Tuesday, January 31, 2012

IAEA Gives Japan Passing Grades, But Not an A

Not so very long ago, we mentioned that Japan invited in the International Atomic Energy Agency to review its stress tests at its nuclear energy facilities. Now, there’s news of how that went:

The team began its work on 23 January and delivered a Preliminary Summary Report to Japanese officials today and plans to finish the final report by the end of February.

So what’d it say? Here’s the good news:

  • Based on NISA instructions and commitments of the utilities, emergency safety measures were promptly addressed in Japanese NPPs following the accident on 11 March 2011;
  • NISA's practice of conducting an independent walkdown of emergency measures implemented at nuclear power plants enhances confidence that plants and operators can respond effectively during an emergency; and
  • By observing European stress tests, NISA is demonstrating its commitment to improving Japanese nuclear safety by gaining experience from other countries.

NISA is Japan’s NRC. NISA has been severely criticized for its coziness with the industry and the Japanese have decided they will replace (or supplement) it with a more independent NRC-like organization.

And here are the areas where there could be improvement:

  • Although NISA has demonstrated a notable level of transparency and interested party consultation related to the Comprehensive Safety Assessment and its review process, NISA should conduct additional meetings with interested parties near nuclear facilities that are subject to Comprehensive Safety Assessment;
  • NISA should use the experience it gains from the first few reviews to clarify its guidance for how nuclear power plants should conduct their Comprehensive Safety Assessments and for how NISA should review those assessments;
  • In the Secondary Assessment, there are areas that NISA could address more thoroughly, such as seismic safety margins and severe accident management; and
  • NISA should ensure that the Secondary Assessments are completed, evaluated and confirmed by regulatory review within an appropriate timeframe.

That’s not bad, though it sounds as though it’s the IAEA that really wants a secondary assessment and perhaps Japan’s version of it is not fully implemented. But no: these assessments belong to NISA’s procedures, so IAEA is commenting on the gap between NISA’s definition of a secondary assessment and its implementation.

In its report, the IAEA defines these assessments thusly:

The Primary Assessment will inform the decision whether to restart operations at suspended NPPs [nuclear power plants] and the Secondary Assessment will inform whether to continue or halt operations at operating NPPs. The Secondary Assessment is explained as being based on the stress tests in Europe and the deliberations of the Investigation and Verification Committee on the Accidents at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station (TEPCO).

So they are something the Japanese are adopting from the Europeans.It sounds like NISA did an okay but not great job of it. Hopefully, this means that the secondary assessments will be done again and in much more detail.

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As mentioned in the last post on this subject, the idea behind all this is to reassure the public that the facilities can reopen safely. Let’s leave aside whether or how the public relations goal dovetails into the safety issues. To put it another way, plants not impacted by the earthquake are being shuttered by fear, not safety concerns, so really, public relations is all they need – the specific plant the IAEA visited, Oi, was not affect by the earthquake.

No word on whether the Japanese believe they accomplished this goal to their satisfaction, but Reuters seems to think so:

U.N. nuclear experts on Tuesday gave their backing to stress tests aimed at showing Japan's nuclear plants can withstand the sort of disasters that devastated the Fukushima plant last year, potentially bolstering a government campaign to restart idled reactors and avoid a summer power crunch.

But still, there’s this:

Local governments hosting nuclear plants, however, have said the stress tests were not sufficient to allow them to give their approval, with some requesting that findings from the Fukushima disaster be considered in drafting new safety standards as well.

The story goes on to explain that the government could switch on all the plants without local approval, but that custom dictates it not do so until the local officials sign off.

This story could be going on for awhile, but I notice that talk of Japan exiting the nuclear energy field seem to have tamped down. It really needs the electricity to get through the sweltering summer months.

Nuclear Plants and Red Lights

redlightHere’s the headline in the Sioux City (IA) Journal. I’m not sure what it means, though it seems to mean something.

Nuclear power, red-light camera bills could be on Iowa legislative agenda

I mean that nuclear power is given parity with the camera bill. Here’s what that’s about:

A bill likely to come before the House Transportation Committee Feb. 2 could be a financial risk to lead-footed drivers. That's HF 2048 sponsored by Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, to ban red-light and speed cameras in Iowa. It calls for all existing cameras to be removed by July 1.

So far the debate has pitted law enforcement and city officials against personal liberty interests.

"How much of a police state do we want to have?" Rogers asked at a hearing where his bill won subcommittee backing.

What pops into my head is: how many traffic lights are there in Iowa?

But really, we came for the lights and stayed for the energy:

Example One [of controversial legislation – banning traffic light cameras is the other] is a bill that would pave the way for MidAmerican Energy to pursue approval to develop a small-scale nuclear reactor with ratepayers picking up the cost. House File 561, which was approved 58-39 in the House last year, is scheduled for action in the Senate Commerce Committee Jan. 31.

While Chairman Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, spoke glowingly of the bill and MidAmerica's plan, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, called nuclear energy environmentally risky and said the bill places an "enormous financial risk on customers."

Iowa derives 72 percent of its electricity from coal (almost 8 percent from nuclear). If Rep. McCoy wants to get together at an Iowa City chop house, we can have a friendly chat about what’s environmentally risky.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, acknowledged there is "some support" in the Senate for the bill as well as concerns with protecting utility customers.

However, doing nothing has its risks, too, he said. "Every option will result in some increase."

Of risk, I think.

The story doesn’t tell us what Gov. Terry Branstad is thinking, but this one does:

Gov. Terry Branstad says he's open to legislation allowing MidAmerican Energy to bill customers for the cost of a proposed nuclear power plant before construction is complete.

Speaking Monday at his weekly news conference, Branstad maintained Iowa should consider all kinds of energy sources, including nuclear power.

So far, so good. Different state initiatives have been gaining some traction over the last few years. The Iowa one has just come out of committee, so who knows its chances, but it looks to be in pretty good shape.

The iconic traffic light from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991). It’s a symbol, but of what, we may never know. In any event, if there’s a camera on it, some Iowans want to know about it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Reporting on the BRC Report

news-boyThe NEI coverage of the Blue Ribbon Commission final report is below this post and gives a good summary of industry response. We’d thought we’d take a look at some of the coverage in the press and see how it is playing around the country. These are news stories, so we’re not gauging reaction, as we would with editorials, just the accuracy and usefulness of the reporting.

And some are better than others. The TriCity [Wash.] Herald, using the AP story as a base, sort of misses the boat with this lede:

The United States should immediately start looking for an alternative to replace the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, which cost an estimated $15 billion but was never completed, a presidential commission said Thursday.

