Thursday, February 26, 2015

Rep. Shimkus: Stop Kowtowing to Sen. Reid on Yucca Mountain

Rep. John Shimkus
In an editorial in today's edition of the Lacrosse Tribune, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), renewed his call for the federal government to fulfill its commitments under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and open a permanent geologic depository at Yucca Mountain:
It’s not just coal that suffers under the Clean Power Plan though. Energy consumers in states such as Illinois will get no credit toward meeting the EPA’s standards from existing carbon-free nuclear power.

For those fixated on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but honest enough to admit the threat drastic cuts pose to baseload capacity, nuclear is a no-brainer. Here again, however, the president’s energy policies are at odds with the majority of America’s elected representatives. By kowtowing to Sen. Harry Reid’s, D-Nev., fear-mongering opposition to a permanent geologic repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, the administration denies nuclear power suppliers the certainty they need to continue producing emission-free, baseload electricity.
Rep. Shimkus is one of the most passionate supporters of the Yucca Mountain project, frequently taking to the floor of the House of Representatives to defend it. Here's a clip from March 2013 where the congressman laid out his case for the repository:


Bravo. For more on the safe storage of used nuclear fuel, please visit our website.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Thorium, The Betamax of Nuclear Technologies

Thorium Itself.
Worthly has up a review of different technologies that are “world-changing” and “just over the horizon.” Some seem pretty close by: self-driving cars, for example. Others are new to me, others I’ve heard of, still, the real worth of such round ups is that they allow us to dream of the future as a utopia. That’s why it’s a dream not a nightmare, which could sum up a fair number of people’s view of the present. Once the future becomes the present, the first two self-driving cars in Ohio will crash into each other and all will be normal again.

But one of the featured technologies caught our eye:
Nuclear power can easily solve all of our energy problems, and liquid fluoride thorium reactors could be one of the most promising energy sources that mankind has ever created. These reactors use thorium which is safer, more abundant, and more efficient than current nuclear fuel options. You can fit a lifetimes supply of thorium fuel in your hand, that’s how efficient these reactors are. When we get the technology up to speed, we can realistically create these nuclear power plants on a large scale. People need to get over their fear of nuclear energy, as it is really one of the most important achievements that mankind has ever made. It’s difficult to explain all the details of liquid fluoride thorium reactors, but this video does a pretty great job at hitting all the major details and it will also make you wonder why we aren’t pouring money to fund this.
You can find the video at the link. A fascinating watch.

This is basically a molten salt reactor – which delivers uranium and thorium fuel using molten salt as the medium (thorium needs uranium to start a reaction) – and has been around since the 50s. Granted, the technology hasn’t stood still, but what was known about thorium then is still true now. We even know that the thorium fuel cycle scales up to industrial levels, a key issue with technologies of its kind. But – that’s not the way the industry went.

Thorium became the Betamax of nuclear technology – perhaps superior to the uranium fuel cycle in some ways and with a devoted fan base in the relevant community, but still not the way forward when standardization entered the mix.

Still, as someone who has frequently been a zealot for losing technologies – Betamax, OS/2, HD-DVD - it’s a shame to lose what they offer, even if not officially the “winner.” Sometimes, "losing" technologies prevail, sort of. Look at turntables. And who knows? This is about the future, where potential is limitless.

As always, the hub of the thorium community is the excellent Energy from Thorium blog – or former blog, as it has lately morphed into a foundation dedicated to the element and its limitless potential. If thorium fascinates you, that’s your web destination.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What FERC Does–and What It Can Do For Nuclear Energy

We haven’t written much about FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, because, though it is important to energy markets and electricity transmission, it’s work, by and large, is not specific to any specific source. What it does impacts all energy generators – well, perhaps not equally, as we’ll see, but let’s say so for convenience. Let’s say it’s generator-neutral, at least when it comes to transmission.

