Friday, December 30, 2011

The President of Thorium

bildePower from thorium:

This is [Bob] Greene's first time running [for President], and he's not sure if it's his last, but he certainly wants the world to know his position on thorium — a natural radioactive chemical element he hopes can change the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

Why thorium?

This energy source is used to create nuclear energy, much like uranium. However, he said it is safer to use and produces a waste product with a shorter radioactive life span. Like nuclear power, thorium would not create a huge carbon footprint, such as burning coal or oil, he said.

The writer gets a little muddled about nuclear energy here, but Greene has his arguments for thorium down pat. But why a single issue candidacy revolving around thorium?

He said he doesn't think President Barack Obama is taking advantage of the possibilities of thorium.

"I see this as an issue of national security," he said. "We can stop oil wars if we do this. We can change our import economy to an export economy."

Not sure why this isn’t equally true of uranium, but who are we to quibble? As the first thorium-boosting Presidential candidate we know of, we can only salute him at this crossing.

Right now, he’s only on the Democratic primary ballot in New Hampshire – against President Obama – but if things go well, who knows?

His campaign web site is here.

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When the Soviet Union ended, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was asked what would become of the country’s nuclear arsenal:

"If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons and they are 99% successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control."

The story by Huffington Post’s Graham Allison shows what actually happened to those 250 vulnerable missiles – and all the other missiles, too: nothing bad. This was due to two U.S.-Russia programs, one to help Russia gather all nuclear materials from the former soviet republics and a second, called Megatons to Megawatts, that downblended the gathered nuclear materials in those missiles to be used by domestic nuclear energy facilities. The missiles were not only rendered harmless, but their payloads were used for constructive purposes.

Nice to be reminded of programs that worked exactly as they should have.

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Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) may face nationalization:

Yesterday, shares in Tepco plunged to the lowest in at least 37 years after Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano said the company needs to consider being nationalized. Edano, who served as chief cabinet secretary and government spokesman in the months following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, now runs the ministry overseeing the nuclear power industry.

That makes it sound voluntary. The story also suggests that how TEPCO moves forward will depend on an energy plan being worked on by the government.

The same day he spoke of a government takeover, Edano’s ministry said in a statement it was studying changing rules governing Japan’s electricity industry to make distribution networks independent of power generators to spur competition. Those studies will form part of a new national energy policy to be drawn up by summer.

The story doesn’t say that there would be any attempt to limit compensation to those affected by the accident at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi facility.

Bottom line: there’s no evidence that nationalizing TEPCO would have any impact on the clean-up or on the work being done at Fukushima.

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Happy New Year from your friends at NEI Nuclear Notes. 2011 proved to be two years in 365 days. The most impressive event – leaving the accident at Fukushima Daiichi in a category of its own – to me was the extremely thorough and diligent response to the accident by the industry, the NRC, the U.S. government.

No one – at least who didn’t speak deutsch - looked at the accident and said “That’s it. Pull the plug.” But no one said, “This can’t happen here” either, even if the specifics of the Japan accident were unique.

But everything stayed at a level – the value of nuclear energy was almost universally acknowledged, but the need to take every lesson that could be learned from Fukushima and apply them to the American industry took center stage. Even attempts by anti-nuclear energy advocates to seize the moment fell flat – if anything, they became more shrill not less.

So – a tough year with a fair measure of heartening moments.

Welcome, 2012.

Bob Greene

Friday, December 23, 2011

Gifts for the Winter Solstice

AP1000-cutaway2012 promises to be an extremely consequential year for American nuclear energy. In the grand tradition of sneak previews, the first news to hit made 2011:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday approved the amended design for the Westinghouse AP1000, a reactor that several power companies intend to use for building the first new U.S. nuclear plants in decades.

“The design provides enhanced safety margins through use of simplified, inherent, passive, or other innovative safety and security functions, and also has been assessed to ensure it could withstand damage from an aircraft impact without significant release of radioactive materials,” NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in a statement.

And that means this in – we hope – the early part of next year:

The certification brings Southern Company subsidiary Southern Nuclear one step closer to receiving the first Combined Construction and Operating License (COL) for a U.S. nuclear plant.

"This is another key milestone for the Vogtle project and the nation's nuclear renaissance," said Southern Company Chairman, President and CEO Thomas A. Fanning. "The NRC's action confirms the AP1000 design is safe and meets all regulatory requirements. The commission now has all of the technical information needed to issue the Vogtle COL.

Rapidly followed by this:

Once the AP1000 certification is complete, we expect the COL to be issued in short order for the … Summer project [in South Carolina]. Once the COL are issued, we'll begin a significant ramp-up in work ….

This is from the Shaw Group’s earnings call on December 21, so they were a day early. I captured the Summer part, but Shaw is working on Vogtle, too.

It’s like a gift, isn’t it?

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And now a completely different kind of gift, from our friends at Russia’s Rosatom (click for larger):

Куц-Посейдон

Yes, they’ve taken some of their more athletic and beauteous workers – from the Siberian Chemical Combine, a used fuel reprocessing plant - and posed them after statues of Greek gods and goddesses for a calendar – at least, I think they’re workers. World Nuclear News doesn’t make this clear and neither does the Rosatom blog.

But – it’s fun to imagine that’s who they are – and why not? Russian nuclear facilities often tout the athletic achievements of their workers and this tilts that interest in another direction – toward beef- and cheesecake, true, but Rosatom also does a beauty pageant. It’s a cultural thing.

The statues – in the lower left of the photos - are mostly naked but the workers are at least as clothed as Poseidon there, so decide for yourself how safe-for-work this is before clicking through.

I wonder if this sort of thing is common throughout Russian industrial spheres.

The AP1000.

National Nuclear Science Week

NuclearMuseumNational Nuclear Science Week is coming up January 23 and The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (which has a great slogan: “Reactions Welcome”) is gearing up for it. The museum is in Albuquerque – where Bugs Bunny often made wrong turns – and also near one of the Manhattan Project sites at Los Alamos.

Although the museum does not ignore nuclear weaponry and its role in the Cold War, the focus of National Nuclear Science Week is, as the title suggests, more scientific than historic, offering themes  for each of the weekdays.

Monday is “Get to Know Nuclear Energy,” Tuesday, “Careers in the Nuclear Fields”, and then “Nuclear Energy Generation,” “Nuclear Safety,” and “Nuclear Medicine.”

Some of the days don’t appear to have agendas finalized yet. The web site, though, has a lot of materials for teachers and students, some fascinating audio and video clips – the audio of Einstein talking about the lately beleaguered theory of relativity is of particular interest – and plenty of links. All they need is an app.

The site is well worth a visit and if you stop in Albuquerque before making your wrong turn on the way to Pismo Beach, the museum should be on the agenda.

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Energy Secretary Steven Chu sent a letter to commemorate the week. Here’s a bit which serves to remind that Chu and DOE are very fully engaged with nuclear energy:

The Department of Energy remains strongly committed to supporting graduate education, competitive research and advanced scientific tools in the areas of nuclear physics, nuclear chemistry and nuclear engineering. Through its National Nuclear Security Administration, the Department of Energy stewards the U.S. nuclear stockpile, provides oversight of the world's largest nuclear nonproliferation program, and bears responsibility for the U.S. Navy's nuclear propulsion program. We share your commitment to fostering a deeper public understanding about nuclear energy, nuclear education, nuclear medicine and all of the nuclear sciences.

Music to the ears.