It’s not wrong exactly, but the stress on Yucca Mountain suggests the commission had something to say about it. In fact, it had nothing specific to say about it and, if Yucca Mountain were determined to still be the best locale for a central used fuel repository, that would be consistent with the report.

Yucca Mountain was picked by a process established by law, but "now the Blue Ribbon Commission suggests we just ignore the law and start all over?" said Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, who is running for governor as a Republican, in a statement. "That recommendation could set our country back at least 25 years."

Well, he said it, but it isn’t really the case that Yucca has been eliminated from consideration. The report didn’t eliminate any location from consideration. President Barack Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, yes, blue ribbon commission, no.

Here’s what the report says. It’s pretty direct:

The Blue Ribbon Commission was not chartered as a siting commission. Accordingly we have not evaluated Yucca Mountain or any other location as a potential site for the storage or disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste, nor have we taken a position on the Administration’s request to withdraw the license application.

The New York Time’s Matt Wald gets closer to the gist and introduced in the lede the second element that picked up a lot of attention, the consent-based approach to siting a repository:

A commission appointed to find alternatives to a failed plan to store nuclear waste in the Nevada desert declared on Thursday that the United States would have to develop a "consent-based approach" for choosing a site because leaving the decision to Congress had failed.

By securing local consent, the panel said, the government might avoid the kind of conflicts that led to the cancellation of plans to create a repository at Yucca Mountain, a site 100 miles from Las Vegas, in 2010. It noted that local willingness had been crucial to decision-making on sites for nuclear waste depots in Finland, France, Spain and Sweden.

This is true, though it ignores that Yucca Mountain might well be open today if President Obama had not closed it – and neither Obama nor Secretary Chu have offered a definitive reason for closing it, so we not sure if “conflicts” led to its shuttering. One can infer a lot of things, but not really know them.

Here’s what the commission says about the consent-based approach:

By contrast [to a top-down, federal-led approach], the approach we recommend is explicitly adaptive, staged, and consent-based. Based on a review of successful siting processes in the United States and abroad—including most notably the siting of a disposal facility for transuranic radioactive waste, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, and recent positive outcomes in Finland, France, Spain and Sweden—we believe this type of approach can provide the flexibility and sustain the public trust and confidence needed to see controversial  facilities through to completion.

And it’s right. This has worked to tamp down public opposition in those place – WIPP is almost a case study on how to do it - though it takes more time and effort to engage with local communities and any attempted process may come to nothing. That’s the risk.

Back to Wald:

The panel … also suggested that the government, which assumed responsibility for high-level waste 30 years ago, take the job of managing the waste out of the hands of the Energy Department and give it to a federally chartered corporation created for that purpose.

Such an agency would be more effective than the Department of Energy, which "must balance multiple agendas or policy priorities," it said.

The idea of the chartered corporation appears further down  in a number of stories, so a fair number of writers may have decided it’s a little more arcane a subject for general interest readers but still important.

Here’s the commission on the corporation:

[T]he Commission concludes that a new, single-purpose organization is needed to provide the stability, focus, and credibility that are essential to get the waste program back on track. We believe a congressionally chartered federal corporation offers the best model, but whatever the specific form of the new organization it must possess the attributes, independence, and resources to effectively carry out its mission.

The central task of the new organization would be to site, license, build, and operate facilities for the safe consolidated storage and final disposal of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste at a reasonable cost and within a reasonable timeframe. In most stories I’ve read, Yucca Mountain and consent based siting have been the biggest subjects.

Even as the third most covered aspect of the report in most stories I’ve read, it’s often buried. CNN has it at paragraph 11:

It [the report] said this congressionally chartered federal corporation should have substantial authority and access to funds to accomplish its mission. A board, nominated by the president and confirmed by Congress, would oversee the organization.

I missed much coverage of interim storage sites, another of the report’s recommendations – that seems germane to various communities – but maybe that will be thought most important to communities where they will be sited.

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The story in the Las Vegas Sun, opposition central for Yucca Mountain in Nevada media, runs through the same subjects as the other stories we reviewed. What I liked was the headline:

Commission: Store nuclear waste where it’s wanted

Yeah, wise guys, where it’s wanted.

It’s a newsboy. I was a bicycle based suburban newsboy back when rather than a wuxtry-wuxtry urban type of newsboy. The former still have some currency – the latter, our boy in the picture, none at all. Count him as among the culturally lost.

US Panel Recommends New Strategies for Managing Used Nuclear Fuel

The following article was published yesterday by Nuclear Energy Overview, NEI's member-only publication.

Jan. 26, 2012—Enumerating shortcomings of the nation’s used fuel management program, a federal government panel this week recommended eight steps to improve it.

Among them, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future said in a report issued today, is that levies on nuclear energy that American consumers have been paying for years should be fully available to a new organization created to manage the federal government’s used nuclear fuel program.

The commission also recommended development of at least one consolidated storage facility for used nuclear fuel.

Congressional hearings on a new used fuel management organization should begin “as soon as possible,” the commission said.

The panel also addressed the fund created to manage the program.

Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the government has been assessing utilities—which have in turn assessed their rate payers—a fee to finance the government’s used fuel program. The fund, with a balance of $27 billion, has become inaccessible to the program.

Used fuel management “must compete for federal funding each year and is therefore subject to exactly the budget constraints and uncertainties that the fund was created to avoid. This situation must be remedied to allow the [used fuel] program to continue,” the commission said. It recommended administrative actions that can separate fund receipts from the overall federal budget.

In a statement, six organizations—the Nuclear Energy Institute, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, the American Public Power Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Edison Electric Institute—said they welcome the report. The groups collectively represent nuclear energy producers and suppliers, state public utility commissions, and other public and private organizations interested in used nuclear fuel management.

“After two years of fact-finding and intense study, the commission has officially endorsed a number of strategic used fuel-management initiatives that our members and other experts have long supported and that will reform and re-energize the country’s high-level radioactive waste program,” the statement says.

The commission’s recommendations, which are generally consistent with the industry’s integrated used fuel management policies, are:

  • creating an organization outside the Energy Department with a corporate-style board of directors to manage the country’s used fuel program
  • making the used fuel levies on consumers fully available to the new organization
  • developing one or more consolidated storage facilities
  • making decisions on locations of nuclear fuel management facilities based on the consent of the state and local governments
  • developing one or more underground disposal facilities
  • preparing for the large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when they are available
  • supporting continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and work force development
  • leading international efforts to enhance safety, waste management, nonproliferation and security issues.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 requires the federal government to remove used fuel from commercial reactor sites. The process was to begin in 1998, but the government has yet to fulfill its obligation, and fuel rods continue to be stored safely and securely at the nation’s nuclear energy facilities, including at reactors that have been shut down. The law also requires the surcharge on consumers to pay for nuclear fuel disposal facilities.

