The Power of Prediction: Improving the Odds of a Nuclear Renaissance

mThink
by mThink
January 1, 2008

After 30 years of disfavor in the United States, the nuclear power industry is poised for resurgence. With the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the specter of over $100 per barrel oil prices and the public recognition that global warming is real, nuclear power is now considered one of the most practical ways to clean up the power grid and help the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil. The industry has responded with a resolve to build a new fleet of nuclear plants in anticipation of what has been referred to as a nuclear renaissance.

The nuclear power industry is characterized by a remarkable level of physics and mechanical science. Yet, given the confluence of a number of problematic issues – an aging workforce, the shortage of skilled trades, the limited availability of equipment and parts, and a history of late, over-budget projects – questions arise about whether the level of management science the industry plans to use is sufficient to navigate the challenges ahead.

According to data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), nuclear power comprises 20 percent of the U.S. capacity, producing approximately 106 gigawatts (GW), with 66 plants that house 104 reactor units. To date, more than 30 new reactors have been proposed, which will produce a net increase of approximately 19 GW of nuclear capacity through 2030. Considering the growth of energy demand, this increased capacity will barely keep pace with increasing base load requirements.


According to Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon, we will need approximately 45 new reactors online by 2030 just to maintain 20 percent share of U.S. electricity generation nuclear power already holds.

Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley vice chairman Jeffrey Holzschuh is very positive about the next generation of nuclear power but warns that the industry’s future is ultimately a question of economics. “Given the history, the markets will be cautious,” he says.

As shown in Figures 1-3, nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of generation, but its upfront capital costs are comparatively high. Historically, long construction periods have led to serious cost volatility. The viability of the nuclear power industry ultimately depends on its ability to demonstrate that plants can be built economically and reliably. Holzschuh predicts, “The first few projects will be under a lot of public scrutiny, but if they are approved, they will get funded. The next generation of nuclear power will likely be three to five plants or 30, nothing in between.”

Due to its cohesive identity, the nuclear industry is viewed by the public and investors as a single entity, making the fate of industry operators – for better or for worse – a shared destiny. For that reason, it’s widely believed that if these first projects suffer the same sorts of significant cost over-runs and delays experienced in the past, the projected renaissance for the industry will quickly revert to a return to the dark ages.

THE PLAYERS

Utility companies, regulatory authorities, reactor manufacturers, design and construction vendors, financiers and advocacy groups all have critical roles to play in creating a viable future for the nuclear power industry – one that will begin with the successful completion of the first few plants in the United States. By all accounts, an impressive foundation has been laid, beginning with an array of government incentives (as loan guarantees and tax credits) and simplified regulation to help jump-start the industry.

Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy has the authority to issue $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear plants and $2 billion for uranium enrichment projects. In addition, there’s standby support for indemnification against Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and litigation-oriented delays for the first six advanced nuclear reactors. The Treasury Department has issued guidelines for an allocation and approval process for production tax credits for advanced nuclear: 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour production tax credit for the first eight years of operation with the final rules to be issued in fiscal year 2008.

The 20-year renewal of the Price- Andersen Act in 2005 and anticipated future restrictions on carbon emissions further improve the comparative attractiveness of nuclear power. To be eligible for the 2005 production tax credits, a license application must be tendered to the NRC by the end of 2008 with construction beginning before 2014 and the plant placed in service before 2021.

The NRC has formulated an Office of New Reactors (NRO), and David Matthews, director of the Division of New Reactor Licensing, led the development of the latest revision of a new licensing process that’s designed to be more predictable by encouraging the standardization of plant designs, resolving safety and environmental issues and providing for public participation before construction begins. With a fully staffed workforce and a commitment to “enable the safe, secure and environmentally responsible use of nuclear power in meeting the nation’s future energy needs,” Matthews is determined to ensure that the NRC is not a risk factor that contributes to the uncertainty of projects but rather an organizing force that will create predictability. Matthews declares, “This isn’t your father’s NRC.”

