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Cost an Obstacle to Building Nuclear Reactors

by Ryan Randazzo
Nuclear reactors' hefty price tag is the biggest obstacle to building more, the nation's top nuclear regulator said Monday.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said that permitting new reactors could take four years or more, and that storing the waste is not a pressing concern, but that paying for the new reactors remains a significant concern for most utilities. The best estimate for a new reactor's price tag is about $10 billion, he said.

"Very few utilities have the capability or market capitalization equivalent to that kind of cost," he said.

Nuclear power increasingly has been getting attention, including in recent speeches from Gov. Jan Brewer and President Barack Obama, as a source of clean energy that deserves political support.

That's because despite their other drawbacks, nuclear reactors make electricity without emitting greenhouse gases that cause global warming, and unlike solar and wind power, reactors can run 24 hours a day all year long.

Jaczko made his remarks as the Obama administration requested $36 billion in loan guarantees for the industry to help protect lenders against defaults, which could lower the cost to borrow money for nuclear projects. The plan would nearly triple the current $18.5 billion available for nuclear loan guarantees.

The loan guarantees would lower the cost for new reactors, which ultimately will be paid by utility customers, but nuclear watchdog group the Union of Concerned Scientists criticized the proposal Monday for shifting "unacceptable risks" to U.S. taxpayers who would have to pick up the tab for defaults.

The NRC is reviewing 13 applications from utilities to build 21 new nuclear reactors, and could issue the first permits within two years, Jaczko said.

That figure actually has fallen in the last year from 18 applications for 26 reactors, with most of the cancellations stemming from financial hurdles, Jaczko said.

"It will be interesting to see how many are built (if they are licensed)," he said.

Arizona Public Service Co. operates Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, which produces more power than any other U.S. power plant.

APS, Salt River Project and five other utilities own the plant and split the power.

While APS predicts customer growth will create the demand for new, around-the-clock power plants sometime after 2020, and announced it would not burn more coal without advancements in capturing greenhouse gases, the utility has not yet applied for a new nuclear reactor.

"It is daunting to think about investing those billions of dollars when the future appears so uncertain," said Ed Fox, the chief sustainability officer for APS, who spoke after Jaczko at an energy and environment conference in Phoenix.

Whatever new "base-load" power plant APS builds, it won't emit greenhouse gases, Fox said.

Planning new power generation requires a "robust risk-analysis program," Fox said, adding that much smaller solar-power plants also have struggled with financing, which doesn't bode well for big nuclear projects.

APS and SRP are part of a consortium of companies researching ways to capture and store the greenhouse-gas emissions from coal plants, but Fox said he was skeptical any technology could handle emissions from all the nation's coal-fired plants.

Jaczko said it could take four years or more to license a new reactor that applied today, depending on the quality of the application and how many questions the regulators had about the design of the reactor.

One of the drawbacks to nuclear power is the radioactive
waste, which has fueled a nasty dispute regarding whether or not to dispose of spent fuel in a repository under Nevada's Yucca Mountain, outside Las Vegas.

The Obama administration is opposed to those long-standing plans that have already cost billions in research, and the Energy Department on Monday said it would withdraw the application for the licensing of that project.

"The design is toward the close down of that program," Jaczko said.

The nation's 104 reactors now store the spent fuel on site in casks or in pools, which could be safe for 100 years, Jaczko said.

"One hundred years is a long time," he said. "One hundred years ago, people didn't even understand nuclear power."

Obama has formed a commission to study alternatives to Yucca Mountain.

Jaczko was asked by one of the 2,300 conference attendees Monday why the U.S. doesn't reprocess radioactive reactor fuel as France does to reduce waste.

"Nuclear power has some information that has mythology to it," Jaczko responded. "One of the best developed myths out there is that France has solved the waste problem. France has not solved the waste problem."

France reuses its fuel once, but still must safely dispose of it after its second use, he said. It's also much easier for France to handle the waste from its nuclear program because it has far fewer reactors, 58 at 19 sites, compared with the 104 U.S. reactors, he said.

"They also are looking for a geological repository (like Yucca Mountain)," he said. "They just are not as far along as we are, or aren't."

The Arizona Republic-Feb. 2, 2010
by Ryan Randazzo

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