Should Dominion Energy re-license its four Virginia nuclear power units? The answer depends on your appraisal of solar power, energy efficiency and other alternatives.
Is there a future for nuclear power in Virginia’s long-term energy outlook?
Dominion Energy Virginia believes there is. Nuclear power currently contributes about 30% of the company’s electricity sales, and the company plans to continue generating power from its Surry and North Anna nuclear power stations for decades to come. Nuclear power, the company says, is reliable, provides fuel diversity, and does not emit carbon dioxide — a major plus as Virginia aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The utility’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, which peers 15 years into the future, assumes that the company will renew the licenses to operate the two nuclear-generating units at Surry and the two at North Anna. At the time of the license renewals, the units would be 60 years old. The nukes would continue to operate until they were 80 years old.
But many people think that renewing the licenses is a bad idea. While Dominion expects that refurbishing the four generating units would cost $3 billion to $4 billion, environmentalists and other skeptics suggest that the actual cost could run significantly higher. It doesn’t make sense to spend billions on nuclear power, they say, when solar energy costs less and is getting cheaper every year. While it is true that solar power is intermittent — it generates electricity only when the sun shines — the advent of low-cost batteries and the spread of electric vehicles, they claim, will make it possible to economically store surplus solar power for when it is needed.
Expect the debate to heat up when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) begins processing Dominion’s re-licensing request for the Surry 1 plant. Dominion has filed notice of its intent to submit an application for a license renewal by the first quarter of 2019 — less than a year away. The review could take up to three years, and construction several years more.
License renewal for existing nuclear units is distinct from a proposal, also explored in the 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), to build a new nuclear unit at North Anna known as North Anna 3. Dominion has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in planning and engineering costs to keep that option alive. Estimates of the cost for building the third unit have ranged as high as $19 billion, and the IRP suggests that it would not make economic sense except in the strictest CO2-reduction regulatory scenario that would compel the shutdown of coal-generating capacity. The cost of building a third nuclear unit would be so high and fraught with so much uncertainty that opposition would be formidable no matter what the circumstances.
The re-licensing proposals are a different story. The up-front capital cost, though considerable, would be in the same ballpark as building new gas- or solar-powered generating capacity. Moreover, fuel costs would be more stable and lower over the long run than for the gas-fired facilities. Although there are no hard figures on what the impact on rate payers would be, no one disputes the fact that re-licensing Surry and North Anna would cost a fraction of building a new generating unit.
Flagships of the fleet
The two Surry units became operational in 1972 and 1973, capable of generating a total of 1,600 megawatts of electric power. In the early years the power station had some major operational issues. In 1972, two workers were fatally scalded by steam after a routine valve adjustment. And in 1986, a steam explosion due to internal erosion and over-pressurization injured eight workers, four fatally. But performance has been steady since then. Other than an incident in which a tornado touched down in the switching station, disabling power to the plant’s cooling pumps, Surry has operated largely without incident.
The two North Anna units went online in 1978 and 1980 with a combined capacity of almost 1,800 megawatts of power. The station has operated without major incident, except in 2011 when an earthquake centered nearby caused light damage and triggered an automatic shut-down of the nuclear operations.
The four nuclear units have formed the backbone of Dominion’s electric-generation portfolio. In recent years, North Anna has operated with top measures of efficiency and safety, garnering the highest ratings in inspections by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission every year but two. Surry and North Anna are consistently ranked as among “the lowest-cost producers of nuclear-generated electricity in the nation,” as reported periodically by Platts Nucleonics Week, a nuclear industry newsletter and database, says Richard Zuercher, manager-nuclear fleet communications.
While the nuclear units account for only 16% of Dominion’s nameplate capacity, they generate more than 30% of its total electricity output. That’s because they operate non-stop, twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week, almost 52 weeks a year, going offline only for planned refueling outages every 18 months or the the rare tornado, earthquake or other mishap. The 2018 IRP, as shown in the table above, assumes a capacity factor for the nukes of 96%, which compares favorably to 70% for combined-cycle gas plants, 42% for off-shore wind (assuming the company manages to build a wind farm off Virginia Beach), and 25% for solar. Thus a nuclear facility with a nameplate capacity of 1,000 megawatts generates 8.4 million megawatt hours annually compared to 6.1 million for natural gas, and 2.2 million megawatts for photovoltaic solar. Continue reading