Friday, April 29, 2011

Weekly Update

From NEI’s Japan Earthquake launch page:
NEI Weekly Update on Fukushima Daiichi
Plant Status:

  • Priorities this week at Fukushima continued to be cooling the reactors and fuel pools, draining water from the turbine buildings and concrete structures that house piping to reduce radiation levels, and containing the spread of radioactive materials. Tokyo Electric Power Co. is increasing the amount of cooling water injected into reactor 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant as part of a plan to cover the fuel.
  • TEPCO plans to build a storage and processing facility that can hold 70,000 tons of highly radioactive water at the plant.
  • Overall, site radiation dose rates are stabilizing or decreasing. The most recent radiation readings reported at the plant site gates ranged from 4.8 millirem per hour to 2.2 millirem per hour. TEPCO has released a map showing radiation levels around the site, based on readings taken on different days since the incident began.
  • TEPCO said this week that it will build a wall of sandbags along the shoreline at the Fukushima Daiichi site as a temporary measure against another possible tsunami. The company also moved emergency power generators to higher ground to prevent the reactors' cooling systems from failing in case a major tsunami hits the plant again. The utility will sandbag the shoreline at the plant to a height of several meters. Priority will be put on the area near the waste processing facility, where highly radioactive water is being moved from around the reactor buildings. TEPCO is also planning to build a breakwater on the shoreline, as the sandbags cannot remain the long-term solution for a possible tsunami.
  • Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission asked the government April 28 to review the ability of the country's nuclear power plants to withstand earthquakes. The commission has requested that the Nuclear Safety Agency "reexamine the fault lines and geographical changes where plant operators have so far said the risk of earthquake damage was low." The utilities’ reassessment of earthquake resistance "will likely take several years," the NSC said, and will likely affect the start of operations at new nuclear power plants and the construction of new reactors.
  • TEPCO said April 28 that it does not believe the spent fuel pool at reactor 4 of Fukushima Daiichi is leaking, according to a report by Japan television station NHK. The utility said it initially believed that declining water levels in the pool indicated that it might have been damaged in an explosion soon after March 11, but it "now believes that the water has been evaporating at a rate in line with calculations by experts.” The fuel storage pool "will be reinforced by July," TEPCO said.
Regulatory/Political Issues:
  • NRC site inspections as a follow-up to the Fukushima event were set to end. A draft report of the results is expected in two weeks.
  • The NRC staff briefed the commissioners Thursday on its review of the Fukushima accident and on the station blackout rule. Bill Borchardt, the NRC's executive director for operations, told the commissioners that NRC reviews of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi "have not identified anything that needs immediate action" at U.S. reactors. The briefing also explored preparations at U.S. reactors for a total loss of AC power, or station blackouts. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said he is "not convinced that in that situation (station blackout), four hours is a reasonable time to restore off-site power. That may be something we want to look at a little bit more."
  • The Group of 20 economic powers (G-20) will meet June 7-8 to discuss nuclear safety "in the light of the events" at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria said this week. The International Atomic Energy Agency also will take part in the G-20 meeting.
New NEI Products:
  • A new video on radiation monitoring, featuring Health Physics Society President Edward Maher, appears on NEI’s YouTube channel.
  • A new fact sheet on relicensing and the safety of nuclear energy plants.
Media Highlights:
  • Alex Marion, NEI’s vice president for nuclear operations, briefly discussed implications of Fukushima for the U.S. industry on CNN as part of a larger discussion of industry’s emergency preparedness.
  • NEI President and CEO Marvin Fertel spoke with New York Times reporter Tom Zeller on claims by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists that the NRC is a “captive” regulator. He described NRC as an effective regulator and noted transparency in U.S. regulatory process and improvements to better focus on safety over the past decade.
  • NEI discussed the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl in the context of Fukushima with Forbes magazine.
  • Homeland Security Today magazine is focusing its July issue on challenges of critical infrastructure security, especially from earthquakes tsunamis and other severe events. In an interview, NEI addressed the improvements over the last 10 years, including physical additions to plant security, additional personnel and training, shift drill exercises and NRC-graded exercises.
The Week Ahead:
  • NEI will conduct focus group sessions May 2 in Los Angeles as part of its public opinion research project on safety and preparedness issues.
  • The NRC will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 3, for a briefing on emergency preparedness. The meeting will be webcast.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittees on energy and power and environment and the economy will conduct a joint hearing at 9:30 a.m. on May 4 to examine the role of the NRC in America’s energy future. All the commissioners are expected to testify.

Build From, Not Run From

Steve-Pearce-250 U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce says the U.S. nuclear energy industry doesn't have technological problems — it has "political problems."

The "United States developed the nuclear power field and then regulated it out of existence. We have built no new nuclear power plants in 30 years," Pearce said Wednesday, the first day of a two-day international nuclear energy conference in Hobbs.

The Republican New Mexico congressman said nuclear power is essential to the nation's energy future, and suggested that the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan brought on by a devastating earthquake was an incident to build from, not run from.

About right, though he really doesn’t like regulation. 

"We should be analyzing exactly what went on, instead of saying 'no' to all nuclear," Pearce told the gathering, which is considering how to make nuclear energy a viable and essential piece of the world's energy portfolio.

Saying no to nuclear energy squeezes a world hungry for electricity and energy security and squelches the attempt to reduce carbon emissions. “Build from, not run from” seems a pretty good motto.

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Speaking of run from:

In India, the dilemma is this: it has 20 nuclear plants in operation, with an additional 23 on order. With the country desperately short of power, and requiring energy to grow, concerned citizens are asking if nuclear is still the answer for India.

I’m sure other concerned citizens are saying nuclear is the answer, but this is The Guardian, so we won’t hear much from them.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has cautiously announced a "special safety review" of all plants. "Not enough," say about 50 eminent Indians, who at the end of March demanded a review of the country's entire nuclear power policy for "appropriateness, safety, costs, and public acceptance". The group also called for an "independent, transparent safety audit" of all nuclear facilities to be undertaken with the "involvement of civil society organizations and experts outside the department of atomic energy". Until then, they demanded a moratorium on all nuclear activity and a revocation of recent clearances.

I don’t think by moratorium they mean closing the 20 plants. In any event, Singh isn’t throwing in the towel despite that group of 50:

The Congress-led [meaning the Congress Party, roughly equivalent to the Democratic Party here] government said it planned to introduce legislation in the coming session of parliament that will create an independent and autonomous nuclear power regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India, to oversee the expanding nuclear energy industry.

The decision comes as the administration of Manmohan Singh, prime minister, affirmed its determination to go ahead with plans for France’s Areva to build two 1,650MW European pressurized water reactors, for $9.6bn, on India’s west coast, in spite of fierce local resistance.

The Indian NRA is a good idea – anything that beefs up oversight, hopefully as reasonably free from government interference as from industry coziness.

“Fierce local resistance?” That needs attention paid to it, either to sell the safety of the plants and the economic benefits or to accept the range of complaints as at least arguable and propose a compromise. India needs the energy, but it also needs to remain responsive to its polity.

Rep. Steve Pearce. Always good for a politician to locate an American flag if he’s going to get his picture taken. Heck, not a bad idea all around.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Exelon and Constellation Merge; E.ON; Japan

Here's the news, via World Nuclear News:
Exelon and Constellation Energy have announced a $7.9 billion merger. Under the name Exelon, the resulting firm will be America's largest generator of nuclear power by an even greater margin. 

A definitive agreement posted today will see a stock-for-stock transaction combine the two companies. The new firm wants to take advantage of Exelon's large low-carbon generation fleet and Constellation's customer-facing business. 
The CEO's of the two company's, John Rowe of Exelon and Mayo Shattuck of Constellation, and Exelon's COO Chris Crane, held a press conference about this a little earlier today, so there'll be more on this later. 

Exelon is headquartered in Chicago and Constellation in Baltimore; the former has full or majority share in 17 nuclear reactors at 10 sites while Constellation Energy nuclear Group operates operates five reactors at three power stations - Maryland's Calvert Cliffs and New York's R.E. Ginna and Nine Mile Point.

Stay tuned.
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Over in Germany, E.ON's chief Johannes Teyssen tries to make the case for nuclear energy while not getting sticks thrown at him:

Speaking at a televised session of a commission to evaluate ethical questions related to atomic power generation, Teyssen said nuclear energy should be regarded as a "bridge technology" to help the country's transformation to a low-carbon, renewable energy supply.

"Germany unconditionally...needs to retain its ability the achieve its internationally binding climate protection commitments," Teyssen told a panel of energy experts from industrial companies, utilities, scientists, energy associations and non-governmental groups.

Meeting Germany's climate protection goals--which include a 40% reduction of carbon dioxide emission by 2020 compared with 1990 levels--will be impossible if all of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors "were to be switched off by the end of this decade," Teyssen said.

So true. E.ON has energy interests throughout Europe, though it is headquartered in Dusseldorf. 
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Some news about Fukushima Daiichi, via NHK:


The operator of the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan has reassessed its estimates of fuel damage in reactors No.1 to No.3.

Tokyo Electric Power Company on Wednesday announced new estimates of damage after the country's nuclear safety agency questioned the accuracy of the initial assessments. The utility has revised the estimated fuel damage in the No.1 reactor from 70 percent to 55 percent, saying radiation levels were not correct.
TEPCO also says that it acted inappropriately in excluding fuel damage of less than 5 percent in calculating total damage ratios for the No.2 and No.3 reactors.
E.On's Johannes Teyssen. The company color is orange, so you'll often see him posed against this kind of backdrop. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

“This is a huge step for Iowa”

corn "This is a huge step for Iowa, and it is a huge step if we believe we want to grow the great state of Iowa," said Rep. Chuck Soderberg, R-Le Mars, chairman of the House's commerce committee and floor manager of the bill. "If Iowans, if businesses are expected to stay here, we need to provide them with power."

A huge step? Well, it just may be:

The Iowa House gave the go-ahead Tuesday to legislation that helps pave the way for a new nuclear power plant in Iowa

It’s MidAmerican that wants to build a new nuclear plant – this legislation doesn’t mandate that occurring, it just allows MidAmerican to charge ratepayers a modest monthly fee to help pay for the construction.

That may sound obnoxious. In fact, the story in the Sioux City Journal leaves objectivity to say so:

Whether MidAmerican Energy will decide to build a plant is not a done deal, but its ratepayers would be on the hook to help cover the cost of nearly all facets of the pre-planning and construction of a new nuclear facility, even if the plant is never built.

Clearly news to writer Mike Wiser, but ratepayers are always on the hook for new energy build, nuclear, coal or whatever – it’s just a question of how much is on that hook – the way MidAmerican wants to do it, far less.

Construction Work in Progress (or CWIP) is used by many energy providers to build new plants. It’s more beneficial than it sounds because it allows MidAmerican (in this case) to finance the plant without running up gigantic interest charges – which would be paid by the ratepayers ultimately. That really would be obnoxious.

I suppose the hugeness of this news will manifest itself when MidAmerican announces that it will build a new plant. So we’ll wait for that. (Iowa already has a nuclear plant, by the way – Duane Arnold Energy Center – that is owned by NextEra, The Central Iowa Power Cooperative and the Corn Belt Power Cooperative.)

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Bloomberg has been on the nuclear beat lately:

U.S. nuclear-power output increased from 4½-year lows as Energy Future Holdings Corp. started the Comanche Peak 2 reactor in Texas, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

Power generation nationwide increased 857 megawatts from yesterday to 72,898 megawatts, or 72 percent of capacity, according to an NRC report today and data compiled by Bloomberg. Twenty-six of the nation’s 104 reactors were offline.

Looking at it this way can be a little silly, as it implies that nuclear energy plants have been sputtering along, barely able to light a bulb. But refueling outages will always cause slight rises and falls on an annual basis. Nothing new or unusual here. Maybe the industry should just time things to ensure one year has no outages anywhere so as to get a happier lead (though the lead the following year will be awful.)

The story explains this at the very bottom:

Some reactors close for maintenance and refueling during the spring and fall in the U.S., when demand for heating and cooling is lower. The outages can increase consumption of natural gas and coal to generate electricity.

Or wind or solar or hydro, if they’re in the vicinity.

On the other hand, putting together a story like this is fairly thankless. I guess Bloomberg wanted to present this information and the story is actually pretty tight, if not really with much apparent purpose: noting which plants increased or decreased their loads. For example:

Exelon Corp. increased output from the 1,164-megawatt Byron 1 reactor in Illinois to 65 percent of capacity from 40 percent yesterday after a refueling outage. Another unit at the site, the 1,136-megawatt Byron 2, is operating at full power. The plant is located 85 miles west of Chicago.

And so on. That’s the story: some plants increased capacity, some plants decreased. If you want to know which did which, here it is.

Well, all right, it’s pretty, um, corny. But if you look through any post card rack in Iowa, you’ll find a variation of it.

On Vermont Yankee and States’ Rights

Over at the ANS Nuclear Cafe, Meredith Angwin who blogs at Yes Vermont Yankee, makes the case for why the NRC has jurisdiction over nuclear plants:

Watching the POP [Vermont Public Oversight Panel] at work, it was clear to me why the NRC has jurisdiction, and why nuclear regulation cannot be a state privilege. Nuclear energy cannot be regulated by a group of people who may be eager to please their legislative employers. There needs to be objective criteria, assessed by full-time experts, in order to keep a plant working well.

Having the internal workings of the plant doubly-assessed, by a group of people chosen politically, could get in the way of plant operations. It could even possibly degrade safety. Part-time inspectors with political agendas? This is not the same as having the Occupational Safety and Health Administration come to the plant. Trained OSHA inspectors go to many industrial facilities.

The NRC catches a lot of guff in the nuclear industry: The NRC is slow to act. The NRC is an expensive, overgrown bureaucracy. The NRC is headed by political appointees.

But still, down in the trenches at the inspection level, the NRC knows what it is doing. The inspectors are trained and professional. They don’t have political agendas. They won’t accept a cup of coffee from the people they are inspecting.

After watching the POP activities, it is clear to me that nuclear regulation is the business of the federal government. The Atomic Energy Act was the precursor of the NRC, and kept the nuclear safety regulation at the federal level of the government. That is how it must remain.

Thank you, NRC, for your day-to-day professionalism.

Hope ANS didn’t mind us copying many of the good parts, though there is still plenty left for others to check out.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Japan to Tennessee

McCollum Terrific article at Bloomberg that takes a first try at crafting a minute by minute account of what happened at Fukushima Daiichi on March 11. Full of interesting details I did not know, including this bit about the number of workers at the plant that day:

The Fukushima Dai-Ichi station had 6,415 people on site that day. More than 5,500, like Matsumoto and Imamura, were subcontractors who reported to their clusters of offices in the plant for a head count.

It’s a big plant, but that’s a gigantic number. Then, this, following the earthquake:

After the head counts, thousands of subcontractors left to check if families were safe…

Before the tsunami struck.

Almost 1,500 town residents were killed or are listed as missing, out of a national toll exceeding 26,000.

After the tsunami.

I doubt Tepco knows for sure how many of its contractors were caught by the tsunami and the story doesn’t hazard a guess. Let’s hope all made it away safely.

It’s a long, detailed story and worth reading complete. Since so much of it is told by workers and others who went through the ordeal, verifiable truth takes second seat to impressions of the day. But it’s true enough – an emotional truth. A full accounting of that day and its impact on Japan Fukushima Prefecture will wait.

I’m not sure why, but Bloomberg does not credit a writer or team of writers. Hopefully, it will rectify that.

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After the events at Fukushima Daiichi, TVA felt the heat from (one of) its local newspapers, The Nashville Tennesseean. So Bill McCollum, TVA’s COO, took a shot at responding:

Upon hearing about damage at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, the Tennessee Valley Authority assembled a team of nuclear experts to assess the situation and begin evaluating how lessons learned from Japan could help make TVA plants safer and more reliable.

And the result?

Our initial review indicates TVA's plants can withstand earthquakes, tornadoes and floods that are far more severe than any recorded in our area. Our plants also have redundant backup power and emergency systems — beyond those the Fukushima plant is believed to have — to keep our reactors, fuel pools and other facilities secure if something were to go wrong.

But he is the COO of TVA. Cynics will doubt:

Based on what we learn from Japan, the U.S. probably will develop modifications to provide nuclear plants in this country with even greater margins of safety. But looking for ways to make nuclear plants safer and more reliable is nothing new. It's part of our daily business at TVA and at nuclear plants across America.

You can read the whole thing for more. McCollum does a great job with keeping his statements clear and direct and he tries to forestall cynicism by noting that you don’t really have to trust him. Others have open eyes, too.

TVA’s Bill McCollum

Video of Radiation Shield to go Over Chernobyl

In light of today’s quarter-century anniversary of the accident, below is a fascinating nine minute video by the French consortium Novarka showing how the “new safe confinement” will entomb Chernobyl unit 4 so it can “accommodate future dismantling of the object shelter.”

For further discussions of the accident this anniversary, stop by to check out a few of the pro-nuclear pieces below.

ANS Nuclear Cafe – Chernobyl: 25 Years Later by Joe Colvin (President of ANS and former president of NEI)

Atomic Insights - “Chernobyl” – 25 years as a profitable brand by Rod Adams

To add from NEI’s website, see our vintage 1997 source book on Soviet-designed nuclear plant operations. It’s a fat document but pretty interesting stuff.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The World and the Safety Agency

kanupp How’s the world coping?

Turkey:

Speaking about a trip to Ukraine last week to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and discuss nuclear security, Minister Taner Yıldız said: “Greenpeace members had a placard there, reading, ‘No to Chernobyl.’ I agree with that placard. Still, the correct one sign should have been, ‘No to Chernobyl, yes to Akkuyu.’”

Akkuyu is the town where Turkey will build its first nuclear energy plant.

Austria:

Austria's environment minister [Nikolaus Berlakovich] says safety tests for European nuclear power plants must be mandatory and take into account the possibility of plane crashes or terror attacks.

Austria has no plants of its own. I’d be surprised if European utilities haven’t taken these elements into account – American plants certainly have (see this page for answers on these and other myths about nuclear energy plants).

Pakistan:

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Monday declared the nuclear program of Pakistan as safe and secure and appreciated the obvious dedication to the safety and security of the regulators as well of operators…. Deputy Director General IAEA Denis Flory said the IAEA emphasizes the importance of national responsibility for security, which Pakistan takes seriously.

The story indicates that Florey was snagged while attending a conference there, so “IAEA declared” might be a little strong.

A little more from Florey:

When quizzed about the future of nuclear industry, after the Fukushima incident, Denis Flory said the future of nuclear industry is not written down.It will depend on the actions taken at national and international levels to strengthen safety, to harmonize the implementation of international safety standards and to build the confidence of society through transparency.

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The idea of international safety standards is taking hold in various quarters. Here’s a bit from an ABC News story:

Rather than observing, assisting and advising, an international agency needs to be created that can establish safety standards, inspect nuclear sites, and if necessary enforce compliance.

Authors Henry Bassman and Stephen Brozak, who work at an investment bank that deals mostly with biotechnology, think the new agency should borrow ideas from IAEA, NRC  and the Nuclear Energy Agency to develop its mission.

Partial measures will not increase the safety level of nuclear power facilities. Only a coordinated, global effort will provide individual nations, and the world as a whole, with an improved ability to prevent and withstand nuclear emergencies.

And here’s a group that puts their heft behind such an agency

Sixteen veterans of the nuclear industry and nuclear power regulation have called for tougher nuclear safety rules to be set and enforced worldwide, in a bid to prevent another severe accident such as those that befell Three Mile Island-2 in the US in 1979, Chernobyl-4 in the former USSR in 1986, and Japan's Fukushima-1 station this year.

This is certainly discussable – and will be, no doubt, at the June convention in Vienna (remember – no plants in Austria) - though I imagine issues of national sovereignty will weigh in.

And if you’re curious, here’s how Platts describes the gang of 16:

The signatories of the statement include nuclear regulators in the US, Russia and Ukraine who managed the aftermath of the TMI and Chernobyl accidents, as well as former regulators and safety experts from Spain, Sweden, France, India and South Korea. Several of them are or were members of the International Nuclear Safety Group, Insag, which advises the IAEA director general.

Pakistan’s Kanupp plant.

Friday, April 22, 2011

No Fear Detected

Cook The headline blares “Indiana fears future of nearby nukes,” then fails to find anyone in Indiana fearing those nearby nukes.

There’s an anti-nuclear advocate:

"They have no idea exactly what it's going to cost, how they will operate or respond," said Kerwin Olson, program director for the Citizens Action Coalition in Indianapolis. "What this bill does is says any and all costs of extending Cook beyond 40 years can be passed on to consumers."

The subject of the story (and this quote) is pending legislation in Michigan implementing a variation of CWIP, Construction Work in Progress, which allows utilities to collect a fee from ratepayers while a new plant is under construction rather than after the plant is operational. In this instance, the fee will help extend the life of the Cook plant in Michigan (it sends electricity to Indiana.) But I don’t detect fear here – annoyance, maybe, no fear.

(To be honest, I’m not sure why a surcharge would be used for this purpose, but let’s set that aside for now.)

There’s the spokesman for Cook:

David Mayne, spokesman for Indiana Michigan Power, said Cook has a long history of safety and plans to continue that into the future.

"The Cook plant has an outstanding safety record and is recognized in the industry as having the highest standards of operational excellence," Mayne said. "Both units at Cook are operating safely and reliably today and our commitment to safe operations remains steadfast."

No fear here, obviously.

In some quarters of the media, if it’s about nuclear, it’s about fear. But really: no fear.

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At the Hill, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) celebrates Earth Day:

It is likely that one in five of you reading this online right now is doing it on a computer powered by nuclear energy. There are more than 100 reactors in 31 states supplying about 20 percent of our nation’s electricity. Unfortunately that number hasn’t changed much since go-go boots and bell bottoms were all the rage.

His message is simple and germane:

On this Earth Day we need to commit to making nuclear power a larger part of our nation’s clean energy future.

I have supported nuclear power since I was elected in 1984. The industry has faced many challenges since then and even though no new reactors have been built in the United States during that time, safety has continued to improve at those facilities already in existence.

And addresses safety concerns:

The safety record at nuclear plants in the United States is impeccable and the systems that keep it that way are much more robust than those in Japan. The safety systems at reactors are redundant and automatic, meaning they don’t need to be activated by people or have backup generators to operate. Plus, each reactor in this nation is subject to aggressive oversight and thorough inspections by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

There’s a lot more. Barton makes a solid case.

The Cook nuclear plant. I’ve always thought Cook was one of the better designed power stations – maybe because it actually looks designed to fit its locale rather than as another hulking metal beast on the shoreline.

Weekly Update on Fukushima Daiichi

From NEI’s Japan Earthquake update page. Of course, we’ll bring you information during the week, too, if something significant takes place at Fukushima.

Plant Status:

  • Tokyo Electric Power Co. released a roadmap to bring the Fukushima Daiichi plant to a stable condition.
  • Priorities at Fukushima this week continue to be cooling the reactors and spent fuel pools, draining water from the turbine buildings and concrete structures that house piping to reduce radiation levels and containing the spread of radioactive materials.
  • Overall, site radiation dose rates are stabilizing. The most recent radiation readings reported at the plant site gates ranged from 5.7 millirem per hour to 2.6 millirem per hour.
  • Japan’s government has expanded evacuation to selected areas outside the original 12.5-mile zone. Authorities also are barring entry into nine municipalities near the plant.
  • TEPCO released a presentation on April 18 summarizing the impact of the earthquake and the current status of the plants.

Regulatory Issues

  • The NRC continues its inspections of plant sites to review post-Fukushima-related issues.

New NEI Products

  • Video on the future of nuclear energy, featuring Idaho National Laboratory Director John Grossenbacher.
  • Video on the differences in health impacts between Fukushima and Chernobyl, featuring Barbara Hamrick, health physicist at the University of California’s Irvine Medical Center.
  • Video putting the potential of health risks from Fukushima into perspective, also featuring Barbara Hamrick.

Media Highlights

  • An April 21 Associated Press article covered nuclear insurance and an April 19 story detailed early management of the accident.
  • CNN on April 20 covered restricted access to the evacuation zone.
  • A report on the results of a Washington Post-ABC poll released April 20 said that 53 percent of Americans believe nuclear power is safe, but the public opposes construction of new reactors by a 2-to-1 margin.
  • An April 20 Associated Press article focused on projected Fukushima worker health problems.
  • An April 19 New York Times article covered water management at the nuclear power plant site.
  • A Wisconsin State Journal editorial warning that a retreat from nuclear energy is unwise.

The Week Ahead

  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission public meeting April 28 to discuss the agency’s response to events at the Fukushima, including station blackout issues.

Renewables did not surpass nuclear in 2010

Cleantechnica has a post referencing a report (pdf) from the Worldwatch Institute that claims renewables (wind, solar and biomass) have surpassed nuclear energy. This is only true if we were to look at one metric: capacity additions (megawatts). A more important metric, however, is output (megawatt-hours). Here’s the Institute’s claim (page 4):

In 2010, for the first time, worldwide cumulated installed capacity of wind turbines (193 gigawatts*), biomass and waste-to-energy plants (65 GW), and solar power (43 GW) reached 381 GW, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375 GW prior to the Fukushima disaster.

Good job for those technologies. They still have a long ways to go, however, to be able to match the same output as nuclear.

Below is a chart showing the electric generation fuel shares worldwide from the International Energy Agency’s 2010 Key Stats report (pdf).

image

Nuclear provided 13.5% of the world’s electricity in 2008 and renewables provided 2.8% (excluding hydro). The Other category includes the same renewable technologies as the Worldwatch’s report plus a few others. Yet, despite renewables “outpacing” nuclear in capacity in 2010, the actual output was more like one-fifth of nuclear’s output. If renewables were to surpass nuclear in output, then the amount of capacity needed would be almost five times as much.

Further, Cleantechnica and the Worldwatch’s report referenced an analysis from a Duke University professor (prepared for NC WARN) claiming solar is now cheaper than nuclear. The New York Times even picked up on the Duke report. But what they probably missed was that the NY Times had to distance themselves from the analysis and that the actual report had flaws in and of itself.

If Worldwatch wanted to provide a meaningful report, then they should use some of its efforts for analyzing nuclear and apply it to other technologies for comparison. There are a lot of folks who would be interested to know the historical performances of wind, solar and other techs. I’m sure we’d find that other technologies do not have rosy histories either. Otherwise, Worldwatch's annual regurgitation of nuclear statistics does little to provide readers with any perspective.

Update 4/22, 1 pm EDT: I left the following comment at 10 am on two posts at Cleantechnica's site and they haven't shown up yet three hours later. A few other comments have been approved since then. Hmmm...

When it comes to actual production, renewables are far from surpassing nuclear worldwide. Folks here may be interested in a different take: http://neinuclearnotes.blogspot.com/2011/04/renewables-did-not-surpass-nuclear-in.html

David Bradish
Nuclear Energy Institute

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Italy, Poland (and Its Neighbor Germany), Exxon

Poland Italy has decided to forestall any decision on proceeding with nuclear energy in the wake of Japan. But they need a plan:

Italy currently gets 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuels and the remaining 20 percent from hydroelectric and renewable energy, according to data from power grid operator Terna SpA. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition government had made nuclear energy part of a strategy to cut dependence on fossil fuels to 50 percent, reducing imports from abroad and cutting energy prices in the long term.

And that’s something the country really needs to do:

Italian companies paid twice as much for power in 2010 as their French counterparts, 40 percent more than the U.K. and 27 percent more than German rivals, according to Eurostat, the region’s official provider of statistics.

And all those countries do that with nuclear energy – well, Germany for now, anyway. The Italian government isn’t particularly well known for getting things done, but the drive toward nuclear energy had given its energy sector a route forward. For now, at least, Italy seems driveless.

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In Poland:

Sources at Poland's Economics Ministry told the magazine that Prime Minister Donald Tusk was planning to invite RWE to take a share of at least 20 percent of the main investor in the project, Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE).

The plan is to restart work on a nuclear power station in Zarnowiec near Gdansk, which was stopped in the 1990s. The building work is to be taken care of by the French company Areva.

The story said this news was embarrassing to the German power utility RWE, and the company has denied it was asked to participate. I’m not completely sure why it would be a problem, as RWE’s CEO Jurgen Grossman is quite the fan of nuclear energy whatever Germany’s current view happens to be. But okay.

But my main point of curiosity was the Polish nuclear station. I remember that its first plant, Zarnowiec, was stopped when turmoil overtook the country back in the Solidarity days. And a couple of years back, the Polish parliament passed a resolution supporting the construction of two plants. But after that, there’s been very little news.

Most sources still list the effort to build the new plants as ongoing, but I did find some recent comments from Prime Minister Donald Tusk, responding to a Germany neighbor asking Poland to scrap its plan (this little contretemps may account for part of RWE’s hesitance).

“Calls from a friendly political leader from the other side of the border, Mr. Platzeck, for Poland to stop the project appeared somewhat inappropriate to me. A country that has about 16 nuclear power plants shouldn’t be too concerned with our plans to build the most modern plants available on the market,” the Polish prime minister said.

Matthias Platzeck is minister-president of the German federal state of Brandenburg. One gets the impression that annoying Tusk isn’t a great idea. He wasn’t finished with his German friends, either:

“We can’t succumb to hysteria about it [Fukushima Daiichi],” Mr. Tusk said in remarks from northwestern Poland, near the border with Germany. “The reason for radiological risks in Japan isn’t an accident at the nuclear plant, but an earthquake and tsunami.”

Just so. Still not sure how things are going on those reactors, though Tusk is clearly all in. Here’s the best I could find:

According to government plans on nuclear energy, the proposed plant will have an output of 3,000 MW. The final location for the plant is to be chosen in 2013. Three years later construction is to start, with reactors going online by 2020.

So still some time to rope in RWE – if it can get over the embarrassment.

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From Exxon (via the Financial Times – behind a pay wall):

Nuclear energy is too important for world leaders to allow it to decline, said ExxonMobil Chairman, President and CEO Rex Tillerson. He said that the Fukushima Daiichi incident would not stop nuclear's growth but simply "delay" it. "Ultimately, my expectation is the component of nuclear energy that will be in the future mix 25 years from now, or 30 years from now, is probably not changed," Tillerson said.

Poland unfinished Zarnowiec plant. Looks kind of spooky.

Thursday Update

From NEI’s Japan Earthquake launch page:

UPDATE AS OF 11 A.M. EDT, THURSDAY, APRIL 21:
As workers continue to pump cooling water into the reactors and used fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, they also continue to deal with contaminated water at the site.

