How do energy companies decide where to build nuclear power plants?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 21 2009 2:37 PM

A Nuclear Power Plant With a View

How do energy companies decide where to build new reactors?

A nuclear power plant. Click image to expand.
Nuclear power plant

The Senate energy and natural resources committee's draft for a new energy bill includes language dedicating large amounts of public money for nuclear power plants. Administration officials seem gung-ho about the technology, and Republicans want 100 new reactors by 2030. How does an energy company decide where to build new facilities?

State laws, geography, and the disposition of the local community. The first step: finding a state where nuclear plants aren't banned, and perhaps one where taxpayers might even help foot the bill. California, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all have moratoriums in place—although campaigns are under way in the latter two states to repeal them (and Kentucky overturned its ban earlier this year). Other states are actively trying to make themselves more attractive to energy companies. Florida, for example, helps developers recover preconstruction and licensing costs, and Kansas exempts nuclear plants from property taxes.

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Next, companies look at topography. Because all nuclear reactors in the United States require water to operate, you have to build one near a lake or a river (although it's possible to construct an artificial lake, as with Dominion Generation's North Anna Power Station in central Virginia). You also need a large amount of space—at least 500 acres to house outbuildings for ventilation equipment, storage for fuel and waste, parking lots, and computing facilities.

It behooves energy companies to build on ground already cleared for nuclear energy production, since entirely new locations have to go through a much lengthier review process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There are 65 locations nationwide with one or more reactors, and many of these sites don't have as many reactors as they were originally intended to include. Twelve out of the 14 applications currently under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are for additional reactors at pre-existing plants.

Energy companies also scout for areas experiencing population growth—and a corresponding rise in the demand for power. That's part of the reason why most of the new applications are in the South and Southeast, where seven out of this year's top 10 fastest-growing cities are located. Most plants are a few miles outside small-to-midsize towns—it doesn't make sense to put them too far away from electricity users, and they necessitate a large work force. Some 2,000 people are needed to build a plant, and about 500 people are required once it's operational to serve as technicians, reactor operators, engineers, security guards, and administrators.

Finally, energy companies take into consideration the friendliness of the local community to avoid publicity headaches. Recent polling suggests that the general public is less suspicious of nuclear plants than it has been in the past, as disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island recede from memory. There's still a NIMBY factor; people are less excited about putting in nuclear plants near where they live. Still, nuclear advocates argue that communities that do live near plants tend to be more comfortable with the idea than communities where people only associate the word nuclear with mushroom clouds.

The Explainer thanks Michael Corradini of the University of Wisconsin, John Keeley of the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Rita Sipe of Duke Energy.

Lydia DePillis is a writer living in New York.

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