Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Nuclear Energy’s Unmatched Reliability

The following is a guest blog post by NEI’s Mitch Singer. Today, tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll be taking a closer look at how nuclear energy facilities function as the backbone of the electric grid, operating at full power when demand is at its highest in summer and winter. Click here to see why nuclear energy’s reliability is unmatched in the electric business. Later, take some time to better understand the value of "Always On Power," and then see "How Nuclear Power Plants Prep," for times when demands is at its height.

As we enter the height of the summer season when sweltering heat waves challenge utilities to keep pace with hundreds of millions of air conditioners running at full blast, it’s comforting for Americans to know that relief from stifling heat will be there when they need it.

The system is so reliable that we take for granted that, when we step inside our homes or workplaces, we’ll be met with a refreshing flow of cool air. Until it isn’t there. Some don’t have that luxury. In India, more than 300 million people – equal to the entire U.S. population – don’t have any electricity at all.


One reason Americans are able to maintain their comfortable lifestyle is that many utilities have invested in creating a diverse generating mix – one where nuclear energy provides the foundation to keep the grid up and running when demand is at its highest. It is no exaggeration to say the nuclear plants that provide 20 percent of America’s electricity are “always on.” They operate more than 90 percent of the time which helps mitigate disruptions when other types of plants fall off the grid; 96 percent of the time in July and August.

Why are nuclear plants so reliable? Plant reliability is directly tied to highly trained technicians and programs. Preventive and predictive maintenance is carried out daily during refueling outages. Workers tear down, inspect and replace equipment before it fails. Refueling outages bring in over a 1,000 workers and spend between $30 million-$60 million dollars during a typical 30-day outage. Nuclear plant operators undertake their month-long refueling and maintenance in the spring and fall when demand is low.

Thus when crunch time hits in the summer and winter the plants are ready to meet these peak periods.

Gabriel Verespej works on an Emergency Diesel Generator at Fermi 2. 
Reliable supplies of electricity are critical to the industries that drive the American economy. The manufacturing sector accounts for 18 percent of the American economy and uses the equivalent of the entire annual production of 100 large-scale (1,000 MWe) power plants. Just one of these plants can power a mid-size city like Boston or Seattle.

Ross Eisenberg, vice president, Energy and Resources Policy at the National Association of Manufacturers said,“Energy is the lifeblood of manufacturing. As consumers of one-third of the nation’s energy, manufacturers depend on a steady flow of electricity to power our plants and equipment. Even short interruptions of electricity service can be incredibly costly as production lines halt, batches are scrapped and equipment is damaged.”

An excerpt from a recent annual report of the Century Aluminum Company echoes many of the same day-to-day concerns:
“We use large amounts of electricity to produce primary aluminum. Any loss of power which reduces the amperage to our equipment or causes an equipment shutdown would result in a reduction in the volume of molten aluminum produced, and prolonged losses of power may result in the hardening or “freezing” of molten aluminum in the pots where it is produced, which could require an expensive and time consuming restart process.”

“We operate our plants at close to peak amperage. Accordingly, even partial failures of high voltage equipment could affect our production.”

“Electricity represents our single largest operating cost. As a result, the availability of electricity at economic prices is critical to the profitability of our operations.”
Food and beverage processors also need reliable power to stay online. Power outages can be expensive. Much like oil, hot chocolate is piped over long distances. If power is lost, chocolate congeals within 3-5 minutes. A plant could be down for 2 hours, or entire pipelines may have to be discarded at great cost.

We’ve all become used to getting information with the click of a mouse. And we get frustrated when websites are down or take too long to load. More and more information is being stored in “the cloud.”

On a yearly basis the computer and electronic products industries use the equivalent of the annual production of four nuclear plants. And it will only increase with the continued growth in cloud technologies and mobile computing.

Let’s take Google as an example.

Google products launch more than 100 billion searches every month, map information for more than 1 billion monthly users and host over 5 million businesses in the cloud. In 2012, Google’s electricity consumption totaled 3 million MWh, more than one-third of the total annual output of a nuclear plant (click here for all the details).

