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Nuclear power industry under seige, FirstEnergy exec warns

| Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

The nuclear power industry finds itself buffeted by financial concerns, political pressure and increased scrutiny because of the Japanese disaster that could lead to the closures of more plants in the United States, a Western Pennsylvania utility executive said Tuesday.

Shutting some of the 100 reactors that provide about 20 percent of America's electricity would cause a crisis on electrical grids strained by a cold winter and the continuing loss of coal-fired plants, said Peter Sena III, chief nuclear officer for FirstEnergy.

“Without a reserve margin, you'll have rolling blackouts,” Sena said after talking to about 40 industry members in Cranberry during an event that the Energy Alliance of Greater Pittsburgh sponsored. “It's going to take a significant emotional event to institute change.”

The cheap, plentiful gas from shale is driving utilities to build mostly gas-powered plants. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said Tuesday that more than 50 percent of capacity added to grids in 2013 came from natural gas. It predicts gas will account for 35 percent of all electrical generation by 2040 as coal and nuclear drop off.

An inability to get gas for power plants this winter contributed to huge price spikes and demand that nearly overran grids in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Danny Roderick, CEO of Westinghouse Electric Co., a global supplier of nuclear plants, also predicts a crisis for electricity as generators move from a mix of sources, which he called the “energy cliff.”

Sena noted that few new nuclear projects are under way in this country. Westinghouse, which supplied the two reactors at FirstEnergy's Beaver Valley station in Shippingport, is building four of its AP1000 reactors in South Carolina and Georgia in addition to plants in China and elsewhere.

FirstEnergy has no plans to add to its four reactors in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and Sena predicts no new nuclear projects in either state because utilities can't recover the multibillion-dollar construction costs from ratepayers. A growing percentage of FirstEnergy electricity is produced from gas, and the Akron-based company closed two coal-fired plants in Western Pennsylvania last fall.

Analysts have blamed lower interest in nuclear power on cheap natural gas, the recession and the 2011 meltdown that an earthquake and tsunamis caused at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

Sena toured Fukushima with fellow American nuclear chiefs in the fall and spent much of his time in Cranberry discussing lessons learned from the trip. He said “technological arrogance” among the Japanese led them to build that plant at the wrong place near the ocean, to exclude proper safeguards and to respond poorly to the disaster.

In response, American plants are re-examining seismic and water studies to make sure they can handle worst-case situations. At Beaver Valley, officials are studying whether the plant could handle several feet of rain on top of a 3-foot snow pack during a storm that washes out six dams.

“It's extreme. But we have to know, if that does happen, what's our strategy,” Sena said.

The studies and other post-Fukushima safety efforts could take resources away from efficiency improvements at plants and lead to closures, Sena said.

Meanwhile, Japan's 50 reactors remain closed and Fukushima continues leaking contaminated water. Sena said problems at one plant hurt all plants.

“They need to regain the trust of the community,” he said.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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