This simplified licensing process consists of the following elements:

  • An early site permit (ESP) for locations of potential facilities.
  • Design certification (DC) for the reactor design to be used.
  • Combined operating license (COL) for the certified reactor as designed to be located on the site. The COL contains the inspections, tests, analyses and acceptance criteria (ITAAC) to demonstrate that the plant was built to the approved specifications.

According to Matthews, the best-case scenario for the time period between when a COL is docketed to the time the license process is complete is 33 months, with an additional 12 months for public hearings. When asked if anything could be done to speed this process, Matthews reported that every delay he’s seen thus far has been attributable to a cause beyond the NRC’s control. Most often, it’s the applicant that’s having a hard time meeting the schedule. Recently, approved schedules are several months longer than the best-case estimate.

The manufacturers of nuclear reactors have stepped up to the plate to achieve standard design certification for their nuclear reactors; four are approved, and three are in progress.

Utility companies are taking innovative approaches to support the NRC’s standardization principles, which directly impact costs. (Current conventional wisdom puts the price of a new reactor at between $4 billion and $5.5 billion, with some estimates of fully loaded costs as high as $7 billion.) Consortiums have been formed to support cross-company standardization around a particular reactor design. NuStart and UniStar are multi-company consortiums collaborating on the development of their COLs.

Leader of PPL Corp.’s nuclear power strategy Bryce Shriver – who recently announced PPL had selected UniStar to build its next nuclear facility – is impressed with the level of standardization UniStar is employing for its plants. From the specifics of the reactor design to the carpet color, UniStar – with four plants on the drawing board – intends to make each plant as identical as possible.

Reactor designers and construction companies are adding to the standardization with turnkey approaches, formulating new construction methods that include modular techniques; sophisticated scheduling and configuration management software; automated data; project management and document control; and designs that are substantially complete before construction begins. Contractors are taking seriously the lessons learned from plants built outside the United States, and they hope to leverage what they have learned in the first few U.S. projects.

The stewards of the existing nuclear fleet also see themselves as part of the future energy solution. They know that continued safe, high-performance operation of current plants is key to maintaining public and state regulator confidence. Most of the scheduled plants are to be co-located with existing nuclear facilities.

Financing nuclear plant construction involves equity investors, utility boards of directors, debt financiers and (ultimately) the ratepayers represented by state regulatory commissions. Despite the size of these deals, the financial community has indicated that debt financing for new nuclear construction will be available. The bigger issue lies with the investors. The more equity-oriented the risk (principally borne by utilities and ratepayers), the more caution there is about the structure of these deals. The debt financiers are relying on the utilities and the consortiums to do the necessary due diligence and put up the equity. There’s no doubt that the federal loan guarantees and subsidies are an absolute necessity, but this form of support is largely driven by the perceived risk of the first projects. Once the capability to build plants in a predictable way (in terms of time, cost, output and so on) has been demonstrated, market forces are expected to be very efficient at allocating capital to these kinds
of projects.

The final key to the realization of a nuclear renaissance is the public. Americans have become increasingly concerned about fossil fuels, carbon emissions and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. The surge in oil prices has focused attention on energy costs and national security. Coal-based energy production is seen as an environmental issue. Although the United States has plenty of access to coal, dealing with carbon emissions using clean coal technology involves sequestering it and pumping it underground. PPL chairman Jim Miller describes the next challenge for clean coal as NUMBY – the “Not under my back yard” attitude the public is likely to adopt if forced to consider carbon pumped under their communities. Alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal enjoy public support, but they are not yet scalable for the challenge of cleaning up the grid. In general, the public wants clean, safe, reliable, inexpensive power.

THE RISKS

Will nuclear fill that bill and look attractive compared with the alternatives? Although progress has been made and the stage is set, critical issues remain, and they could become problematic. While the industry clearly sees and is actively managing some of these issues, there are others the industry sees but is not as certain about how to manage – and still others that are so much a part of the fabric of the industry that they go unrecognized. Any one of these issues could slow progress; the fact that there are several that could hit simultaneously multiplies the risk exponentially.

