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The current two reactor facility in South Texas may be expanding soon.  (Source: NRG)

A peek inside one of the facility's current reactors. Note the fuel rods which ring the tank.  (Source: NRG)
Interest in clean alternative energy has revived interest in nuclear power

New Jersey-based NRG Energy filed to build two new reactors at its (currently) two-reactor nuclear power plant near Houston.  The two new reactors would more than double the plant's capacity by 2015.

The plants are not your father's reactors either -- they are cutting-edge advanced boiling-water reactors, which have been successfully operated in Japan for some time.  This new breed of critical fission reactors promise safer, cleaner and more efficient power production over traditional plant designs.

The Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) is a Generation III nuclear reactor, developed by General Energy.  Internal water circulation is drastically improved over older models, increasing safety and efficiency.  Rods were previously hydraulically extended, but in the ABWR they are raised and lowered by electric fine motion motors, to allow for more precise control.  Moreover, the system is automated and only needs operator control once every three days.  Japan currently has four of these reactors operational, with six more coming soon.

NRG President and Chief Executive Officer, David Crane hailed the move as an alternative energy landmark.  "Advanced nuclear technology is the only currently viable large-scale alternative to traditional coal-fueled generation to produce none of the traditional air emissions," said Crane.

The plant has received backing from the U.S. Congress and has also received $500 million in risk insurance from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The application may mark the rebirth of the U.S. nuclear industry.  As many as 29 new reactors are in the works to possibly be added to the current U.S. fleet of 104, according to Bill Borchardt, director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) office of new reactors.

"It is going to be significantly different than it was in the 1970s," said Borchardt.

The application is the first filed for a completely new design in more than 30 years.  It is not the first "new" reactor though, as an inactive reactor at Browns Ferry in northern Alabama was restarted in May after 22 years of inactivity due to poor maintenance.

The rebirth of the nuclear industry has certainly fueled its critics as well.  They point to the Three Mile Incident of 1979, the U.S.'s worst nuclear accident and Chernobyl in 1986.

Critic Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's energy program, an anti-nuclear watch-dog group had this to say about the state of nuclear power, "The flaws of nuclear power—excessive cost, security threats and long-lived radioactive waste—have not been solved.  More nuclear reactors will only exacerbate these problems."

Many people, though, in the energy industry see building nuclear reactors as key to overcoming carbon fuel reliance and possibly impacting climate change.

"If we're not serious about building more nuclear energy [power plants] around the world, then we are not serious about addressing climate change," stated James Rogers, chief executive of North Carolina based–Duke Energy reasoned in an address to the U.N. Climate Summit.

If the reactor is approved, which seems likely, it will provide over 2,700 Mega-Watts of new power capacity.

Safety issues are certainly a concern, but many improvements in both design and structural stability have helped to turn the tide in favor of nuclear energy.  In July a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck one of the Japan's ABWR plants, as reported by blogger Michael Asher at DailyTech.  The natural disaster caused limited damage, and released almost no nuclear materials, despite the severity of the quake.  Many other structures in the area received far more significant damage.

The move is likely to reopen the nuclear debate, but as the carbon resource supply enters its twilight hours, there will be increased interest in alternative energy, including nuclear power.  The future of nuclear power, which seemed nearly dead in the U.S., is suddenly looking a whole lot brighter.





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