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Backgrounder on Financial Risks
of Proposed New Reactors in the United States
(This backgrounder relied on analyses and media releases by Taxpayers for Common Sense,
Friends of the Earth, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, referenced at the bottom)
Two AP1000s proposed at Vogtle nuclear power plant, Georgia
The first conditional
U.S. federal nuclear loan guarantee was awarded to Southern Company, its
subsidiary Georgia Power, and additional partners for two new reactors proposed at the Vogtle
nuclear power plant in Georgia. This $8.33 billion federal loan guarantee will cover only around
70% of the currently estimated project cost. Tellingly, the conditional loan guarantee was not
enough for private investors to engage with the financially risky project. Instead, Southern
intends to borrow the money from the Federal Financing Bank, a U.S. government funded
lending institution. The loan guarantee cannot be finalized, however, until the COL application
has been approved by NRC. This will also require NRC to issue a final design certification for
the AP1000, currently in its 17th revision. But complications have already arisen.
In October, 2009 NRC announced a flaw in the design of the AP1000’s shield building, a concrete structure around the reactor’s steel radiological containment. Vulnerability to earthquakes, as well as severe weather such as tornadoes and hurricanes, was cited. In addition, NRC staff even questioned the structural ability of the AP1000 shield building to support a tank of emergency cooling water. The NRC has not issued a date certain for completing its design review, while Toshiba-Westinghouse attempts to address these serious concerns.
In April, 2010 yet another serious AP1000 design flaw was revealed, this one previously missed by NRC. A coalition of a dozen environmental organizations, and their expert witnesses, nuclear engineer Arnold Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates, Inc., and corrosion expert Dr. Rudolph Hausler, showed how convection currents intended to dissipate heat during a reactor emergency could actually facilitate the “chimney effect” release of large amounts of radioactivity to the environment, if the inner metallic containment shell is breached by corrosion. Such breaches of containment have occurred at operating U.S. atomic reactors, with dozens of corrosion holes and cracks documented. The coalition has called upon NRC and its Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) to address this latest design flaw, as well as the Department of Energy and
White House Office of Management and Budget to stop subsidizing the dangerously flawed AP1000 design with federal loan guarantees.
Besides technical problems with the reactor design, a recent Georgia state court decision could delay the new reactors even further, by calling into question a key aspect of the project’s financing.
Last year, the State of Georgia enacted a controversial new law, which allows Georgia Power to charge financing costs to ratepayers during construction of the new reactors, rather than over the life of the project and only after it has started to generate electricity. The pre-operations charges could occur even if the reactors are never completed and ratepayers receive no electricity in return for their payments. The “construction work in progress” (CWIP) law also exempts large industrial and commercial ratepayers, who have access to different rate options than smaller customers, such as residential households and small businesses. In response to such exploitative policies, consumer and environmental organizations, including Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, have challenged the legislation in state court.
On April 30, 2010, Fulton County Superior Court ruled against the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), finding that it failed to explain its reasoning in approving Georgia Power’s plan to expand the Vogtle nuclear plant and have ratepayers pre-pay for CWIP.
Hearings at the PSC are underway this summer to evaluate Georgia Power’s expenditures thus far on the estimated $14 billion project. Georgia Power still claims that the project is under budget and on schedule. However, Southern Company’s public disclosure versions of the Company’s testimony are more heavily redacted than other utilities pursuing new reactors. For instance, the current costs sunk into the Vogtle project and any scheduling changes are marked trade secret in the docket currently before the PSC. The PSC will make a final decision by August 17 on whether to approve the incurred costs and will decide on a Georgia Power rate case later this year that will address these initial costs among other costs.
Although it is rumored that the next nuclear loan guarantee will be awarded to UniStar Nuclear Energy (a partnership between Constellation Energy of Baltimore and Electricite de France, owned by the French government) for a French Areva EPR at Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Maryland, the next two nuclear loan guarantee recipients after that are reported to be NRG (in partnership with Toshiba, TEPCO, and CPS Energy, for two ABWRs at South Texas Project nuclear power plant near Bay City, Texas) and SCANA Energy/South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G, for two AP1000s at V.C. Summer nuclear power plant in Jenksville, South Carolina). But as with the AP1000s proposed at Vogtle, these latter two proposals, also involving Japanese reactor design vendors -- and even Japanese partners, Toshiba and TEPCO, in the nuclear utility ordering the reactors at South Texas Project -- are also plagued with problems.