The Department of Energy spent several decades studying and seeking permits to build an underground repository for reactor fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. In 2008, the department submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build the repository, but the Obama administration cancelled the project before NRC review of the license application was completed. The Obama administration created the 15-member commission to study nuclear fuel management in January 2010.

The commission noted that some of its recommendations will require congressional action but said that “prompt action can and should be taken in several areas, without waiting for legislative action, to get the waste management program back on track.” For example, the report says, the Energy Department can take early steps to develop a consolidated storage facility to hold decades-old reactor fuel, particularly fuel from reactors that have been closed.

In their statement, the six organizations agreed, adding that they “stand ready to work with the DOE, the administration and Congress to implement the [commission’s] recommendations to advance the nation’s economic, energy, environmental and national security imperatives by creating a sustainable integrated used nuclear fuel management program.”

The commission report also supports long-term recycling and advanced fuel-cycle technologies, which could reduce the amount of used fuel needing disposal while recovering valuable unused materials for re-use in new fuel. The panel noted, however, that there are “no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technology developments [that] have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer.”

“Nuclear energy is a key component of America’s energy mix. The [commission] recognizes this with its recommendation for stable, long-term support for advanced reactor and fuel cycle technology development that can help address the energy challenges facing future generations,” the statement from the six organizations says.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

BRC Releases Final Report; Japan Invites in IAEA

oi-nuclear-power-plantI’d give you a link to the final report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future at its site at brc.gov, but that has been flooded and is not responsive. But NEI has you covered. Go here to get a copy of the report.

The BRC says the report hews pretty closely to the draft report released last summer – our coverage of that is here with some useful links. We’ll have lots more to say about the final report, I’m sure, but for now, reading glasses on.

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The Japanese government has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop by and double check the stress tests it has been conduction on its fleet. Specifically, the Japanese want the IAEA to visit Oi, its third largest nuclear facility. Why have the IAEA do this?

Seeking to assuage public misgivings about nuclear-plant safety, government and nuclear industry officials have sought to use "stress tests" that gauge resilience to natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. The invitation to the IAEA is part of Japan's campaign to validate those tests.

And there’s this, too:

Oi's four reactors have become a focal point in Japan's debate over nuclear energy as the hot and humid summer, with its seasonal peak in electricity demand, draws nearer. Kansai Electric, which supplies power to Kyoto and Osaka in western Japan, relies on its three nuclear plants for more than 40% of the electricity it generates. Oi alone provides about 20%.

Those are actually two different things – getting the plants running to stave off blackouts and regaining public trust. How the government will know that it done the latter is not mentioned in the story, but I guess polling and the opinions of the elected leaders in the towns around Oi and other facilities will act as the gauges.

“The stress tests as currently designed don't seem to factor in the type of worst-case scenario we saw in Fukushima," Mr. [Ryozo] Tatami, the mayor of Maizuru said. "We need evidence Oi's reactors will be safe even if a [Fukushima-scale] tsunami strikes because vague assurances just raise too many doubts in our minds."

Maizuru is about 18 miles from Oi.

One can have an opinion about this approach – it sounds like one the Japanese put stock into, which is good – and about whether Japan should or shouldn’t reopen its facilities – simply, yes – but whether it does or not, whatever the consequences, is up to its people. There’s nothing for us to do but wait and see – and respect the outcome.

The Washington Post has an interesting article about the Japanese decision making approach and its impact on reopening its nuclear facilities here. Long story short: the Japanese really like a broad consensus. Worth a read for insight into how another culture deals with big issues.

The Oi nuclear facility. If you say it enough times, you sound like an annoyed Brit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New Report Falsely Claims Nuclear Plants Leaking Radioactive Materials Into Ground Water Supplies

Sound the alarm bells—a new report by Environment America and U.S. PIRG wrongly claims that nuclear plants pose a threat to ground water supplies in the United States. The report, “Too Close to Home: Nuclear Power and the Threat to Drinking Water,” states:
With 49 million Americans drawing their drinking water from areas within 50 miles of nuclear power plants—and with three-quarters of all U.S. nuclear power plants already leaking radioactivity into groundwater supplies—it is time for the U.S. to move toward cleaner, safer and cheaper alternatives for our energy needs.
It comes as no surprise that four authors without environmental monitoring backgrounds are pushing their own agenda—to shut down all U.S. nuclear plants—and distorting the facts about the industry’s ground water protection initiatives to support their case.

Let’s review the facts:

First, the nuclear industry considers any unintended release of radioactive materials to be unacceptable. Period. This is why the industry has programs in place to monitor ground water and underground piping at all U.S. plant sites. It is also why every company operating an U.S. nuclear plant informs local, state and federal authorities of an unintended release, even if it is below the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s threshold for reporting.

The industry’s voluntary ground water protection and underground piping programs enhance the capabilities for early detection of tritium in ground water, and complement the redundant, protective measures set forth by the NRC. They also ensure that licensees are taking appropriate actions to stop the release and to make stakeholders aware of unintended releases at levels well below those deemed safe by federal authorities for public health and the environment. In the rare instances when higher-than-expected levels of tritium have been detected at nuclear plant sites, it has been these dual industry environmental monitoring and protection programs which have brought them to light. After careful review and examination of these instances, the NRC independently verified that the public has never been in danger:
The NRC recently identified several instances of unintended tritium releases, and all available information shows no threat to the public.
The industry’s extensive environmental monitoring programs have proven very effective. In the U.S. nuclear industry’s 3,500 combined reactor-years of operation, there is no scientific evidence that any member of the general public has ever been harmed by a radiation release from a U.S. nuclear energy facility, including tritium.

