Utilities and state regulators have joined nuclear industry scientists throughout the United States in studying events unfolding at Japan’s badly damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant complex.

At the same time, researchers, academics and policymakers are suggesting that natural gas might be relied on to play a larger role in the nation’s energy mix given what’s happened in Japan and what is happening in the United States regarding shale gas production. Reports from eastern think tanks identify a huge market for additional natural gas use in power generation to replace aging nuclear plants and also a caution against over-reliance on gas in any new energy policies.

Ernest Moniz, an Obama administration science adviser and head of the energy initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told a Congressional committee recently that natural gas looks like the most economical energy choice, but he warned that the nation should not rely on a single source. Meanwhile, the Washington, DC-based Energy Policy Research Foundation identified up to 5.5 GW of electric generating capacity that gas could fulfill if U.S. nuclear plants with expiring licenses do not get renewals during the next five years.

As President Obama and others tout natural gas as a key to future energy moves (see related story; Daily GPI, March 31), an initial report May 3 from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reviewing all of the nation’s 104 nuclear units and pending actions by Congress could give more clues as to what the nation’s immediate response will be, and what role gas will play.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) held a panel discussion on Monday, making nuclear engineer David Lochbaum and physicist Edwin Lyman available to discuss events in Japan and how they provide indicators for the U.S nuclear power industry.

On Tuesday the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) held a hearing to gather input on what Japan’s situation means for the state’s 3,900 MW Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station from a panel of experts, including the chief nuclear officer for Palo Verde’s majority owner/operator, Phoenix-based Arizona Public Service Co. (APS), Randy Edington.

In both forums the experts mostly pointed out the differences between U.S. and Japanese installations on both an industry wide and individual plant basis. In California the utility operators of two major coastal nuclear plants are joining others in monitoring daily updates on how the Fukushima disaster is unfolding, and they have put on hold plans that both facilities have to extend the operating licenses of their operating units. Other expansion or new nuclear plant development has all but halted.

In the event of a Japan-like emergency at any U.S.-based nuclear power plant, the NRC switches from a “regulator to a supporter,” opening its own emergency center and having contact with the affected plant(s), according to APS’s Edington. “All the agencies, such as homeland security, the energy and defense departments, etc., are involved. They would all be co-located in our emergency center, along with local and state authorities.

“We have the support of the industry and all levels of government with essentially one phone call. And all of this is pre-planned and pre-set up and practiced regularly.”

A source close to Southern California Edison (SCE) and its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) said the Rosemead, CA-based utility’s nuclear operators are tied in closely to other U.S. experts who are assessing events in Japan. SCE is one of the U.S. nuclear plant operators working with the NRC as part of its recently announced 90-day safety review (see Daily GPI, March 28). “Once those steps are complete we will know much more about whether lessons learned from Japan lead to modifications in U.S. operations,” the source said.

From storage for contaminated water to backup power generation to cool reactors, the Japanese experience has raised unlimited questions for U.S. nuclear plant operators and the industry as a whole. What would a plant do here if it had all of the things go wrong that apparently have at the Japanese nuclear plant? Both Lochbaum and Lyman raised this point in different ways during the UCS panel discussion.

“It is not clear that plants have plans for how to deal with volumes of contaminated water that overwhelm a facility’s storage capacity,” Lyman said. “It looks in Japan like that storage capacity is already exceeded. That could explain the apparent overflow and leaks. They don’t have provisions readily available to be able to deal with that water, so they may have no choice but to end up dumping large quantities of radioactive water into the environment. That is going to have to be factored in for plans for dealing with severe accidents in the future.”

Discussions are under way in business publications and forums about the inevitable cost increases that the Fukushima accident is going to spread throughout the industry. The CEO of the largest U.S. nuclear operator, John Rowe of Chicago-based Exelon Corp., made the prediction earlier in March.

Even without the Fukushima disaster, economics were not very good for nuclear in the United States, given continuing low natural gas prices and the outlook for even larger gas reserves, a researcher at Cambridge, MA-based energy consultants, IHS CERA, said. Jone-Lin Wang, a managing director at the firm, said the consulting firm’s latest estimates on the cost of a new U.S. nuclear plant is in the range of $5-12 billion.

In addition to economics, some scientists suggest that there may be real limits to how much safer existing plants can be made through the application of new technologies and upgrades.

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