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Watch Your Wallets: Dominion Getting License to Build Nation's Most Expensive Nuclear Plant

Erica Gray, Nuclear Issues Chair of the Sierra Club, at a protest against Dominion’s planned North Anna 3 nuclear reactor. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that within the next few days, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will approve a Combined Operating License (COL) for Dominion Virginia Power’s third nuclear power plant planned for its North Anna site in Surry County, Virginia. That means that as far as the federal agency is concerned, North Anna 3 is good to go.

As far as Virginia residents are concerned, though, this project has gone way too far already. Dominion has poured hundreds of millions of dollars of ratepayers’ money into NA3, and that’s money we will never see again. But that’s better by far than moving forward with what would be the most expensive nuclear plant ever built in the United States.

Dominion Resources CEO Tom Farrell dearly wants this nuke precisely because of its price tag. The more expensive the plant, the greater the profit for Dominion, under the perverse incentives of Virginia law. Before Mr. Farrell gets his way, though, the State Corporation Commission has to issue a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN).

The SCC has repeatedly made its skepticism plain. As recently as December 2016 it reiterated its warning that if Dominion were to be allowed to recover the $19.3 billion investment from its customers, it would “represent a large enough increase in electric bills for residential and business customers to impact Virginia’s economic climate.”

There is no reason to think the SCC will change its opinion now. Unless, that is, the legislature does something stupid to force the SCC to approve NA3. Given the power Dominion has over Virginia’s General Assembly, this can’t be ruled out.

So let’s briefly review the reasons why absolutely no one should want this nuclear plant to go forward.

NA3 is a terrible deal for the people who would have to pay for it.

The Attorney General’s office has calculated that the $19 billion price tag for NA3 would increase the bills of Dominion customers by 25% beginning its first year in operation. And that’s if it somehow avoids the cost overruns that have plagued other nuclear plants in recent years.

For a case study in how bad the economics of nuclear have become, one need look no further than South Carolina and Georgia, and the disastrous efforts of utilities SCANA and Southern Company to build the Summer and Vogtle nuclear plants. Construction is three years behind schedule and more than a billion dollars over budget, plagued by missteps that caused the bankruptcy of developer Westinghouse Electric Co. and threaten the survival of its parent Toshiba Corp.

The chairman of the Georgia Public Utilities Commission is questioning whether work on the Vogtle plants should even continue, given the escalating costs and the availability of lower-priced natural gas and renewables. Southern’s CEO recently told investors it may not be able to complete the project. Meanwhile, South Carolina customers have already seen their rates rise 20% to pay for the Summer plants, and SCANA is considering abandoning the project.

In states where utilities don’t have monopolies on generation, even existing nuclear plants are closing (including one owned by Dominion Resources in Wisconsin), or are begging for state subsidies to let them survive (as the company is doing in Connecticut). If fully-paid-for nuclear reactors aren’t competitive in today’s market, it can’t make sense to build a new one.

NA3 would make our electricity grid more vulnerable to outages.

Concentrating power generation at a single site is a bad idea. If something goes wrong, there is that much more power at risk. This is especially true when the site already has a known vulnerability, in this case its location on a fault line. An earthquake near North Anna in 2011 shut down the existing reactors for three months. A third plant in the same location, on the same fault line, increases the amount of generating capacity that could be forced offline without warning, challenging grid operators to find replacement sources—instantly.

National security experts say protecting the grid from weather events and physical and cyber-attacks requires moving away from large, centralized generating stations to dispersed sources located near consumers. NA3 would take us in the wrong direction.

We don’t need the power.

Virginia is part of PJM Interconnection, a regional power grid that covers all or part of thirteen states plus the District of Columbia, and includes over 1,300 generating units. Today, Dominion buys a portion of its power on the PJM wholesale market, at a price far below the projected cost of electricity from NA3. PJM already faces a power glut. Adding more generation to PJM would be expected to lower wholesale power prices. That would benefit buyers in other states, at the expense of the Virginia consumers paying for NA3.

Nuclear energy is not a climate solution.