Two ABWRs proposed at South Texas Project nuclear power plant
NRG Energy proposes to construct two GE-Hitachi ABWRs at its South Texas Project site near Bay City, Texas. The project was a partnership between NRG and CPS Energy (the City of San Antonio’s municipal utility). The original cost estimate for each reactor was $5.4 billion, but in October 2009, it was revealed that costs were now estimated to be nearly $18 billion for the overall project. The $4 billion per reactor cost increase created a firestorm of controversy, for it was hidden from the San Antonio City Council. Disagreements over the cost increase led to a lawsuit between CPS and NRG. The scandal led to the resignation of the CPS General Manager and Board Chairman.
In February 2010, CPS and NRG reached a settlement agreement, reducing CPS’s share of the project from 50% to just 7.6%. The remaining 92.4% belongs to Nuclear Innovation North America (NINA), a partnership between NRG and Japanese-owned Toshiba. The agreement between NINA and CPS stipulated that NINA will cover future development costs, and will pay CPS $80 million, but only if the proposal is awarded a federal loan guarantee.
In May, 2010, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) purchased an 18% stake in the South Texas Project nuclear power plant expansion, amounting to a $155 million investment.
NRG still needs additional partners and customers for its electrical output. The reactors will have to compete in a deregulated electricity market. This troubles investors, as electricity demand and sales prices are depressed due to the recession.
Two AP1000s proposed at V.C. Summer nuclear power plant, South Carolina
The two proposed AP1000s that would expand the Summer nuclear power plant in South Carolina share the design defect concerns described above for the Vogtle nuclear power plant expansion.
In addition, the national environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE), as well as South Carolina Energy Users Committee, an association of large electricity users in the state, have appealed to the South Carolina State Supreme Court, challenging the legality of the South Carolina Public Service Commission’s (PSC) February 2009 approval of the atomic project. This legal challenge extends to the PSC’s approval of “construction work in progress” charges to ratepayers for the new reactors, even if the construction is never completed. FOE alleges that SCANA/SCE&G’s refusal to provide a price per kilowatt hour for the new reactors means that the PSC’s approval represents a “blank check” for the company, at the expense of ratepayers. The lawsuit also challenges the failure by the company, as well as state regulatory agencies, to
adequately consider alternatives to the new reactors, for instance efficiency and conservation, as well as the proposal’s ultimate costs. FOE’s appeal was heard in March, 2010, but no ruling has yet been made on this challenge to a key aspect of the new reactors’ financing scheme.
In the space of single year, SCE&G increased its cost estimates for the two new reactors from $9.8 billion to $11.5 billion. However, Southern/Georgia Power’s cost estimates for the two new AP1000s at Vogtle, Georgia is $14 billion, raising doubts about the reliability of SCE&G’s cost prediction figures.
SCE&G has failed to secure private financing to support its proposal. In June 2009, Fitch Ratings lowered the rating status of SCANA, the parent company of SCE&G, due to the risks associated with this AP1000 construction project. In July, 2009, Moody’s Investor Services also lowered the bond rating of SCANA, citing risk associated with this twin reactor project for a company of SCANA’s size. In addition, in June 2009, Moody’s reported that the potential federal loan guarantees would “only modestly mitigate increasing business and operating risk profile.”
With a market capitalization value of only about $5 billion, SCE&G is playing a dangerous “bet the company” hand, as the cost of its share of the project exceeds the value of the company. A January 2010 South Carolina PSC weakening of its enforcement rules concerning project delays should serve as a warning that substantial construction schedule slippages are to be expected, likely resulting in further cost increases. In a quarterly earnings report teleconference of February 11, 2010, SCANA reported a drop in income of about 9% due to a sharp decrease in electricity consumption. The drop in electricity usage of 4.3% in the quarter and 5% for the year, with industrial use declining 13%, could not be offset by cost-cutting steps (such as deferred maintenance) due to the higher rates for the nuclear project.
SCE&G has admitted that the delayed NRC review of the AP1000 reactor design is causing a delay in the receipt of a combined construction and operating license (COL), delaying by at least several months the schedule that SCE&G has presented to the Public Service Commission. NRC’s lack of a date certain for certifying the AP1000 reactor design could significantly prolong SCE&G’s COL application proceeding.
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB) had rejected contentions raised in interventions in the Construction and Operating License Application (COLA) by the South Carolina Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. But in December 2009, the NRC Commission itself reinstated contentions related to cost and consideration of alternatives and sent the intervention back to the licensing board. A successful intervention could further delay the project by prolong the COL proceeding.
Additional nuclear loan guarantee applicants
Additional new reactor proposals involving Japanese owned reactor design vendors reported to have applied for federal nuclear loan guarantees include:
Duke Energy applied for a loan guarantee to fund the William States Lee III Nuclear Station (two Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000s on a green field site) in South Carolina. The price tag on these two reactors, excluding financing costs, is estimated at $11 billion, which is twice the amount of Duke Energy’s original estimate. Including financing costs, the price tag could mount to $14 billion. In fall 2009, Duke announced a three-year delay in the process, moving expected start-up back from 2018 to 2021.