A particular problem has been the leakage of highly radioactive water on the turbine building side of reactor 2. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) workers this week completed injecting liquid glass and cement-based grout to seal a concrete enclosure outside the building. They also installed iron plates at the screen room of reactor 2 and silt fences in front of the screen rooms of reactors 1-4. TEPCO is placing sandbags in strategic locations around the site.

Workers also continued to pump water out of the reactor 2 turbine building into a tank at the on-site waste processing facility. This is a slow-moving process estimated to take 26 days. In all, TEPCO estimates that 67,500 tons of radioactive water has accumulated at the plant.

Robots detected high levels of radiation hazardous to humans over even a short amount of time in buildings for reactors 1 and 2. Reactor 3 also was surveyed, but radiation levels weren’t available. Cameras on the robots showed debris on the floors of the buildings that could hamper work after the radiation is controlled.

New Video Posted
NEI has uploaded a new video to its YouTube channel. The video, "INL Director Discusses the Future for Nuclear Energy in the United States," features the Idaho National Laboratory's Director John Grossenbacher, who explains that the United States should develop its energy policies based on an assessment of the current events at Japan's Fukushima nuclear reactors and the costs and benefits of providing electricity through various energy sources.

ANS Nuclear Cafe - “Why is there irrational fear of radiation?”

A number of folks at the Cafe have contributed thoughts on why the public fears radiation and nuclear energy. Much of the fear, they discuss, could be caused by the confusing number of different radiation units that are communicated in the media. Dan Yurman started it off:

The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear reactor complex in Japan, caused by a record earthquake and equally record shattering tsunami, has created a maelstrom of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) when it comes to radiation measurements.

For instance, the importance of distinctions between fast and slow decaying isotopes of iodine and cesium are sometimes lost on media and the public.

Worse, the differences between accounting for the sheer amount of radiation and giving an assessment of the potential health effects of uncontrolled releases takes place using different sets of measurement units. Is it any wonder that mainstream news media editors get headaches when their reporters file stories about radiation?

It hasn’t helped that Japanese and American nuclear experts have called for different distances for evacuation zones around the plant site. Can we fault the public for concluding that any report about radiation at a nuclear reactor is bad news?

The rest of the discussion will keep your attention.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Indian Point, Vermont Yankee, V.C. Summer

If you happen to live in New York's 26th Senate District, which contain the Indian Point nuclear plant and is represented by state Senator Liz Krueger, well, the senator would like to know what you think of the plant. She wants to close it, but to her credit, she does want to know what her constituents think. I would guess that a fair number of her constituents work at Indian Point or at one of the many businesses that benefit from its presence. Even constituents who have no connection to the plant might regret losing clean energy in favor of something other.

So go ahead. Tell Sen. Krueger what you think. She wants to know.
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The Christian Science Monitor has up an interesting story on what the effect may be of the lawsuit brought by Entergy - actually, two of its subsidiaries - against the state of Vermont. Naturally, this is all speculative, with the possibilities ranging from "nothing" to "a whole lot." Read the post a few below to see what the lawsuit is all about, but essentially, Entergy says the state cannot close Vermont Yankee; only the federal government can do that.

Under existing law, states have definite – if strictly limited – rights regarding nuclear power plants. These included a say in the siting, economics, transmission, aesthetics and other issues. States do not have authority over safety and licensing. That resides squarely with the federal government.
The Vermont case could reinforce those states’ rights, expand them – or see them overturned entirely. Entergy argues the federal government has near-complete control over the licensing of nuclear power plants. If the case rises to the US Supreme Court, as some suspect it might, the ruling could sharply curb federal say on nuclear power plants inside state lines.
See? Everything or nothing. I guess you could argue that Entergy is only asking that the laws as it understands them hold force here, that it is not asking that any law be overturned or altered.

The article focuses on only one of Entergy's arguments:
"If this case were to change the 1983 court decision, then every state would lose the power they've had since joining the union," says Michael Dworkin, former chairman of the Vermont Public Service Board. "We're talking about a state's power over land use and all powers not expressly taken away by Congress. That's what's at stake if the company convinces the Supreme Court to take away those powers currently granted."
Well, no. Entergy in its suit notes that Vermont Yankee contributes electricity to states other than Vermont - this is true of most energy plants, since most contribute to multistate grids - and that falls under interstate commerce. And it is the federal government not the states that controls interstate commerce via the commerce clause of the constitution.

It is a complex case and will be interesting to follow. I cannot pretend to understand all the issues involved and we haven't yet seen Vermont's response to the suit. Very early days. Given that, the Monitor piece is pretty good withal and writer Mark Clayton will help you understand at least some of the issues here a little better.

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Let's wrap up with some positive news:

Federal nuclear regulators say there are no environmental impacts from two proposed nuclear reactors in Jenkinsville that would prevent South Carolina Electric & Gas from getting a license to operate the plants.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in a news release Tuesday that the environmental review began in January 2009 and included input from several public meetings.
That's pretty good. All things being equal, SCE&G will open two new reactors at its V.C. Summer site in 2016 and 2019.

And, from the Washington Post, reporting on a Post/ABC poll:
The 53 percent who approve of nuclear power are a mirror image of the 53 percent who said such power was unsafe in the wake of the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine.
The poll results are mixed rather than outright positive, but they are heartening in that general support for nuclear energy might have dropped off a cliff but has not. Media furor tends to send numbers way up or way down depending on the issue and heaven knows pollsters like to do polls when emotions are high. So it's striking that the response this time - and from a fair number of polls - has been fairly tepid.

New York state Senator Liz Krueger.

Analysis of Replacing Japan’s Nuclear Plants With Other Technologies

image Over at Forbes’ blog, Sara Mansur has dug into the numbers to see what it would take if nuclear were phased out in Japan:

If nuclear power were to be completely taken out of Japan’s power supply, the country’s carbon emissions would rise by at least 414 million tons over current emissions [assuming nuclear is replaced by coal and gas]. Carbon emissions would increase by at least 10% and as much as 17% across the entire economy, while power-sector emissions would soar by 29% to 49%, depending on the mix of replacement power.

What about renewables instead?

the 203 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar capacity required to replace Japan’s current nuclear fleet would cover roughly 1.3 million acres, according to a land area calculator created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the United States. That’s the equivalent of roughly 52% of Japan’s total land area.

Using an estimate of $5 per watt of installed solar PV capacity, installing this 203 GW of solar capacity would cost the country at least $1.01 trillion.

Alternatively, replacing the generation lost from a complete phase-out of nuclear power entirely with wind energy would require wind generation to increase from its current levels, 3.257 billion kWh (0.3% of total electricity), to 267 billion kWh (27% of total electricity).

This would require 152 GW of installed wind capacity, at a total installation cost of $375 billion (using an estimate of $2,466/KWe). According to NREL’s wind farm area calculator, the installation of these wind turbines would require 38,000 acres taken out of production on a wind farm, and a total of 1.3 billion acres for the entire wind farm. This represents over 50 percent of Japan’s total land area.

And that’s to replace the existing Japanese nuclear fleet. By 2030, Japan had set a goal to double it. Check out the rest of the Forbes analysis to see what it would take if other technologies met that 2030 goal instead. Hint – there’s a reason why Japan is big on nuclear.

Update, 5/2: Looks like there was a serious calculation error on the amount of land needed for wind and solar. The land space needed for solar or wind to replace Japan's nuclear fleet would take up a few percent of the country's land space, not 50% or more.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Certain Logic in Russia

kiriyenko There’s a certain logic here:

Kiriyenko said the impact from the Fukushima plant disaster would not only increase safety concerns but also quicken demand for new reactors to replace the industry's ageing plants.

"There will be a need to build new plants more quickly to more swiftly replace previous-generation plants," he said.

He added that Russia may speed the retirement of its older generation plants in the wake of Japan's nuclear accident.

