Joey Lindner squints his eyes as he watches the dozens of electrified square panels on a wall in a highly secure, windowless room. He's looking for any sign of deviation that could signal a problem with the North Anna Unit One nuclear reactor operated by Dominion Virginia Power.
Linder's not exactly the slovenly Homer Simpson of cartoon fame who routinely spills coffee and shuts down the nuclear generating plant in mythical Springfield. A strapping, no-nonsense, military man, Lindner spent years operating the reactors aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier John C. Stennis in the U.S. Navy.
Indeed, the North Anna Power Station is run like a taut ship. Nestled on the piney wooded banks of Lake Anna, about 60 miles northwest of Richmond, two reactors generate more than 1,900 megawatts of electricity at peak capacity — enough to power about 1.5 million homes, or a midsized city. The massive turbine room is spotless. Security is intense. Flak-jacketed men carrying assault rifles make their rounds.
But there are signs that the power station is showing its age. Its two reactors went online in 1978 and 1980. Most of the electronic monitors that Linder scans so closely are actually of a 1970s analog design. A few digital screens are about, but some of the wiring in the control room looks like something from an early black and white television.
Therein lies the promise and problems with North Anna. Like most of the 104 nuclear reactors operating in the United States, North Anna is a relic of the '70s, the last decade any were built. Utilities are scrambling to upgrade aging units while some 17 power companies across the country, including Dominion, plan 21 new nuclear power plants with newly designed reactors reflecting three decades' worth of technical improvements. Dominion has applied for a license for a third reactor at North Anna, dubbed Unit Three.
Nuclear power has always been regarded as having an almost magical quality. But it's been a troublesome, if not ominous, genie.
One reactor can produce two billion British thermal units, a measure of energy, per pound compared with only 14,000 BTUs per pound for coal, which produces 54 percent of the country's power. Yet nuclear plants are enormously expensive, and their highly toxic and radioactive waste, which is difficult and troublesome to dispose of, can be used to make atomic weapons.
If a reactor loses its water coolant, an uncontrollable meltdown could result. The heat would be so intense that fuel would burn through the reactor vessel and the 10-foot thick foundation of its protective containment dome. Once the burning mass hits the water table, a massive explosion could throw highly radioactive debris into the air, which can kill instantly or cause cancer and other long-term diseases. Depending on the prevailing winds, a meltdown at North Anna could render much of Central Virginia unlivable for thousands of years.
For these reasons, nuclear power stations have been in the crosshairs of environmentalists and other critics since their inception. But more recently there's been a shift. Nuclear power has become less of a target as green activists focus on coal-fired generation because it contributes tremendously to carbon dioxide emissions and resulting greenhouses gases that cause global warming. Because they don't emit much in the way of carbon dioxide, nuclear stations often are seen as more environmentally friendly than coal-fired plants.
Boosting the case for nuclear energy is that, aside from some close calls, there hasn't been a major accident resulting in an exposed core and meltdown in the United States since the Three Mile Island accident in Middleton, Penn., in 1979, which didn't lead to any direct deaths but forced the temporary evacuation of 146,000 people. The far more serious Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986, which killed at least 56 people and led to 4,000 cancer deaths, involved a Soviet-designed reactor that never would have been allowed in this country.
Nuclear power's newfound respectability is forcing colleges to give it a fresh look. The University of Virginia, for example, shut down its graduate nuclear studies program in 1998, but is reconsidering its decision. Reflecting the change of heart, Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Engineering just added such a program this fall with help from Dominion.
Tempering enthusiasm, however, are some major problems. “We don't accept the proposition that because of climate change we throw our concerns about nuclear power out the window,” says Edwin Lyman, senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group.
At the moment, the biggest hurdle to new reactors is cost. Dominion officials won't give a price estimate for building a third reactor at North Anna but experts believe it might be about $8 billion. That's a much bigger price tag than Dominion's $1.5 billion Wise County coal-fired plant, although it generates 585 megawatts during full capacity, or about half the power.