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. Need more to do? Los Alamos hosts the Bradbury Science Museum if you happen to head out that way.

Dr. Robert Emery Disputes Joe Mangano's Findings on Radiation and Fukushima

Just a few minutes ago, I received the following statement from Dr. Robert Emery, Vice President for Safety, Health, Environment & Risk Management at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston concerning Dr. Joseph Mangano's recent study on fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear energy facility reaching the U.S.

“We aggressively monitored for the presence of environmental radioactivity in Houston following the Fukushima event and worked closely with local public health authorities in the event we detected any threat to public health. We never detected any elevated radiation levels. I don’t see any evidence to supports the assertion made by this report that the additional 484 deaths in Houston in 2011 could in any way be related to radioactivity from Fukushima - we never detected any.”

"Moreover the study bases its conclusion on the comparison of data from deaths in the U.S. in 2010 and 2011. Using this method you really can’t determine the specific cause of any increase in deaths over the two years. Perhaps the most important question is: what did the 148,395 U.S. citizens die of in 2010, the year before the Japanese earthquake? Most likely the overwhelming causes were heart disease, cancer, and stroke. I believe this is likely the case in 2011 as well. I also believe our finite public health resources are better spent on the issues we know are causing people to die rather than being diverted to explore hypothetical projections"
It ought to be clear by now that Mangano's claims are being broadly discredited by the wider scientific community. Click here, here and here for our recent posts on how independent 3rd party voices are warning the public to disregard Mangano's research.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Progressives and Nuclear Energy

progressives_p42-600WThe Progressive Policy Institute offers strong support for nuclear energy in the post-Fukushima era, in a paper that bats down various myths that have taken hold about nuclear and other energy sources.
The paper links support for nuclear energy to progressive views.

As champions of reason and science, U.S. progressives have a responsibility to avoid panicky overreactions and instead undertake a clear-eyed assessment of the actual risks of nuclear energy.

Taking a swipe at environmentalists who oppose nuclear energy -  and generally assumed to hold progressive views, though there’s plenty of conservative environmentalists - the paper says,

[S]ome environmental activists have tried to pose a false choice between ‘clean’ and presumably safe renewable fuels like wind, solar and geothermal energy, and ‘dirty’ fossil fuels or allegedly ‘unsafe’ nuclear power. This dichotomy has nothing to do with science.

The paper discusses the relative environmental risks of nuclear versus other forms of energy, citing coal as an example.

Coal-fired power plants release more toxic air pollutants than any other U.S. industrial pollution source, including mercury, arsenic, dioxin, hydrogen chloride, formaldehyde, and sulfur dioxide.

Generating nuclear energy releases no pollutants.

The paper calls it ironic that while coal-fired plants emit up to 100 times the radioactivity of nuclear plants, they are not held to the same regulatory standards on radiation.

The paper argues against other misconceptions about nuclear energy. For example, while acknowledging the high capital costs associated with building a nuclear energy facility, the paper also shows the relatively low total life cycle cost given the expected life of the plant and its low operating costs.

The conclusion?

[Nuclear energy] should play an expanding role in meeting America’s growing energy needs for the rest of this century and probably beyond.”

This is one of the best pieces of think tank advocacy we’ve seen on nuclear energy and benefits from maintaining a rigorous relationship with the truth. Its arguments can be debated honestly because its fact set is well-sourced and the writing uninflected with undue emotion. These are elements that are not as common as they should be among anti-nuclear energy advocates, as many of the posts below demonstrate.

The paper can be found at the Progressive Policy Institute’s website. It’s about 12 pages and well worth the read.

The Arizona delegation to the 1912 Progressive Party convention in Chicago. Progressive ideology in the U.S. as we understand it now – there have been “progressives” throughout human history, of course, however you choose to define it – began in the late 19th and early 20th century, essentially as a response to industrialization and the idea that it was crushing workers into mechanistic cogs. Over time, it has come to be understood as the opposite number to conservatism in the (American) political sphere, but that formulation gets too messy to try to explain. Maybe PPI has a paper about it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Joe Mangano's Credibility Takes Another Body Blow

This time, the sledgehammer is delivered courtesy of Barbara Feder Ostrov's Health Journalism Blog. Like plenty of other folks, she was shocked at Joe Mangano's claims -- ones that he backed off from when under questioning from MedPage Today -- so she talked to some long-time medical journalists.

Here's what Ivan Oransky of Reuters Health had to say about Mangano's research:

I do use impact factor to judge journals, while accepting that it's an imperfect measure that is used in all sorts of inappropriate ways (and, for the sake of full disclosure, is a Thomson Scientific product, as in Thomson Reuters). I find it helpful to rank journals within a particular specialty.

[...]

I looked up the journal in question, and it's actually ranked 45th out of 58 in the Health Policy and Services category (in the social sciences rankings) and 59th out of 72 in the Health Care Sciences & Services category (in the science rankings).
Here's Gary Schwitzer of Health News Review:
Journalists who live on a steady diet of journal articles almost by definition promote a rose-colored view of progress in research if they don't grasp and convey the publication bias in many journals for positive findings. Negative or null findings may not be viewed as sexy enough. Or they may be squelched prior to submission. While perhaps not a factor in this one case, it nonetheless drives home the point to journalists about the need to critically evaluate studies.
I'm afraid I have more bad news for Mangano. Who's going to tell Christie Brinkley?

The 2012 Budget for Nuclear Energy

congressCongress voted on an omnibus appropriations bill that basically funds the entirety of the federal government for the next year. Naturally, our interest lies with the nuclear energy portion of the Department of Energy’s budget.

The executive summary is that the total is more than requested by the Obama administration earlier this year; the accident in Japan has been acknowledged in the budget but how to proceed has been largely left to processes already in place – the NRC’s Near-Term task force, for example; and Yucca Mountain, dead or alive, is not funded.

Here are the details:

The appropriations bill provides $769 million for nuclear science and technology, higher than the president’s $754 million and a sharp increase from the $584 million approved initially by the Senate.

Of particular note is the restoration of $67 million for small reactor development and licensing, which the Senate had earlier zeroed out. Under a cost-shared government-industry program, DOE will select two designs to shepherd through initial NRC technical reviews and licensing.

The legislation provides $187 million for fuel cycle research and development programs, almost $34 million more than originally requested by the president. These programs are likely to become more central to the industry as DOE acts upon the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which will in January finalize its report on managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.

A last-minute DOE request for funding support for USEC’s American Centrifuge Plant in Ohio failed to be included in the final bill, despite support from the Senate and the president. DOE and both the state’s Senators had sought funding for further development work on the uranium enrichment facility.

Funding for USEC could be revisited when Congress reconvenes in January.

The bill provides $59 million for the Advanced Fuels Program, an increase of $12 million from 2011, to accelerate development of new cladding materials for nuclear fuel.

Many defense-related nuclear energy items received increases over 2011 in a year marked by more stringent budgeting priorities. For example, defense environmental cleanup would receive $5 billion under the bill, $11 million more than in 2011. Nuclear nonproliferation would receive $2.3 billion, $110 million above the 2011 level; and naval reactors would receive $1.08 billion, $141 million higher than in 2011.

The appropriation for DOE is $25.7 billion, $2.1 billion more than what was approved by the House, but $3.9 billion below the Obama administration’s request.

