Nuclear power inches back into energy spotlight

The delays and cost overruns plaguing Areva's EPR unit in Finland were partly related to concrete that failed inspection. "We're quite confident we're learning from" the Finnish experience, says Michael Wallace, chairman of UniStar, the Constellation Energy ceg unit building an EPR in Lusby, Md.

•Tight supplies. Only one company, Japan Steel Works, builds the 600-ton steel forgings used to make reactor vessels. It can make only five or six a year. Southern, SCE&G, NRG and Constellation have spent tens of millions of dollars reserving such items. Those building reactors after the front-runners could face bottlenecks, Standard & Poor's says. But Japan Steel Works has said it's expanding its capacity by about a third, while others are entering the market. In the U.S., factories to make nuclear parts are being built in Virginia, Louisiana, Indiana and Tennessee.

•Fewer workers. New reactors are likely to strain a pool of nuclear workers depleted by the construction hiatus. About 100,000 new workers would be needed to build and staff the 26 proposed reactors. Meantime, 35% of the current workforce is eligible to retire in five years.

The NEI notes utilities have teamed with community colleges to train workers. Still, a likely shortage of specialized workers, such as nuclear welders, could drive up wages and construction costs, says consultant Steve Rus of Black & Veatch.

Overall, Reed says the risk of delays and cost overruns is "far less" now. Yet, some companies are waiting before deciding to build. In Texas, Luminant says it will monitor the status of natural gas prices and carbon caps. Ameren wants to see if the first plants are successful. That's why the utility didn't want "to be in that first wave of plants," says Ameren nuclear executive Scott Bond.

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