If Google doesn’t have reliable electricity, just take a look at Twitter whenever Gmail suffers an unexpected service interruption. We’ve come to rely on these services so heavily, that we simply can’t live without them anymore – which means we can’t afford to live without reliable, affordable nuclear energy either.

Photo Credit: Interior shot of Google logo inside Building 43 on their Silicon Valley Campus by Robert Scoble. Photo used under Creative Commons license.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Higher and Higher: EEI Uncovers The Cost of Electricity in Germany

Here’s the bottom line on Germany’s drive to switch from nuclear energy to renewables:

[T]he lessons learned in Europe prove that the large-scale integration of renewable power does not provide net savings to consumers, but rather a net increase in costs to consumers and other stakeholders.

There’s more:

Moreover, when not properly assessed in advance, large-scale integration of renewables into the power system ultimately leads to disequilibrium in the power markets, as well as value destruction to both renewable companies and utilities, and their respective investors.

This is from a report prepared by energy consulting firm Finadvice (a Finnish company, though its web site and the report are in English) for the Edison Electric Institute and Finadvice’s European clients.

Neither EEI nor Finadvice have any particular brief for nuclear energy (in this context) and are interested in studying the transition primarily as a case study in quickly ramping up renewable energy sources. Nuclear energy is incidental to the analysis; this provides an interesting focus, though it also causes the report to miss a step here and there.

For example:

Household electricity prices in Germany have more than doubled, increasing from €0.14/kilowatt hour (kWh) ($0.18) in 2000 to more than €0.29/kWh ($0.38) in 2013.

This outcome has occurred with many of the nuclear plants still operating, so these costs presumably will only go higher after the plants close in 2021. (The cost for household electricity in the U.S. is about $0.13/kWh , for comparison).

The rapid introduction of renewable energy sources has other consequences, too:

As a result, wholesale prices in Germany for baseload have fallen dramatically from €90-95/megawatt hour (MWh) in 2008 to €37/MWh in 2013. This has created a large amount of load and margin destruction for utilities that built and financed thermal plants. Many new gas-fired power plants have been rendered uneconomical, leaving owners to shore up their balance sheets by undertaking large divestitures of some of their holdings, as well as by reducing their operational costs.

Wait – shouldn’t household prices go down if wholesale costs decline? You’d think so, but there are other forces at work.

One is subsidies granted to renewable energy sources. A second is a provision of Germany’s renewable energy law that mandates electric companies buy renewable energy ahead of thermal-powered energy regardless of need.

These actions, which the government intends as a way to prop up renewable energy until it can support itself, warps the cost of electricity tremendously, because it means that companies must  ramp down non-renewable plants, even when the electricity generated by them is less expensive.

Natural gas facilities takes most of the hit here, according to the report, and it’s rendering some of them unprofitable. Yet they and nuclear plants are still needed when renewable energy sources are not supplying electricity – at night and when the wind isn’t blowing.

Another factor is that Germany cannot allow electric companies to charge the full cost of electricity to industry – Germany is the largest exporter in Europe and it must remain competitive in world markets. This means that all the cost is pushed down to households. 

There’s a lot more to the report – it’s the most comprehensive (and most objective) view of the German situation I’ve seen. It also reconfirms every heavily biased view a nuclear advocate could possibly devise – but that’s just gravy. What it really confirms is that Germans are getting a raw deal.

Germany’s experience with renewables has often been portrayed as a success story. It undoubtedly met one of the objectives set by the EEG: the promotion of renewable generation. It remains unclear, however, how successful Germany has been in meeting the other stated goals of its renewable energy policy: mainly climate change mitigation, energy independence, reduction of fuel costs, conservation of fossil fuels, local economic development, and  expansion of the  domestic manufacturing base.

If you start promoting renewable energy by fiat, that’s going to succeed by definition. But all the rest of it? – the stuff that really empowers people and ensures a viable future? At best, the jury’s out and at worst, the jury foreman is looking at you with sad, sad eyes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

5 Myths About the Export-Import Bank

Later today, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee (HFSC) will be holding a briefing for House members on the Ex-Im Bank. Recently, the majority staff at Hensarling's committee published their list of "5 Things to Know About the Export-Import Bank." We think the title of the blog is something of a misnomer. Instead, the piece should have been titled, "5 Myths About the Export-Import Bank."