Here’s the commission’s description of itself:
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil. FERC also reviews proposals to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and interstate natural gas pipelines as well as licensing hydropower projects. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave FERC additional responsibilities as outlined and updated Strategic Plan
There’s a lot more at the link – FERC’s mandate is pretty broad - and I guess you could say it has a special, NRC-like interest in hydroelectric plants. One of the things FERC does not do: “Regulation of nuclear power plants … .”

But where FERC’s oversight of energy markets intersects with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, it intersects with nuclear energy. In fact, in this realm, FERC is key:
FERC will play as important a role as EPA in achieving the objectives of the Clean Power Plan—reducing carbon emissions from the electric sector by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. That goal will be much more difficult to the extent that additional nuclear power plants are closed prematurely due to economic stress caused, in part, by flawed market design.
This is not special pleading. All energy policy – all policy  - is determined by balancing competing and sometimes conflicting goals. If FERC wants to ensure energy diversity and an ample electricity supply, then fine, but it must also account for what the nation wants to do in terms of carbon emission reduction. As it happens, nuclear energy answers to diversity, ample supply and emission reduction – it’s a trifecta of energy policy goals.
There were several reasons for the shutdowns that have occurred—including low natural gas prices, and low growth (or no growth) in electricity demand for several years as the U.S. economy emerges from recession. But these plants’ economic situation was also stressed by out-of-market revenues made possible by federal and/or state mandates, by price suppression that occurs in the energy markets, and by capacity markets that do not fully value the attributes the nuclear plants provide.
FERC last week held the first in a series of technical conferences on the Clean Power Plan, so it’s taking the issue seriously and could effect reforms to ensure that low emissions generators are properly valued. How?
Through its oversight of market design and market policies and practices in the nation’s organized markets, and with appropriate changes to capacity markets and energy markets, FERC could help avert additional [nuclear facility] shutdowns, beyond those that have already occurred. In so doing, FERC would also prevent potential degradation in reliability of electricity service.
These quotes come from a letter sent by NEI to FERC in response to that first meeting. You can read the whole letter here (smallish pdf). Do read the whole thing to get a fuller understanding of the issue. But this is, for many of us, the key bit:
EPA’s proposal is designed to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and that goal cannot be achieved without preserving the nuclear power plants that provide approximately 20 percent of America’s electricity, and 63 percent of America’s carbon-free electricity.
Maybe if FERC and its stakeholders could figure out something different, that would be one thing. But there is no other thing - the financial stress put on nuclear plants has the clear potential of precipitating a ruinous outcome. FERC doesn’t – can’t – want that. It’s not just a nuclear energy issue; it’s an existential issue.

NEI has a press release up about this. It’s called “FERC Has Important Role in Achieving EPA’s Clean Power Plan”. Boy, does it ever.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cold, Sure, but Nuclear a Reliable Tonic

You’ve probably heard enough from us about last year’s polar vortex (brutal) and the nuclear performance during it (great), so we’ll keep this brief – or at least let others do do the talking. Here’s TVA:
The Tennessee Valley Authority broke an all-time February power demand record Thursday morning with an estimated 32,109 megawatts at 7 a.m. EST, when the average temperature across the region hovered at 7 degrees.
In its 82-year history, this is TVA’s highest ever demand for the month of February. The previous record was 31,045 megawatts set on Feb. 5, 2009, when the Valley-wide temperature was 15 degrees. TVA’s all-time power demand record is 33,482 megawatts on Aug. 16, 2007.
All of TVA’s reactors operated at 100 percent over the last couple of days. The current situation doesn’t have the same quality of the polar vortex – that was fast and cruel while what the country has experienced over the last couple of weeks has been weather writ large – not slow and kind, to be sure, but easier to anticipate its impacts.

