‘Old’ is the new ‘new’

17 October 2011

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s decision to restart construction of its two-unit 2500MWe-capacity Bellefonte plant in northern Alabama is welcome news, of course. But I wonder whether the plan snubs modern nuclear new-build methods and reactors.

TVA says that the Bellefonte project will be less expensive than new-build, because there are already $1.9 billion of assets on site, including reactor pressure vessels and cooling towers. It estimates it will cost $5 billion to finish the first unit, which, if true, would be less expensive than the reported $7 billion per unit cost for Southern’s new Vogtle 3&4 AP1000s.

But if it is cheaper, it will not necessarily be easier. There will be a new I&C system and new control room to install and integrate into existing systems. The nuclear island construction and commissioning may be trickier than at Watts Bar 2. The Bellefonte units have a Babcock & Wilcox 205FA PWR reactor design, which superseded the popular 177FA design. The only 205FA reactor that ever operated was Germany’s Muelheim-Kaerlich, which closed after a few years for planning reasons. The Bellefonte 1 restart will have to deal with an unlicenced, near first-of-a-kind design provided by a vendor that sold off its civil nuclear reactor designs in the early 1990s.

Despite its potential difficulties, the type of restart planned for Bellefonte is new to neither TVA or the industry. In fact, since Chernobyl, North and South America have seen as least as many nuclear station restarts as new nuclear power station construction. Including Bellefonte, I count seven restarts of units either under construction before Chernobyl or out of operation for a decade or more. TVA restarted construction at Watts Bar 2 in 2007 (which is due for completion in 2013). Much of its expertise for that project came from restarting operations at its Browns Ferry 1 plant, after a 22-year closure.

In Canada, Bruce Power made a similar decision to resurrect Bruce A1 and A2, each laid up for 10 years, by embarking on a massive retubing and maintenance project at the CANDU station that is now winding down. Brazil’s Eletronuclear is dusting off Konvoi reactor components stored for 25 years to build Angra 3. Argentina’s NASA is continuing a recent Atucha 2 construction restart; the reactor construction began in 1980.

I like construction restarts; they appeal to my sense of order. A loose end that has been hanging around for a long time has been tied up; an unsolved mystery has been cracked. In my imaginary table of nuclear construction, an entry in the ‘debt’ column has been shifted to the ‘credit’ column.

Restarts also somehow help to redeem the industry’s wasteful past, when so many projects that made it to an advanced stage were lost. For example, in the mid-1970s, TVA had 13 new-build projects on the go, plus the startup of three units at Browns Ferry. (Download a list of 164 cancelled and suspended projects from www-neimagazine-com-cancelled).

For me, the most painful cases are the Muelheim-Kaerlichs, stations that are built, but then are never allowed their chance to operate (or hardly at all). I recognise that local communities must have a say in the siting and startup of new power stations. However, several power stations that never started up were caught up in political storms not of their own making. An early example was the completed Tullnerfeld/Zwentendorf plant, closed by a razor-thin majority in a November 1978 public referendum. Or there was the case of Italy’s Alto Lazio/Montalto di Castro twin BWRs, killed off by the 1987 antinuclear referendum after 10 years of construction. Spain’s Lemoniz 1&2 was caught up in a broader national conflict with the Basque region (and its terrorist group ETA). The USA’s Shoreham 1 in New Jersey fell foul of licensing problems.

I end with the biggest failed nuclear construction project of them all, whose size, age, and importance to the US nuclear power industry so far have not protected it from political forces. Surely there is no hope now for Yucca Mountain.

This article was originally published in the October issue of Nuclear Engineering International (p4)

Author Info:

Will Dalrymple is editor of Nuclear Engineering International

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