The first nuclear energy plant constructed after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident will be commissioned in 2017 at Waynesboro in the State of Georgia.

Powered by an advanced light water reactor, this will be a milestone in what many describe as U.S.’ ‘nuclear renaissance’. It has considerable significance for India too. The two reactors are called AP-1000 which the manufacturer, Westinghouse, is trying to hard sell for the nuclear energy plant proposed at Mithivirdi in Gujarat.Westinghouse is building these reactors in the U.S. as well as in China, a country that is developing its nuclear energy capacity at a galloping pace. According to Scott Peterson, Senior Vice-President of the Nuclear Energy Institute, 29 reactors are under construction in the Communist nationChina while 51 more are being planned For Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, owned by a consortia led by Georgia Power Company, the two reactors will cost $14 billiondollars, an investment being made after the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) made rigorous evaluation to make them safe against natural or man-made disasters. The consortia already runs two units at the same site on which construction began in 1974 and which began commercial operations in the late 1980s.

The USP of AP-1000 is its passive design under which a large reservoir of water sits atop the reactor. If the reactor has to be shut down in the event of an emergency, say an earthquake, and alternative power sources do not kick off to pump water into the core as happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, the water will flow by gravity. As the condensed water keeps flowing back, a melt-down can be prevented for a considerable period of time.

Nuclear energy policy in U.S. is going through a churning like never before. Fukushima looms over every narrative, making safety and security paramount. As a result, licensing of new plants has become a time-consuming affair, making time and cost overruns become inevitable as in the Vogtle plant. A new challenge is emerging for the nuclear power sector from natural gas which is cheaper and available in abundance in the U.S.

Victor McCree, Atlanta-based Regional Administrator of NRC, said nuclear energy accounts 20 per cent of power supplied in the U.S. through 100 plants, down from 104 earlier . Some are being retired and others shut down for being commercially unviable. Together, these constituteconstituting more than 10 per cent of the generating capacity. Yet, more are under construction, he hastened to add.

Will the replacement level (of reactors) exceed the number of plants being retired? “The answer would be yes, before Fukushima happened. Lots of plants were being ordered and licences being issued. But, Fukushima has put a dampener to this trend while the financial meltdown has caused a slowdown. A 550 MW n-plant in Wisconsin shut down recently as it could not sell power at rates that were competitive with natural gas-based plants,” S. I. Abdel-Khalik, Southern Nuclear Distinguished Professor at Georgia Tech, said in a counterpoint to the NRC’s regional chief.

In India, about 25 reactors are either in the planning stage (18) or are under construction (7) whereas experts in the U.S. have veered round to the view that they cannot put all their eggs in one (nuclear) basket, though the government itself is supportive of nuclear power. Yet, opinion has not concretised on whether small and marginal nuclear reactors (costing $4 billion dollars apiece) are viable from the viewpoint of economy of scale, although they are considered safer.

A group of visiting journalists from six countries invited by the Foreign Press Centre of the U.S. Department of State went round the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia State where work is on at a frenetic pace on Units 3 & 4. Capacity addition in nuclear energy will be dwarfed by that in natural gas which will add 41 per cent in the near future But, the U.S. has plans outside its borders as it expects the global nuclear market to reach $750 billion over the next 10 years.

“U.S. nuclear technology should be a strategic instrument of U.S. foreign policy. The second wave of nuclear power construction will begin after 2020”, said Scott Peterson, Senior Vice-President of the Nuclear Energy Institute.For business reasons that are quite obvious, power-starved India figures high in this policy.