Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant

Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, located near Augusta, Ga. Credit: NRC.

The Obama administration and the DOE backed up its recent talk about supporting nuclear energy by today announcing its intention to guarantee $8.33 billion in loans for the construction two 1100 megawatt Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Burke, Ga.

“This is a significant step by the Obama Administration to restart our domestic nuclear industry, helping to create valuable long-term jobs and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” says DOE Secretary Steven Chu in an agency press release.

According to the DOE, once the reactors come online annually they will prevent 16 million tons of carbon dioxide, 3,900 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 5,500 tons of sulfur dioxide. The administration and DOE also emphasize that the project will generate and estimated 3,500 on-site construction jobs and 800 reactor-related permanent jobs.

DOE says the loan guarantee is similar to guarantees provided to Solyndra Inc. (PV panels), Nordic Windpower, (wind) Beacon Power (batteries) and Red River Environmental Products (activated carbon manufacturing).

The Georgia Public Service Commission actually okayed the reactors about a year ago, and construction has already begun. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported then that the units wouldn’t go online until 2017.

The administration and the DOE tout that the Westinghouse reactor has “numerous innovations resulting in significant operational, safety, and cost enhancements.”

I don’t know much about the AP1000s, but last year  Augusta Chronicle reporter Rob Pavey provided some background information:

The technology involved in the next generation of reactors is so different from its predecessors that engineers trained on older units will not be interchangeable with those who operate the new ones.

“Even the control room will be completely new,” [Southern Nuclear’s site vice president David] Jones said. “It is slightly larger than a bedroom. It will be very modern, with plasma screens. It will be very different.”

A unique feature of the reactors is a passive safety system that uses natural forces such as gravity and convection. In an accident, the plant is designed to shut down without operator action and without power or pumps. Emergency cooling water tanks 100 feet above the ground will hold more than 6 million pounds of water.

The reactors, he said, will have fewer pumps and tanks, miles less electrical cable and barely half the valves of predecessors. They will be easier to assemble and operate, partly because of a modular design that incorporates components from many locations.

“These new plants take advantage of all we’ve learned over the last 40 years,” said Ohio State University nuclear engineering professor Richard Denning, an expert in nuclear reactor safety and risk analysis. “They will be safer than our existing plants.”

There are 104 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S., producing 20 percent of the nation’s power. Nearly all, he said, are getting a 20-year extension through renewed operating licenses. The growing number of plants on the drawing board will benefit from more than new technology.

“They will have standardized designs, streamlined permitting and will be overseen by the best, most independent regulatory agency in the world,” Dr. Denning said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s new “combined operating license” program — which Plant Vogtle will be among the first to navigate — includes safeguards that could avoid some of the costly delays that plagued the last generation of reactors in the 1970s and 1980s.

The program simultaneously authorizes construction and operation of the reactors and replaces a system in which utility companies worked for years to obtain a license, then would become mired in changing regulations in their quest for a second license to operate a plant.

Dr. Denning cautioned, however, that the first few facilities to go through the process could encounter delays as the system is tested and perfected.

“That is a significant risk for the first ones,” he said.