Here's our point-by-point rebuttal:

1. The Ex-Im Bank doesn’t create jobs.

Why this is wrong: The Ex-Im Bank supports just 2 percent of all U.S. exports, which from 2007 to 2014 amounted to $240 billion of export assistance. In terms of jobs, that’s support for 1.5 million U.S. employees.

According to the Bank, every $1 billion in export assistance supports 6,390 U.S. jobs. Countless testimonials by large, medium, and small businesses state that their ability to export would simply not occur without the Bank's assistance.

2. The Ex-Im Bank doesn’t return money to the taxpayers.

Why this is wrong: The Ex-Im Bank sent roughly $1 billion in profit to the U.S. Treasury in 2013. Those who argue against this point base their talking point on an alternative accounting method – fair value accounting – which for many reasons is not appropriate and is therefore not used. One reason is because comparable private rates do not exist for many of the loans given; therefore, fair-value accounting artificially assigns higher rates, causing the bank to appear to operate at a loss.

3. The Ex-Im Bank fails to help small businesses, even though it is required by law to do so.

Why this is wrong: Almost 90 percent of the Ex-Im Bank's customers in 2013 were small businesses. Businesses like Precision Custom Components of York, Pennsylvania.


And it’s also worth mentioning that the Bank’s overall default rate is currently at a historic low of 0.237 percent.

4. The Ex-Im Bank uses American taxpayers’ money to help foreign corporations, including businesses that are owned by the governments of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Why this is wrong: The Ex-Im Bank provides loans, insurance, and guarantees so that U.S. businesses can export. As a part of this, the Ex-Im bank will make a loan to a foreign borrower if it allows a U.S. firm to export. In the UAE, Ex-Im Bank loans supported a Korean-led nuclear construction project where IP and other services from Westinghouse were critical to the project. Ex-Im Bank also helped enable Westinghouse win a contract to build four advanced reactors in China. Ex-Im did not, in the end, make a loan or loan guarantee for the China transaction, but ECA support was a bidding requirement that enabled Westinghouse to compete for the tender.

Here's what NEI's Marv Fertel wrote yesterday in the National Journal::
Consider Russia’s negotiations last week with Argentina, during which Vladimir Putin signed a nuclear energy cooperation deal with to bolster trade ties and strengthen Russia's influence in Latin America. Rosatom, the state atomic energy corporation, has made an offer for the construction of two reactors in Argentina, including what Russia’s energy minister called "comfortable" financial terms to Argentina.

More than 60 percent of the world’s 435 operating reactors are based on technology developed in the United States. With the world’s largest civilian nuclear energy program, the U.S. industry is recognized for reliability, safety and operational excellence. However, new supplier nations have entered the growing global nuclear market, and multi-national partnerships and consortia have been formed to develop nuclear energy facilities. Many U.S. competitors are backstopped with government financing and other incentives.

To compete globally and drive domestic economic growth, the Ex-Im bank fills the gaps, offering loans, loan guarantees and insurance that leverage private finance in pursuit of U.S. commercial and strategic interests.
The following is from a letter sent by NEI's Alex Flint to Chairman Hensarling and HFSC Ranking Member Maxine Waters:
U.S. nuclear energy suppliers can compete and win on a level playing field. Advanced U.S. reactor technology, world-leading U.S. operational expertise, and broader partnerships with the United States in nuclear energy hold strong appeal to international nuclear energy customers.

However, a global market free of government influence is not the one that U.S. nuclear energy companies compete in today. U.S. companies compete against a growing number of foreign firms – many of which are state-owned and benefit from various forms of state support. All foreign nuclear energy competitors are backed by national export credit agencies (ECAs) or other state financing.

