South Carolina’s $9 Billion Nuclear Boondoggle Fits a Global Pattern of Troubles


One of two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors to remain unfinished at South Carolina’s VC Summer nuclear power plant

“Public trust is at stake here, folks.” That’s how South Carolina’s top power industry regulator described the gravity yesterday of local utilities’ decision to walk away from a pair of partially-built nuclear reactors, according to Charleston’s Post and Courier newspaper. Public Service Commission chairman Swain Whitfield added that the reactors’ cancellation after $9 billion of investment — more than the state’s annual budget — “is going to shatter lives, hopes and dreams” in South Carolina.

South Carolina-based Santee Cooper and SCANA’s abandonment of their pair of new reactors, announced on Monday, also have broader ramifications for the nuclear industry’s self-declared “nuclear renaissance.” In March the cost overruns and delays afflicting this project and a sister project in Georgia drove the reactor designer and builder Westinghouse Electric Co. into bankruptcy. Cost overruns and political concerns are also squeezing nuclear suppliers from France, South Korea, and Russia.

South Carolina’s reactor fiasco mirrors the financial blowouts and shoddy fabrication of the 1970s that sparked a 30-year hiatus in U.S. nuclear power construction. The VC Summer project [PDF] started out as a $10 billion effort, but its owners now project that completing it would cost over $20 billion; the price could be $25 billion, according to the Post and Courier.

Construction is continuing (for now) for new reactors at Georgia’s Vogtle power plant led by Atlanta-based utility Southern Co. But they too are in trouble. In March Morgan Stanley estimated that the project would cost $18.9 billion—double its original price tag. Southern’s board is to decide later this month whether to halt it.

All of the reactors use Westinghouse’s AP1000 design, which is supposed to be meltdown-proof thanks to a tank of cooling water positioned above the reactor and improved air circulation. In 2015 Southern CEO Thomas Fanning told Bloomberg News that its pair of Westinghouse AP1000 reactors would be, “one of the most successful megaprojects in modern American industrial history.”

Instead the new reactors have humbled Westinghouse. The financial fallout continues to challenge Toshiba, Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse’s Japanese parent company; some banks and shareholders are urging it to consider bankruptcy protection according to The Register.

Back in South Carolina there will be plenty of wrangling in the years ahead over who bears the blame and who should cover the wasted investment. SCANA and Santee Cooper plan to seek assets from the Westinghouse bankruptcy and have been guaranteed over $2.1 billion in compensation by Toshiba.

Santee Cooper CEO Lonnie Carter is also sharing some blame with President Trump and his planned pullback from President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which promised incentives for states building new nuclear. “If you really believe that we need to reduce carbon, this was the way to do it,” said Carter on Monday.

Environmental groups, however, say new reactors are not a cost-efficient solution to climate change, and put the blame squarely on the utilities’ executives such as Carter. “Foul-ups and inferior quality plagued the construction from the outset… Prudent management would have recognized that the project was doomed by mid-2016 and pulled the plug,” writes Mark Cooper, senior fellow at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, in a report last month commissioned by the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. They are petitioning the Public Service Commission to protect state ratepayers, who have already been charged nearly $2 billion in advance for power that the reactors will never generate.

Aborted reactors are not only a risk in the United States. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, elected in May on an anti-nuclear platform, halted construction of two Korean reactors that are 30 percent complete. A “citizens’ jury” composed of ten disinterested panelists will consider whether to permanently abandon them.

A vote in favor of a shutdown could crater the export prospects for nuclear supplier Korea Electric Power Corporation. “Nations are highly unlikely to buy nuclear plants from a nation that is phasing them out domestically,” argues nuclear advocate Michael Shellenberger in a blog post last month for Environmental Progress, the pro-nuclear nonprofit that he runs.

Then there is France’s nuclear technology champion Areva, recently saved by a €4.5 billion ($5.1 billion) rescue package from the French government, which is struggling to complete its first EPR reactors. Those began construction in Finland and France in 2005 and 2007, respectively, and are both years behind schedule and massively over budget.

The EPR in France, which is being built by Paris-based utility Electricité de France (EDF), narrowly escaped potential cancellation in June. France’s nuclear safety authority determined that it could operate in spite of substandard steel in its reactor pressure vessel, which has already been installed at the site.

EDF recently adjusted expectations for a pair of EPRs it is building the UK, saying that project was at least £1.5 billion ($1.95 billion) over budget. It also said the first reactor might be completed in 2027 rather than 2025. In June the U.K.’s National Audit Office released a report arguing that government price guarantees well above current power rates had “locked consumers into a risky and expensive project with uncertain strategic and economic benefits.”

The U.K. government has offered similar guarantees for a trio of AP1000 reactors that Toshiba was to build at another site. In May a report in Yale Environment 360 said those now “look doomed because of the financial implosion of the company.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

Nuclear Shutdowns Put Belgians and Britons on Blackout Alert

Doel nuclear power plant by Lennart Tange

Doel nuclear power plant. Credit: Lennart Tange

A bad year for nuclear power producers has Belgians and Britons shivering more vigorously as summer heat fades into fall. Multiple reactor shutdowns in both countries have heightened concern about the security of power supplies when demand spikes this winter.

In Belgium, rolling blackouts are already part of this winter’s forecast because three of the country’s largest reactors — reactors that normally provide one-quarter of Belgian electricity — are shut down. Continue reading

EC Sees Heavy Pricetag to UK Nukes Plan

UK prime minister David Cameron at Hinkley Point

UK prime minister David Cameron at Hinkley Point

Government incentives for a pair of proposed nuclear reactors could cost U.K. taxpayers as much as £17.62 billion, thus exceeding the reactors’ projected cost. The EC figure is a preliminary estimate included in an initial report to London published on Friday by European Commission competition czars. The letter notifies the British government that—as we predicted in December—Brussels is launching a formal investigation to assess whether the subsidies violate European state aid rules.

The preliminary findings suggest that the U.K. and E.C. are on a collision source. As the Financial Times summed it up this weekend: “The severity of [the EC’s] initial concerns will cast a shadow over government hopes to win approval for the deal.”

Continue reading

Tidal Power Flowing Stronger

mct-seagen-system-with-yacht1Tidal power developments by British firms show this renewable power technology achieving impressive scale and continued design innovation. Bristol-based Marine Current Turbines (MCT) revealed last month that its SeaGen dual-turbine system achieved full power operation of 1.2 megawatts. MCT’s power peak is four times the global record for a tidal stream system set by the company in 2004, according to U.K.-based renewables journal REFocus, and 30-times more than the output from the tidal turbines pumping electricity in New York’s East River.

Meanwhile the U.K. Guardian reported yesterday that more largescale demonstrations are on the way as Cardiff-based Tidal Energy Ltd prepares to test a 1-MW version of its triple-rotor design by next year off the coast of Wales.

Achieving full power operation clears a major hurdle for MCT. As TechReview reported last July, the company suffered a setback early on when the powerful tidal streams of Northern Ireland’s Strangford Lough damaged one of its blades shortly after installation. In an odd way it’s an affirmation of MCT’s design, which enables the dual rotors to be lifted clear up out of the water for easy maintenance and repair.

While at a considerably earlier phase of development, MCT rival Tidal Energy’s triple-rotor concept provides an equally innovative means of ready repair. Tidal Energy’s rotors sit at the corners of a three-legged platform that can be deposited on the seabed and held in place by the systems 250-ton heft. That should not only ease recovery of the system for maintenance, but also simplify installation by eliminating the need for a fixed foundation in the seabed.

To see these concepts in action see MCT and Tidal Energy’s dueling animations.

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This post was created for the Technology Review guest blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies