A nuclear revival?

As demand rises, AmerenUE is optimistic about the future of atomic energy
Wednesday, April 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:30 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

It seems the only time Callaway County residents have cause to think about Missouri’s only commercial nuclear power plant is during refuelings.

Every 18 months or so, the plant, which is about 14 miles south of Fulton, is shut down for six to eight weeks while workers change out about 139,000 pounds of uranium fuel. They replace steam condenser tubes — giant pipes that carry about 585,000 gallons of water per minute. They also repair the turbines that power the plant’s generators and tune up countless valves, pumps and pipes.

The work requires AmerenUE, which owns and operates the plant, to hire about 1,500 people, doubling the usual number of employees. The workers come from across the country, staying in hotels and rental trailers, patronizing restaurants and other Callaway County businesses and giving a boost to the local economy.

Don Keeney, owner of Keen Ford in Fulton and a longtime Callaway County resident, says he wishes the plant, which generates about $9 million in tax revenue, would remain in operation forever.

“It’s nothing but a plus,” Keeney says. “I wish they’d build more.”

Keeney might get his wish before too long. Signs point to a renewed interest in nuclear power, said Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute. The cost of fossil fuels is rising because of uncertain supplies and increased environmental regulations. AmerenUE is expected to spend as much as $1 billion over the next decade to regulate mercury emissions. And according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the demand for electricity is projected to rise for at least the next 20 years.

“Right now I’m encouraged by the nuclear environment and the regulatory environment,” Garry Randolph, AmerenUE’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, said at a recent public meeting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


The cooling tower at the Callaway Nuclear Plant stands over 530 feet tall and has been a part of the plant throughout its 20-year history.

Several of the country’s largest utilities are working with the NRC to cut licensing costs for new plants, which would open the door for more construction. A handful of sites across the country are under review for possible new reactors. Warren Witt, manager of the Callaway plant, says the capacity of the current generation of AmerenUE’s plants has been reached. At AmerenUE’s meeting with the NRC, he said that for the utility company’s generating capacity to grow, “we’re going to have to build something.”

Safety concerns continue to fuel opposition to nuclear power, however. Paul Gunter of Nuclear Information and Resource Service said that, even now, no one completely understands the technology. Pointing to an incident two years ago at an Ohio nuclear power plant, when acid ate a cavity in a reactor’s covering, Gunter said: “There are surprises all the time with regard to how little is understood and how quickly safety components and reactors can fail.”

Situated on about 1,800 acres in Reform, the Callaway plant will turn 20 years old this year, the midway point in its 40-year license with the NRC. The cartoonish, space-age curves of its 553-foot cooling tower and dome-shaped reactor building rise unexpectedly from hills scattered with trailers and cattle.

Inside, the plant looks like a pile of giant intestines — a jumble of massive valves, tanks and pipes large enough to swim through, snaking in every direction. So much hot water roars through the pipes that many workers use earplugs.

The plant cost $3 billion to build. From its planning stages, Union Electric — AmerenUE’s predecessor — faced opposition from a number of groups over alleged mismanagement of the project and the general safety of nuclear power. Anti-nuclear activists warned of the dangers of radiation exposure, including cancer, sterility and birth defects. A Columbia woman, Diana Rawe, pitched a tent across the street from the site, where she fasted in protest.

The Rev. Raymond McCallister, a retired minister of Fulton’s First Christian Church, remembers that “The China Syndrome,” a 1979 movie about a nuclear meltdown, created some anxiety among the locals, as did the near-meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three-Mile Island, which happened 11 days after the movie’s release.

“I was a little frightened,” McCallister recalled. “Not frightened, but a little curious about it. We didn’t know much about nuclear plants, but what we did know was it was going up right in our backyard.”

While this year’s repair and maintenance schedule is the most extensive to date, the plant has stayed in exemplary shape, according to the NRC. The plant’s steam generators, for example, have not suffered the wear and tear that, in nuclear plants of a similar age, could eventually cause the release of small amounts of radioactive steam.

Still, the company plans to replace the plant’s four steam generators — contraptions larger than buses and filled with thousands of thin metal tubes — next year, if only to stay ahead of the maintenance curve.

“In 2024, it won’t really be a 40-year-old plant because we will have continued to modernize it for 40 years,” said AmerenUE spokesman Mike Cleary.

One lingering impediment to the expansion of nuclear power is what to do with the spent fuel. The only spot likely to be designated for high-level nuclear waste disposal, the Yucca Mountain site in the state of Nevada, has yet to receive approval from the NRC.

All of the Callaway reactor’s spent uranium is kept inside the plant in a 40-foot-deep water tank the size of a tennis court. The plant was built to accommodate the storage of about 375,700 spent fuel rods, Cleary said, although AmerneUE has been granted authorization to store about twice that amount.

Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis, who fought Union Electric’s successful attempt to precharge customers for the plant’s construction, thinks the facility has been managed “about as well as any nuclear plant can be managed.” But he said serious concerns remain about the lack of a solution to the nuclear waste problem.

St. Louis-area activist Kay Drey, who formed a group to oppose the construction of the Callaway plant, is likewise worried about the waste issue. Drey, who is on the NIRS board, said she also harbors concerns about worker safety.

“I just think it’s a very dangerous technology,” she said. “The morals of building any more of these plants — we still don’t know where to put the radioactive waste that we’ve already accumulated.”

AmerenUE would have a number of newer technologies to consider in a new plant. The pebble bed modular reactor, for one, wouldn’t be a bad choice, Cleary said. A PBMR uses boron-coated fuel pellets that do not overheat to the point of meltdown.

Inside each pebble are 15,000 uranium particles, each coated with a silicon carbon barrier so dense that no radioactive material can escape. Unlike conventional light-water reactors, pebble bed modular recators refuel while in operation. New fuel pebbles are continually added to the reactor core.

Whatever technology is used, Witt says it is only a matter of time before new nuclear plants begin sprouting up across the country.

“My personal feeling, I believe it will happen in your or my lifetime,” he said. “Hopefully in my career.”

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