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Work continues on a parking lot near a motor pool shop
An aerial photograph from last spring shows new support buildings going in near the site of planned Unit 3.
Preliminary site work for proposed Unit 3 is wrapping up. The existing two reactors are visible in the background.
Dominion is updating a shop at the Lake Anna Nuclear Power Station. It hopes to build a third reactor there.
By RUSTY DENNEN
Not far from the towering concrete-and-steel domes that enclose North Anna Power Station's two nuclear reactors, workers are preparing the way for a third unit.
Today, 10 years since Dominion Virginia Power filed its initial application for Unit 3 on Lake Anna near Mineral, the project is far from a sure thing, though the company insists it's still on track.
Opponents, meanwhile, argue that the ballooning cost of new reactors, coupled with ongoing delays in the approval process, low natural gas prices, and the fallout from the Fukushima disaster in Japan, make Unit 3 an unsure bet.
Eugene S. Grecheck, vice president of nuclear development for Dominion, says the plan has not changed: Nuclear energy continues to be a key component of the Richmond-based utility's long-term energy plan.
"We think it's very important to maintain a full diversity" of energy sources, Grecheck said Friday in a telephone interview.
In the words of Thomas F. Farrell II, Dominion's chairman, president and chief executive officer, Grecheck said "the question is not if, but rather, when" Unit 3 is built.
The recession and economic crunch has reduced demand for electricity, and natural gas prices have fallen dramatically with increased supply, making it a more attractive fuel, Grecheck concedes.
And Dominion plans to develop more natural gas capacity in the next few years.
"But in the long term, we are convinced that it is not in the company's interest, or the nation's interest, to be completely dependent on only one fuel," he said.
"Historically, the price of natural gas has been very volatile and subject to very big swings."
SOME PROGRESS MADE
Dominion's latest integrated resource plan--a 15-year guide for matching power generation, transmission and demand--projects that Unit 3, if the company proceeds, would be completed by 2024.
Dominion also owns the Surry Power Station on the James River, and two other nuclear plants--Millstone in Connecticut and Kewaunee in Wisconsin. Dominion announced in October that it is shutting down the Kewaunee plant this year after failing to find a buyer. The company failed in its bid to increase a nuclear presence in the Midwest.
Despite the hurdles, the industry has made some progress bringing online a new generation of more efficient and safer reactors.
South Carolina Electric & Gas has begun construction on two reactors at its Virgil C. Summer plant, and Southern Nuclear Operating Co. is building two reactors at its Vogtle Plant in Georgia.
They are among the first new reactors ordered in the United States since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The last commercial reactor to go online was at Watts Bar, Tenn., in 1996. There are 104 commercial reactors operating across the nation.
Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the pro-industry Nuclear Energy Institute, said progress is being made.
"I think, overall, we're doing well. We had expected four to eight new reactors [online] by the end of this decade. With Vogtle, Summer and Watts Bar, that's five [reactors]. Given the challenges, we're doing fairly well."
Jerry Rosenthal, a Louisa County resident and member of People's Alliance for Clean Energy, which opposes Unit 3, doesn't expect to see another reactor at North Anna.
"I think the answer is pretty clear: Dominion did not even include North Anna 3 in their [integrated resource] plan for the next five years."
He said that Dominion, like "almost all utilities, is bridging the gap between full utilization of renewables with cheap natural gas" rather than depending on new reactors.
"Economically, the handwriting is on the wall." Recent industry estimates put the cost of a new reactor at between $6 billion and $10 billion.
Rosenthal said Dominion opened two large natural gas-fired plants within the past year.
"Another thing happening is that [electricity] usage is starting to go down, even though the economy is turning around."
All the while, Rosenthal said, the cost of generating power through wind and solar power continue to fall.
"And we're going to have plenty of reliable, inexpensive supply."
SERIES OF DELAYS
Back in 2003, Dominion was one of the first utilities to file an application for a new generation of reactors.
It cleared the first regulatory hurdle by receiving an early-site permit in November 2007. That allowed the company to "bank" the site for 20 years, resolve environmental and safety issues, and to complete preliminary site work. Today, Dominion is separating that site from the other two reactors so that it will be ready for construction when that time comes.
Also in 2007, Dominion applied for a combined license to build and operate Unit 3. Initially, it expected approval by 2012, but that has been pushed back by delays associated with the proposed reactor, and other regulatory hurdles.
Dominion had planned to use a GE Hitachi design. That fell through in 2009 after Dominion was unable to reach an engineering, procurement and construction agreement with the company. Then in 2010, the company decided on Mitsubishi Heavy Industry's US-Advanced Pressurized Water Reactor for Unit 3, but the certification of the reactor by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has taken longer than expected. That has been pushed into 2015.
Lou Zeller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which also opposes Unit 3, said he's skeptical, given the industry challenges, that Unit 3 is still viable.
"I think Dominion is whistling past the graveyard on this project."
He added that the company's continued reliance on coal is also counterproductive.
"It seems like they're paddling in the wrong direction, and if nuclear is a part of that, it's another bad bet."
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
The reactor would generate about 1,700 megawatts,
North Anna's two existing Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactors combined generate about 1,860 megawatts.
--Dominion Virginia Power