Second, there has not been an increase in harmful levels of tritium reaching drinking water supplies from nuclear plants. The report claims that an Associated Press investigation has found a greater number of tritium leaks in the last decade, stating:
Tritium leaks have occurred with great regularity at U.S. nuclear plants. An investigation by the Associated Press found that leaks have occurred at 75 percent of U.S. plants, and that a great number of them have taken place in the past five years. On at least three occasions, tritium leaks from nuclear plants have contaminated nearby well water.
As you may recall, we responded to the shoddy AP series last summer to correct a number of factual errors and misleading reporting in their news coverage. In particular, on the topic of tritium leaks into ground water, NEI had this to say:
There has been no known adverse impact on public health or safety from a tritium release at commercial nuclear power plants. As the AP acknowledges, no tritium is known to have reached public water supplies.
No drinking water supply has exceeded the allowable limit set by the EPA for tritium in the Safe Drinking Water Act. AP reporter Jeff Donn acknowledged this fact in a June 24 interview on “Democracy Now!” when he said, “The main danger from tritium, the main health danger, is if you were to drink it. The EPA sets a limit on how much can be in drinking water. None of the leaks have entered drinking water in amounts that would violate the EPA limits so far.”
The Environment America-U.S. PIRG report also claims that older nuclear plants are more likely to have ground water problems, another claim that simply is not true. The report states:
As plants have aged, the risk of tritium leaks has risen, since aging equipment has had more time to develop leaks and weaknesses.
However, in our same fact sheet that corrects the AP’s inaccurate news coverage, we also pointed out that older nuclear reactors are still subject to the same NRC requirements regardless of their age or condition.
U.S. nuclear power plants are subject to a rigorous program of NRC oversight, inspection, preventive and corrective maintenance, equipment replacement, and extensive equipment testing. These programs ensure nuclear plant equipment continues to meet safety standards, no matter how long the plant has been operating.
Despite Environment America and U.S. PIRG’s best efforts to scare the American public into thinking all U.S. nuclear plants are leaking radioactive materials into ground water supplies, they need to let the facts speak for themselves and not cite sources, like the AP, which have already been debunked.

Nuclear Up, Emissions Down: The EIA Outlook

The U.S. Energy Information Administration sees incremental growth in nuclear energy capacity through 2035 in its Annual Energy Outlook 2012 (AEO 2012) reference case, which has just been released.

Nuclear generating capacity in the reference case increases from 101 gigawatts in 2011 to 112 gigawatts in 2035, with 10 gigawatts of new capacity due to 5 new plants, 7 gigawatts of uprates at existing plants and 6 gigawatts of retirements, according to the report. This is one gigawatt more than projected in the AEO 2011 reference case.

generation

At the same time, it forecasts CO2 emissions rising 0.2 percent per year during this period, or about 4.9 percent in total. While the rise in nuclear capacity is good news, the news about carbon emissions is a little disturbing, at least at first glance. A forecast – and there are a bunch of them, though this is the most prominent for U.S. policy makers - can be a little confusing the first time you tackle it.

carbonemissions

That’s because, as these charts show, the Energy Outlook is not as useful in any given year as it is in aggregation. Seen as one in a series, the reports show the year-to-year variations in whatever metric you want to follow.

The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer expresses it this way:

Carbon-dioxide emissions plummeted after the financial crisis in 2008, and the EIA expects that greenhouse-gas pollution from the energy sector won’t recover back to 2005 levels anytime soon, as the chart [above] shows. The reasons? New vehicle fuel-economy standards; cheap natural gas that’s displacing dirtier coal-fired places; state-level laws that mandate renewable energy; and new environmental regulations on power plants from the EPA.

That’s about right, though EIA doesn’t use terms like “dirtier coal-fired plants” and it really doesn’t “expect” anything. The EIA, in its reference scenario, is interested only in taking account of legislation and regulation that has been passed and/or implemented, so it “expects,” if anything, that there will be no more legislation and regulation going forward and this is how things will look as a result. But of course, there will be more and that will be reflected in the 2013 forecast – and so on into the future. The EIA isn’t Nostradamus (heck, Nostradamus wasn’t all that good a Nostradamus.)

So if you look at a series of the forecasts, you can see whether some metrics are pointing upwards over time (in our case, nuclear energy capacity, of course, and renewables) and whether some are pointing downwards (carbon emissions, coal capacity). If they are – and, let me hasten to add, they indeed are – then we’re going in the right direction. How speedily we’re going in the right direction is something else again.

For example, though the report (and the above chart) shows CO2 emissions in the electric sector growing by 0.2 percent per year from 2010 to 2035, this is less than in previous years. The AEO 2011 reference case forecasts CO2 emissions rising by an average of 0.3 percent per year between 2010 and 2035. So the rise has been cut by a third by policy making, the activity of industry and other factors over the last year. That’s a significant number, especially in light of a recovering economy and concomitant recovering electricity market.

Are improvements in a given set of metrics moving too slowly over time or not getting us where we want to go 25 years hence? Maybe, maybe not, but if you think it is, it argues for more aggressive policies to encourage nuclear and renewable energy and discourage carbon emissions. And that’s usually the result of the EIA’s AEO. It provides information that can be used to show  - well, a number of things – that can sharpen arguments for, say, new nuclear energy capacity.

Perhaps increasing nuclear capacity will bend that carbon emission curve downward and more quickly than the 2012 forecast shows – perhaps nuclear energy can do a quicker job on that curve than its renewable cousins can do – and so on. Pick your favorite energy source, poke through a few EIA reports to see if they support your view, then go to town. It’s a gold mine for energy wonks.

The full EIA report, due in April, will include a number of scenarios that do take account of potential policy changes and what they will mean for carbon emission reduction. So consider this a sneak preview.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Groundwater Study Co-Authors Lack Scientific Credentials

Here at NEI, my colleagues and I have been batting around a press release from Environment America and U.S. PIRG claiming that nuclear power plants represent a threat ground water from leaks of tritium. The report is titled, “Too Close to Home: Nuclear Power and the Threat to Drinking Water.”

From where we sit, the story seems a lot like one that the AP pushed out in June 2011 about the subject. The public needs to know that there has been no known adverse impact on public health or safety from a tritium release at commercial nuclear power plants.

While we'll have more on that later, it's also important to point out that the four co-authors of this study lack any scientific credentials.

  • Jennifer Kim of U.S. PIRG has a degree in history from the University of Michigan;
  • Sean Garren has a degree in Government from Dartmouth.
How this qualifies any of them to publish a study on groundwater is a puzzle to us. In any case, we'll keep an eye on reporting concerning the study, and provide updates if and when they're warranted.

Friday, January 20, 2012

DOE Moves Forward on Small Reactors

Writer Reese Palley has quite a little rant going on at the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Unfortunately, all the arguments for developing and licensing small, modular nuclear reactors fell on deaf ears at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The commission has no immediate plans even to begin assessing traveling wave or any other small nuclear technology.