Given the complexity and lingering potential for a radioactive disaster, few investment banks are willing to fund multibillion-dollar nuclear stations without federal loan guarantees. Congress approved $18.5 billion for such guarantees in 2005, but that's only enough to fund about four nuclear plants. But 17 electric utilities have applied for the guarantees to build 21 new reactors at a cost totaling $188 billion, or many times what Congress originally provided for.
When the U.S. Department of Energy selected four companies in May to share in the guarantees, Dominion was not on the list. Dominion spokesman Richard Zuercher says that “because of the dynamic nature of the market for new nuclear units, there may be other opportunities for us to secure a federal loan guarantee.”
So why is Dominion willing to spend so much time and money on the iffy proposition of building a third reactor at North Anna? Sitting in Dominion's glass and steel operations center in Innsbrook, Eugene S. Grecheck says a big reason is the simple need to meet rising demand for electricity. “We're going to see a 30-percent increase in total demand in the U.S. in the next 30 years,” says Grecheck, the utility's vice president for nuclear development.
Dominion figures it needs to come up with about 4,600 megawatts of extra capacity by the end of the next decade. It plans to fill that gap with a new nuclear reactor, plus the Wise County coal plant, conservation, natural gas fired plants, wind turbines and other means.
What's different these days is that despite big advances in more energy-efficient refrigerators and heat pumps, the ordinary house has turned into an electron hog. Gobbling up electricity are high-tech devices that didn't exist 20 years ago, such as home computers, cell phones, Wi-Fi servers, video game machines, home theaters and the Internet, which provides everything from Facebook and Twitter to streaming movies and dating services. Large screen televisions use so much power that California is considering restricting them.
And unlike 20 years ago when you simply switched off the TV when you weren't watching, today's televisions and other electronics are on 24/7. With iPods, MP3s and cell phones being constantly plugged in to maintain battery charges, the average Virginia home is like a huge Christmas tree, blinking nonstop.
What's more, the state's economy has changed with the times. Half of the country's Internet traffic flows through Northern Virginia and areas served by Dominion. That's because the Internet originated with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Trunk lines handling Internet traffic were built near Northern Virginia-based military facilities, notably the Pentagon. Also helping was that the Internet's biggest early commercial pioneer was America Online, based in Dulles.
The location of the trunk lines is spurring increased electricity demand. Grecheck says there are 20 new server farms, including proposals by search-engine firms Google and Yahoo, on the drawing boards in the Loudoun area alone. The farms involve warehouse-like buildings with rows upon rows of Internet servers and routers that eat lots of electricity. And they need to be near Internet trunk lines of the sort that wind past Loudoun.
“When Google expands service capacity it needs to be near the trunk,” Grecheck says. That's because existence even a short distance from the trunk lines can mean a 300-millisecond delay in Internet traffic. That might sound infinitesimal but in reality it can bring major slowdowns for the average Web surfer.
Just a few years ago, Dominion shepherded a deregulation bill through the General Assembly. Dominion's chief executive at the time, Thomas Capps, planned to build lots of small, natural-gas fired merchant plants that would kick into action at peak times. These, along with other new generation sources, would let Dominion not just meet its own demand but export electricity for profit to other states. As Capps liked to put it, Dominion and Virginia would become “the Saudi Arabia of electrons.”
But deregulation flopped, failing to spur adequate competition to keep prices down. Dominion shepherded another bill through the General Assembly, this time to reregulate power, albeit mostly on Dominion's terms. With the company's massive lobbying muscle, it was accommodated by the legislature. Meanwhile, fluctuations in natural gas prices killed off many of the merchant plants. Today, Grecheck, says, Virginia is the country's No. 2 importer of electricity following California. Electricity demand grew so much during deregulation that Virginia had to import energy from other states to keep up.
