You learn something new every day. One of my Google Alerts brought me a letter-to-the-editor from David Hollein, who indicated that he was once the “Westinghouse senior engineer assigned for all the Commonwealth Edison Company nuclear reactor sites”. His letter, published on June 15, 2008 by the Daily Herald (Suburban Chicago’s Information Source) and titled Don’t dismantle Zion reactor site was a plea for people to try to rally to prevent the permanent dismantling of two Westinghouse 1000 MWe reactors that operated from about 1973 through 1998.
I did not know anything about this issue until I read David’s letter. Here is what I found out.
The Zion nuclear plants were shutdown but not dismantled based on an economic analysis conducted at the time. Here is a quote from the NRC page about the current status of the Zion site:
On January 14,1998, the Unicom Corporation and ComEd Boards of Directors authorized the permanent cessation of operations at ZNPS for economic reasons. The cost and time it would take to repair the steam generators combined with the cost of electricity in a deregulated environment in Illinois made continuing operation of ZNPS uneconomical.
The analysis assumed that license extensions were unlikely to be granted by the NRC, so the utility ran the numbers associated with replacing the steam generators as if the plant would only be allowed to operate until 2013, 40 years after the granting of the initial operating licenses. That is important because the utility would have been looking for the investment to show a good return in a relatively short life compared to what it would see in a plant that could operate for 60 or more years.
The spreadsheets run during that analysis would also have assumed that electricity rates and competitive power sources would have a certain behavior. It would be very interesting to find out how the current cost of electricity in the territory that Zion could serve compares to the cost that was assumed during the analysis.
I have no idea just how challenging it would be to inspect the Zion plants, replace the steam generators and regain an operating license from the NRC. Steam generator replacements have become almost routine operations that can be completed by several qualified vendors who willingly participate in competitive bidding processes and provide fixed cost quotes.
I also noticed the following statement in the NRC fact page about the site:
Also, pursuant to 10 CFR 50.51(b), “Continuation of license,” the facility operating licenses scheduled to expire on April 6, 2013, for Unit 1, and November 14, 2013, for Unit 2, continue to remain in effect until the NRC notifies ComEd that the licenses have been terminated.
That bit of legalese means that the operating licenses have never been terminated. This is worth some more investigation and discussion. Restoring a plant that has never been dismantled should be somewhat less expensive and quicker than building two new, 1,000 MWe emission-free nuclear power plants.
Hmmm. I would love to hear your opinions, especially if you have first hand knowledge about Zion or the electricity market in Illinois.
PS – For those who do not understand the title, Browns Ferry Unit One is a TVA plant that the company decided to restore to full operating status after a long shutdown. It started operating in May 2007 and is one of the reasons that the total quantity of electricity generated by nuclear fission in the US experienced a bit of a bump from 787 Billion kilowatt-hours to 806 billion kilowatt-hours between 2006 and 2007 after being relatively stable for 4-5 years. The total should see another bump up in 2008 as Brown’s Ferry operates for a full year.
Updated at 19:36 June 15, 2008: The following italicized text was originally part of the post, but a reader pointed out that the shut down information was not accurate and that I had included an apostrophe that should not be part of the plant name. The fire at Browns Ferry Unit One took place in 1975. The plant was shut down and repaired. It returned to service in 1976 and operated until 1985 when it was shut down “for correction of a variety of issues”. One difference for Zion compared to Brown’s Ferry is that the plants appear to have been in pretty fair condition, other than the steam generators, when ComEd decided to shut them down. The Brown’s Ferry plant had been shut down because of a fire that damaged the plant’s control system wiring so the restart required a multi-year make over that cost about $2 billion.