Nearly every owner of generation in the USA judges buidling new nuclear reactors to be prohibitively expensive, despite massive subsidies being available for nuclear construction, and even though many utilities still have state sanctioned monopolies and "rate bases" that can be used to make captive ratepayers repay generation investment. Only the boldest (and some would use less favorable adjectives) generation owner is building new nuclear plants here.
But making improvements to existing nuclear plants to increase their generating capacity--so-called "nuclear uprates"--makes good sense for plant owners, consumers, and the environment. Indeed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, since 1997, has approved 144 uprates that cumulatively add 6,500 megawatts of capacity. www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=7130. How much power is that?
That much additional nuclear capacity, given that nuclear power plants operate at about 95% of their capacity, would be equal to approximately 20,000 megawatts of wind power, about 35,000 megawatts of solar power, or another 11 nuclear units the size of Three Mile Island. It would be enough to supply about 6.5 million homes or more than all the residential electricity accounts in Pennsylvania.
The combination of sharply better nuclear plant performance over the last 25 years and nuclear uprates increased electricity generated by existing nuclear plants so that nuclear continued to keep its market share at about 20% of all electricity generated in the USA.
Today, EIA reports that 16 nuclear uprate projects that constitute another 1,140 megawatts of capacity are pending approval by the NRC. Approval of the project by the NRC, however, does not automatically mean the project will be completed, and the EIA data does not state how much of the approved uprates were in fact constructed.
Nuclear uprates are much lower cost than construction of new nuclear plants, but major ones can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. Low wholesale power prices in the last three years represent a real short-term barrier to completing some uprates. As a result, Pennsylvania considered legislation in 2010 that would have increased its Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard and included nuclear uprates as a qualifying technology.
Nuclear uprates have proven good for investors, consumers, the economy and environment, a real win, win, win, win. They increase supply and help keep prices affordable by doing so. They diversify how electricity is made, generating reliability and more economic benefits. They produce no air or climate pollution. They increase revenues for owners of nuclear plants. They lower risks for everyone!