New Nuclear Reactors

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Wed, 08/10/2011

An attempt to build the first brand-new nuclear power plant in a generation has taken a step forward now that staff at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says plans to build new reactors in Georgia meet safety requirements. The federal regulators issued two related safety reports Friday that cleared the design of Westinghouse Electric Co.'s AP1000 nuclear reactor and plans by the Atlanta-based Southern Co. to build two of those reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta. The NRC's commissioners must still decide whether to give final approval to the reactor design and its construction in Georgia. It's been more than 20 years since the last commercial energy reactor was constructed in the U.S.

Proponents of the AP1000 say it would be safer during a prolonged power outage than the country's existing 104 commercial reactors because the AP1000 relies on gravity and evaporation to run its emergency cooling systems, not electricity. A March 11 earthquake and tsunami that knocked out emergency power at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan led to reactor meltdowns, explosions and radiation releases.

During an accident at an AP1000 reactor, emergency cooling water would be released from a large tank atop a 10-story-high shield building and fall onto a steel shell that surrounds a vessel containing highly radioactive nuclear fuel and other vital equipment.

While the AP-1000 could become the fourth approved model, only two are current designs. General Electric’s Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, or A.B.W.R., approved in May 1997, is available to the industry. The two others that have been approved are no longer considered current: the AP-600, a Westinghouse offering in the 1990’s that no one built but received regulatory approval in December 1999, and the System 80+, based on a design by Combustion Engineering, a company later absorbed by competitors that was approved in May 1997.

There are still opponents, and they may still seek to delay approval. They usually argue that some part of the design is not safe enough or even argue that no nuclear design can be safe.

Nuclear power is the primary source of electric power in France. In 2004, 425.8 TWh out of the country's total production of 540.6 TWh of electricity was from nuclear power (78.8%), the highest percentage in the world.

France is also the world's largest net exporter of electric power, exporting 18% of its total production (about 100 TWh) to Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, and Germany, and its electricity cost is among the lowest in Europe. France's nuclear power industry has been called a success story that has put the nation ahead of the world in terms of providing cheap, CO2-free energy. However, France's nuclear reactors are mainly used in load-following mode and some reactors close on weekends because there is no market for the electricity. This means that the capacity factor is low by world standards, which is not an ideal economic situation for nuclear plants.

So nuclear power does have its advantages.

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