Export credit agencies play an essential role in financing nuclear power projects. ECA support is almost always a bidding requirement for international nuclear power plant tenders. In the emerging markets where commercial nuclear energy opportunities are concentrated, financing is often the most critical factor. Although risk in nuclear power projects is typically low, commercial lenders are unwilling to participate in financing nuclear power plants without an export credit agency’s playing a role as a result of higher capital requirements mandated under the Basel III accord.

Beyond their substantial benefits to U.S. exports and job creation, U.S. commercial nuclear exports provide the United States with substantial influence over other nations’ nonproliferation policies and practices, and help to ensure the highest possible levels of nuclear power plant safety and reliability around the world. U.S. commercial nuclear exports also maintain U.S. leadership in nuclear energy technology and support the U.S. manufacturing base.
5. The Ex-Im Bank financed only 1.6% of total U.S. exports in 2013.

Why this is wrong: This statement further proves the point that the Bank is a finely targeted program intended to address specific market failures that the private sector cannot serve.

For a closer look at all of the reasons why the nuclear industry supports the reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank, see our blog post from June 24, 2014.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Idaho National Labs: Taking Nuclear Energy into the Digital Age

The following blog post was submitted by Idaho National Laboratory’s Caleb Robison for NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion. Powered by Our People is part of NEI’s campaign called Future of Energy, which NEI launched earlier this year. This promotion aims to communicate innovation in our nation’s nuclear facilities—in the voices of their workforces.

Caleb Robison is an experiment system engineer who has worked at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory for the past nine years. He also mentors the next generation of nuclear professionals by participating in INL’s internship program.

We can’t wait to highlight your facility’s innovators and their part in the #futureofenergy across our digital channels from July to September. Take a look at the featured content on our website.


Caleb Robison of the Idaho National Laboratory
Caleb Robison works at the lab's Advanced Test Reactor (ATR), where he prepares safety documentation for new experiments, coordinates experiment schedules with reactor operations cycles and provides system engineer support for a hydraulically-operated experiment system that can be loaded while the reactor is operating.

The job provides constant challenges and allows him to think outside the box to find solutions. Working with a research tool as versatile and powerful as the ATR, he says, is exciting. He’s excited to be part of helping develop new technology that takes nuclear to the next level. In short, he feels like he's contributing to "moving nuclear energy technology from the '70s to the digital age." 

"One of the reasons America is so powerful is that we have the energy to fuel our economy," Caleb says. "To continue this into the future we need cheap, reliable, diverse and environmentally responsible energy sources. No one source provides all the solutions to all of the country’s energy needs. I believe that any national energy portfolio that doesn’t include nuclear is unsustainable and will eventually fail."

The one-of-a-kind research conducted at ATR and the collaborative atmosphere created by its DOE National Scientific User Facility provides significant potential success for the nuclear industry worldwide. ATR research also helps extend the life of current reactors and better understand reactor aging phenomena. Caleb relishes being part of that contribution.

"I’m bringing innovation to the nuclear industry by supporting research and development of new materials and fuels for use by the United States Navy and by helping other researchers — international industry, universities and reactor vendors — push the envelope on reactor performance while increasing safety." Caleb especially enjoys opportunities to contribute to nuclear advancement by participating in public outreach opportunities, such as tours and other public forums.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

NEI's Lipman Testifies on Future of International Civilian Nuclear Cooperation

Dan Lipman
The following is a guest post from Dan Lipman, Executive Director, Policy Development and Supplier Programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute. Prior to his stint at NEI, Dan was responsible for managing the global deployment of new power plants at Westinghouse. While there, he led new plant projects in Korea and the deployment of 10 new AP1000 EPC contracts in China and the U.S. 

Later this morning, I will be testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on The Future of International Civilian Nuclear Cooperation. Having spent several decades around the world working for Westinghouse, I've seen first-hand how international nuclear commerce can help support American influence abroad as well as create jobs and economic growth back home

NEI believes that the global expansion of nuclear energy infrastructure provides the United States a unique opportunity to meet several national imperatives at the same time:  (1) increasing U.S. influence over nuclear nonproliferation policy and practices around the world; (2) ensuring the highest possible levels of nuclear power plant safety and reliability around the world, by exporting U.S. advanced reactor designs and America’s world-class operational expertise; (3) maintaining U.S. leadership in nuclear energy technology; and, (4) creating tens of thousands of jobs and maintaining a healthy manufacturing base for nuclear energy technology and services.