Other funding includes:

  • $40 million for the Next Generation Nuclear Plant. The House committee had budgeted $63.5 million for this program.
  • $5 million for the Integrated University Program for DOE and $15 million for NRC. The House committee had budgeted these amounts for this jointly administered program, but the Senate originally had eliminated the funds.
  • $155 million for Idaho National Laboratory, $5 billion more than the administration’s request.
  • $1.027 billion to the NRC, about $11 million less than requested by the administration. Much of the NRC’s funding is paid by fees collected from licensees. Some $2 million of the appropriation is for a National Academy of Sciences study on lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident, as recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission. For the second year running, no funds have been allocated for the Yucca Mountain project.

Mike Moyer of Scientific American Debunks Joe Mangano Again

Mike Moyer, the writer at Scientific American who so expertly debunked Joe Mangano's "research" in June, had a chance to read the latest Mangano study that claimed 14,000 deaths in the U.S. were linked to fallout from Fukushima.

The verdict: it's just another flawed study.

No attempt is made at providing systematic error estimates, or error estimates of any kind. No attempt is made to catalog any biases that may have crept into the analysis, though a cursory look finds biases a-plenty (the authors are anti-nuclear activists unaffiliated with any research institution). The analysis assumes that the plume arrived on U.S. shores, spread everywhere, instantly, and started killing people immediately. It assumes that the “excess” deaths after March 20 are a real signal, not just a statistical aberration, and that every one of them is due to Fukushima radiation.
Of course, as we pointed out yesterday, Mangano was forced to back off that last claim when pressed by a reporter from MedPage Today.

Back to Moyer ...
The publication of such sloppy, agenda-driven work is a shame. Certainly radiation from Fukushima is dangerous, and could very well lead to negative health effects—even across the Pacific. The world needs to have a serious discussion about what role nuclear power should play in a power-hungry post-Fukushima world. But serious, informed, fact-based debate is a difficult enough goal to achieve without having to shout above noise like this.
Amen, brother.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Counting Yen

yenJapan does not have many options for electricity if it leaves behind nuclear energy and if limiting carbon emission remains a national goal. But what Japan decides to do about nuclear energy is something that is tough to gainsay.

So, the groundwork to lessen dependence on nuclear is being laid, though the results are imperfect:

Nuclear power generation in Japan is about 50 percent more expensive than estimated after factoring in the cost of paying for an accident like the Fukushima disaster, a government panel said.

Nuclear energy costs at least 8.9 yen (11 cents) per kilowatt hour, compared with a government estimate of 5.9 yen in 2004, the panel said in a draft report today.

Presumably it is still 5.9 yen if the accident is factored out, but okay: 8.9 yen it is. Why is that imperfect?

Coal is estimated to cost 9.5 yen per kilowatt hour, while liquefied natural gas and oil cost 10.7 yen and 36 yen respectively.

Another story put wind at 9.9 yen and solar at 33.4 yen.

Those are Japan’s choices – and everything has to be imported.  Japan will produce more carbon emissions, pay more for the dubious honor, and has to build the plants and train the workers. There’s a lot of capital investment involved in this process.

Various accounts have shown Japan abandoning or reducing or sticking with nuclear energy. It’s almost a time of day thing. But if the trend is toward reducing nuclear energy output – because the accident rendered nuclear energy persona non grata - it’s a genuinely terrible outcome.

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One of the dumber editorials. Our writer wants to signal disapproval for nuclear energy while voicing support for the Keystone XL pipeline:

But our nation does need power. For electricity, we need to open up desert space and urban rooftops for solar energy projects. But solar and wind will not be enough. That's why the Keystone Pipeline project - which is oil from a friendly country - may be the preferred alternative. At the very least, it would be better than building more nuclear power plants.

Solar and wind will not be enough for what? And if they are not enough, how might oil fill in?

Sheesh!

The lady on the 5000 yen note is Ichiyo Higuchi, a writer and poet who lived her brief life from 1872 to 1896. Much of her work focused on the people and social order in the Yoshiwara district (essentially, the red light district) of Tokyo.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Joseph Mangano Contradicts His Own Press Release on Fukushima Research

Our readers will recall that on Friday afternoon that we were alerted to the impending release of a study authored by Joseph Mangano and Dr. Janette Sherman on the alleged effects of radioactive fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi incident here in the U.S.

Earlier today, Mangano and company held a teleconference to announce their findings:

An estimated 14,000 excess deaths in the United States are linked to the radioactive fallout from the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan, according to a major new article in the December 2011 edition of the International Journal of Health Services.
Sounds scary, doesn't it? Then again, only a few hours later, Mangano admitted in an interview with MedPage Today that the results of his research weren't quite as definitive as his press release would have led folks to believe:
But he (Managno) told MedPage Today that the researchers can't rule out factors other than the Fukushima radiation that might have accounted for the excess.

"There are probably a variety of factors that could be linked to this excess of 14,000 deaths," he said.
Huh? In any case, it's clear that the scientific community doesn't think terribly much of Mangano and his study. As luck would have it, MedPage Today also talked to Richard L. Morin, PhD, of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida:
On the contrary, any link between the deaths and the radiation released by the reactors is "very, very unlikely" simply because the levels are low, according to Richard Morin, PhD, of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.

Morin told MedPage Today that such an acute effect would be unlikely, unless radiation levels were four or five orders of magnitude higher than those reported by Mangano and Sherman, and the whole body of the victim was exposed.

Typically, he said, the effect of low-level ionizing radiation doesn't appear until years after the exposure.

Morin, who is chair of the American College of Radiology's safety committee, said an earlier public report by the authors on the same issue -- preceding the journal article -- "has not been taken seriously by the scientific community."

He added it's important to remember that "association doesn't imply causation.
It's been more than six years since I wrote my first post on Mangano's antics. As I wrote at the time, eight states have investigated Mangano's claims and all eight refused to validate them. One wonders why reporters even bother to talk to him anymore when his work has been so thoroughly debunked.

Friday, December 16, 2011

NRC’s Post-Fukushima Recommendations Will Be Mandatory for U.S. Nuclear Energy Facilities

Over the past few months, anti-nuclear groups have regularly attacked our industry for allegedly resisting implementing changes at our facilities in the wake of the incident at Fukushima Daiichi. While that’s simply not the case, it’s a perception that often gets reinforced in the press—and this morning’s mailbag contained yet another example.

Politico Pro posted an article this morning, “NRC Won’t Make Post-Fukushima Safety Recommendations Mandatory,” that is misleading and egregiously inaccurate. At issue is how the term “mandatory” is used to show how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will both implement and mandate its post-Fukushima recommendations.

The lede states:

The NRC on Thursday cemented a to-do list of post-Fukushima safety recommendations for U.S. nuclear plants but won't make them mandatory.

That caught the attention of Jason Zorn, NEI’s assistant general counsel, who made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that this is incorrect. I spoke with him this afternoon to explain why in further detail:

The story focuses on the commission’s decision that it was premature to conclude that the Fukushima-related lessons learned are “necessary for adequate protection.” However, a new requirement does not have to be based on "adequate protection" to be mandatory. As long as the NRC acts through a legally binding vehicle, such as an order or a rulemaking, the result will be legally binding. The commission's decision on "adequate protection" in the staff requirements memorandum (SRM) goes only to whether these recommendations will be subjected to a full regulatory analysis or not, and has nothing to do with them being "mandatory."

Zorn points to SECY 11-0137—the SRM that prioritizes how the NRC will respond to the Fukushima lessons learned—and said that the second paragraph cannot be taken out of context from the first.

