Mississippi might have built nuclear plant with proven technology


NEW UNITS: Plant Vogtle’s two new plants in Georgia are the first nuclear plants to be built in the U.S. in more than three decades.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Turns out, Mississippi might have built a nuclear power plant, which carries proven technology, instead of an ultra-expensive plant that employs a novel yet largely unproven process of coal conversion.

Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle is home to the first nuclear reactors in the U.S. for nearly three decades.

The Southern Company, which is building the ultra-expensive Kemper Project integrated gasification plant north of Meridian, Miss, owns Georgia Power.

The Kemper Project will cost $5.53 billion when it comes online in May 2015, a year behind schedule. It’s the first plant of its type in the country that converts lignite coal into a natural gas-like substance called synth gas.

In Georgia, two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, the first to be used in the U.S., will cost $6.759 billion, according to testimony to the Georgia Public Service Commission in June. The new reactors are also behind schedule and will open in 2017 (Vogtle 3) and 2018 (Vogtle 4).

But this story has an interesting subplot.

One technology, at Kemper, is unproven at the large-scale level. The other, nuclear power, is considered a Generation III pressurized water reactor, largely mature technology.

While the costs may be similar, the difference in power generation is sharp.

Kemper is rated at 582 megawatts. The two new Vogtle reactors have a combined capacity of 2,234 megawatts, complementing the 2,430 megawatt capacity of the first two Vogtle units.

That’s 4.6 gigawatts, enough to send Marty McFly back to the future four times.

While the two nuclear plants are more expensive on paper than Kemper, the difference comes in the dollars per megawatt. For Kemper, that comes out to $9.5 million per megawatt of capacity. For Plant Vogtle, that’s $3 million per megawatt.

Parsing the math further, the case for a nuclear plant is even stronger if only one unit was constructed. Using the figures from the Vogtle facility, building one reactor would cost about $3.4 billion, which would add up to $1.5 million per megawatt of capacity. That’s $2.15 billion less than the final cost for Kemper.

Fuel costs and the need for “energy diversity” were cited by Mississippi Power, a Southern Company subsidiary serving 187,000 in Mississippi, for the Kemper Project. The plant’s site is near a surface mine that holds about 4 billion tons of lignite, a high-moisture, lower grade of coal. The similar Duke Energy-owned Edwardsport integrated gasification plant in Indiana uses higher-grade bituminous coal.

The Environmental Protection Agency Kemper’s is showcasing carbon dioxide capture technology, designed to capture 65 percent of the carbon emissions, as an example of a clean coal plant compliant with the new regulations that will govern the amount of carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Nuclear plants don’t require expensive carbon-capture technology.

“In the EPA’s new source rule, they say that Kemper and two other plants are examples of how this technology is currently available,” said Daniel Simmons, director of state and regulatory affairs for the Institute for Energy Research. “The problem with that argument is how can a plant that is this expensive be commercially available? It’s obvious it costs way too much. They got hundreds of millions of dollars and subsidies and it’s still costing them north of $4 billion for a plant that isn’t that big in the big picture.”

Rod Adams publisher of the pro-nuclear energy website Atomic Insights and a former procedure and process development lead for nuclear product producer Babcock & Wilcox — said the regulatory process is one of the biggest cost drivers for nuclear plants.

The paper costs alone are startling.

According to Adams, just the Standard Review Plan from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission provided to potential applicants is 4,300 pages. Any applications for design certification can run 20,000 pages.

Here’s where it really gets expensive. Adams a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former engineering officer on a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine said the NRC charges $272 per hour to review the application.

“The clock begins ticking with every communication to the regulator after the first meeting,” Adams said. “After that freebie, the NRC will not talk without a ‘docket’ and a charge number.”

When the construction process for Kemper began in 2009, the Obama’s administration made clear it was anything but pro-nuclear energy. Adams cited several appointments of anti-nuclear advocates to the NRC and several actions by the administration as evidence of those tendencies.

“They held up the final approvals for the four new reactors under construction in Georgia (Vogtle) and South Carolina (William States Lee III Nuclear Station near Gaffney) for five months,” Adams said. “During that time, large work forces at both sites were unable to do any productive work.”

There would’ve been a precedent for a new nuclear plant in Mississippi.

Entergy’s Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, 25 miles south of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, has been operating since 1985 and is the nation’s largest single-unit nuclear facility, fifth-largest in the world. An expansion, completed in 2012, expanded Grand Gulf’s output to 1,443 megawatts. The state’s only nuclear plant supplies nearly 25 percent of Mississippi’s electrical generation capacity, and that percentage could’ve been even higher if expansion plans reached fruition.

GOING NUCLEAR: Mississippi’s Grand Gulf Nuclear Station was the state’s most expensive power plant before the Kemper Project.

An expansion was contemplated after the construction of the first unit, but it was abandoned in 1990— the concrete pad where the unit was to take shape remains. A planned third unit was selected as a new reactor site for George W Bush’s Nuclear Power 2010 program in 2005. A site permit was issued in 2007 , but the plans were canceled in 2009.

Mara Hartmann, senior lead communications specialist for Entergy, said the reason was simple: Cost.

“When we began the process of building another reactor at Grand Gulf, natural gas prices were at an all-time high,” Hartmann said. “When natural gas started to plummet, it stopped making economic sense. However, once built, it’s a very inexpensive fuel source.”

Entergy hasn’t completely closed the door on adding another plant to Grand Gulf. Natural gas prices would pay a huge role in whether the company decides to dust off any expansion plans.

“If conditions were to change with natural gas, or in some other way that made good business sense for us to pick this project up again, then yes, those plans could possibly be reinstated,” Hartmann said.

Get regular updates on Mississippi through our Facebook or Twitter accounts