The global nuclear marketplace is extremely competitive. Our US industry has to go against enterprises from Russia, France, Korea and Japan. Most of these competitors are state-owned. No new nuclear market will just fall in the lap of US companies – we have to compete hard to win!

To maintain U.S. influence over global nonproliferation policy and international nuclear safety, the U.S. commercial nuclear energy sector must participate in the rapidly expanding global market for nuclear energy technologies (435 commercial nuclear reactors in operation around the world, 72 under construction, 172 planned or on order).  If U.S. exporters were able to capture 25 percent of the global market – estimated at $500 billion to $750 billion over the next 10 years – this would create (or sustain) up to 185,000 high-paying American jobs.  

The U.S. nuclear industry is competitive, but we must be allowed to compete. This requires policies that promote international civilian nuclear cooperation. The industry:
  • Supports efforts to limit the spread of uranium enrichment and used fuel reprocessing (E&R) technologies consistent with current U.S. policy.
  • Opposes inflexible preconditions to U.S. nuclear cooperation potential partners will not accept and that other supplier nations do not impose. Pragmatism should continue to guide the United States as it negotiates Section 123 agreements.
  • Supports prompt negotiation of new and renewal bilateral agreements for peaceful nuclear energy cooperation. These agreements are essential for meaningful U.S. nuclear exports.
  • Supports a proactive approach for the negotiation of Section 123 agreements with nations with new or expanding peaceful nuclear energy programs, including the ROK, Vietnam and China. It is in the U.S. national security, nonproliferation, nuclear safety and economic interest to secure agreements early and with a broad set of partners rather than to sit idly by as these nations partner with other nuclear suppliers. Without agreements in force, we forfeit exports, jobs and commercial benefits, and we will fail to influence these programs in terms of their nuclear safety, security and nonproliferation norms.
  • Supports policies that level the competitive playing field for U.S. exporters including reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, bringing the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damages into force, and modernization of export controls under 10 CFR 810.
To follow today's hearing, you can watch the committee's webcast beginning at 9:45 a.m. For more detailed analysis and commentary, please follow NEI's Ted Jones on his Twitter feed, where he'll be live tweeting today's hearing from start to finish.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Being a Nuclear Engineer at AREVA

Abbey Donahue
The following post was created by Abbey Donahue for NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion. Powered by Our People is part of NEI’s campaign called Future of Energy, which NEI launched earlier this year. This promotion aims to communicate innovation in our nation’s nuclear facilities—in the voices of their workforces. For more on this promotion, take a look at the featured content on our website and follow the #futureofenergy tag across our digital channels.

Abbey is a Design Project Engineer for Areva TN and has worked in the nuclear industry for five years. Abby is also the professional development chair of the North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NAYGN). Follow her on Twitter, @chatteyabbey.

“What do you do?” Like many places, in Washington, D.C., it’s a question that comes up in just about every conversation. “I’m an engineer at a nuclear energy company,” I reply. The most frequent reaction is an “Oh” that varies in intonation and accompanying expression. At times it reflects disinterest, other times, concern, and occasionally genuine interest. The fact of the matter is that I have tremendous passion for what I do. What might that be? I’m happy to share a bit about the what and the why.

What I do

AREVA's New Transport Cask
I’m a nuclear engineer by education, and started in nuclear analysis roles at AREVA in 2009, before moving into project engineering at AREVA TN. AREVA TN designs and manufactures systems to store, transfer, and transport nuclear material with a continuous focus on making them safer and more efficient. In my current role, I coordinate technical aspects of design projects across all analysis disciplines and licensing. Being in the design group allows me to play a role in developing those new designs. Recently you may have seen news about AREVA TN’s newest products, including our next generation high capacity and high performance Extended Optimized Storage (EOS) dry storage canister and our newly NRC-licensed transport cask for high burnup used fuel . These are just a couple of examples of safe, innovative products our company is bringing to market.