The first paragraph clearly shows that the commission has approved the NRC staff’s post-Fukushima recommendations to impose many of the lessons learned through orders or rulemaking. Both orders and rulemaking impose legally binding and enforceable requirements. In other words, they all will become mandatory at some point; it’s just a matter of how you are going to get there that’s the difference.

He explains that the SRM’s second paragraph shows that the NRC has yet to decide what level of protection (either “adequate protection” or “‘extra’ adequate protection”) each recommendation will fall under before each is mandated. The paragraph states:

In the absence of a fully developed justification for a proposed new requirement, the Commission finds it premature to initiate actions on the Near Term Task Force recommendations under the premise of assuring or redefining the level of protection of public health and safety that should be required as adequate in accordance with the backfit rule. The Commission will evaluate the staff’s basis for imposing new requirements when documented in notation vote papers for any new requirements promulgated by orders or rulemaking.

The commission will need further evidence to support each recommendation being categorized as either “adequate protection” or “‘extra’ adequate protection” before being required. Zorn states:

The commission simply said that they want the staff to look at the underlying basis and do a full analysis of impacts and benefits where appropriate. In contrast, requirements imposed under an adequate protection basis can be imposed with essentially no meaningful regulatory analysis. The staff’s original recommendation to impose many of the recommendations through orders or rulemaking was left completely intact by the commission.

So what’s next? Zorn replies:

The details are far from final. The task force will come back to the commission in a few months with their analysis of each recommendation and the commission will vote whether each should fall under the “adequate” or “extra adequate” categories. The NRC has these processes in place to ensure that new requirements are adequately understood and justified before they are imposed.

I think Zorn “adequately” (pardon the pun) explained why the Politico Pro piece is misleading. Hopefully his explanation will make it to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) who issued a press release yesterday with the same misinterpretation:

While I welcome the step the commission took today, I am disappointed that a majority of the Commissioners voted to reject the recommendation of the NRC Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima that the safety upgrades be made mandatory and not leave their implementation subject to a future cost-benefit analysis.

Inside Look at “Adequate Protection”

Since I had Zorn’s attention for a few minutes, I also asked him if he could explain the background on “adequate protection.” His explanation was fairly easy to understand.

The Atomic Energy Act authorizes the NRC to impose requirements (i.e. make them “mandatory”) by regulation or order. Once a regulation, order or license is issued, it is legally binding and enforceable, meaning the NRC can issue a penalty or take other enforcement action if a licensee violates the terms.

Separately is the fact that the Atomic Energy Act also basically allows the NRC to impose new requirements under one of two options: “necessary for adequate protection” or “‘extra’ adequate protection.” In a nutshell, it is within the NRC’s discretion to decide into which category a particular new requirement (i.e. the aforementioned regulations, orders or plant licenses) will fall.

The “necessary for adequate protection” category gives the NRC the authority to impose requirements that it believes are necessary for the adequate protection of public health and safety or common defense and security. It is important to note that this does NOT mean that the NRC’s requirements must achieve “absolute protection” (i.e. zero risk), which would be impossible to achieve. It also is important to note that the NRC cannot generally consider costs when deciding whether or not something is necessary for adequate protection.

If the NRC chooses to impose a new requirement as “‘extra’ adequate protection,” it must show that the requirement would have a substantial increase in the overall safety of the plant and the costs to implement are justified. This analysis is known as a “backfit analysis,” which is outlined in the NRC’s regulations at 10 C.F.R. § 50.109. This category requires substantial NRC research and cost-benefit analyses before being implemented. Examples of requirements that have been imposed in the past as “extra adequate protection” are the station blackout rule, aircraft impact assessment rule, and 1994 vehicle bomb rule.

But the bottom line is, once a new requirement is imposed by order or rulemaking—either under the “adequate” or “extra adequate” protection category—it is considered mandatory by the NRC and is both legally binding and enforceable.

Note to Reporters: Be Sure to Fact Check Joseph Mangano, Janette Sherman and Robert Alvarez

Late this afternoon, it came to our attention that Joseph Mangano, Janette Sherman and Robert Alvarez will be holding a news conference on Monday morning (December 19) concerning a new study they've done about how Americans might be affected by radiation released into the atmosphere from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan.

While we haven't seen the article as of yet and can't comment on it, our readers should know that reliable third parties have reviewed the work of all three authors in the past and found it to be fatally flawed.

Here's what the New Jersey Commission on Radiation Protection had to say about Mangano's "Tooth Fairy" project:

The Commission is of the opinion that "Radioactive Strontium-90 in Baby Teeth of New Jersey Children and the Link with Cancer: A Special Report," is a flawed report, with substantial errors in methodology and invalid statistics. As a result, any information gathered through this project would not stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific community. There is also no evidence to support the allegation that the State of New Jersey has a problem with the release of Sr-90 into the environment from nuclear generating plants: more than 30 years of environmental monitoring data refute this.
In June, Michael Moyer of Scientific American had this to say about a study by Mangano and Sherman on radiation and Fukushima:
[A] check reveals that the authors’ statistical claims are critically flawed—if not deliberate mistruths.

[...]

Only by explicitly excluding data from January and February were Sherman and Mangano able to froth up their specious statistical scaremongering.

This is not to say that the radiation from Fukushima is not dangerous, nor that we shouldn’t closely monitor its potential to spread (we should). But picking only the data that suits your analysis isn’t science—it’s politics. Beware those who would confuse the latter with the former.
As for Mr. Alvarez, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had this to say about one of his papers on the safety of spent fuel pools:
The NRC staff has reviewed the paper, "Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power- Reactor Fuel in the United States," April 21, 2003, Robert Alvarez, et al., (published in Science and Global Security, spring 2003) and concludes that it fails to make the case for its central recommendation.

[...]

Our review of the paper indicates that it is a deficient study of the hazards associated with the storage of spent fuel. Many of the 114 cited references are NRC studies or NRC contracted studies conducted for a variety of purposes, and most are not applicable to terrorist attacks.
Members of the press should take care to challenge the findings announced on Monday, and to be sure to contact NEI or other third party experts to review the validity of the study, rather than simply rebroadcast its findings.

Fukushima Daiichi Achieves Cold Shutdown

fukushimaA happy day:

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshikhiko Noda said on Friday that the battle to stabilize the country's Fukushima nuclear plant had turned a corner, nine months after an earthquake and tsunami sent reactors into meltdowns.

"The reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have reached a state of cold shutdown," Noda said at a nuclear task force meeting in Tokyo. "Now that we have achieved stability in the reactors, a major concern for the nation has been resolved."

The "cold shutdown" refers to a condition where the water that cools nuclear fuel rods remains below boiling point, meaning that the fuel cannot reheat.

Still much to do. But a happy day.

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An editorial from North Dakota features the views of Senate Candidate Duane Sand:

In a wide-ranging discussion Tuesday with The Forum’s Editorial Board, Sand outlined his proposal for a nuclear plant in North Dakota and nine more across the nation. A commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Sand served on three nuclear submarines. He’s a student of nuclear energy – its pitfalls, myths and potential. He knows his stuff about the subject and sincerely believes eastern North Dakota would be an ideal site for the start of a new era of nuclear power.

The editorial lists four of Sand’s points about nuclear energy, all of which are agreeable and well-informed. We really like this one:

The myths associated with nuclear power’s dangers need to be exposed as mostly frauds.