It is not as if mini-nuclear technologies are experimental and unproven. [etc.]

Palley is the author of The Answer: Why Only Inherently Safe Mini Nuclear Power Plants Can Save Our World, which I haven’t read. He certainly wants you to know he’s all over those small reactors.

Unfortunately, though, his piece was published today. So was this, at the Department of Energy’s site:

The U.S. Department of Energy today announced the first step toward manufacturing small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) in the United States, demonstrating the Administration’s commitment to advancing U.S. manufacturing leadership in low-carbon, next generation energy technologies and restarting the nation’s nuclear industry. Through the draft Funding Opportunity Announcement announced today, the Department will establish cost-shared agreements with private industry to support the design and licensing of SMRs.

Palley was talking about the NRC, but if DOE is helping with the licensing process, then the NRC will be prepared to review those licenses. The seriousness of this effort was underscored by a quick-to-follow press release from Westinghouse:

"Westinghouse will apply for DOE's small modular reactor investment funds with a consortium of utilities. Access to this investment fund helps lower the barrier to market entry for American companies. Virtually all energy sources that feed the national grid have been developed through public investments in public-private research and development partnerships.

So the die is cast. I took a look over at Terrapower, which Palley touts in his article, but it doesn’t have a press release about this. NuScale hasn’t weighed in either. Babcock and Wilcox had this interesting bit of news – from last week:

Babcock & Wilcox is to restructure its commercial nuclear business, separating its small modular reactor operations from its other nuclear energy related businesses.

The company said that the move was in response to "changing market conditions, growth opportunities and the continuing progress of its small modular reactor (SMR) business."

So there’s that.

Palley’s article confused me because the DOE plan had been in the works for awhile. It’s just a coincidence that the details of the plan sprang forth the same day, but in any event, it’s pleasing to see work moving forward on small reactors. It ought to even please Palley.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Win for Vermont Yankee

754px-Vermont_Yankee_Nuclear_Power_PlantVermont Yankee wins:

Vermont’s only nuclear plant can remain open beyond its originally scheduled shutdown date this year, despite the state’s efforts to close the 40-year-old reactor, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

In February 2010, Entergy, Vermont Yankee’s owner, discover a tritium leak at the plant. Tritium is a mildly radioactive form of hydrogen that is incorporated into water molecules. It is found in nature and as a byproduct of fission processes. Health effects are minimal and present only if ingested in large amounts.

In any event, none leaked outside the plant nor was there any measureable amount in drinking water at the plant. Regardless, in March, the state legislature voted to close the plant due to the leak.

Now, that was controversial. In all instances, only the NRC can close a plant due to a safety concern. But Vermont and Entergy had signed an agreement that said the plant could operate only if the state issued a certain document – the March vote essentially withheld that document.

In March 2011, the NRC approved a 20-year license extension for Vermont Yankee – if Vermont failed to close it.

In April 2011, Entergy, through two subsidiaries, filed suit in U.S. District Court to prevent the closure contending that the action is preempted by federal law and violates both the supremacy clause and the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

And that is the suit that has now prevailed. The Washington Post story quoted above is light on details, but it does mention a few interesting tidbits:

Entergy argued that the state was moving to close Vermont Yankee out of concerns over plant safety, an issue that the state agreed is solely the NRC’s jurisdiction. The state maintained it had other reasons, including that Vermont Yankee didn’t fit in to its energy plan and was likely to be increasingly unreliable as it aged.

I had assumed that Vermont believed it could close the facility for any reason, but apparently, that isn’t true. And the story doesn’t really suggest if the judge decided that federal law trumped state law.

We’ll pass along more details as we have them. In the meantime, a win is a win.

The losing side in federal court was expected to appeal [U.S. District Judge J. Garvan] Murtha’s decision to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, though it was not immediately known whether the state would follow through with that.

And we’ll probably has a better sense of how Vermont will proceed in the days to come, too.

Vermont Yankee

Aftermath of Frontline's “Nuclear Aftershocks”

Yesterday afternoon Miles O’Brien, correspondent for Tuesday night’s FRONTLINE piece “Nuclear Aftershocks,” and producer Jon Palfreman held a live chat with the public on reactions to the documentary and overall opinions as to what the future holds for nuclear energy in the United States. What did the public decide? Well, according to an unscientific poll taken from the audience during the chat—keep building more nuclear plants!

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Their opinions closely mirrored our October 2011 public opinion poll which found that 62 percent of respondents said they favor the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States.

The chat’s audience also said that their opinions about nuclear power were not influenced by Tuesday night’s documentary:

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This survey result really only proves one thing—that people are generally distrustful of media reports, but interested enough in the subject matter to take part in an online chat at 1 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon!

During the chat, people posed questions on a variety of topics, including: building advanced reactors, how other countries (namely Japan and Germany) plan to meet their electricity demands and carbon reduction goals while reducing the number of nuclear plants, and how nuclear energy facilities prepare for emergencies. I took part in the one-and-a-half hour chat and provided several comments to help build on the discussion and add facts to the debate, but none of my comments were accepted or posted by the chat’s moderator. Although I am not surprised that my comments were not accepted (since I had “NEI” next to my name), I am hopeful that they will at least provide the reporters with more context to the bigger picture.

Below are a few areas where I think the discussion should have warranted a little more explanation/clarification.

1) The “Moribund” Nuclear Industry & Aging Nukes

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There are two problems with this statement. First, I think it is unfair to call the industry “moribund” when there are currently 12 combined license applications that are under active review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build 20 nuclear plants and new designs have either been approved (Westinghouse Electric Co.’s AP1000) or are still in the design stages in this country. Companies spend several years either designing new reactors or working to build reactors at a given site, so to equate the industry with “dying” or “inactivity” is simply untrue.

Second, and this is a point that we keep coming back to on the blog and on our website, it is important to understand that 40-year licenses for nuclear plants were never meant to be an indicator of a plant’s safe operation. The 40-year time period was simply chosen to parallel the financing amortization period for a plant. The NRC’s website explains:

The Atomic Energy Act and NRC regulations limit commercial power reactor licenses to an initial 40 years but also permit such licenses to be renewed. This original 40-year term for reactor licenses was based on economic and antitrust considerations -- not on limitations of nuclear technology.
Nuclear plants are continually undergoing maintenance and upgrades so that they are equipped—no matter their age—to meet all of the NRC’s safety regulations. So, whether it’s day one or day 14,600, rest assured that each of the nation’s nuclear plants are meeting the NRC’s stringent safety requirements or else they will be subject to federal disciplinary actions, including up to the shutdown of a reactor until safety improvements are made.

