AIKEN - The hopes of Savannah River Site supporters to see the cooling tower of an atomic reactor standing over the federal energy reservation are being buoyed by the early stages of a nuclear power revival in America.
No domestic utility has made the multibillion-dollar commitment to build a new nuclear power plant. But 13 energy companies and reactor builders have banded together to test a regulatory process that holds the promise of being faster and more certain than the one used to license the country's 103 existing nuclear power plants in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s.
As part of this tentative testing, a partnership that includes some of the South's utility heavyweights, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and Southern Co., the parent of Georgia Power, is looking at SRS as a potential site to use in a detailed application for a combined construction and operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
By September, NuStart Energy Development LLC will narrow its list of potential sites to two, said Dan Keuter, the chief nuclear strategist of the New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., a member of the partnership.
"You guys should do everything to make sure one of those two sites is Savannah River," Mr. Keuter said last week at a breakfast meeting of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness.
Mr. Keuter emphasized during his brief speech that America's utilities are still a long way from building what would be the first new nuclear plant since 1996, the year a long-delayed TVA reactor finally came on line.
But by 2008, NuStart plans to submit an application to the NRC that will include an already-certified reactor design, construction costs, detailed engineering and a site that has been checked for environmental and geological problems.
Mr. Keuter found a receptive audience in the pro-nuclear group, with its membership of SRS scientists and supporters anxious to find new missions for a federal nuclear site on the verge of hefty layoffs.
They view the interest of NuStart, one of two partnerships testing the NRC's combined licensing process as part of a U.S. Department of Energy cost-sharing program, as an important first step toward bringing a research or commercial power reactor to SRS.
"It's a two-step process," said Mal McKibben, the citizens' group's executive director. "Nu-Start may very well recommend a production reactor at SRS."
NUSTART IS LOOKING at a site near the center of SRS where federal energy officials had once planned to build an accelerator to produce tritium for nuclear weapons, Mr. McKibben said. Environmental and seismology studies already have been conducted on several thousand acres that sit five miles inside the SRS perimeter.
To sweeten the enticement, SRS supporters are touting the site's muscular security force, top-flight emergency operations center and nuclear expertise, Mr. McKibben said. Aiken's pro-nuclear community is also a plus.
However, there's a significant downside. If NuStart builds a power plant at SRS, it also would have to build expensive transmission lines to connect to the nation's electricity grid.
For now, Mr. Keuter noted, America's nuclear power industry has to crawl before it can walk. The goal at this stage is proving whether the NRC's new regulatory process will avoid the decadelong delays that ran up the costs of the current generation of reactors and drove several utilities to the edge of bankruptcy.
UNDER DOE'S Nuclear Power 2010 Program, in which the agency pledges to pick up half the cost, utilities are moving forward on two fronts.
NuStart and another partnership led by Dominion, a Richmond, Va.-based energy company, are testing the combined operating license procedure.
A third partnership headed by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is also a NuStart partner, is applying for a combined operating license for a mothballed nuclear plant at Bellefonte, Ala.
This test will take four years and between $400 million and $500 million to complete, partnership officials estimate. If it works, it will be a notable improvement over the old licensing process, said Steve Higginbottom, a spokesman for Southern Co.'s nuclear division.
"You had two places where it inherently presented the owner and operator with uncertainty," he said. "After building a plant, you had no guarantee you were going to be able to operate that plant and recover the cost."
Public input will be a part of the combined license, Mr. Higginbottom said. But it will take place before the utility starts building the plant.
The second front is being manned by individual utilities such as Entergy and Exelon, two NuStart partners who are testing the NRC's early site approval permits for places where they already operate nuclear power plants. Dominion also is applying for an early site approval permit.
The focus of this exercise is to test the NRC's promise that utilities will be able to "bank" potential sites for nuclear power plants by doing expensive environmental, seismology and geological tests well before construction.
The price tag on an early site approval permit, which is good for 20 years, is $13 million and should take three years to complete, said Marilyn Kray, an Exelon executive who is also president of NuStart.
REGULATORY TESTS ARE just part of the reforms aimed at rejuvenating America's nuclear power industry. The other reform comes from the experience of the French, who get more than 70 percent of their electricity from nuclear power plants.
The lesson they can teach is the importance of using standardized nuclear power plant designs instead of the custom reactors America now features. Three light-water reactors with advanced safety features have already received safety certification from the NRC - Westinghouse has two and is on the verge of getting a third; General Electric has one.
On this point, nuclear industry officials preach the virtues of off-the-shelf technology and reactor designs that have already been certified by the NRC.
All of this expensive testing and reform has a crucial goal - proving to a utility's board of directors and investors that nuclear power is a safe investment.
"We have to prove it to ourselves before we go to Wall Street," Ms. Kray said.
But Mr. Keuter and other strategists say their industry needs a menu of federal incentives to prime the atomic pump. These include tax credits for building and operating a nuclear plant, which were included in an energy bill that died in the U.S. Senate last year, and loan guarantees that weren't included in the bill.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is an enthusiastic supporter of both ideas and was a co-author of the energy bill.
"Our national security depends on a diverse power grid," he said. "Our energy grid is too dependent on foreign oil, and it would be in our interest to beef up nuclear power. We've neglected this industry and it needs a shot in the arm."
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (706) 828-3904 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Litigation and design changes mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 stretched the regulatory process to more than a decade and added millions to the cost of nuclear power plants. For example, Georgia Power announced plans for its two Plant Vogtle nuclear reactors in 1971 and estimated a $660 million price tag. The first reactor cranked up in 1987, the second in 1989 and the cost ballooned to $8.87 billion. A new licensing process hopes to avoid these problems.
The old process
1. Construction permit - which included a public comment section, site studies and reactor design.
2. Operating license - granted after the plant was built. This process also had a public comment section and gave opponents a second chance to delay or derail the plant. This could be particularly damaging because the utility already spent millions on construction but litigation could keep it from bringing a unit on line and getting a return on investment.
3. Custom, one-of-a-kind reactor plans that required approval and safety certificates for each design.
The new process
1. Early site approval permit - Utilities can select a site for a prospective nuclear power plant, do all the environmental and seismology studies needed, then "bank" the resulting permit, which is good for 20 years. The process takes three years and $13 million.
2. Combined operating license - This license combines construction and operating permits from the NRC. A utility has to pick a specific site, conduct the environmental and seismology studies, pick a reactor design and do detailed design and engineering work. This takes four years and costs $400 million to $500 million.
3. Standardized reactor designs already given safety certificates by the NRC. Three reactors have already won NRC approval; a fourth design is on the verge of winning approval. Nine other designs are working their way through the approval process. Source: NuStart Energy Development LLC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
A revamped nuclear reactor licensing process could reduce the cost by millions and shorten the time by years for utility companies seeking to build new reactors.