More at the link. Let’s just say Duane Sand doesn’t hide his liking of nuclear energy under a bushel.

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Does this mean I support Sand in his race?

Of course not – that’s for the people of North Dakota to decide and I have no idea what the local issues are there.

One issue voters – even those that favor nuclear energy – face much sorrow, so even if I could vote for Sand, I would hesitate until I knew more about his views and those of his opponent. Support for nuclear energy would not be determinative in deciding my vote, but it would be one item in Sand’s favor.

Fukushima Daiichi

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Need A Little Soap To Clean Off the “Dirt”

Benjamin-Sovacool_smallI came across an article this week penned by professor Benjamin Sovacool that purports to give readers “the dirt on nuclear power.” The article gives way to hasty generalizations and leaves readers with a false view of one of the nation’s safest industries, and I’d like to point out a few places where there are holes in his arguments.

The first problem: Sovacool lumps common industry terms, “incidents” and “accidents,” into one venti-sized category of “accidents.” Why does he do this? I’m guessing to add to the Armageddon-like anxiety he wants his readers to feel.

Sovacool states:

Incidents are unforeseen events and technical failures that occur during normal plant operation and result in no off-site releases of radiation or severe damage to equipment. Accidents refer to either off-site releases of radiation or severe damage to plant equipment. …

Under these classifications, the number of nuclear accidents, even including the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini, is low. But if one redefines an accident to include incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or more than $50,000 in property damage, a very different picture emerges.

He continues by providing additional examples of how everything falling under his redefined “accidents” category leads to death, destruction and demise. However, a couple of key points should be made before he submits his new definition to Merriam Webster.

First, “accidents” are NOT the same as “incidents,” and should not be treated the same way. Each term is distinctly classified because they each require different responses by involved government, regulatory and other agencies in how they are addressed. For example, if you look at auto insurance—your auto insurance company will treat a minor fender bender differently than an accident involving total demolition of the vehicle and injury to the driver (and possibly others). The reason for this is NOT because the auto industry is trying to cheat you, but rather because the auto carrier has to look at the overall picture—safety implications (establish fault—with the driver or equipment?), involved parties (emergency responders, hospitals, etc.), and overall costs of repair.

In the nuclear industry, “incidents” and “accidents” are treated similarly in that they are classified based on how they should be handled and what agencies should be involved. In fact, if you look at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), you will see that they have categorized the two types differently according to affects the incident or accident has on: people and the environment, radiological barriers and control, and defense-in-depth. This categorization serves an important purpose in establishing roles and responsibilities for managing the crisis and determining how to best address and fix the safety problem. For example, an incident involving a fire in one area of the facility not near the nuclear reactor will not warrant a full-scale international investigation, extensive radiation monitoring, federal responders, etc. However, if that fire sparked near the reactor and caused an “accident” at the site, those actions by the nuclear industry would probably be warranted and the global nuclear industry would be at the plant’s doorstep trying to take steps to prevent them from occurring at their own sites.

This is also not to say that the nuclear industry does not learn from “incidents” as well—or that they are any less important. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is revered as a model to countries around the world that are creating their own nuclear regulating bodies because of its strict regulatory oversight. The regulator’s role in an “incident” would be just the same as during an “accident”—to ensure that the plant is operating safely or to shut it down immediately. No questions asked. The industry takes safety incredibly seriously and has many layers of built-in protection in reactors’ designs and reinforces best operating practices through employee reporting mechanisms and other daily checks to ensure safety is always first.

Which brings me to another gaping hole in Sovacool’s argument: he clearly ignores the evidence about the nuclear industry’s strong safety record. In paragraph four, he states that the number of nuclear accidents “is low,” but chooses to ignore this crucial fact for the sake of his flawed argument.

Let’s look at the facts. In its 2010 safety and operations report, the World Association of Nuclear Operators, an international organization that consolidates best practices from operating nuclear plants worldwide, found on the topic of safety system performance:

For the 12th straight year, key backup safety systems concurrently met their individual availability goals more than 90 percent of the time. Nuclear power plants are built with multiple safety systems and backup power supplies so these systems are available, if needed, even when maintenance is being performed on a similar system or component. The three principal backup safety systems are two main cooling systems and back-up power supplies used to respond in the event of unusual situations. Each system at every plant has an availability goal just shy of 100 percent, and 93 percent of these backup safety systems met their individual goal, assuring that multiple layers of safety were in place as designed.

On the topic of industrial safety, the report also goes on to state that:

The nuclear industry is one of the nation’s safest working environments. U.S. nuclear plants continued to post a low industrial accident rate in 2010 with 0.09 industrial accidents per 200,000 worker-hours, the lowest level in a decade and well below the 2010 goal of 0.2. Statistics from other industries through 2009, as compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, show that it is safer to work at a nuclear power plant than in the manufacturing sector and even the real estate and financial sectors.

(See NEI’s press release for more information on the report.)

Coincidentally, Sovacool also mentions that the nuclear industry’s death rate—under his new definition of “accidents”—would be extraordinarily high—a claim that does not stand scrutiny if you examine the facts. A March post by Next Big Future gives the latest data in this regard, showing the nuclear industry to have the lowest average death rate per terrawatt-hour (0.04), lower than the coal, oil, natural gas, biofuels, solar, wind, and hydro industries.

Sovacool’s hasty generalizations extend beyond nuclear plants to include reprocessing facilities, and he also shares incredible, “dirty” stats on the nuclear industry:

To put a serious accident in context, according to data from my forthcoming book Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power, if 10 million people were exposed to radiation from a complete nuclear meltdown (the containment structures fail completely, exposing the inner reactor core to air), about 100,000 would die from acute radiation sickness within six weeks. About 50,000 would experience acute breathlessness, and 240,000 would develop acute hypothyroidism. About 350,000 males would be temporarily sterile, 100,000 women would stop menstruating, and 100,000 children would be born with cognitive deficiencies. There would be thousands of spontaneous abortions and more than 300,000 later cancers.

I’ll have to stay tuned to his latest book to see what kind of scientific basis there is to his figures and to investigate whether or not he includes the protective actions that would be taken by the utility or local/state/federal government in the event of an accident. But for now, I’d just like to point out that even in the case of Fukushima, there have not been any radiation-related deaths. The last of three deaths that NEI reported at the facility was not believed to be from radiation, and the other two workers died while trying to stabilize the plant during the tsunami.

Given that the overall premise of his argument is flawed and that none of his facts or stats are cited (or footnoted for that matter!), I’d caution everyone to think twice before believing his “dirt” on the nuclear industry.

Pictured: Benjamin K. Sovacool, from GoodPlanet.info.

Is Bloomberg Businessweek Censoring Comments?

Suzy Hobbes over at Pop Atomic Studios makes the case.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

AREVA in Funkytown: Bad Quarter or Harbinger of Industry Doom?

Areva FunkytownToday, French nuclear company AREVA said it expected to post operating losses of about 1.4 to 1.6 billion euros in its 2011 year-end financial report, including a cash flow loss, before tax, of about 1.8 billion euros.

This story from AOL Energy News is rather bare on facts, substituting something very close to a bald assertion:

Only last week Washington DC-based think tank Worldwatch Institute released its Vital Signs Online (VSO) report noting that the world's nuclear power portfolio was quickly shrinking. Now nuclear power companies worldwide are posting numbers that reflect the trend.

