Offshore Power Systems: Big Plants for a Big Customer
Most people associated with the nuclear industry, and many residents of Florida have some knowledge of the ill-fated Westinghouse/Newport News Offshore Power System project.
Begun in 1970, this project was based on two ideas. The first was that a series of identical reactors produced in a factory type setting could be completed in a shorter period of time than a similar number of custom made plants constructed on site. The second was that plants located several miles off shore might be able to avoid the infamous Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome that had begun to plague power plant developers.
Basic Plant Design
By 1970, Westinghouse executives realized that one of the main problems in making nuclear plants competitive was the fact that they were all custom built plants. Company engineers began producing some conceptual designs for smaller, modular plants and checking the reaction of utility executives to the designs.
At Public Service Electric and Gas, based in New Jersey, the designers found some strong interest in standardized plants. However, Richard Eckert, the main proponent of such plants, had some suggestions of his own.
He suggested that the plants should be utility sized, i.e. on the order of 1000 MWe, and constructed so that they could be moored off shore. As the man in charge of finding new sites for power plants, he had discovered that there were a very limited number of sites available in areas where power demands were high. He realized, however, that many such areas were close to the ocean.
After some give and take between the supplier and the customer, the plant design that evolved was essentially a man-made island that could support two 1200 MWe nuclear plants. The power island would be fabricated in a specialized facility, maneuvered to the site and permanently moored behind a large, protective breakwater. Ideally, the plant would be located a bit less than three miles off shore and the power would be sent via underwater cables.
Westinghouse leaders recognized that they would need a partner with extensive shipbuilding experience, and attracted the participation of Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. The two companies created a 50/50 partnership company that became known as Offshore Power Systems.
Public Service did not simply make design suggestions; they signed contracts for two plants, designated Atlantic 1 and 2. These contracts provided most of the funding required to complete the detailed engineering drawings, produce the license application, and to build the manufacturing facility.
The project partners soon recognized that they were attempting something new. The largest drydock in the country had a width of 140 feet, but the plant design that had evolved based on customer requirements was almost 400 feet wide.
In order to move the plant to its Atlantic moorings, the manufacturing facility needed access to a body of water with channel depth of 40 feet.
A search of the United States Atlantic coast yielded two possible sites, Norfolk, Virginia, and Blount Island, near Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville won based on having a shorter route to sea, lower real estate costs and the warm support of local governments.
The Blount Island facility rapidly became a major employer in the Jacksonville area, eventually employing more than 1000 people. Some of the facilities built on the island were the largest of their kind in the United States.
The bridge crane, for example, became a well known landmark on the Intercoastal Waterway. It was sized to be able to lift a plant containment dome. It had a capacity of 1000 tons, a span of 675 feet and a height of more than 130 feet.
The graving dock, where the plant platform would be constructed, measured 400 feet by 400 feet by 40 feet deep. That is large enough to contain three football fields side by side with room to spare.
The planned capacity of the facility was 4 plants per year.
Plant Site Preparation
Obviously, a facility moored in the ocean needs protection from the force of hurricane winds and waves.
For Atlantic 1 and 2 the plan was to create a breakwater that consisted of manufactured concrete structures shaped like large children’s jacks. These would weigh about 80 tons each and it would take about 18,000 of them to form the breakwater. Fortunately, the site selected for the lead plants had a preexisting sand hill that reduced the number of giant jacks needed.
The projection was that it would take approximately four years to prepare the breakwater for each power station.
Environmental Impact Statement
The Offshore Power Systems project began soon after the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the completion of an environmental impact statement for any major federal action. Since the plants would need federal licenses, they qualified as major federal actions.
The Environmental Protection Agency took charge of the coordination between a variety of governmental and environmental agencies (including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club), and finally concluded that the plants could be built and operated with acceptable impact on the environment.
Additional Interested Customers
As the facility came closer to being a reality, other customers expressed their interest in purchasing one of the standardized plants. The Jacksonville Electric Authority and the Southern Company expressed their interest with formal letters of intent.
Westinghouse obtained the approval of the NRC to build as many as eight of the plants. As far as anyone could tell, all was going very well with the project.
With all of the positives going for this project, it is important to understand why it failed. Surprisingly enough, the initiating event was the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. Typically, an event that leads to a rapid quadrupling of the price of a competitive product is good for business, but the energy industry does not follow normal rules.
The major industrial loads on the Public Service system were oil refineries and petrochemical plants located in places like Newark, New Jersey. The embargo dramatically reduced the demand for their products, so they reduced their purchases of electricity.
Since Public Service’s customers needed less electricity, they did not need the capacity represented by the two large plants that they had ordered from Offshore Power Systems. Even though the purchase contracts required them to cover the supplier’s costs, including those of building the manufacturing facility, Public Service desperately needed to slow down their capacity additions.
At first Public Service asked for a two year delay, hoping that the “energy crisis” was temporary, but they eventually canceled all orders.
Since the plants and the facilities that had been designed were specifically designed for the production of 1200 MWe central station power plants for the densely populated and prosperous Northeast United States, there was little hope of finding alternative customers. This was unfortunate, since many areas of the world were desperate for moderately sized, non-oil based electric power sources.
Since no business – no matter how good their people, their facilities or their technology – can survive without customers, Offshore Power Systems closed down. The people associated with the project were either relocated or found other employment. Westinghouse sold the Blount Island facility.
The project became a bad memory for many in the nuclear industry, most of whom do not understand the business reasons for the closure. They simply remember that Westinghouse tried floating power plants and failed to produce a single plant. Unfortunately, many industry pessimists see this as a reason to believe that any project based on similar ideas is doomed to fail.