Nuclear power generation is mature and will be part of the generation mix needed to meet a 45% increase in the nation's power consumption by 2025, two nuclear power veterans and executives with Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) told NGI last Thursday.
A third generation of nuclear plants with standardized design, modular construction and advanced digital control systems offers more efficient and safer options for future nuclear plants, they said.
California can be included in the current rosy outlook for nuclear power generation being part of the state and national responses to a carbon-constrained future environment, but there is probably little chance that either of California's two major nuclear power plants would ever see expansions on their existing sites, according to SCE's top nuclear power executives.
While the size and complexity of nuclear plants will continue to make siting difficult, the executives, including Ross Ridenoure, the utility's new vice president heading the operations of San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS), think new nuclear plants will continue to be built in the United States, including California, where nuclear development is banned until there is a national nuclear waste repository.
They characterized nuclear plants as the country's only truly greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions-free baseload electric generation source. Further, nuclear development is likely to involve expansions of existing sites around the United States, but in California that is unlikely because of limitations at the state's two existing nuclear power plants: SONGS and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s Diablo Canyon facilities along the central coast.
Saying nuclear is essential to addressing GHG issues, Richard Rosenblum, SCE chief nuclear officer, used the analogy of the typical passenger car today, compared with 1960. The current version is more reliable, safer and has fewer moving parts than its 1960s counterpart, and nuclear power plants spanning that same time period are similar. Today's nuke plant is technologically superior and far safer, Rosenblum said.
"Although you can never be good enough in the nuclear world, the industry as a whole has evolved to a mature, high-performance industry," Rosenblum said. "We're looking forward to some renewal of the industry with the next generation [Generation III] of the plants coming along, and I think they will be developed but at a somewhat slower pace than the industry anticipates today."
Edison envisions SONGS operating well into the 21st Century and beyond its current 2022 expiration of its federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) license. The two executives said the utility most likely by 2012 will file with NRC to get a 20-year license extension taking the plant to 2042.
Between now and 2022, Edison expects "very high performance" for the two remaining active SONGS units, said Rosenblum, emphasizing that by 2010, Edison expects to have completed its already regulatory-approved $680 million replacement of four steam generators at SONGS.
The former chief nuclear officer at Omaha Public Power District in Nebraska, Ridenoure sees the nuclear industry's future as "bright" with "quite a bit of excitement about building the next generation of nuclear plants." Ridenoure thinks it is not a matter of if, but when, the new plants get built.
When that happens, he said, "it will occur at a slower pace than we anticipate now, and I think it has to be put in the context of the future energy needs of this country," which roughly he estimates as 800,000 MW, based on daily average electricity consumption nationally in 2007. "By the year 2025, we're going to need about 45% more power to meet the demand, so when you start adding up the numbers, it represents a tremendous investment in new baseload generation -- from gas turbines to solar and wind," Ridenoure said.
"The bottom line is we need all sources of generation going forward to meet the projected future demands."
The longer term issue is disposal of waste, which both Edison engineers agree is not a technical problem, but one of public policy. They think eventually it will be solved with a combination of a return to the pre-1975 push to recycle and reuse the waste.
"It is entirely a public policy issue," Rosenblum said. "Every other country with nuclear power plants has an approved, functioning, viable and safe method to dispose of high-level waste. We've had shifting public policy over the years, and it is starting to shift again. In the Jimmy Carter administration for nonproliferation reasons, it was decided not to recycle nuclear waste. Public policy now is starting to shift back to recycling."
The majority of the rest of the nations with nuclear power plants recycle the fuel, with France recycling the most waste. France has the world's most active program in this regard. In the meantime in the United States, plants have to deal with the waste effort on site while the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada and other alternatives are pursued, Rosenblum said.
Rosenblum said that at SONGS and other nuclear plants today that the onsite storage of high-level waste is "completely appropriate and safe for at least a 100-year period, and maybe longer."
While another nuclear plant in which Edison holds nearly 16% ownership interest, Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona south of the Phoenix metropolitan area, has struggled in recent years and been downgraded by NRC, both Rosenblum and Ridenoure pointed out the differences in the two plants. They have similar designs but were customized for their very different needs and physical locations, the two Edison executives said.
The major recent Palo Verde problem was due to a small design difference that made a major difference, and it had to do with vibration of some piping at Palo Verde. "That has been solved and the units are now operating very well again," Rosenblum said.
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