Well, it’s one nuclear energy company and it wouldn’t seem to be reflecting this particular trend, if trend there be. (I haven’t looked at the VSO report – yet – and must admit I’ve never run into the Worldwatch Institute.)

This story, from the rather unbalanced Business Green, at least gets the details about this right:

The company announced yesterday that operating losses for this year could reach €1.6bn, primarily as a result of the Fukushima disaster on the value of its uranium mining operations.

But what does AREVA have to say about this? Let’s look:

In this context [the global demand for more electricity], the German decision [to close its nuclear facilities] remains an isolated case and the great majority of nuclear programs around the world have been confirmed. More conservative in its projections than the International Energy Agency, the group expects growth of 2.2% annually, reaching 583 GW of installed nuclear capacity by 2030, against 378 GW today. However, the Fukushima accident will lead to delays in launching new programs.

A little more:

The news was followed today by confirmation that Areva will suspend planned "capacity extensions" at four nuclear sites in France, halt work to extend its Eagle Rock enrichment plant near Idaho Falls in the US, and scale back planned investment at uranium mines in the Central African Republic, Namibia and South Africa.

Uranium again. I guess you could look for corporate spin there, but it’s generally transparent. in any event, AREVA has created a plan called Action 2016 to help it refocus the company:

"Action 2016" [will] consolidate AREVA's leadership in nuclear energy and become a leading player in renewable energy.

You can read more about Action 2016 at AREVA’s site. Here’s what AREVA says about Fukushima and its role in the nuclear energy industry in general:

Faced, like all its competitors, with the period of uncertainty in the wake of the Fukushima accident, AREVA can rely on the strength of its integrated business model, which makes it possible to take advantage of opportunities in each segment of the nuclear market.

Which means the company can manage a facility top to bottom or just some aspects of an operation – and ride out the bumps if countries delay nuclear energy projects. 

None of this is to say that AREVA hasn’t hit difficulties or that the accident at Fukushima Daiichi hasn’t contributed to those difficulties. (Curiously, the global slowdown in electricity consumption and the continuing economic environment aren’t even mentioned. I’d hate to think we’re so used to them that we consider them a given.)

But it’s a little too easy to jump to the conclusion that the nuclear energy industry has entered a death spiral or even “reflects a trend',” even if one shy of evidence. A rough patch for one company doesn’t set the entire industry out on a plate for vultures. It’s lazy and dishonest to imagine it does.

---

For example:

China, the world’s biggest energy user, may resume approving new nuclear projects after the cabinet endorses draft safety rules prepared by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, an industry association official said.

Perhaps not fertile territory for AREVA, but this is the kind of thing it says it is waiting for. And it is happening.

---

I’m purposely ignoring the stories about the NRC currently making the rounds of news outlets. There’s a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee tomorrow at 10:00 am (EST) (you can watch the webcast here) at which the five commissioners will offer testimony and answer questions about possible discord at the agency. Let’s watch that first and then return to the subject. Until then, what you may read will remain a heap of gossip.

From USA Today:

Q: I never heard of Areva until I saw a TV ad recently and don't think I got the message. Just who is Areva and how are they going to influence my future? The commercial is catchy, and the little tune stays running around in your mind, but if people can't understand it, I don't think Areva is getting their money's worth.

A: Areva wants to power your future. It's a Paris-based industrial giant whose businesses include nuclear power and energy alternatives. It has U.S. operations in 45 locations in 20 states. The ad, which has aired previously, is part of a campaign started in May to make its name better known in the U.S. The animated TV ad, which you can see here, uses the 1980 Lipps Inc. classic Funkytown, a song that's also been in ads for FedEx, Ore-Ida's Funky Fries, Nissan and Volkswagen. Areva uses the opening lyrics for the song, which have a distorted sound through use of a voice box. They speak about moving to a town that's "groovin' with some energy." Areva marketers most care that you get the last few words: "Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it" (which is what they want you to do about them).

Monday, December 12, 2011

Weekly Japan Update

The Fukushima updates are moving to a weekly schedule beginning today and continuing each Monday. Additional updates will be issued as needed to cover developing events.

Japan: Full Decontamination Efforts Will Begin in March

December 12, 2011

Industry/Regulatory/Political

  • TEPCO said it will receive accident insurance from a Swiss company that will replace a consortium of insurers that will not renew its policies with the utility. TEPCO will pay about $258 million for a five-year policy, about 10 times the amount it paid to the consortium. The policy will cover claims related to Fukushima Daiichi.
  • Japan’s Environment Ministry said that a full-fledged effort to decontaminate areas with high radiation will not begin until at least March, as the ministry must receive permission from affected landowners and must acquire temporary sites at which to store contaminated soil.
  • Concentrations of cesium-137 in the ocean near Fukushima Daiichi peaked at 50 million times above normal, a study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Society found. However, the study said that the radiation diluted rapidly and poses little or no danger to human and marine life.

Media Highlights

  • A USA TODAY/Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans have become more concerned about the safety of nuclear energy because of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. The poll found that 44 percent favor building new facilities, down from 57 percent from the last poll taken before the accident.
  • The Mainichi Daily News wrote in an editorial that carrying out decontamination work as an international project will be beneficial to Japan and the rest of the world. “There is bound to be technology and expertise abroad that we do not have in Japan,” the editorial said. “If we are able to take advantage of them, the work will proceed more efficiently. In return, Japan should be able to pass on the knowledge and lessons learned from the Fukushima crisis to the rest of the world.”

New Products

  • An article on NEI’s Safety First website outlines the response to the March 11 earthquake at the Fukushima Daini plant and details three key lessons the plant operator learned from the experience.

Upcoming Meetings

  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold four public meetings this week to discuss with industry representatives proposals to implement individual recommendations from the NRC’s Japan near-term task force. Meeting agendas and further details on each meeting are available on a special NRC webpage.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing Dec. 15 titled “Review of the NRC’s Near-Term Task Force Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century."

NEI Press Release: Effective Regulation of Nuclear Energy Important for Public Confidence in NRC

The following statement concerning the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is from the Nuclear Energy Institute’s president and chief executive officer, Marvin Fertel:

“Safe performance of nuclear energy facilities and the NRC’s credibility are the two most important factors for policymaker and public confidence in nuclear energy. As such, the industry is concerned with anything that threatens the credibility of either. We are confident that Congress and the White House will take the steps necessary to ensure that the NRC is an efficient, effective regulator that provides oversight of commercial nuclear technology.

“The issue that is of most concern is the question of a chilled working environment at the agency, including the possibility of staff intimidation and harassment, at a time when the senior management and staff are working on critical licensing activities and post-Fukushima safety recommendations. The industry takes safety culture issues seriously and we expect the same priority treatment of these issues by our regulator.

“The NRC functions best when it has a full complement of five capable commissioners to provide guidance and direction to the NRC staff. Safety is maximized when NRC and industry resources are focused on those matters that are most important to safety. It is important that the dynamics that exist within the commission be resolved professionally and expeditiously so that the important work of the agency can continue without interruption or distraction. The American people expect and deserve nothing less.

“The industry’s commitment to nuclear power plant safety is unwavering and we will not be distracted from this mission by events at the NRC. Of the top 20 performing plants in the world, 16 of them are American reactors. The industry exceeds federal safety standards and it is critical that our entire industry keep a sharp focus on safety. Furthermore, the industry is taking steps to make safe nuclear energy facilities even safer by applying the lessons learned from the accident in Japan at America’s nuclear power plants.”
Click here to find the full statement on NEI's Website.