It's not the first time that Dominion has turned to nukes to help it meet demand. Back in the 1960s and '70s, Virginia Electric Power Co., known as Vepco, ran on readily available resources. There was plenty of coal from the Appalachians and some hydroelectric. Plus, the coastal areas made it easy to ship in cheap, foreign oil. But the Arab oil embargo in 1973 jacked up oil prices and made oil-fired generation too expensive and unreliable. Vepco already had been planning on nuclear units at North Anna and also at Surry, just across the James River from Jamestown.
Like most U.S. utilities, Vepco's reactors had their origins in the nuclear Navy of Adm. Hyman Rickover, a demanding martinet who made operators of the Navy's nuclear-powered submarines, aircraft carriers and cruisers an elite group. Many of the power company's personnel were and are former nuke Navy.
Yet Vepco's program was seriously troubled. There were accusations of collusion between some on Vepco's board of directors and Stone & Webster, a Boston engineering firm that designed both Surry and North Anna, using Westinghouse pressurized water reactors, essentially larger versions of the same reactors used on submarines. Vepco had problems keeping its plants in operation, which hurt the company's stock prices.
There were plenty of safety issues. In 1979, for instance, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission cited Vepco repeatedly for failing to meet safety regulations at its Surry and North Anna nuclear plans, and for withholding and providing misleading information to the commission, among other things. At the time, Vepco had been given the highest fines in the country by the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions for violations.
Scrambling to reform, Vepco hired engineers who gradually improved the plants' performance in the 1980s. Following the Three Mile Island accident, the government tightened restrictions and there were industry-led improvements, including the creation of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators, charged with raising safety standards. By 2005, Platt's Nucleonics Week, a respected industry newsletter, ranked North Anna as the lowest-cost producer of electricity generated by nuclear power in the country.
Not all people believe that commercial nuclear power is, in fact, that much safer. Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, for instance, says that the regulatory commission isn't requiring that new reactors meet the improved safety standards capable of “Generation III” nukes. “The reason is that people could interpret current plants as not being safe enough,” he says. “If you made that argument in the auto industry, it wouldn't make sense.”
Lyman says that while there hasn't been an accident on the magnitude of 1979's Three Mile Island, there have been near misses. In 2001, the NRC decided to delay inspections of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio. In March 2002, an inspection revealed that boric acid had almost eaten through the 6.5-inch-thick pressure vessel enclosing the 32-year-old reactor owned by FirstEnergy of Akron.
Had inspections been delayed by another five to 12 months, the vessel would have been breached, causing a loss-of-coolant accident similar to Three Mile Island. Fixing it took two years and $600 million. The NRC rated the incident as one of 10 that could have resulted in a disaster similar to Three Mile Island.
Issues like these make choosing the reactor design a crucial issue. Dominion picked up the idea of a new unit at North Anna in 2001 in part because it had more room and is closer to strategic transmission lines than its Surry nuclear plants.
The leading designer for the new reactor had been General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Bechtel Corp. Dominion had applied for a license for such a reactor in part to beat a deadline to win some of the limited pool of loan guarantees provided by Congress in 2005. Early this year, however, negotiations with GE Hitachi broke down, making it miss out of the first round of loan guarantees set in May. That was a major setback.
Dominion has opened up bidding from six reactor makers. Dominion declines to name them, but one is Areva, a French company with 2,000 workers at a Lynchburg facility and 500 more in Newport News. “We're bidding on North Anna and we are hopeful that Dominion chooses us,” Areva spokesman Jarret Adams says.
Sitting in his country house on 120 acres of land about a dozen miles from North Anna, Jerry Rosenthal attacks a lettuce and tomato sandwich while he talks. The Louisa County resident, accountant and organic farmer has been tracking nuclear power at North Anna for 38 years. “What are my concerns? I've written down about a dozen,” he says.