I love that nearly every day presents a new technical challenge where I get to collaborate with other engineers and work towards a solution. The way our customers are operating their plants is different than when our dry storage systems were first designed. Used nuclear fuel still generates decay heat, even after it is done producing power in a reactor. These days the utilities are using their fuel more efficiently, and as a result, the used nuclear fuel generates more decay heat. AREVA TN has improved our NUHOMS® design to store fuel with more decay heat while maintaining the safety and quality standards demanded by the public, our customers and our regulator. This is achieved through calculation and methodology improvements, better understanding of material properties, and physical design improvements in license amendments or new system designs. It’s in these licensing amendments and new product designs that the design engineers get to exercise their innovation muscles and develop new solutions.

Working in the nuclear industry has been very rewarding, and there are many growth opportunities at AREVA. During the past five years, I have worked on pressurized water reactor (PWR) core design in Lynchburg, VA, boiling water reactor (BWR) core design in Richland, WA, and with the criticality and shielding group in Columbia, MD. These three positions were part of AREVA’s Voyager Program , a rotational program focused on internal mobility and developing engineering talent. Through these roles, I’ve been able to work on the front end of the fuel cycle – analyzing the fuel before it goes into the reactor and during reactor operations – and on the back end of the fuel cycle – where the fuel is used and ready to be removed from the fuel pool and put in dry storage.

Why it matters

It gives me a great sense of pride to be working on developing innovative solutions to support an energy source that provides nearly 20 percent of America’s safe, clean and reliable electricity. The de-carbonization of our energy mix is in progress, but our ability to maintain and improve upon our trajectory depends in large part on the contribution of the 100 nuclear power plants that currently provide nearly two-thirds of our low-carbon energy. I realize that a lot of people have questions and concerns about nuclear waste, even though the waste associated with an average American’s lifetime supply of nuclear energy fits into a container the size of a soda can. While current reactor technology does produce nuclear material that needs to be safely handled and managed (hence, my work in designing robust and secure storage solutions), research and development are underway to design reactors that could run on the used nuclear fuel currently stored in our dry-shielded canisters at nearly 50 percent of U.S. nuclear facilities.

I love what I do because it is challenging, and also because it is a way for me to contribute to our sustainable clean energy future. As my career has progressed, each day I develop a greater appreciation for what engineers do to have a positive impact. I’m proud to be a nuclear engineer, and am excited to continue contributing to an industry that supports safe, clean, reliable energy, and provides opportunities for people of my generation and future generations to make a difference.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Facts on the Spent Fuel Pool at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 5

Tom Kauffman
Last night, Fox News picked up a report from Russia Today concerning a leak in the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi Unit Five.
Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was forced to switch off the cooling system at Reactor Unit 5, after engineers discovered it had been leaking water. If the system is not repaired within the next nine days, temperatures are expected to soar, Russian news site RT reported Sunday.
As our readers might recall, our go to guy on Fukushima and spent fuel is Tom Kauffman, a former reactor operator from Three Mile Island. Here's what he wrote to me after I shared the Fox News link with him:
The used fuel has cooled to the point that even if all the water was lost, radiation levels would increase due to a loss of shielding, but there’s no way the fuel produces enough heat to damage itself let alone incinerate. A good rule of thumb: Even in a densely packed fuel pool, 107 days after fresh used fuel is placed in the pool, there is insufficient heat generation to cause fuel incineration even if all cooling water is lost.
Tom also passed along the fact that the volume of water leaking from the pool is so small, that TEPCO could compensate for it by simply running a garden hose to the pool. This isn't the first time we've asked Tom to weigh in on rumors like this one, and we're sure it won't be the last.

UPDATE: NHK is now reporting that the cooling system for the spent fuel pool at Unit 5 has been restarted without incident. Congrats to the team at TEPCO for resolving the incident.

FINAL UPDATE: Here's the final word from TEPCO on the incident.