Westinghouse shakes up prospects for West Coast nuclear power

Westinghouse Electric Co. sees something in the West Coast that isn’‍t all that obvious to others: a nuclear future.

When the Cranberry-based company announced last month that it has started the federal approval process for an AP1000 reactor that can function in areas of high earthquake risk, Rita Bowser, Westinghouse’‍s lead on the effort, said the firm’‍s main target is the U.S. West Coast.

For all practical purposes, that means California — a state with three strikes against new nuclear power plants at the moment.

First, about 45 percent of California’‍s power generation comes from natural gas, a fuel that is currently relatively inexpensive and plentiful. Natural gas plants can be built faster and more cheaply than nuclear reactors.

Westinghouse’‍s first four AP1000 models are under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, two states with regulated electricity markets where utilities building the plants can recover their capital costs from ratepayers.

California, however, is deregulated and competitive. It also has a three-decade-long moratorium on building new nuclear plants until the federal government identifies and builds a permanent storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, a second issue to overcome.

Third, the state is pumping significant amounts of money into increasing renewable generation and, in parallel, funding energy storage projects that would help even out the intermittency of alternative power and help it function more like a baseload power source.

Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert said the company is approaching the "Special Seismic Option" the way it approached the development of the AP1000 in the early 1990s. Then, as now, the company didn't have any contracts in hand but knew that when the demand came, it wanted to be ready.

The company says it’s not just stabbing in the dark. “We have looked at some of the places in the Western U.S. where there’‍s been some expressions [of interest], or at least discussions,” Ms. Bowser said.

The idea for a special seismic reactor evolved over the past two years, she said, coming after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011, when a severe earthquake and subsequent tsunami destroyed the nuclear power plant two hours north of Tokyo.

Ms. Bowser’‍s job was created to advance the concept that she expects will be commercial within three years.

The company hasn’‍t released any specifications for the enhanced AP1000 model. It wouldn’‍t, for example, pin its capability against numbers on a seismic scale.

On June 25, Westinghouse met with regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a heads up that it would be filing its proposal in the fall of 2015.

The enhancements will include using stronger building materials, stronger concrete and some additional reinforcing, Ms. Bowser said. While the adjustments are expected to add to the capital cost, “These plants will compete in the same markets as other energy sources, so we’‍re keenly aware that our price for this needs to compete,” she said.

“We have had strong interest, and we have been in dialogue” with potential customers “who are very encouraged that we had that pre-submittal meeting,” she said. “It opens up quite a few areas for us.”

In addition to the West Coast, Westinghouse also has its eye on seismically hazardous areas in other countries.

That appears to be a more realistic prospect, at least in the near term, said Bloomberg nuclear analyst Chris Gadomski.

“China’‍s scared to death about having seismic activity,” Mr. Gadomski said. The Asian country has an aggressive nuclear development program and is currently building four of the world's first AP1000 plans. But large swaths of the country are prone to earthquakes.

“What's also very interesting is the opportunity in Turkey,” he said.

One of the most seismically hazardous countries on earth, Turkey has big plans to start and rapidly grow a nuclear program within the next 15 years. While its first agreements are with Russian and French companies, there may be opportunities in the coming years for Westinghouse to swoop in.

Worldwide, the greatest seismic hazards exist along the western coast of South America, in Turkey, Iran, India, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, and Japan.

Westinghouse, which is pursuing new nuclear contracts all over the world, stressed that the traditional AP1000 design is still the most appropriate for sites where it is currently under construction and for the vast majority of potential new projects.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

First Published July 14, 2014 3:12 PM

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