His biggest concerns have to do with cost, which Rosenthal says could be between $6.5 billion to $9 billion to build, and time. It will be nearly 10 years before the nuclear reactor would begin operation at the earliest. Disposing of nuclear fuel waste is a perennial issue. The government requires utilities to keep spent fuel in special compounds onsite, but has yet to develop a long-term disposal policy. Dominion's plans to place the waste in a Nevada mountain have been stymied, so it keeps spent fuel rods in reinforced casks not far from the reactors.
Some of Rosenthal's concerns are more specific to North Anna. To cool the plant's current reactors, Dominion built Lake Anna, which has emerged as a popular fishing and boating location. Although Dominion holds property rights on lake's edges, property owners can get easements to build docks.
Lake water, which is pumped in at rates of up to two million gallons a minute, is used in one of three cooling systems. In the first, water flows through a closed system and is heated to degrees of up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit and kept under pressure to keep from boiling. This superheated water passes through thousands of small tubes, which produces steam in another closed system. The steam then spins the turbines, which generate electricity. In a third and open system, lake water is used to cool the steam back to water so it can be used again.
Normal lake water temperature can range from 45 degrees to 85 degrees. When water leaves the power station and goes into a discharge canal, it's usually 14 degrees warmer than the water in the lake. After running through a 3,400-acre cooling lagoon, it goes back into the lake at about the same temperature as lake water. If a third unit is built, it will have an oblong-shaped cooling tower to cool water so it too will end up back in the lake at roughly equal temperatures.
Earlier this year, however, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and other activists won a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court that challenged the system of using ponds to cool water. In 2007, the Virginia Water Control Board approved a permit for Dominion to discharge coolant water into the lake. Environmentalists charged that the state failed to limit the flow of hot waters into the lake and that in the summer, water temperatures have been recorded as high as 104 degrees. Both Dominion and the state are appealing the ruling.
Dominion's Grecheck says the utility has met with the Lake Anna Civic Association to try to assuage concerns. Adding a separate cooling tower if a third reactor is built will help minimize the effect on lake temperatures, he says.
Another problem, say Rosenthal and other environmentalists, is that the North Anna River, which created the lake, is actually a small watershed. “It's the smallest of any watershed used by a nuclear plant east of the Mississippi,” Rosenthal says. A severe drought or other unforeseen weather event could deny the plant needed water, shutting it down.
And Rosenthal is skeptical that nuclear power is a good way to prevent greenhouse gases. “You need to look at the whole cycle,” he says. “There's still a carbon footprint with a nuclear plant. Look at all the concrete and steel that are made to build it,” he says. “Making them produced lots of carbon dioxide.”
Although Rosenthal believes North Anna's current reactors “should keep running as long as they are safe,” there's a limit. “Not many factories are expected to keep operating day and night for 60 years,” he says. Plenty of other energy options are available, he points out, from wind to geothermal to decentralized power grids that encourage conservation.
Despite such arguments, momentum seems to be growing to embrace nuclear power. That's the case at universities.
Nuclear power was considered such a loser in 1998 that the U.Va. ended its graduate studies program after graduating its last two students. Today, however, the School of Engineering and Applied Science is “exploring the possibility of developing some sort of nuclear component,” university spokeswoman Josie Loyd says. A major constraint is money.
Just this fall, VCU's engineering school began a master's program in nuclear engineering. VCU is hiring two nuclear engineers to teach courses this year and plans to hire two more faculty members next year. The program got under way in just three years with Dominion's help.
Virginia Tech is expanding its nuclear program with new grants from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that include $450,000 for faculty development and $399,948 for fellowships. Another regional school with an extensive nuclear engineering program is North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. And the Navy's nuclear program keeps providing a steady stream of trained nuclear power workers.
Even if a third reactor never gets built at North Anna, there will be plenty of work as scores of the country's existing reactors come up for license renewal and extensive retrofits.
What happens next is uncertain. Dominion is likely to name a winning reactor bid by the spring. But when it does, it faces more reviews, even though an environmental impact statement for the new facility has already been completed.
The biggest challenge could be paying for it.