Monday, September 18, 2006

On The UCS Report

I'm sure by now a lot of you have seen the story in the New York Times about a report from David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists concerning extended shutdowns at nuclear power plants. Though we had gotten word that the report (PDF) was coming last week, I hadn't seen a copy until this morning, and a lot of folks here are still plowing through it.

Some of the words folks here have used to describe it are "bogus" and "backward-looking". But instead of saying anything else, I'd just refer you to the comments that our chief nuclear officer, Marv Fertel and Stuart Richards of NRC made to New York Times reporter Matthew Wald.

Some other factors to keep in mind while reading the report:

  • U.S. nuclear reactors now have about 3,100 years of operating experience, and the extended shutdowns that are the subject of this report constitute only 4% of the total. In addition, all but three years -- about one-thousandth of the total operating experience -- occurred before the year 2000.
  • Since 2000, U.S. reactors have consistently achieved industry-wide capacity factors of 90 percent or more -- something that would be impossible if these were common problems as plants offline for extended periods of time cannot by definition achieve that sort of performance.
  • The report doesn't recognize many of the safety and operational improvements the industry has achieved through the work of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, as well as the recent trend of industry consolidation that has allowed operators to enjoy increased efficiency and safety.
I'll have more later after I've spoken with some other folks here at NEI, but in the meantime I invite our readers to take a look at closer look at the UCS report (PDF) and tell us what you find. Thanks in advance for your help.

UPDATE: I just had a short conversation with Tony Pietrangelo, NEI's Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, and he had some interesting observations to pass on. The first thing he noticed was this passage on the back cover of the report:
This event -- an outage at a nuclear power plant that lasts more than a year -- has happened 51 times at 29 different plants around the United States and shows no sign of stopping.
Tony wondered how Lochbaum could make a claim like that one when the type of incident he's describing has only happened once in recent memory at Davis-Besse.

"Look at the data," Tony told me. "We started a gradual improvement in performance in the early 1990s and we plateaued recently at about and industry-wide 90 percent capacity factor." He added, if what Lochbaum was correct, it would be reflected in the data, and that's simply not the case.

Another point: Much of the data that Lochbaum looks at is ancient, with a number of the events he describes occurring in the 1960s, 30-40 years ago, a time that has little relevance to the reality of the nuclear industry today. Further, Tony continued many of the shutdowns Lochbaum describes were actually self-imposed.

"This guy is attacking our strength ... If anything, this report proves that we only operate when we believe we can operate safely," Tony said. As for the report's recommendations, Tony said that everything that Lochbaum suggests is already being done by NRC. "It's part of the regulations, part of the ROP (Reactor Oversight Process), part of Safety Culture and it's a large segment of the regulation that the NRC already does."

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6 comments:

Anonymous said...

"The report doesn't recognize many of the safety and operational improvements the indsutry has achieved through the work of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations"

Maybe that's because INPO's reports are all proprietary and almost none are made publicly available? If you want to brag, you have to open your mouth.

Anonymous said...

By the tone of the reporting, they demonstrate ignorance of base load plants regardless of energy source. They go down all the time, sometimes for long periods of time. It’s just not news most of the time unlike nuclear.

Coal plants go down for long stretches for boiler re-tubes. Boiler rebuilds are long and expensive, and depending on the coal burned can happen fairly often (10-15 years). Hydro plants go down when the reservoir is drained to repair the dam. Gas turbines need rebuilds, also often after 10 or 15 years, but they can be quicker.

- Matthew B

KenG said...

This is a very curious report. It addresses a very technical issue without ever categorizing the technical causes of the extended outages beyond three very broad categories. It also has very strong language about an ongoing problem, but the actual data strongly supports the position that plants are getting much better. It lists 51 multi-year outages during the 50 year history of commercial nuclear power, but only one of those was initiated in the last 9 years. That suggests a rapidly improving situation.

One has to ask if the conclusions were written before the data was collected.

Joffan said...

I skimmed through the report, despite nearly losing all patience in the summary with the school zone "parallel". I'm not sure what the term is for this - granstanding? In the main body the tone settled down somewhat, although not without occasional prejudicial adjectives.

I looked over a couple of their detail case studies as well (from their web site), which appeared to be a mix of good data and meaningless gossip or off-topic rants.

I also get the impression that there are some "zeroes" missing from the data, representing plants that have never experienced a year-long outage. That is, unless it is indeed the case that every NPP operator has experinced a year-long outage on one of their plants. Without these points the data is unbalanced.

I also agree with keng's comment that the data clearly indicates that a troublesome period of safety catch-up in the 90s has been overcome and things appear to be improving.

Whitehall said...

While I haven't reviewed the report, I would like to point out that the economic incentives to nuclear power plant owners have changed considerably over the years.

During rate base economic regulation, many utilities would still collect revenues for the capital costs whether the plant had a high availability or not.

With the coming of increased PUC scrutiny, lower system reserve capacity, and broader deregulated markets, plant management is under considerably more pressure to ensure high availability and capacity factor for their nukes.

There's nothing like a profit incentive.

Anonymous said...

One of the three doctors thanked for a peer review is none other than the Linda Tripp of PSEG. She is a disgruntled former contractor of PSEG. PSEG was vindicated in getting rid of her by the office of investigations, and PSEG is no longer receiving extra oversight as a result of her attempts to shut them down. She is a real unbiased source to use. Lochbaum is also an ex-PSEG employee. I am sure that they plot evil things together to get back at their former employer.