Monday, December 12, 2005

Following Up With Judith Lewis of LA Weekly

Over the weekend, Judith Lewis of LA Weekly dropped off a comment in our post rebutting many of the assertions she had made about NEI and the industry over at her own blog. I thought the rest of our audience would like to see what she had to say, and I've excerpted portions of her note below:

Thanks for your detailed rebuttal. Please understand that I wasn't responding to NEI's overall approach to the issue of new generation, only that one interview with Scott Peterson, which I found shocking in its unbridled optimism.

I don't know whether nuclear power is the key to halting climate change. I'm worried about the CFC issue at the one remaining enrichment facility...
Let me break in here for a moment. What Judith is referring to is a claim most often made by Dr. Helen Caldicott of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute. As many of our longtime readers know, we've been following this issue for quite some time, and will often return to it when I find a reference to Caldicott mentioning what the industry considers to be a blatant distortion of the facts.

For an NEI response to Caldicott from NEI Vice President Scott Peterson, click here. For a response from USEC, the company that operates an enrichment facility in Paducah, Kentucky, click here. Here's the text from a note we received from Elizabth Stuckle of USEC that deals with Caldicott's charges:
Caldicott Assertion A: Uranium enrichment uses 93 percent of the CFC gas released annually in the United States.

USEC Response A

That calculation is based on 2001 data, when USEC was operating two enrichment facilities. That year, USEC consolidated production at its Paducah plant.

The shutdown of the Portsmouth, OH plant and improvements made in control of CFCs at Paducah have enabled USEC to reduce CFC emissions by about two-thirds.

The Paducah gaseous diffusion plant was built in the 1950s. USEC plans to replace it with highly efficient gas centrifuge technology, which will use no CFCs. The American Centrifuge Plant is expected to begin operations later this decade.

Caldicott Assertion B: Uranium enrichment uses electricity generated by coal-fired plants.

USEC Response B

USEC purchases the majority of its electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which produces electricity using a supply mix of 61% coal, 29% nuclear and 9% hydropower.

The remainder of USEC's purchased power comes primarily from natural gas and nuclear plants.
Back to Judith's comment:
I'm concerned about safety and unrealistic hopes for new designs (like the PBMR). I do know that nuclear won't work if they people making decisions don't approach it with the utmost caution and clear-eyed humility -- as Ray Golden at San Onofre says, "we manage for complacency everyday."

Peterson would have been wise to leaven his optimism with some realistic caution, that's all. It doesn't make anyone feel safe to hear a simplistic pitch for an extremely powerful -- and potentially dangerous -- source of energy.
Ray is a friend of ours, and we've learned a lot from him. But that doesn't mean the industry hasn't been talking about safety. Here's our CEO, Skip Bowman, in a speech he delivered to the World Association of Nuclear Operators at their biennial meeting about two months ago:
Our conservative design approach of “defense in depth,” coupled with a risk-informed approach to safety, provides a high degree of confidence that we can protect public health and safety. But we must never forget that nuclear power can be an unforgiving technology.

We also operate in an unforgiving public environment where the penalties for mistakes are high and where credibility and public confidence, once lost, are difficult to recover.

Managing this technology successfully requires high standards and eternal vigilance. Put simply, safety is our highest priority.
Further...
We have achieved a high operational plateau, but we still must guard against complacency and remain mindful of our challenges.

As electricity markets are deregulated, we must resist pressures to shave investment in staff, in training, in equipment. Many companies rely increasingly on contractors to provide services and capabilities, and that is not necessarily bad—as long as we realize we cannot contract out responsibility for safe operations.

As plants age, we must devote more attention to materials issues, anticipate potential degradation mechanisms and manage them before they have an impact on plant performance or regulatory confidence. We have had a number of surprises in this area, and we cannot tolerate surprises.

We must, as I noted earlier, rebuild our infrastructure, starting with the work force, and then moving to the manufacturing base. The slowdown in nuclear plant construction over the last 20 years has reduced the cadre of qualified people, and those we have are—like our plants—aging. We must refresh that pipeline.
I'd say that sounds pretty realistic when it comes to the challenges that our industry is facing. In any case, I'd like to thank Judith for giving us a hearing and participating in a real dialogue, rather than just another shouting match. I look forward to more of the same.

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2 comments:

Brian Mays said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brian Mays said...

I would like to add a couple of comments to the CFC issue.

Keep in mind that, although there is a ban on the particular CFC used at the enrichment plant, this ban is only on the production of the CFC. Existing supplies can still be used under the Montreal Protocol (the treaty instituting the ban). Thus, once the existing supplies of the stuff are gone, there will be no more, and it is in the interest of the plant to reduce leaks as much as possible and to move on to other technologies.

Even if the assertion made by Dr. Caldicott is accurate (I don't know for sure), she refers only to one type of CFC ozone destroyer, CFC-114 (although she fails to clarify this point). When compared to emissions of other types of CFCs -- particularly those used in air conditioners, but then Dr. Caldicott is opposed to air conditioning too -- the amounts of CFC released into the atmosphere by uranium enrichment is quite small indeed. This is just another way in which the truth is bended to meet the needs of those who oppose nuclear power.

The NEI should be (and I think is) grateful to Judith Lewis for her comments. This kind of feedback is essential for determining where misunderstanding still exists and where their message is going awry.