Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Nuclear Energy on the Wild River

6a01053656dea9970b01053656e68f970b The Tennessee Valley Authority is on the build:

Completion of a second reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant — partially built for $1.7 billion, then abandoned in 1988 for lack of need — is under way.

TVA also has been studying the possibility of completing two reactors once under construction at its Bellefonte site in northern Alabama. And TVA has applied for a license that would allow two reactors of a new design — called an AP 1000 by Westinghouse — to be built and operated there.

The bulk of the piece is a q&a with TVA’s Ashok Bhatnagar. TVA had the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn. last year, so they’ve got a reasonably skittish customer base. Thus, we were interested to see how Bhatnagar dealt with the inevitable used fuel questions.  Here’s how:

We have a very good method right now for managing wastes. It's very safe, and we've done that for almost 30 to 40 years. We've stored them in our pools, and then we've found a way to store them outside in dry cask storage. And we have a good method that was established to put them in a repository. A particular repository needs to get licensed.

Pretty good. Safe where it is, would be nice to have a central repository.

And why won’t there be a nuclear version of the the coal ash spill?

Because it's well regulated. There's very well defined criteria for how you store the waste. It's a design concept that's built into the plant from the very beginning. The spent fuel pools are designed and reviewed and approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission per very strict regulations.

We’re undecided whether to sound the buzzer on this one. We’re reasonably sure there are regulations about coal ash now and we know more are coming – see here. Beyond this, it doesn’t raise confidence to think TVA only takes care when a regulator is breathing down its neck. Mightn’t it try to circumvent regulation for whatever reason (profit, malice) rather than protect its customers?

We don’t believe TVA has any malicious or avaricious motivation – TVA has been a good nuclear (and coal) neighbor for many years. While we might wish Bhatnagar had thought this statement through a little more, he does an excellent job altogether. Take a look.


We’re pleased to see some information about the Babcock & Wilcox mPower reactors (small, modular units) from the TVA side. Here’s Bhatnagar:

We have elected to start working with a company on this small reactor concept they have come up with, but it's at the very early stages. There is no detailed design yet. This is the 10-, 15-year kind of thinking that you have to have. You have to make sure your input is in early so the designs come out the way you want them, with the kinds of experience that you've gained over 30 years of operation.

Still in the loop, not far enough along to commit to it. About where we left it.


We were actually poking around a bit to see what explained this cartoon:


This is from the Chattanooga Times Free Press (If we create a newspaper, we’ll name it the Constitution Free Journal Register Press in honor of merged newspapers.) Presumably this represents the editorial board’s nervousness about TVA’s plans. But it suggests the opposite, too: that it is the public’s nervousness (the sign painter probably not a plant worker) about nuclear energy that creates a problem, not the presence of the plant itself.

And we’ve looked at enough polls on this site to suggest that even this isn’t true. Our conclusion: an incoherent cartoon not reflective of any significant public attitude. As we said, TVA has been a good nuclear neighbor. Let’s just call it drive-by editorializing and be done with it.

Watts Bar nuclear plant.poster2-elia-kazan-wild-river-montgomery-clift-dvd-review 

Believe it or not, there’s a first rate movie about the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority – Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1960). TVA is a 1930s New Deal deal, one of two federal electricity outlets created during the Depression (the other is Bonneville in the Northwest).  TVA has economic development tasks as well as electricity generation.

As you might imagine, TVA’s virtually unique status engenders controversy: further valley authorities were blocked by Congress (Bonneville is a different kind of entity), with small government advocates having at it occasionally since then. Ronald Reagan, for example, famously took a swipe at it at the 1964 Republican convention as an example of big government. But neither Reagan nor any other President has privatized it. And so it is today much as it was created to be in 1933. Fascinating American story – start with TVA’s own version of its history for a baseline.


Anonymous said...

I remember visiting Chattanooga as a kid in the 1980's, back when the local paper was called the "Chattanooga News-Free Press." I was quite disappointed when I moved here a couple of years ago and found that an additional merger had given us a much less humorous title.

The local paper is generally pretty fair and unbiased in its coverage of TVA's nuclear programs. I wish I could say the same for other media outlets around the state. I did find myself scratching my head at that cartoon, since our plants haven't made much news lately.


DocForesight said...

Why is the spokesman playing into the public misunderstanding by calling it "waste" and not what it actually is, "Spent Nuclear Fuel"? And emphasize that storing the casks on-site is perfectly safe for short and long-term. Use the opportunity to inform the public that upcoming designs will use the SNF for additional energy generation.

GRLCowan said...

Doc Foresight, if you live up to your name, you probably don't, when moving into a new neighbourhood, take a few hours to get the word out about what sort of guy you are by walking around with a sandwich-board saying, "I'm a safe neighbour!"

The point I would stress is that while coal industry regulators do not live near coal ash heaps, some nuclear regulators are stationed within a few hundred yards of the spent fuel pools. I would guess they're there at least 35 hours a week, and their families are often within a few miles.

There is no difficulty filling these civil service positions because no-one has ever been injured by spent nuclear fuel.