Friday, December 09, 2011

On Politifact, President Clinton and Nuclear Costs

You may recall that in November, President Clinton made the following statement about the relative costs of nuclear, solar and wind in an appearance on The Daily Show:

"Solar energy and wind energy ... would already be competitive with coal if you had to pay the extraneous costs of coal -- the health care costs and other things. And ... wind within two years and solar within five will be competitive in price with coal. They're both cheaper than nuclear right now."
In response, Lou Jacobson, a reporter with Politifact, took a closer look at Clinton's claim, and rated it half-true:
Clinton was correct about wind energy being "cheaper than nuclear right now," at least the onshore kind. But for now, nuclear beats the cheapest form of solar energy on price. So we rate his statement Half True.
That claim didn't sit well with NEI's David Bradish, who pulled apart the numbers and suggested that Politifact change its rating from "half true" to "mostly false":
As shown above, the low end of nuclear’s cost range ($109.70/MWh) is lower than the high end of wind’s cost range ($115/MWh); therefore wind is not always cheaper than nuclear.

Further, the amount of wind that can be built is limited to specific places in the U.S. that receive adequate wind flow (see map below).

A substantial amount of wind cannot be built in places such as the Southeast due to a lack of natural resources. Areas with low wind resources will produce less electricity from installed turbines which in turn cause higher levelized costs.

[...]

Currently, 104 nuclear reactors (101 gigawatts) generate 20% of the country’s baseload power at low operating costs. This compares to 40 GW of wind and 1 GW of solar generating 2.2% and 0.0003% of the country’s electricity, respectively, at intermittent times.

The folks at PolitiFact should reconsider their conclusion about former President Clinton’s statements and change it from Half True to Mostly False.
Back on November 22, I passed David's analysis along to Jacobson, and here's the response I got:
I apologize for not getting back sooner. I was gone for most of last week and now we're on a short week.

We are expecting to do a full Mailbag treatment on this topic, probably next week, since we have received many comments on the story. We are happy to run your comments (likely abridged for space) in that piece. We usually do not run names with the comments in our mailbag items, but your case would likely be an exception, assuming you'd like to be identified.

I will say that our comments have included many examples of complaints that we were too soft on nuclear (and too hard on renewables) and many that we were too hard on nuclear (and too soft on renewables). Given the complexity of analyzing this issue -- both nuclear and renewables have complaints about how they were treated by the DOE methodology -- I do not see an obvious reason for us to change our rating from the fairly neutral Half True. But that's not my call--the editors determine the rating, and the writers only make recommendations.

Thanks for writing....

Lou Jacobson
Well, it's now December 8, and I have yet to see an update to the original piece. I checked in with Jacobson again today, and he wrote back that they've been busy, but are still planning to do a follow up. While I'm happy to take him at his word, we promise to keep you updated as to if/when Politifact gets around to doing a deeper dive on the evidence. As far as we're concerned, we think their readers deserve it.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

NRC’s Jaczko Responds to Rep. Markey on the Sr-90 Issue at Vermont Yankee

GuestPost_IconIt’s been a few weeks since I posted about Entergy responding to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) on the strontium-90 (Sr-90) issue at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has since weighed in, on the NRC’s behalf, with a letter he sent to the congressman.

Of note, the chairman’s letter echoes what Entergy officials and the Vermont Department of Health (VTDH) have been saying all along:

Because there are multiple potential sources of Sr-90, including nuclear weapons testing by multiple countries in the middle of the last century, it is very difficult to draw conclusions about the source of any particular Sr-90 contamination that is found in the environment unless there is additional supporting evidence.

Because of this fact, Jaczko believes that Entergy’s Laurence Smith, manager of communications, is fair in one of his statements that “There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Vermont Yankee is the source for the strontium-90.” He writes:

The quoted licensee statements in your question are not without foundation based on the above information.

The chairman also continues by explaining that the NRC’s methods of analyzing the data employ a somewhat different “band of uncertainty” than the VTDH, and concludes that:

The VTDH results are too close to the level of uncertainty to be considered by themselves a conclusive indication of the presence of Sr-90. When taken together, these factors lead us to conclude that there is no need for further study of possible Sr-90 contamination from Vermont Yankee at this time.

If there is ever an indication of Sr-90 releases above the legal limit or contamination at Vermont Yankee, the chairman reassures the congressman that the:

NRC will take action, as appropriate, at that time.

Given that the state’s department of health and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have come back to the congressman with similar explanations, I wonder if we can now consider this issue to be null?

Read the full letter here.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Wednesday Update

From NEI’s Safety First web site:

Contaminated Water Leaks Into Ocean Near Fukushima

December 7, 2011

Industry/Regulatory/Political

  • Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear energy facility, said about 40 gallons of water containing radioactive strontium drained into the ocean following a leak in desalination equipment. TEPCO said it is likely to have little effect on the environment.
  • More rice shipments have been banned from a district of Fukushima City after discovery of contamination. Inspections found radioactive cesium above the government-set safety limit in rice from the Watari district and blocked shipments from farms located there. Bans were previously imposed on another district of Fukushima City and two districts of Date City.
  • Fukushima Prefecture will spray radiation-absorbing agents onto farmland and scrape off the topsoil in an effort to remove low levels of contamination. Workers also will remove tree bark in orchards and clean the trees with jets of water.
  • The lower house of Japan’s legislature has voted approval for nuclear cooperation agreements with Jordan, Russia, Vietnam and South Korea. The legislation, which is expected to clear the upper house, would permit Japan to export nuclear energy facilities and transfer related technology.

Media Highlights

  • The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear energy facility may have startled some in the U.S. industry, but no one in the industry was surprised the operator regained control of the reactors, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in a meeting with the media on Tuesday. New York Times writer Matt Wald reports in the Green blog.
  • The cost of nuclear energy in Japan is predicted to double, including government subsidies, the Mainichi Daily News reports. That would put it on a par with other thermal energy sources.
  • A producer of milk powder in Japan has recalled product manufactured shortly after the nuclear accident after traces of radioactive cesium were detected, Bloomberg News reports. The level of cesium in the powdered milk, used in baby formula, is within government safety limits and would not result in health effects.

Upcoming Events

  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff and stakeholders will discuss the post-Fukushima task force recommendations on protection of equipment during an extreme event and adding equipment to accommodate a multi-unit event in a public meeting Dec. 8.

This is the last of the thrice weekly Fukushima Updates. A weekly edition will be published each Monday starting December 12. Of course, we’ll resume more frequent updates if events warrant.

Solyndra, Nuclear Energy and Loan Guarantees

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         One of the things that struck me when reading about the bankruptcy of Solyndra and its implication for the federal loan guarantee program is that it seemed so small bore – beyond the entertainment value of any “scandal-worthy” elements attached to it – because it “only” realized the risks associated with the loan guarantee program. That doesn’t impact the social value of loan guarantees as a mechanism for promoting a desirable energy policy. Now, I’m not saying risk is nothing – and Solyndra’s bankruptcy is worth an investigation – but everyone knows that no business is a sure thing. 

But, of course, Solyndra didn’t make nuclear facilities, so it was interesting here only insofar as its downfall might impact upon the loan guarantee program.

Still -

Solyndra had a use as Exhibit A for the argument that solar energy is always a bad investment, but that’s transparently false, so there’s nowhere really to go with that line of attack.