I can’t decide if what Kiriyenko is asking here is, essentially, why let Fukushima go to waste? If the accident there allows new plants to be built in Russia whether or not they are needed, that seems rather too cynical. Because the corollary would be to say that the older plants need replacing and that would be irresponsible.

Maybe Kiriyenko is just musing out loud. He does say this:

Russia has said it has no intention of curbing its drive for more nuclear power at home and for export.

Russia here presumably being Kiriyenko. Russia being Russia, he can say whatever he feels is true, but that can also change rather rapidly. For now, though, it looks like the lumbering eastern bear will continue apace.

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Let’s sincerely hope this is true:

A senior official at the U.N. nuclear agency is suggesting the worst may be over as far as radiation leaks at Japan's stricken reactor complex are concerned.

Denis Flory says he expects the total amount of radiation releases to be only a "small increase from what it is today" if "things go as foreseen." But Flory, a deputy director general at the International Atomic Energy Agency, emphasized Tuesday that he was estimating final radiation releases.

The story doesn’t identify him more specifically, but Denis Florey is the IAEA’s safety chief.

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Let’s wish this weren’t true:

One person has died after police in western India clashed with locals protesting against the planned construction of a nuclear power plant.

Police said they were forced to open fire after protesters attacked a police station close to the proposed site in Jaitapur, in the state of Maharashtra.

Sadly, this means one more person has been killed protesting nuclear energy than has been killed by nuclear energy in India. Still, that’s one too many.

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The U.N.’s Summit on the Safe and Innovative Use of Nuclear Energy, held in Kiev, Ukraine, had a keynote speech by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. There may be more to say about the summit, but Ban’s speech seemed judicious and careful. This, though, was striking:

“[W]e must put a sharper focus on the new nexus between natural disasters and nuclear safety,” he stated. “The challenge of climate change is bringing with it greater extremes of weather. Nuclear power plants must be prepared to withstand everything from earthquakes to tsunamis, from fires to floods.”

According to the IAEA, 64 new reactors are under construction. Today, 443 are operating in 29 countries worldwide, some located in areas of seismic activity.

Ban is completely right as long as we acknowledge that planning virtually any power plant takes account of weather and natural disasters and at a level that surpasses anything seen at a prospective site.

But more interesting here is the intermingling of weather and natural disaster. Fukushima Daiichi was struck by an earthquake and tsunami. Not severe weather, not anything that could be counted as a result of climate change.

I’m not sure it is wise to conflate the two – weather can be predicted to an extent, natural disasters not as much. It behooves us to recognize that one thing is not exactly like the other.

It’d also be worthwhile to recognize that the earthquake does not appear to have been the cause of problems at Fukushima – we can’t know this for sure until the government accounts for the accident – but the tsunami afterward. One could say reasonably – for now – that the combination proved determinative.

But that makes the media worry about siting nuclear plants in “areas of seismic activity,” as reflected in this story, seem a little off base. Other plants in Japan were struck by the same earthquake – and some harder than Fukushima – but suffered minor if any damage.

Sergei Kiriyenko

Monday, April 18, 2011

Robots at Fukushima

packbot What everyone’s been waiting for: Robots:

A U.S.-made robot built for bomb disposal were set to make its way into a reactor building at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Sunday to find out whether conditions were safe enough for workers to begin badly needed measures to put the crippled plant under control.

And it’s been busy with other duties, too.

The robot, measuring 70 centimeters long and 53 centimeters wide, has already been used at the Fukushima plant to remove highly-radioactive rubble, that had resulted from the explosions at the reactor buildings.

Made by iRobot, here is the product description for the 510 Packbot, the model being used in Japan:

Modular, adaptable and expandable, 510 PackBot is a tactical mobile robot that performs multiple missions while keeping warfighters and first responders out of harm’s way.

  • Bomb Disposal / EOD (IEDs / VBIEDs / UXO)
  • Surveillance / Reconnaissance
  • Checkpoints / Inspections / Explosives Detection
  • Route Clearance
  • Explosive Hazard Identification (IEDs / VBIEDs / UXOs)
  • Hazardous Materials Detection

More than 3,000 PackBot robots have been delivered to military and civil defense forces worldwide.

So maybe the Japan Self-Defense Force had a few of these around. You can see how it would be useful in this situation. All but one of the robots seem primarily designed to keep soldiers out of harm’s way by engaging in surveillance and toting loads over distances.

And that one robot otherwise deployed? It’s called the Scooba and washes floors. Well, if you’ve got the talent for building robots …

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has redesigned its site, no longer summoning memories of the information superhighway and Adobe PageMill. Information is more accessible – always a plus when there is a lot of it – and it’s altogether more pleasant to visit. The home page is a little crowded but that’s a niggle – it’s so much improved there’s really no comparison.

I’m not absolutely sure what the Packbot is doing here, but I would probably just let it do it.

NRC Chairman Jaczko Responds to Questions from EPW Chairman Boxer on Fukushima-Daiichi

On March 17, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) asked for a thorough review and posed a number of questions to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on US nuclear power plants. Chairman Jaczko responded on April 8 (the pdf was posted on 4/15). Below are a few highlights from the letter:

1. Please identify all U.S. nuclear facilities subject to significant seismic activity and/or tsunamis.

Although we often think of the US as having "active" and non-active" earthquake zones, earthquakes can actually happen almost anywhere. Seismologists typically separate the US into low, moderate and high seismicity zones. The NRC requires that every nuclear plant be designed for site-specific ground motions that may be expected at their locations. In addition, the NRC has specified a minimum ground motion level to which all nuclear plants must be designed. The designation of the general type of seismic zone that may apply at any specific site is subject to interpretation but a conservative interpretation -meaning a larger zone-might include the following plants, based upon a preliminary estimate:

High Seismicity -Diablo Canyon, SONGS [San Onofre]
Moderate Seismicity -Brunswick, Robinson, Summer, Vogtle, Hatch, Clinton, Watts Bar, Sequoya, North Anna
Low Seismicity -all other plants

2. What extra safety features does the NRC currently require for facilities that have a credible threat of an earthquake or tsunami?

… With regard to the type of containment design used by the most heavily damaged plants in Japan, the NRC initiated a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) Mark I Containment Improvement Program in the late 1980. This led to installation of hardened vent systems for containment pressure relief, as well as enhanced reliability of the automatic depressurization system.

Additionally, following the 9/11 events, reactor licensees have been required to develop strategies to maintain and restore core cooling, containment, and spent fuel pool cooling capabilities under the circumstances associated with the loss of large areas of the plant due to explosions or fire. Licensees are required to develop strategies for fire fighting, operations to mitigate fuel damage, and actions to minimize radiological release.

4. What increased risk is associated with exposure to mixed oxide fuel?

… NRC has evaluated the use of MOX fuel and concluded that the design basis accidents consequences were within the acceptance criteria and the differences between MOX and uranium fuel were within the dose consequences calculation uncertainties. The staff has concluded that the presence of a small number of MOX fuel assemblies in Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 constitutes an insignificant change from non-MOX fuel in core operating conditions and accident consequences.

There are a few other answers worth checking out so be sure to stop by (pdf).

U.S. District Court to Decide Vermont Yankee’s Future

Entergy filed a complaint today with the U.S. District Court to seek “a judgment to prevent the state of Vermont from forcing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to cease operation on March 21, 2012.” Looks like they have a solid case, though I’m not a lawyer so don’t quote me. Here’s one of the more notables lines from Entergy’s statement:

“We have made every reasonable effort to accommodate the state of Vermont and its officials while allowing the continued operation of Vermont Yankee – an outcome that benefits all stakeholders, including Vermont consumers and the approximately 650 men and women who work at the plant,” said Richard Smith, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities. “Despite the fact that Vermont Yankee is important to the reliability of the New England electric transmission grid, emits virtually no greenhouse gases, and provides more than $100 million in annual economic benefits to the state of Vermont, it has been made clear that state officials are singularly focused on shutting down the plant. That has left us with no other choice but to seek relief in the court system.”