Exelon Nuclear requested a loan guarantee to build two new ESBWR reactors at Victoria County Station in Texas. In late 2008, Exelon announced it was abandoning the ESBWR, in search of another reactor design. When Exelon decided to suspend the project in summer 2009, the two reactors were expected to cost $16 billion. On July 26, 2010 NRC officially accepted Exelon’s motion to withdraw its COL application, effectively cancelling the proposal.
Progress Energy applied for funds to build two Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000s at a green field site in Levy County, Florida. Project costs could exceed $17 billion and would require the largest transmission project in Florida’s history. This project is now delayed.
Luminant Power proposed adding two Mitsubishi Heavy Industries USAPWRs (Units 3 and 4) in order to expand the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant in Texas. Luminant has estimated the cost for both reactors will total $15 billion. This project is pending.
Entergy requested a loan guarantee to expand the Grand Gulf nuclear power plant in
Mississippi by adding a GE-Hitachi ESBWR (Unit 3). The reactor was expected to cost
between $5-8 billion. However, in late 2008-early 2009, Entergy announced it was
abandoning the ESBWR design, in search of another. This project is currently suspended.
Entergy also proposed expanding River Bend nuclear power plant in Louisiana by adding a
GE-Hitachi ESBWR (Unit 3). The cost for building one reactor was estimated to range from
$5-8 billion. Like at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, Entergy decided to abandon the ESBWR
design, in search of another. This project is currently suspended.
Dominion Virginia Power and Old Dominion Electric Cooperative asked for funds to build
a new ESBWR (Unit 3) at the North Anna nuclear power plant in Virginia. It had originally
proposed two reactors at the site earlier this decade. When the project was suspended, the
GE Hitachi ESBWR reactor was expected to cost upwards of $10 billion. Dominion has
now also abandoned the ESBWR design, recently replacing it with the USAPWR. Other COL Applicants
Yet more new reactor proposals involving Japanese owned reactor design vendors, which have
applied for NRC combined construction and operating licenses (COL):
NuStart Energy consortium, two AP1000s at Bellefonte nuclear power plant, Alabama.
Progress Energy, two AP1000s at Shearon Harris nuclear power plant, North Carolina.
Detroit Edison, one ESBWR at Fermi nuclear power plant in Monroe, Michigan. Five
contentions submitted by a coalition of environmental groups have thus far been admitted
by the NRC licensing board, including one challenging the quality assurance on the COL
Florida Power and Light, two AP1000s at Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Florida. The
Florida Public Service Commission, in January 2010, rejected a billion dollar rate increase
under “Construction Work in Progress” laws, putting new reactors in Florida under the
regulated rate base in doubt. References:
Beyond Nuclear, “Quality assurance contention against Fermi 3 new reactor admitted for
hearing by NRC licensing board,” June 16, 2010,
Friends of the Earth press release, February 22, 2010, “On Heels of Obama Nuclear Bailout,
Challenge to Controversial South Carolina Nuclear Project to be Heard by State’s Supreme
Court on March 4: Friends of the Earth’s Nuclear Appeal First in Nation at State Supreme
Friends of the Earth, “South Carolina Electric & Gas’s Nuclear Reactor Proposal: The View
from the Ground of a Troubled Project,” February 16, 2010,
Southern Alliance for Clean Energy press release, April 30, 2010, “Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Wins Lawsuit: Georgia Public Service Commission Acted Illegally in Approving Georgia Power’s Plan to Build New Nuclear Reactors at Plant Vogtle,”
http://www.cleanenergy.org/index.php?/Press-Update.html?form_id=8&item_id=172 State of Florida Public Service Commission news release, January 14, 2010, “Florida Public Service Commission Reduces Florida Power & Light Company's Revenue Request,” http://www.psc.state.fl.us/home/news/index.aspx?id=625 Taxpayers for Common Sense, “Federal Loan Guarantees for Nuclear Reactors: Details of the
Current Applicants,” Updated June 22, 2010, http://www.taxpayer.net/search_by_category.php?action=view&proj_id=3578&category=Energy&type=Project
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Expected New Nuclear Power Plant Applications, Updated June 21, 2010,” http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/new-licensing-files/expected-new-rx-applications.pdf
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “New Reactor Licensing Applications: Schedules by Calendar Year,” June 16, 2010, http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/new-licensing-files/new-rx-licensing-app-legend.pdf
Backgrounder compiled by Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear, August 4, 2010
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