Entergy Nuclear’s original application to build a new reactor at its River Bend Station in West Feliciana Parish, which it filed last year, was 13,000 pages long, a powerful indicator that nothing happens fast when it involves building a nuclear reactor.
The new facility wasn’t even scheduled to come online until 2018—before Entergy asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend review of its application using GE Hitachi reactor technology.
Entergy Nuclear says it called off the deal with GE Hitachi because it wasn’t able to come to mutually acceptable business terms. Mike Bowling, spokesman at Entergy Nuclear’s Jackson, Miss., headquarters, says he’s not allowed to discuss additional details because of a confidentiality agreement.
He does say Entergy is looking at “cost and schedule” as it moves forward on talks with other reactor manufacturers. A source who asked not to be identified said cost-overrun and delivery-date problems were behind Entergy’s decision to drop GE Hitachi.
Bowling won’t speculate how much, if at all, recent developments would delay construction of a new reactor.
“There’s no way of estimating,” he says. “We’re pursuing our options right now. We’re talking with our potential partners. We have to make sure anything we do is in the best interest of our customers.”
While Entergy hasn’t legally committed to building a new reactor at River Bend, Bowling characterizes the pullback with GE Hitachi as a temporary suspension. Mike Smith, president of the Greater St. Francisville Chamber of Commerce, says Entergy Nuclear officials assured him there would be no long-term repercussions for the project.
“My understanding is there are some other manufacturers that could step in and help keep the project on the current timetable,” he says.
With the new Shaw Group/Westinghouse nuclear component manufacturing facility in Lake Charles, it’s conceivable River Bend could be home to a Louisiana-built reactor, Smith says. The NRC has issued design certifications for three Westinghouse reactor designs, Bowling says.
Nine or 10 years might seem like a long time to wait, but not when you consider the last U.S. reactor to come online—in the mid-1990s—took 23 years to build. No new orders for nuclear reactors had been placed for decades in the United States. Nuclear accounts for roughly 20% of power generation in the country today; coal generation accounts for the rest.
The Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 had an immediate chilling effect on the industry. But attitudes are evolving. Even some former opponents of nuclear power have changed their minds and now support it. The industry term is “nuclear renaissance,” Bowling says.
Entergy, the second-largest nuclear power operator in the U.S. behind Exelon, considers another River Bend reactor an investment in the future. The International Atomic Energy Agency predicts worldwide nuclear power capacity will increase between 20% and 84% by 2030. Recently, roughly 30 new reactors have been announced in the U.S. alone, according to the agency.
“We want to act now to preserve our options in the future,” Bowling says. “We know we need more base load energy in our own territory and also across the nation.” Base load power plants—either coal or nuclear—run pretty much around the clock, unlike intermediate plants or peak plants.
The process for building new facilities has been streamlined since the old days. In the past, separate licenses were required to build and operate a plant. Technically, building a plant didn’t guarantee authority to operate it. In the late 1990s, Entergy approached the NRC about finding ways to make the process more conducive to development, Bowling says.
“They’ve consolidated the process,” he says. “You’re not going to run the risks you had in the past.”
As for the River Bend project, Entergy doesn’t have to start all over again after shutting down the GE Hitachi review. Much of the work that’s already been done can be used as Entergy explores other designs, Bowling says.
“It would be another shot in the arm for West Feliciana Parish,” Smith says. “Entergy is the largest taxpayer currently. This, of course, would give us a new source of tax revenue, but more important than that it would give us a new influx of working families into our community, which would have an effect on our member businesses at the chamber.”
River Bend has about 560 employees, a total payroll of around $69 million and pays $15 million in taxes annually. Steve Jones, CEO of the West Feliciana Community Development Foundation, says River Bend provides about 65% to 70% of the parish tax base.
“It’s bigger than West Feliciana Parish,” he says. “It’s a regional project, and we’re going to do everything we can to make it a success.”
Meanwhile, the parish is committed to other forms of economic development besides Entergy and building “the most livable community in the state and in the South,” Jones says.
Smith says the parish is working hard to diversify its business and industrial base. The new Port of West Feliciana, the new John James Audubon Bridge and improvements to U.S. 61 are all pieces of the economic development process—as is West Feliciana’s nationally recognized school system, he says.
“It’s terrific to have a great community partner like Entergy,” Smith says. “Certainly the current reactor has made an enormous difference in the community on many different levels, and the new one will, too. By the same token, we don’t want to be a one-trick pony going into the future.”