Low-cost wind and solar are increasingly viewed as the backbone of the 21st century electricity grid. Dominion’s latest integrated resource plan recognizes solar as the lowest-cost resource, even compared with “cheap” natural gas. Nuclear is not just more expensive; it is actually incompatible with large amounts of renewable energy. That’s because U.S. nuclear plants are designed to run all the time at a constant level, regardless of demand. At night when demand is low, nuclear plants still have to deliver power to the grid, even if it means turning off wind turbines that could supply free electricity.

Right now, Dominion stores surplus energy at its huge Bath County pumped storage facility. The stored energy supplies power in the daytime when demand rises. This pumped storage is good for consumers because it allows Dominion to run its baseload coal and nuclear plants for maximum efficiency. But it could just as well be used to store excess wind or solar energy.

Finally, nuclear waste is piling up with no long-term storage plan in place. Deliberately adding more waste when we have no idea what to do with it is beyond reckless. Our environmental agencies are underfunded and dealing with more problems than they can handle, even as climate change increases the magnitude of those problems. Far from being a climate solution, nuclear energy simply increases the burdens on our children and future generations.

Original Post

Ivy Main's picture

Thank Ivy for the Post!

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Discussions

David Hervol's picture
David Hervol on June 2, 2017

Ivy,

There are two versions of reality going on here. Environmental Progress and yours. What is your opinion of the Nader – Shellenberger debate on crossfire? What exactly is the official siting plan for all the windmills, solar panels, and power lines needed to replace the lost nuclear power? Or is 50% CO2 reduction through the use of natural gas power plants OK?

Thanks.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on June 2, 2017

Olkiluoto 3 in Finland has been used as an example of nuclear power cost overruns. Just one reactor is going to cost 8-9 billion euros to build. TVO bought it for 3 billion in a turnkey deal that Areva is trying to overturn in courts. We’ll see how it goes…

But the other side of the equation is the volume generated. When running, this one reactor produces almost as much electricity as all the onshore and offshore wind turbines in Denmark.

No figures have been published on how many billions the Danes have invested in wind power in the past 20 years. Or paid extra for the most expensive retail electricity in Europe at 30c/kWh? For electricity was also three times more carbon-intensive than in Finland in 2016.

Herr U's picture
Herr U on June 3, 2017

So many things in this. But let’s talk about the most glaring misunderstanding.

Nuclear can do load following (and load shaping, and load cycling, and frequency control), France and Canada (Ontario) does this since a few decades ago, Sweden did it for a while, Germany resumed doing it recently, pretty much all designs since the early 90s can do this, it is a EUR requirement to do be able to do this.
ESBWR (NA3) and AP1000 (V.C Summer, Vogtle) even has multiple ways to do this.

The Columbia Generating Station in Washington also does load following.

The reason you run nuclear at full power all the time is due to that fuel is a very small cost (about 0.4c/kWh), so as long as the price is higher than the fuel cost it makes sense to run the plant at max output. (Grossly oversimplified)

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 4, 2017

You won’t get an answer. Unfortunately for renewables activists, there’s only one version of reality.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on June 5, 2017

First sentence:

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that within the next few days, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will approve a Combined Operating License (COL) for Dominion Virginia Power’s third nuclear power plant planned for its North Anna site in Surry County, …

No, North Anna is in Louisa County, Va, far away from Surry County, as the RT-D correctly reported.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 6, 2017

EDG, thanks for your support of coal, so important to the economy of the Southeastern U.S.

Because solar and wind will never make much of a dent in Virginia, overemphasizing the significance of fault lines which pose no danger is a regrettable but effective technique to shut down nuclear and get it out of coal’s way – even more effective than maps of cancer and emphysema incidence for the area, or reminders of the distant threat of climate change.

Let’s face it – fear works.

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on June 8, 2017

Sure nuclear is expensive.
But if you are able to look outside our own so-called developed world, something very different goes on.
Why should it be that expensive?
I have tried to find some of the answer on http://wp.me/p1RKWc-11D

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