To an extent, anyway. Coming from the south, I can attest that that region of the country is never ready for cold weather much less snow and ice. So TVA’s performance is especially noteworthy.
What about the perpetually shivery northeast?
This is corroborated by nuclear’s excellent performance this winter.  On January 8th, in the midst of frigid arctic temperatures in the Northern U.S., nuclear facilities provided 27 percent of the early afternoon electricity demand for the PJM Interconnection wholesale electricity market spanning the mid-Atlantic region and much of the Midwest.  All but one of the 33 plants in this region operated at full capacity.  In the New York and New England independent service operator (ISO) markets, nuclear operated at a 100 percent capacity factor during this time.  No other energy source even comes close to this level of reliability.
As always, we’ll let other energy generators do their own humblebrag thing – I’m sure there are good stories to tell there, too.
Despite nuclear energy’s incredible resilience during extreme weather and these many benefits, some nuclear plants across the country are in danger of shutting down, or already have shut down due to a confluence of economic factors that are working against them.  These premature closures have a variety of negative impacts for the communities and regions they serve.
This is really the point. We could take this from the diversity, reliability or emissions perspectives, but the idea is the same: without nuclear energy, winter is a little colder and a little more polluted. It needs to be valued for what it offers.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Why Nuclear Energy's Loss is Warren Buffet's Gain

David Bradish
Over the 10 years that NEI Nuclear Notes has been in business, we've seen a lot of bloggers come and go, but today, I'd like to note the departure of one of our earliest contributors, NEI's David Bradish.

It's impossible to overestimate the impact that Dave has had on our blog and NEI's digital properties over the 11 years he's worked here. The son of a nuclear plant employee, Dave came to NEI out of Graceland University in Iowa (Dave is generally acknowledged to be the school's most famous graduate next to former Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner - wink) to work as an economist in our Policy Division. If Dave had done nothing more than simply do his job, he would have been seen as an important contributor. Whenever you read an NEI economic benefits study or study some the industry performance statistics we publish, you're enjoying Dave's handiwork. He's been responsible for the care and feeding of a significant portion of the content on NEI.org, including many of our most popular web pages. Over the years, our media team has come to rely on Dave to help extract real information from reams of industry financial and performance data, as well as more than a few interviews with the press.

Dave and one of his dangerous charts.
But what I'm most grateful for was the work he did here on the pages of NEI Nuclear Notes, where he regularly crossed swords with some of the nuclear energy industry's most vocal critics. Of course, the difference between Dave and folks like Amory Lovins, Helen Caldicott & Michael Mariotte, was that Dave came ready to fight with a calculator in one hand and an Excel spreadsheet in the other. It wasn't long after he arrived at NEI that Dave discovered that most anti-nuclear activists weren't very good at math, something he used to his, and NEI's advantage on these pages 177 times since 2008.

As good as that run was, it ends today, as Dave is packing his bags, wife, son and daughter to head back to Iowa where his kids can be closer to their grandparents. It's the sort of decision that tells you all you need to know about Dave and what's important to him. He'll be working in Des Moines for Wells Fargo (hence the Warren Buffet reference), doing big data analytics for their mortgage division. And while we'll miss him, we can't help but be happy for a friend that's doing what's best for him and his family. Bravo Zulu, Dave. Fair winds and following seas.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Nuclear World of San Luis Obispo

Oh, those kooky Californians.
For the first time in the 40-plus-year history of San Luis Obispo County's only nuclear power plant, individuals gathered Monday to support Diablo Canyon's continued operation rather than oppose it.
"It's always been the adversaries," Ellie Ripley, of Arroyo Grande, said about the several decades worth of protests and public outcry aimed at closing Diablo Canyon Power Plant. "Not all nuclear plants have adversaries."
I like that construction – “San Luis Obispo County’s only nuclear power plant” – it’s actually California’s only nuclear power plant after the closing of San Onofre, but this is in a local newspaper. It’s not just politics that’s local to a local paper – it’s everything.
How did Ripley get involved with a pro-nuclear group? And why?
A voice for those such as Ripley, who led tours at Diablo Canyon for 23 years, was often silenced by the voices against nuclear energy, which is why Orcutt resident Bill Gloege formed the all-citizens group, Californians for Green Nuclear Power, and helped organize Monday's rally, he said.
"I was frustrated by all the false information put out about nuclear power," Gloege said. "I knew it wasn't true."
This is actually, in my experience, pretty rare – not that people support nuclear energy – polls are consistent that it is well supported – but that they’d more-or-less spontaneously group together and make their fondness for the atom known. People are more likely to protest something they don’t like or want, not what they do like and want. It’s a bit unusual for people to use the techniques of anti-nuclear protest in the name of advocacy, but there you are. It can be done.