2) Germany’s Nuclear Energy Situation

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The nation’s nuclear power plants are among the safest and most secure industrial facilities in the United States. See for yourself. But, if you do not agree with that statement, I still think it’s important to look at the facts before making a rash decision.

Just yesterday, Siemens, which built all of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants, estimated that an exit from nuclear energy could cost the European country’s energy consumers or taxpayers as much as 1.7 trillion euros ($2.15 trillion) by 2030. Much of that estimate assumes a strong expansion of renewables, with feed-in tariffs being the biggest chunk of costs, a Reuters article reports.

Besides the high costs, cutting nuclear energy from the country’s energy portfolio will mean more carbon emissions. One of our recent blog posts quotes Laszlo Varro, the head of the gas, coal, and power markets division at the International Energy Agency, who estimates that a nuclear-free Germany could cause a 25-million-ton annual increase in CO2 emissions, mainly because of the large shift to coal power that would be needed to cover the shortfall. We also referenced a Breakthrough Institute report on our blog that predicts that Germany’s carbon emissions could rise by as much as 14 percent of the country’s 2008 total carbon emissions. These estimates do not bode well for a country that aims to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. (They also do not bode well for O’Brien’s argument because later in the chat he says that “anything is better than coal.”)

3) Small Reactors

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According to some government officials and vendors I’ve talked to recently, small reactors are—the next “big” thing. Peter Lyons, the U.S. Department of Energy’s assistant secretary of nuclear energy, just yesterday said that research will be moving forward this year toward further development and design certification of small nuclear reactors. The Tri-City Herald reports:
If there is enough demand for the small plants, large numbers could be built in a factory and then one or more would be transported to sites for use, he said. More modules could be added as needed for electricity production.

The factory model has potential to be more economical, and quality could be more readily controlled in a factory, Lyons said.
If that’s not enough, Congress has certainly indicated with a restoration of $67 million in its 2012 budget that they are still interested in the development and licensing of small reactors. At NEI, we continue to see more interest in small reactors.

4) Energy Conservation

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Although I don’t have any immediate statistics at my disposal, I can assure you that conservation efforts will never be enough to meet growing electricity demand. The U.S. Energy Information Administration currently forecasts that electricity demand is growing at a rate of about 1 percent per year and that the United States will need 24 percent more electricity by 2035. To meet that demand, the electric utility industry must invest between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion in new power plants, environmental controls, and transmission and distribution lines.

I do not think that unplugging our electronic devices, kitchen appliances, etc., will be enough to make up the difference in electricity supply. (I also personally don’t think the image of people wearing sandals and tee-shirts and using fans instead of A/C—like O’Brien describes that they are currently doing in Japan without the added electricity from their nuclear plants—will ever be a possibility in American culture.) However, I do think that we are on the cusp of a revolution where utilities are developing smarter ways for people to use electricity to reduce cost and alleviate daily demand through smart meters. Some are doing it very well (see a recent report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for examples).

5) Relationship Between NRC & Nuclear Industry

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I think this comment distorts the important work that the NRC performs each day. It is an independent agency that strives for transparency. Its five commissioners are appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. They even have a page on their website that discusses their commitment to openness and transparency in their regulatory activities.

That being said, the nuclear industry’s high levels of performance, reliability and safety are all due to the strict regulatory oversight and function that the NRC serves. The NRC helps the industry to focus on safety, training, regulatory compliance and continuous improvement. The U.S. commercial nuclear industry is arguably one of the most strictly and thoroughly regulated industries in the nation, and the NRC is a model to other countries that are developing their nuclear energy programs.

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Altogether, I appreciated the fact that O’Brien and Palfreman held the chat to further discuss nuclear energy issues, but I felt that several of the assertions warranted further clarification (as previously explained). I really like the concept of holding these chat-type forums because I think they add context to some of the larger policy debates that are country currently faces.

Read the full transcript of the chat here. See our other blog posts on the FRONTLINE report here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Germany and the Nuclear Self-Trap Conundrum

Angela-Merkel-006Nuclear energy isn’t a trap for the unwary. When a country decides to invest in nuclear energy, it does so knowing the risks and benefits. If it invests heavily in nuclear energy – think France, Germany, Russia, China, The U.S. - it has done a good deal of study over many years to determine the value of the decision.

Public support for nuclear energy certainly took a significant hit after the accident at  Japans’ Fukushima Daiichi plant, but even that has begun to moderate.

Public support for nuclear power appears to have bounced back in the UK after falling sharply in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, a survey showed today.

The Ipsos MORI poll of almost 1,000 adults across Britain revealed half of those questioned (50%) supported the building of new nuclear plants in the UK to replace the current generation of reactors which are being shut down.

That’s what makes Germany’s decision to close its nuclear energy facilities so fascinating. Of course, you’d expect nuclear energy advocates to consider it a bad move – we’ve had considerable fun with it on this blog – but with most other countries moving forward, after a pause, with their plans (From the above story: “The UK Government plans to build a series of new reactors on or next to existing nuclear sites to replace plants being phased out over the next few years, as part of plans to ensure secure electricity supplies and to help cut carbon emissions.”), what has become clearer is that Germany’s decision was quite precipitous, even radically so.

What made it also seem cynical was that it was overseen by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously recognized that exiting nuclear energy without a viable replacement plan in place was bad policy. In response to the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant but as likely motivated by a tough election, she pivoted by doubling down on a policy she considered bad.

But in doing so, did she make a trap of nuclear energy?

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Before the decision to close the plants, Germany was already in a pickle due to its decision to move heavily into renewable energy so it could exit nuclear energy by 2025, as this Economist article from late 2010 describes:

Renewables in Germany are growing more quickly than in almost any other EU state, but that is only because consumers pay a large subsidy, some €10 billion ($12.8 billion) last year. Energy taxes, already high, may be about to rise. In August energy companies and their supporters took out full-page newspaper advertisements arguing against tax rises and for a dismantling of bureaucratic barriers to investment. To secure cheap, climate-friendly power, the signers argued, nuclear and coal would have to remain part of the mix. 

[…]

Yet to withdraw on schedule from nuclear power, which produces more than a fifth of Germany’s electricity, would be risky. The CDU [Christian Democratic Party, Merkel’s party] is divided, but leans towards extending the deadline. Many in the party see the decision as a test for a chancellor who prefers messy compromises to clear leadership. “It would be fatal to give up” a source of energy that is cheap, domestic and emits little carbon, says Joachim Pfeiffer, a CDU member of the Bundestag.