Stay tuned.

Update, 12:05: Yes Vermont Yankee has more on the suit.

TEPCO’s Plans to Stabilize Fukushima-Daiichi

Yesterday, TEPCO released their plans on how to stabilize the plant in the short term. Below is a one-page overview of the plans (pdf).TEPCO plan 4-17-11

Nuclear Street has a good description of some of the main objectives:

TEPCO said that after 3 months it expects radiation levels to decline at the plant, followed by cold shutdown in reactors 1 though 3 within six months. Also in that timeframe the company plans to cover units 1, 3 and 4 using a temporary “scaffolding” to minimize the escape of radioactive elements from damaged reactor buildings.

In the near-term, TEPCO will strengthen the walls and base of the spent fuel tank in unit 4. Unit 2 will continue to be drained of irradiated water believed to contribute to some of the highest dose readings at the plant. Eventually, the company will flood the containment vessels of units 1 through 3, with unit 2 requiring additional work to seal its containment vessel beforehand.

At TEPCO’s press release, you can find more links and descriptions of the plan. The link to Appendix 2 (three-page pdf) is the most detailed document and highlights the risks of the actions in red. As well, the countermeasures are numbered in Appendix 2 and are conveniently matched to the plant overview image above.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

UCS Science: How Many Cancers Did Airlines Really Cause?

There is a lot of confusion about how many excess cancer deaths will likely result from exposure to radiation at low-dose and low-dose-rates. As we see below, 79,000 and 40,000 are reasonable estimates of the number of excess cancers and cancer deaths attributable to the flying in the past decade.

I was inspired to investigate this subject after reading an article in the socialist magazine Monthly Review by Lisbeth Gronlund, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which was entitled "How Many Cancers Did Chernobyl Really Cause?" In this article, she uses the "best possible risk estimates for exposure to low-dose, low-LET radiation in human subjects," which was proposed by the BEIR (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) Committee of the National Academy of Sciences to estimate the number of additional cancers and cancer deaths (above the number of "naturally occurring" cancers) that could be attributed to the Chernobyl accident. It is interesting that Dr. Gronlund's numbers are strikingly different from those put forward by the United Nation's Chernobyl Forum (4000 to 9000 deaths), which used a similar methodology.

Therefore, I decided to apply Dr. Gronlund's methodology to something more familiar to the average person: commercial aviation. Each airline flight exposes its crew and passengers to an excess risk of cancer in the form of cosmic radiation. As the US EPA explains, exposure to cosmic radiation depends on altitude, latitude, and solar activity, but the EPA estimates that "a typical cross-country flight in a commercial airplane" results in "2 to 5 millirem (mrem)" of dose from radiation.

The statistics from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics indicate that over 7 billion airline passengers (international and domestic) flew in the US between January 2001 and January 2011. Thus, if we assume a fairly low average value of 3 millirem per passenger, then aviation has resulted in a collective dose of 210,000 passenger-Sv over the past decade.

This is quite a large number already, but Dr. Gronlund did not consider the radiation exposure within just one country. She provided an estimate for the entire world. So we should follow suit.

The US aviation market comprises somewhere between 25 to 30 percent of the entire world's airline passengers (e.g., in 2009, passengers in the US comprised roughly 28% of the airline passengers worldwide, according to IATA statistics). Thus, if we conservatively assume that US passengers comprised 30% of the passengers worldwide during the past decade, then worldwide, the collective dose due to commercial aviation is 700,000 passenger-Sv.

Using Dr. Gronlund's methodology (which was taken from the BEIR VII report), we should assume that "the expected incidence and mortality of solid cancers and leukemia are 0.1135 cancer cases and 0.057 cancer deaths per Sv." Thus, because of radiation exposure due to the airline industry, the expected number of cancer cases is 79,000, of which some 40,000 should result in death.

Note however that, because exposure only increases the probability of developing cancer, we should keep in mind that no given cancer can be attributed to flying. Moreover, because these additional cancers will be distributed among hundreds of millions of people, it is practically impossible to discern them among all the other cancer cases. (About 42% of the general population have cancer at some point in their lives, and about 20% of the population die because of cancer or complications that result from cancer.)

It is somewhat illustrative to compare these numbers to the numbers presented by Dr. Gronlund for the Chernobyl accident: 68,000 cancer cases with 34,000 deaths. Given these numbers, one can scientifically conclude that the airline industry is far more dangerous -- in terms of deaths due to low-dose exposure to radiation -- than old, Soviet-era nuclear reactors.

In light of these numbers, I expect that the UCS will be setting itself up as an "aviation watchdog" any day now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

INL Director Discusses Lessons Learned from TMI, Fukushima

Idaho National Laboratory's Director John Grossenbacher explains how the U.S. nuclear industry has boosted its safety procedures as a result of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in 1979 and how the industry plans to use current events at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plants to further enhance safety.

See a number of great video on all kinds of topics at the NEI Nuclear Network

Nuts in April – the German Energy Plan

images With Germany aiming to shut down its nuclear energy plants by 2022, it needs replacement energy and quickly. Prime Minister Angela Merkel has put forward a 6-point plan to accomplish this. From Der Speigel:

  • Expanding renewable energy. Investing in more wind, solar, and biomass energies will try to raise the renewable-energy share of Germany's total energy use -- from a baseline of 17 percent in 2010.
  • Expanding grids and storage. Building a much larger storage and delivery network for electricity -- particularly wind energy, which can be generated in the north but must be carried to the south -- will be a main focus.
  • Efficiency. The government hopes improve the heating efficiency of German buildings -- and reduce consumption -- by 20 percent over the next decade.
  • "Flexible power." The government wants to build more "flexible" power plants that can pick up slack from wind or solar energy when the weather fails to generate enough electricity during peak demand. The obvious source of "flexible power" for now, besides nuclear energy, is natural gas. [Nuclear may not be great for this purpose because you don’t ramp it down to favor wind. Wind just adds more to the grid in its intermittent way.]
  • Research and development. The government will increase government support for research into better energy storage and more efficient grids to a total of €500 million between now and 2020.
  • Citizen involvement. The government wants to involve its sometimes-recalcitrant citizenry due to ongoing resistance against wind generators and the installation of an efficient new power line grid in some regions.

Germany is, if nothing else, proposing to spend a lot of money during a period of austerity – someone might notice that it’s almost all unnecessary at some point.

In all, this could be an energy policy nightmare, with a battery of untried ideas all implemented at once to try not to do what seems most likely – a return to coal if not a basic acceptance that German nuclear plants have been unproblematic. 

But maybe not:

Many are now asking themselves if the transition to renewable energies will ruin the nation's countryside. The German Wind Energy Association (BWE) states that 21,607 high-tech wind turbines are already in place in Germany. Some fear that the zeal to install wind turbines mirrors the drive to build motorways into West German towns in the 1960s. That was regarded as ultra-modern at the time, but it created massive, irreversible eyesores.

Germany's Federal Agency for Nature Conservation is already warning that in the rush to expand renewable energies, nature and wildlife conservation is being put on the back burner. The need to get out of nuclear power seems to be overriding all other concerns.

“Many are now asking” is not very precise, but the story points out that Germans have gotten quite litigious on NIMBY issues and have become exceptionally well organized on keeping windmills out of their eyesight. And are gearing up against large masts:

In the eastern state of Thuringia, for example, powerful 380-kilovolt power lines are planned that will cut a route directly through the picturesque Thuringia forest region. A number of citizens' initiatives are organizing opposition to the plans. They include members of all political parties.

Oddly, one of the reasons anti-coal activists take that stand in this country is to prevent mining operations from ripping up the countryside. Now, Germans are adopting the same stance about renewable energy sources. Nuclear energy plants, of course, are fairly compact and uranium mining low-impact.

