September 2011 survey by Bisconti Research Inc.
Approval of the license applications for the new nuclear plants in Georgia and South Carolina will result in significant economic gains. The U.S. has five reactors under construction, and there are more than 60 others being constructed worldwide with an additional 156 new plants on order. U.S. companies are well-positioned to compete in the $700 billion international market for equipment and services over the next 10 years.
There are “multiple opportunities” for U.S. companies to sell components and services throughout the life of a reactor, Fertel said. “Maintaining a health supply chain for the future means that we must capture a significant share of a growing world market.”
Fertel emphasized that the United States retains its capability to manufacture high-value precision components. While the commercial opportunities available through the export of innovative technologies and designs are important, just as important is the ability to advance the nation’s strategic objectives, he added.
“If the United States participates successfully in the world market, we retain our ability to influence nonproliferation policy and safety practices. If not, the United States doesn’t have a seat at the table when policies are made,” Fertel said.
Competing in the world market is challenging for U.S. suppliers that don’t have the same level of government support as foreign suppliers, Fertel said. “We must ensure that agreements for nuclear cooperation don’t include unnecessary restrictive unilateral requirements that are complex, restrictive and cumbersome as they are now,” he said.