Now, anti-nuclear groups have scored points here and there, but their arguments, never the greatest to start with, have become increasingly tinny. “Over the years, the nuclear plant [Diablo Canyon] has been at the forefront of numerous government meetings where watchdog groups like Mothers for Peace have repeatedly called for its closure.”

Yet Diablo Canyon has been puttering along for 25 years without incident. Maybe it’s time for a change. Grandmothers for Peace? After all, their children are now grown with children of their own. So if all their calls for closure have not borne fruit – and were never likely to – and all the Cassandra-like portents of doom have come to naught, what does a disappointed mother for peace do? Keep on with it, I guess, with walkers if necessary, until the job’s done.

In this context, it’s nice to have a gang like Californians for Green Nuclear Energy around to pose against the anti-nuclear mob.

But I’m projecting. On the basis of the story, CGNE’s members seem like nice folks standing up for something that’s important to them. It’s a real tonic to know they’re there and, in fact, ever so discreetly, Diablo Canyon should slip them cookies and punch whenever they’re outside the plant. It’s lucky to have them.

Great story with a decided local angle by April Charlton of the Lompoc (Calif.) Record – worth a full read. Be sure to visit CGNP’s Facebook page and like the heck out of them.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Into the Fire(storm) with the Nuclear Man

Firestorm So, in an issue of Superman/Wonder Woman (they’re dating), the heroes are weakened and dumped into an inactive nuclear plant’s containment chamber by the story’s villain. Despite their inability to get out of the chamber, they determine that if Superman can use his microscopic vision to identify an excited atom and Wonder Woman then splits that atom with her extremely sharp sword, then the chamber will explode and the heroes freed. It works, defying credibility.

In Worlds Finest Comics, Seabrook nuclear plant is completely drained of energy, causing a gigantic blackout. Power Girl fears she may have done this via some experiments she’s conducting. This proves to be true, so she flies over to Seabrook and becomes its energy source, spinning the turbines while plant staff replace the depleted fuel rods. Power Girl helps out with that, too.

As you can see, these recent stories have nothing in particular to say about nuclear energy – nuclear facilities, even a real one like Seabrook, are used to provide unique settings and unlikely science. Aside from the fact that Seabrook’s draining causes three states to black out, nothing is made of them being nuclear facilities. They just are. As we’ll see, this is a real change for the better.

Longtime DC hero Firestorm just made his debut in The Flash TV show. His story is still being told, but his emergence reminds me that the original character comes from a time when nuclear energy was heavily disfavored in some quarters. His comic book origin reflects this, making him perhaps the first (even only) superhero to emerge from a flurry of no-nukes fervor.

Created by writer Gerry Conway and artist Al Milgrom in 1978, Firestorm is sometimes called the Nuclear Man, though it should probably be Nuclear Fusion Man.

High school slacker Ronnie Raymond wants to impress a girl by participating in an anti-nuclear protest where she’ll be. He discovers that the head of the protest group means to blow up the plant, a scheme Ronnie tries and fails to stop. Instead, he’s knocked out, and he and plant employee Martin Stein, a Nobel prize winning nuclear physicist, are caught in the blast. They aren't killed, but are fused into one being: Firestorm. Ronnie remains to the fore while Martin is a background voice who basically tells the gormless kid how to use his powers.

Firestorm has the usual super hero accoutrements of flight and strength, but his nuclear nature allows him to turn anything into anything else (transmutation, not alchemy) and he can fire radioactivity from his hands – Conway must have thought better of this idea, because it’s usually just a forceful blast. Ronnie isn’t doing unscheduled x-rays on a regular basis.