It has also been used as an argument against the loan guarantee program. Bloomberg Government lately has done a good job showing that this is also false:

The DOE’s 1705 loan guarantee program, valued at $16.1 billion, constitutes 1.7 percent of the federal government’s guarantee commitments across all agencies. Solyndra’s guarantee of $535 million is 3 percent of the portfolio.

You can read about 1705 here. Nuclear energy is not included in this program, which is limited to some renewable energy sources, electricity transmission projects and some biofuels. Nuclear energy is covered in the 1703 program (more here), which includes a long list of technologies. 1705 projects had to break ground by September 30, 2011; there is no such limitation on 1703.

But this explanation for 1705 in the Bloomberg report covers some of the bases for both programs pretty well:

The rationale behind loan guarantees in energy is that new-to-market companies or technologies need help overcoming the so-called “valley of death” — the financial predicament an energy company finds itself in when it is too established to receive
start-up venture capital yet not established enough to secure affordable debt financing.

So you can see them as a hedge against risk – not to the companies, which, like Solyndra, could fail, but to the banks providing loans. In exchange, promising technologies and projects move forward.

Solyndra appears to have failed for an exceptionally specific reason rather than because the solar panel market collapsed beneath it:

Solyndra’s silicon-free modules, while more expensive than traditional silicon solar panels, were more efficient and easy to install on rooftops. The company believed that the advantages of its modules would allow them to remain competitive, even against cheaper panels. The company didn’t foresee that a steep decline in silicon prices would lead the price of silicon solar panels to drop 40 percent in 2011, undercutting Solyndra's perceived advantage

While other solar energy companies didn’t suffer because they trade in “traditional silicon solar panels.”

Abound Solar Inc., which received a $400 million loan guarantee, says its thin-film panels are already competitive. The company expects to triple capacity by the end of 2012. SoloPower, which received a $197 million loan guarantee, also says it can succeed because its lighter, flexible panels are useful on commercial and industrial rooftops that can’t bear the weight of older, heavier technology.

Hmmm! I might have wanted a surer sense of how SoloPower differs from Solyndra – sounds awfully similar to me - but it’s probably that SoloPower is using silicon in its panels. There are other examples given of companies that say they are succeeding – I wouldn’t expect them to say otherwise - but you get the idea.

And what about nuclear energy loan guarantees? Well, the report does mention nuclear in several places, but really only in passing.

Most of the loan guarantee rules still apply, but there are some notable differences to consider: solar panel companies are manufacturers, not energy companies, and are often start-ups, not well-established entities; the technology and economics behind Gen III and III+ reactors is well-understood; and there are impressively large loan origination fees to the government that renewable energy sources don’t have to pay but nuclear energy sources do.

Bottom line: the government stands to make money from a nuclear energy loan guarantee. That’s a pretty good deal.

Otherwise, the two are much the same – oh, except that the failure of one solar panel company has no identified knock-on effect on other solar panel companies – except that they may pick up business now lost to Solyndra – much less on any nuclear energy project.

As you may have read, the world spewed out more carbon emissions last year than in any previous year. Nuclear and renewable energy sources did not contribute to any of that, so encouraging their use is both practical and existential.

Loan guarantees provide an effective and relatively inexpensive way to encourage clean technologies. There’s now no reason to believe the failure of Solyndra should change that.

I didn’t really grasp how Solyndra really captured its business in its name: “The design is made a certain manner. It wraps the photovoltaic copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) compound around a series of tubes until they resemble a row of black, fluorescent lights. Each module is rounded and to catch the maximum amount of light from any direction, so the panels don’t need angled in any way and secured like traditional PV panels.

MIT Recommends Single Agency to Manage Cyber Security Threats for Electricity Grid

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a report on Monday that discusses the future challenges facing the U.S. electricity grid and several recommendations for how to best manage them. The researchers found that one of the most notable challenges facing the electricity grid is the threat of cyber attack.

MIT writes in the report:
Perfect protection from cyberattacks is not possible. There will be a successful attack at some point.
This is a huge threat to the grid because a cyber attack in one area has the ability to affect other areas very rapidly, which could greatly disrupt power supply all over the country. Cyber attacks are also considered by the Pentagon to be an “act of war,” said the MIT researchers at a National Press Club event this week.

To best manage this issue, MIT recommends that:
The federal government should designate a single agency to have responsibility for working with industry and to have the appropriate regulatory authority to enhance cybersecurity preparedness, response and recovery across the electric power sector, including both bulk power and distribution systems.
But which agency should be tasked with this authority? CNET’s Don Reisinger writes:
The Obama administration has argued in the past that the Department of Homeland Security should be charged with securing the electrical grid, while many members of Congress have called on the Department of Energy or Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] to take over. So far, a decision hasn't been made, and MIT researchers didn't provide insight into which organization might be best.
Although the MIT researchers believe that a single agency should be tasked with overseeing these efforts, the nuclear industry believes that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has extensive regulations already in place for protecting nuclear energy facilities from cyber attack and that regulatory oversight by other agencies would be “unnecessary and duplicate strict NRC oversight.” In response to the White House’s proposal for DHS to manage a cyber security program, NEI writes:
However, this proposal—along with recent efforts to legislate cyber security for critical infrastructure—is not needed for nuclear plants because NRC regulations and oversight of industry actions to respond to cyber threats. Additional regulation would be duplicative and risk creating inconsistencies in requirements.
Some of you may remember NEI’s cyber security expert Bill Gross who posted in October on the House Republican Cybersecurity Task Force’s recommendations. He had this to say about the MIT’s recommendation:
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has mandatory cyber security requirements in place for all power plants. While there may be value in a central coordinating authority, the regulators of jurisdiction have the subject matter expertise to manage the cyber security issue. Any centralized role should be focused on minimizing the potential for dual or duplicate regulatory requirements across sectors.
The industry does agree with MIT, however, that cyber attacks are one of the greatest threats facing the electric power industry today. Exelon Nuclear’s President and Chief Nuclear Officer Mike Pacilio commented on current cyber security programs in place in the nuclear industry in a recent video interview at the 10-year anniversary of September 11.
All of our plants today, not only Exelon, but in the industry, have a very comprehensive cyber improvement program where we are essentially making our plants an island. Any of the controls that interface with the Internet, for example, that could possibly control the reactor are not connected.
See NEI’s website for more information on cyber security programs in the nuclear energy industry.

Among MIT’s other recommendations outlined in the report are:
  • To facilitate the integration of remote renewables, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should be granted enhanced authority to site major transmission facilities that cross state lines.
  • To improve the grid’s efficiency and lower rates, utilities with advanced metering technology should begin a transition to pricing regimes in which customers pay rates that reflect the time-varying costs of supplying power.
  • To improve utilities’ and their customers’ incentives related to distribution generation and energy conservation, utilities should recover fixed network costs through customer charges that do not vary with the volume of electricity consumption.
  • To make effective use of new technologies, the electric power industry should fund increased research and development in several key areas, including computational tools for bulk power system operation, methods for wire-area transmission planning, procedures for response to and recovery from cyber attacks, and models of consumer response to real-time pricing.
  • To improve decision making in an increasingly complex and dynamic environment, more detailed data should be compiled and shared, including information on the bulk power system, comprehensive results from “smart grid” demonstration projects, and standardized metrics of utility cost and performance.
For more information on MIT’s research, see the full report, “The Future of the Electric Grid.”

Image credits: From the Department of Homeland Security’s Web page on Cybersecurity.