CERA: Split views on future of nuclear energy

The future of nuclear power plants got mixed reviews from a panel of experts speaking Thursday at the IHS CERA Week energy conference in Houston.

“We believe that, especially the construction of new nuclear power plants, is very debatable,” said Johannes Kindler, vice chairman of Germany’s Federal Network Agency for Energy, Gas, Telecommunications, Post, and Railway. “We don’t believe that new power plants can be economically run. The generation cost per kilowatt-hour are just too high.”

Kindler was sitting next to Stephen Kuczynski, CEO of Southern Nuclear Operating Co., which in 2010 received approval for an $8.3 billion federal loan guarantee to build two nuclear power plants expected to cost about $14 billion in total, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The company has begun building a plant in Georgia, the first nuclear plant to be granted a construction permit since 1978.

“It makes a lot of sense and we believe it makes all the sense in the world for our company,” Kuczynski said.

Kindler said Germany shut down eight of its nuclear power plants following safety fears after power outages at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan led to meltdowns at three reactors last year. The country has instead imported electricity and is focused on a complete restructuring of its energy policy, with a major focus on renewable energy, Kindler said.

“Its just, we’re in a different place,” Kuczynski said.

Kuczynski argued that nuclear energy is an important component in balancing the nation’s energy mix. The United States has 104 nuclear power plants. They account for 20 percent of the nation’s electricity supply, Kuczynski said.

“To have a viable economic engine and promote economic growth, which ultimately is critically important and do that without reliance on others, we find the decision, I would say, up for debate to put it lightly,” he said.

New regulations and designs for nuclear power plants have made them safer and more efficient, particularly with the Fukushima meltdowns in mind, said Phil Sharp, president of Resources for the Future. Sharp served as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which published a report in January on largely focusing on nuclear waste disposal.

“This is not your old vintage power plant,” Sharp said. “The government, the industry put lots of money in over several decades of redesign in order to have an improvement in safety. Nobody guarantees it absolutely, but this is a significant design and it has features that he (Kuczynski) referred to as passive. That mean you get cooling from nature when you screw up and power is not able to run your systems to keep the place cool.”

Kuczynski said the new design builds on lessons from Fukushima.

“For about 72 hours you can really not do anything at the new designed plant if you lost all of your offsite power and had some kind of event,” he said. “So everything is done by passive, gravity, convection, stored energy, there’s just not a reliance on electricity to keep the reactor safe. So it is a remarkable evolution in technology.”

Separately, energy executives throughout the conference have called for more substantial role for nuclear energy in the nation’s power mix. Nuclear energy is viewed by many in the industry as a clean energy option.