It’s understandable that countries look closely as their nuclear energy plants in light of Fukushima Daiichi and make changes as appropriate. But what Germany is doing is – kooky – and getting kookier by the day.

Windmills, windmills everywhere.

Friday Update

From NEI’s Japan Earthquake launch page:

UPDATE AS OF 11 A.M. EDT, FRIDAY, APRIL 15:
Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) is continuing to manage the transfer of large amounts of contaminated water from basements and tunnels at Fukushima Daiichi as it works to restore the plant's cooling systems. On Friday TEPCO said the level of radioactive water was increasing in a tunnel at reactor 2 after an earlier drop. The company had on Wednesday finished transferring some 660 tons of water from the tunnel to a condenser in a turbine building, resulting in a drop of the water level in the tunnel by 8 centimeters. However, by Friday morning the level in the tunnel had returned to its previous level. TEPCO says there are at least 50,000 tons of contaminated water at the plant. It plans to use a waste-processing facility, makeshift storage tanks and a floating tank to store the radioactive water.

TEPCO also reports that radiation levels of Iodine-131 and Cesium-134 in water in so-called sub-drain pits have risen by up to 38 times during the past week.

The company is working to finish moving emergency diesel power generators and water injection pumps to higher ground and to bring in additional backup power trucks and fire engines as a precautionary measure. Work is also in progress to cross-connect external grid power lines to all four reactors.

The U.S. State Department has lifted its voluntary evacuation advisory for families of U.S. government employees in Tokyo and other Japanese cities, saying that while the situation remains serious, it is “dramatically different” now than it was on March 16, and health and safety risks are low for areas outside an 80-kilometer (50-mile) zone around the plant, which includes Tokyo. However, it has maintained its recommendation for U.S. citizens to avoid travel within the 50-mile zone.

TEPCO also reported on Friday it had conducted a 2-hour long unmanned helicopter flight over reactors 1 through 4 “to check the condition of the reactor buildings.” The helicopter is to fly again today. Video footage has not yet been released.

UPDATE AS OF 6:30 P.M. EDT, THURSDAY, APRIL 14:
NEI has uploaded a new video to its YouTube channel. The video, "INL Director Explains How the National Labs Are Assisting With Japan's Nuclear Crisis," features the Idaho National Laboratory's Director John Grossenbacher, who discusses the types of nuclear expertise and capabilities that exist within the U.S. Department of Energy's national labs to assist with the Japan nuclear crisis. He also explains how the labs will provide long-term research that will uncover lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear plants.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

More on Level 7

Level 7 About a week ago, the Japanese government rated the event at Fukushima Daiichi at level 7, the highest such level on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. This put it on par with the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986 (then in the Soviet Union, now Ukraine.)

For some commentators, that meant that Fukushima Daiichi is as serious as Chernobyl. For others, it qualified as a head scratcher, as the two events seem to have many points of departure.

One quick way to find out which view is closer to the truth is to consult the scale itself. It was created and is maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency. A brochure explaining it can be found here. From the introduction:

The INES Scale is a worldwide tool for communicating to the public in a consistent way the safety significance of nuclear and radiological events.

Just like information on earthquakes or temperature would be difficult to understand without the Richter or Celsius scales, the INES Scale explains the significance of events from a range of activities, including industrial and medical use of radiation sources, operations at nuclear facilities and transport of radioactive material.

Events are classified on the scale at seven levels: Levels 1–3 are called "incidents" and Levels 4–7 "accidents". The scale is designed so that the severity of an event is about ten times greater for each increase in level on the scale. Events without safety significance are called “deviations” and are classified Below Scale / Level 0.

Here’s the INES description of how an accident is rated level 6 and level 7:

ines_Page_4 You can see that Level 7 requires that countermeasures have been taken to fend off “health and environmental effects” on the public, not that these effects need to have occurred before taking action. No one has died from radiation exposure at or around Fukushima while people did die at Chernobyl. But both required countermeasures, thus setting both events at Level 7. (Chernobyl preceded the scale’s creation in 1990 and doubtless influenced its categorization scheme.)

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I asked Barbara Hamrick, currently the Radiation Safety Officer at the University of California’s Irvine Medical Center and Secretary-Elect for the Health Physics Society, if she would clarify some elements of INES for us.

What does the INES scale measure in determining an accident or incident?

The INES scale is used to rank nuclear incidents and accidents on a 7-point scale. It was originally developed to facilitate discussions among the member states (countries) of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) when a nuclear event occurred, in much the same way that the Richter scale is used to convey the severity of an earthquake. 

While examples of each level are provided in guidance, there is still a great deal of subjectivity involved in the final assessment of any nuclear event. It is not uncommon in large events to make “provisional” assessments of the severity level until such time as sampling and other data can be collected and evaluated. I don’t think it would be unusual to see the rating of the event at Fukushima Daiichi to remain provisional for many months.

Many commentators have noted that Fukushima does not seem to rise to the same level as Chernobyl, yet both are rated as level 7. Is it incorrect to look at the scale as a precise measuring tool?

I would not view the INES scale as a “precise” measuring tool. There are only seven levels, ranging from a very minor anomaly, such as exceeding a statutory dose limit, to a major accident involving potential widespread health and environmental effects.

The scale was designed such that a Level 7 event is about 10 times more severe than a Level 6 event. In this case, although the accident at Fukushima Daiichi fits some of the criteria of a Level 7 event, it is 10 times less severe than the Chernobyl accident based on our current understanding of how much radioactive material has been released. In other words, based on what we know right now, it might be more appropriate to consider the Fukushima Daiichi event a Level 7, and promote the Chernobyl event to a Level 8 (if there were such a level).

Conversely, many commentators have called Fukushima clearly as serious as Chernobyl based on INES. Is this a misuse of the scale’s purpose?

I think it is definitely a misuse of the scale. The real consequences of the event will not be known for a long time. In order for the international community to share a common understanding of the magnitude of the event, we use the INES scale to communicate a very rough approximation of the potential consequences.

At this time, it still appears that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear event is roughly ten times less severe than the Chernobyl event. That may change one way or the other as additional data becomes available. For example, it is possible that due to the meteorology during the event, due to the timing of the evacuations, or due to the food and water restrictions, the actual health effects will be less pervasive than those that we might be tempted to predict based solely on the known releases of radioactive material. It’s simply too early to precisely characterize this event.

INES was created after the Chernobyl accident. Has putting Fukushima and Chernobyl at the same level shown weaknesses in its approach or is it instead proving its value?

I think that’s open for debate. I’m not sure that adding levels would make a lot of difference in how the international nuclear safety community would react or respond, which is really the reason the scale was created; however, if the current scale contributes to public confusion, then a revision may be in order.

Aside from media, who would use the scale and for what purpose?

In my own experience as a regulator, the scale was useful for alerting me to an event and for quickly assessing how much attention I needed to pay to the event. This was particularly true after 2006, when the scale was extended to apply to all manner of nuclear events, and not just those at nuclear power plants and fuel facilities.

INES is overseen by the IAEA, but IAEA does not determine the severity of an accident or incident. Does INES operate on an honor system or some other self-reporting scheme?

I wouldn’t characterize it as an honor system, per se; however, it is true that it is not up to IAEA to establish the level of severity of an event. It is the government of the country in which the event occurs that will generally assess the event and make the call on the severity level.

As we saw with this event, others will frequently weigh in with an opinion, which may influence the rating in the end. Certainly for large events such as the one at Chernobyl, and the current event at Fukushima, even without an immediate pronouncement by the affected country, the global community will eventually detect the event, and may come to their own, possibly different, conclusion.

Keep in mind, the purpose of the scale is to roughly approximate the severity of an event, and it doesn’t really have any other practical effect. At the end of the day, it is in the affected country’s best interest to characterize the event as realistically as possible, as that will impact the international resources made available to them for event management and recovery.