The three widely accepted risk factors for the next phase of nuclear power development are the variability of the cost of uranium, the availability of quality equipment for construction and the availability of well-trained labor. Not surprising for an industry that’s been relatively sleepy for several decades, the pipeline for production resources is weak – a problem compounded by the well-understood coming wave of retirements in the utility workforce and the general shortage of skilled trades needed to work on infrastructure projects. Combine these constraints with a surge in worldwide demand for power plants, and it’s easy to understand why the industry is actively pursuing strategies to secure materials and train labor.

The reactor designers, manufacturers and construction companies that would execute these projects display great confidence. They’re keen on the “turnkey solution” as a way to reduce the risk of multiple vendors pointing fingers when things go wrong. Yet these are the same firms that have been openly criticized for change orders and cost overruns. Christopher Crane, chief operating officer of the utility Exelon Corp., warned contractors in a recent industry meeting that the utilities would “not take all the risk this time around.” When faced with complicated infrastructure development in the past, vendors have often pointed to their expertise with complex projects. Is the development of more sophisticated scheduling and configuration management capability, along with the assignment of vendor accountability, enough to handle the complexity issue? The industry is aware of this limitation but does not as yet have strong management techniques for handling it effectively.

Early indications from regulators are that the COLs submitted to date are not meeting the NRC’s guidance and expectations in all regards, possibly a result of the applicants’ rush to make the 2008 year-end deadline for the incentives set forth in the Energy Policy Act. This could extend the licensing process and strain the resources of the NRC. In addition, the requirements of the NRC principally deal with public safety and environmental concerns. There are myriad other design requirements entailed in making a plant operate profitably.

The bigger risk is that the core strength of the industry – its ability to make significant incremental improvements – could also serve as the seed of its failure as it faces this next challenge. Investors, state regulators and the public are not likely to excuse serious cost overruns and time delays as they may have in the past. Utility executives are clear that nuclear is good to the extent that it’s economical. When asked what single concern they find most troubling, they often reply, “That we don’t know what we don’t know.”

What we do know is that there are no methods currently in place for beginning successful development of this next generation of nuclear power plants, and that the industry’s core management skill set may not be sufficient to build a process that differs from a “learn as you go” approach. Thus, it’s critical that the first few plants succeed – not just for their investors but for the entire industry.

THE OPPORTUNITY – KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

The vendors supporting the nuclear power industry represent some of the most prestigious engineering and equipment design and manufacturing firms in the world: Bechtel, Fluor, GE, Westinghouse, Areva and Hitachi. Despite this, the industry is not known for having a strong foundation in managing innovation. In a world that possesses complex physical capital and myriad intangible human assets, political forces and public opinion as well as technology are all required to get a plant to the point of producing power. Thus, more advanced management science could represent the missing piece of the puzzle for the nuclear power industry.

An advanced, decision-making framework can help utilities manage unpredictable events, increasing their ability to handle the planning and anticipated disruptions that often beset long, complex projects. By using advanced management science, the nuclear industry can take what it knows and create a learning environment to fi nd out more about what it doesn’t know, improving its odds for success.

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2 Responses to “The Power of Prediction: Improving the Odds of a Nuclear Renaissance”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    An interesting assertion.

    Mr. Matthews’ father’s NRC issued more licenses for new reactors than the next five countries in the world combined. Not one was ever turned down. Mr. Matthews’ NRC has yet to issue its first.

    Guess he’s right.

  2. Frebbie Says:

    Since about 2001 there has been considerable discussion about an imminent nuclear power industry revival or nuclear renaissance. However, the current global financial crisis and other problems are making this difficult to achieve in practice. For the first time in the history of nuclear power no new unit went online in 2008. Moreover, no start-up has been reported for the past two years, since “Cernavoda-2 was connected to the grid on 7 August 2007, after 24 years of construction”. It will be a nightmare for the people around thinking of its negative effects. It is a great opportunity to know what others don’t know because you’re updated and you won’t be lost on current issues without needing payday loans.

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