The character may have arisen from a distaste for nuclear energy, but the series quickly dropped that angle. After all, the Nuclear Man was the hero and the atomic symbol was used to represent Firestorm about to blast a bad guy. Really, nothing about the concept sells nuclear energy as a negative – it’s the anti-nuclear activist in the first issue who’s the villain. But that was the intent and as a reader in 1978, that’s how I saw it.

Firestorm’s first title ran throughout the 80s – he was one of the most successful new characters from that decade;  DC has kept Firestorm active in the last quarter century, with a new title now and then and frequent appearances in team comics and special events. (The current comic book version drops the original pair for a young man and woman, with the woman in the forefront.)

firestormtv The TV show version, which I don’t believe has told a full origin yet, returns to Martin and Ronnie, but replaces a nuclear plant with a particle accelerator (think CERN) and puts Martin’s mind in charge of Ronnie’s body, probably to avoid the issue of Firestorm constantly talking to an invisible person. He could easily seem psychotic. Nuclear energy, as in recent comics, is a factor, but not demonized or lionized. It just is – as it should be – a thing in the course of events that can create heroes or villains as behooves the writer’s whim – and do all that emission-free electricity generation while it’s at it. What’s not to like? Nuclear energy – fun as well as practical.

Oyster Creek and NRC Inspection Findings

Jim Slider
The following guest post is by Jim Slider, NEI's Senior Project Manager, Safety-Focused Regulation.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently announced disposition of several regulatory issues from Oyster Creek Generating Station’s fourth quarter inspection report. Without context, one might be alarmed by multiple violations in one reporting period, however a thorough understanding of the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process provides the right amount of perspective.

In the United States, the safety of commercial nuclear power plants is assured by several layers of protection. Beginning with robust designs and stringent procedures, plant owners like Exelon enforce high standards on the hundreds of professionals who contribute to the design, maintenance and operation of their plants. Those standards demand compliance with federal safety requirements and more. Constant scrutiny and continuous learning are important parts of those high, self-imposed expectations. When minor lapses in performance occur, it is quite common for the owner (“licensee” in NRC’s parlance) to uncover the problem first, and, as appropriate, report it to NRC and fix it.

Equally important is the assurance provided by a strong, independent regulator. In the United States, that is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) is the agency’s program to inspect, measure, and assess the safety and security performance of operating commercial nuclear power plants, and to respond to any decline in their performance. The ROP includes specified continuous and periodic inspections and performance indicators that are reported to NRC quarterly. The inspection results (“findings”) and performance indicators are graded on a color-coded scale so NRC can more easily combine them to form a whole picture of the plant’s performance. The grading and color-coding also facilitate communicating the NRC’s perception of the plant’s performance to the public, the media, and other stakeholders.

An important premise of the ROP is the understanding that most of the time inspection results and performance indicators will show the desired “Green” grades. Lapses from this high level of performance are expected to be more or less random, and promptly addressed by the plant’s corrective action process. Sometimes, due to the timing of particular NRC inspections or publication of inspection reports, the NRC may seem to be releasing an apparent “cluster” of adverse performance results on a particular plant.
Oyster Creek Generating Station

This can give a misleading impression of a sudden decline in plant performance. To address this “lumpiness” of input data, the ROP framework specifies that the NRC’s comprehensive semiannual review of plant performance should encompass at least 12 months of performance data. In addition, the ROP provides for special inspections to dig deeper into the causes and corrections of individual lapses that are graded as more safety-significant than the random “Green” result. Thus, NRC will mount special inspections to follow up on the White and Yellow inspection findings, as well as the White performance indicator recorded in the third quarter of 2014.

Oyster Creek was judged to be operating at the highest levels of the ROP for most of the past five years. As Exelon responds to the current set of inspection findings and NRC follow-up, we have every reason to expect that Exelon’s response to the findings will underscore their commitment to improve performance in those areas.