Between late 2010 time and the Japan accident, the government decided to extend the life of the plants to provide more time to put renewables in place. So nuclear energy need not be a trap, even when you want to do something else. (The Greens in this article make a really funny argument, though – because nuclear energy runs full tilt all the time, it’s tough to ramp it down to accommodate the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy. It’s really flips relative strength and weakness on their heads.)

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The response to Germany’s post-Fukushima decision has been – what you’d expect:

Utilities are less keen. They say high natural gas costs, still mostly tied to oil with its inbuilt geopolitical price premiums, and low power prices make gas plants an unprofitable business.

"The goals is very ambitious -- this will not be easy," said Juergen Grossmann, chief executive of Germany's No.2 utility RWE.

So there’s that.

One of the top priorities is the expansion of transport and distribution networks for power from renewables sources including wind and solar, Germany's new favored form of energy.

The task is being delayed by protests and overly long procedures to approve new grids and existing grid revamps, which in some cases take more than 10 years.

And that.

Siemens estimates that Germany's energy shift will cost up to 1.7 trillion euros ($2.17 trillion) by 2030, most of which will be borne by taxpayers and power consumers.

And – hey, ouch!

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Some of this might have been inevitable – nuclear plants have exceptionally low running costs – but other aspects are a function of flipping the off switch too quickly. All other factors being equal, Germany would be foolish not to consider all options.

The German government's 180-degree turn in nuclear policy has helped breathe new life into Europe's energy industry -- though not always to Germany's benefit. The country has gone from being an energy exporter to an energy importer practically overnight, which brings along with it a number of negative consequences for its economy, consumers and security.

And that can cause a grim, tight smile. Why?

Germany's decision to phase out its nuclear power plants by 2022 has rapidly transformed it from power exporter to importer. Despite Berlin's pledge to move away from nuclear, the country is now merely buying atomic energy from neighbors like the Czech Republic and France.

That may seem a case of reaping what you sow , but it also raises the specter of hypocrisy.

So has nuclear energy trapped Germany into a costly, self-defeating  energy policy? Not a bit – Germany self-trapped, so to speak, letting panic, short-sightedness and cynicism trump sound policy making – whether that policy would or would not have included nuclear energy.

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Speaking of other countries not following Germany’s course:

Ma Ying-jeou won 51.6 percent of the total votes to Tsai Ing-wen’s 45.63 percent, while voter turnout, at 74.38 percent, was less that the 76.33 turnout in the previous presidential election in 2008, though all the numbers won’t be finalized until a Central Election Commission meeting on Thursday.

Ma supports the expansion of nuclear energy in Taiwan. His opponent, Tsai Ing-wen, wanted to close all the plants. Nuclear energy was not a big issue in the election – economic ties to mainland China, which Ma initiated, was the determinative factor.

Still, no complaints here.

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Our Japan updates continue every Monday over on the Safety First web site. The site has more too, including, most recently, a great interactive graphic showing how American nuclear facilities weathered various natural hullabaloos surrounding them this year. Great to share with friends. Well worth a visit for more than just the Japan updates.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Frontline to Host Online Chat on "Nuclear Aftershocks" at 1:00 p.m. EST

The team at Frontline is hosting a live online chat today about last night's airing of "Nuclear Aftershocks" at 1:00 p.m. today. Some details:

What’s the future of nuclear after Fukushima? Can the world’s faith in nuclear energy be restored? Or could another Fukishima-like disaster bring the nuclear age to an end? Is a nuclear plant near you at risk?

Veteran science reporter Miles O’Brien and producer Jon Palfreman have been digging into these issues for the past year. We asked them to join us for a live chat to discuss these questions and take yours.

Spencer Reiss, a contributing editor at WIRED who specializes in energy issues, will be our guest questioner.
Click here to join the chat.

Former Frontline Science Advisor Blasts "Nuclear Aftershocks"

I've been perusing some of the comment strings over at Frontline since "Nuclear Aftershocks" aired last night, and I came across this comment from Neil Todreas, a professor at M.I.T who says he worked as a science advisor on last night's program. Todreas also served as co-chair of the Indian Point Independent Safety Evaluation Panel.

To say that his comment is illuminating would be a serious understatement. Please note I've inserted some line breaks in the copy in order to enhance readability:

The portion of the Frontline story which starts with the Fukushima accident is a worthwhile public service. However, as an initial scientific advisor to the team producing this show, I found the lack of accuracy and balance in the second half of the story covering the Indian Point reactor disturbing. The statement that that reactor lies "right on the faults" is not accurate, and the portrayal of the potential activity of the seismic faults by Professor Sykes is not balanced.

In 1972, the first fault was significantly studied when the Indian Point reactors were licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Earthquakes in the region were characterized as of minor magnitude and relatively trivial by the noted seismologist Charles Richter of Cal Tech, the originator of the Richter scale for characterizing earthquakes. The significance of the recently proclaimed second fault also has been disputed, most notably by Prof. Alan Kafka of Boston College. I made the producers aware of this information, but they chose not to disclose these counter opinions and only presented Professor Sykes’ views on the seismic issues.

Additionally, the story dialogue speaks of "the" evacuation route for residents near Indian Point, when in fact there are multiple routes in various directions from the plant. The producers could have balanced the correspondent's incredulous statements about the evacuation route by opinions of the surrounding county emergency response officials who have overseen the evacuation planning effort for the plant and have responsibility for its implementation should a need arise. This is a source of information I also pointed out to them.

Finally, the producers speak of the future of nuclear energy in America only in terms of the relicensing and eventual end of service of existing reactors. Balanced communication to the public would have been achieved by explaining that a new generation of reactors has been designed, certified as safe by the NRC (Westinghouse’s AP1000) and is being built in Georgia and South Carolina. Again, this was information I provided them in response to their request that I review the film prior to its airing.

Neil E. Todreas
KEPCO Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and
Professor of Mechanical Engineering (Emeritus)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Click here for a screen capture of the comment. I wonder what the producers of the program think about this?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On Frontline, Indian Point and the Ramopo Fault

On tonight's program, we're hearing a lot about the Ramopo fault, but we're not hearing a lot from experts who disagree with Columbia University seismologist Lynn Sykes and his conclusions about earthquake risk around Indian Point Energy Center.

