Going nuclear? Yes and no

Sep 09, 2016

Plant closures and small modular reactors are expected to define the nuclear landscape for the foreseeable future – and provide opportunities for enterprising engineers.

By Richard Massey Managing Editor

Though the future of U.S. nuclear power is uncertain, there is a future. The recent spate of announced closures for plants across the country, and the marathon decommissionings that will ensue, has been accompanied by news that other reactors have been permitted for construction.

Also, experts say, the role of innovation and entrepreneurism should play a role in keeping nuclear on the agenda, even as it continues to lose ground to renewables like wind and solar, and to cheap and abundant natural gas.

Internationally, important countries like China, India, and South Korea are making big bets on nuclear energy. And those countries are not alone. Globally, the World Nuclear Association reports that more than 160 power reactors are planned, and that another 300 are proposed.

In between the market here in the United States and the one abroad, there’s plenty of room for young engineers looking to make their names. But they’ll have to be creative.

“As long as you are innovative, the world could be your oyster,” says Rod McCullum, a nuclear engineer and senior director of used fuel and decommissioning programs for the Washington D.C.-based Nuclear Energy Institute. “This is an exciting time. It’s an industry that has to reinvent itself to survive.”

Specifically, McCullum referenced advanced reactors and small modular reactors, new technology that could be used to generate electricity in isolated areas or produce high-temp process heat for industrial purposes. A stark contrast to the big, plodding nuclear plants that have been the mainstay of the industry for decades, small modular reactors appear to represent the future.

“No one’s building those right now,” McCullum says, referring to the opportunities offered by the technology.

Able to be made in a factory and much more affordable than the typical power plant, small modular reactors have been identified by the U.S. Department of Commerce as a potential product for a “significant export market.” These small reactors could even be used to replace existing coal-burning plants, according to a study by the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago.

While small modular reactors are expected to emerge as a piece of the domestic nuclear market, the present is dominated by decommissioning. The latest plant to close down was Vermont Yankee in 2014. At least three were decommissioned in 2013. And over the next few years, Fitzpatrick and Pilgrim in the northeast, Clinton and Quad Cities in Illinois, Fort Calhoun in Nebraska, and Diablo Canyon in California, are set for decommissioning. As nuclear continues to compete – and in the case of unregulated merchant plants, oftentimes unsuccessfully – with natural gas and renewables, more plants are likely to follow, according to industry experts.

And therein lies a long-term opportunity for engineers. As is the case with Vermont Yankee, decommissioning could last as long as 60 years and is expected to cost around $1.2 billion. Decommissioning, site restoration, and spent fuel management are the big issues with closures, and servicing those steps, and innovating along the way, should spell good times for industry firms.

“The companies that are in the business of decommissioning plants will get more work,” McCullum says. “There are new careers opening up in those areas.”

Decommissioning unfolds as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government agency that monitors plant closures, tries to figure out a cogent process for closing plants. Closures are also taking place as the proposed national repository for spent fuel, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, remains unbuilt. Nuclear fuel is stored in dry casks at decommissioned plants across the country, and is kept under high security.

Tony Leshinskie, a nuclear engineer who worked for Westinghouse Electric Co. for more than 27 years, is now the state nuclear engineer and decommissioning coordinator for the state of Vermont. He took the job in 2014 to oversee the closure of the Vermont Yankee plant.

The industry, he says, must ask and answer critical questions. Is there a way to mothball a plant in bad times and open it up again when the market is ripe? Should the government grant subsidies for large nuclear power plants?

Though nuclear facilities have the potential to create extraordinary emergencies – the Fukishima Daiichi plant in Japan, for example – nuclear is reliable, carbon-free, and can power big grids. And for those reasons, nuclear will remain relevant, Leshinskie says.

But the industry was caught flat-footed by fracking and natural gas, and did not foresee the steep and prolonged drop in prices that followed.

“I don’t think anyone – Wall Street, plant operators, state planners – expected the change to continue this long,” Leshinskie says. “The bottom line is that it had a bigger impact than anyone expected.”

Even with its woes, nuclear is considered by many to be the best way to achieve aggressive carbon-reduction goals, with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental group of industrialized countries, estimating that global nuclear energy needs to more than double by 2050. Here in the U.S., Watts Bar 2 in Tennessee just went into operation, and another four licensees have permits for new reactors.

According to a 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service, nuclear engineers are near the top of the earnings bracket in the engineering field, have only a 1.7-percent unemployment rate, and among the entire population of engineers, are a relatively rare breed. All of those are good reasons to consider the field, even as nuclear energy is in transition.

“A career in nuclear engineering isn’t for everyone, but if you get in it and you’re good at it, there will always be a demand for your skills,” Leshinskie says.

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