But back in March 2011, the Journal News did ask those questions:

But the U.S. Geological Survey — one of the nation's foremost research labs — said geologic evidence about the Ramapo Fault is "insufficient to demonstrate the existence of tectonic faulting or ... slip or deformation."

It didn't even include the fault in calculations of earthquake hazards in 2008.

Geology professor Alec Gates put it more succinctly: "The Ramapo Fault is dead," said Gates, chairman of Earth and environmental sciences at Rutgers University. "It was a big fault in the old days, but not anymore."...

What differentiates this region from more earthquake-prone areas, experts say, is that it lies in the middle of the North American Plate, a tectonic slab that encompasses North America to the Pacific Ocean, including Greenland, Cuba, the Bahamas, and parts of Siberia and Iceland.

"It's not a plate boundary; that's the primary reason you don't have activity and that it's hard to predict activity," said Paul Olsen, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. "The formation of the Ramapo Fault was at least 300 million years ago. Most of the earthquakes around here have nothing to do with it."
Viewers should question why these experts weren't mentioned at all in tonight's Frontline report.

Follow Us on Twitter During Frontline's Nuclear Aftershocks

We're just sitting down to watch Frontline and its "Nuclear Aftershocks" report. We'll be following the conversation on Twitter in real time on our main NEI feed (@N_E_I) beginning at 10:00 p.m. EST. You can follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag, #Frontline. Please join in.

UPDATE: We've just finished watching the report, and you can take a look at what we tweeted by peeking at our timeline. Overall, Miles O'Brien and the Frontline team got some things right, especially when it came to the environmental and economic consequences of getting rid of nuclear energy on a global scale.

On the other hand, there were portions of the report where significant omissions were made in terms of emergency preparedness, license renewal and the proven slow-moving character of nuclear incidents.

As for next steps, I'm going home to watch the program one more time on my DVR to take some notes and then head to bed. Thanks to all our friends online who joined in the conversation tonight to defend the industry's record. Good night.

Transcript of Interview Between Entergy's Joe Pollock and Miles O'Brien of Frontline

For those of you who are watching the Frontline report, "Nuclear Aftershocks," we wanted to share with you a transcript of an interview that Frontline's Miles O'Brien conducted with Joe Pollock on December 1, 2011 (click here to download).


At the time, Joe, who is now working here at NEI as a loaned employee, was working as Vice President of Operations for Indian Point Energy Center. The audio file the transcript was derived from comes in at just over one hour, so we clearly anticipate that not nearly everything that Joe said to O'Brien will be included in tonight's program.

Still, we thought it could serve as a handy guide to some of the sausage making behind news reporting. Feel free to peruse it at your leisure.

On Frontline, Nuclear Aftershocks and Renewing the Operating License at Indian Point

Just picked up this clip from The Daily Courtland. In it, Frontline's Miles O'Brien repeats a common misconception about nuclear power plants:

“The reality is, Indian Point’s technology is not cutting edge, it’s old,” correspondent Miles O’Brien says in the documentary. The documentary shows scenes of the Village of Buchanan, Mayor Sean Murray and inside Indian Point Nuclear Power Plants, discussing the relicensing of the 40-year-old plants.
Again, I refer back to the transcript of the December 1, 2011 interview that O'Brien conducted with Joe Pollock, then Vice President of Operations with Indian Point Energy Center:
MR. O’BRIEN: 60 years seems like a long time to run a plant. And I’ve even heard some people say, hey, maybe we can go 80 years with some of these plants. First of all, did you take a position on that yet? Or are you still –

MR. POLLOCK: No, we have already – we’re working on 20 years. And when the plants were designed, they built for the 40 year life cycle. It was believed that the reactor vessel was the limiting addition. So at that time, when we built them, we put specimens in the vessel that we could take out every 10 years and measure the impacts and the influence from the neutrons from reactivity. And what we’ve found out, it was far less than what we had done in our calculations. So that’s how it came about, that we looked at and said: We could extend the life of these plants, at least from a reactor standpoint, and then be able to do the maintenance and the life extension on the other equipment that was part of it.

[...]

MR. O’BRIEN: So how can you assure – people are concerned when they think about a plant running as long as that. I guess what you’re saying is it really isn’t 60 years old. Is that – the way I look at it?

MR. POLLOCK: Well, it’s not 40 years old, you know. And you know, a lot of the equipment in here is not 10 years old. As you go through, we do total teardowns and rebuilds on emergency diesel generators, I believe, you got to see on your tour. We do complete teardowns and inspections over there of every refueling outage. We test them once a month. They have to start within 10 seconds, you know, without failure and be able to load up and be available. But the realities are they don’t run. So it’s like starting your car you have in your garage once a month to make sure it starts. And then, what we do is, after two years, we’ll go in there and tear apart and inspect it to make sure everything’s OK, and then we’ll go do an endurance run on it, you know. So then we’ll go take that long drive to make sure it’s going to work.
This is an issue that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also addressed:
A 40-year license term was selected on the basis of economic and antitrust considerations, not technical limitations.
And, as NEI mentioned in one of its fact sheets ...
The 40‐year term of a nuclear power plant license has nothing to do with aging plant components or a belief that safety needs to be reviewed on a 40‐year cycle. Instead, the period was chosen to parallel the financing amortization period for a plant. Exceeding federal safety standards is an ongoing activity for companies that operate nuclear power plants.
For more, I'll refer you back to this post from Victoria Barq, one where she made the case that the idea that Japan should shut down reactors once they reached the 40-year mark was wrongheaded for all sorts of reasons -- especially when there's absolutely no evidence that the incident at Fukushima Daiichi occurred because of the age of the plant.

As I've said previously, more updates as warranted.

Some Notes On Frontline, Indian Point and Emergency Preparedness

Tonight, PBS will be airing a new episode of Frontline entitled, "Nuclear Aftershocks," a look at the world's reaction to the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Here on the East Coast, the program will begin at 10:00 p.m. EST.

As we noted at NEI Nuclear Notes last week, the nuclear industry cooperated extensively with Frontline on the broadcast, and over the past few days, we've been getting a better idea on the direction of the program.

A good portion of the program deals with Indian Point Energy Center (IPEC) and the question of whether or not the sort of incident that occurred in Japan could happen there.

Chief among the questions posed by reporter Miles O'Brien is whether or not the area around IPEC could be evacuated in time in case of an accident. As it turns out, that's a question that's been recently addressed by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko. As Bloomberg reported in Decmember:
The New York City area may be safely evacuated in the event of a Fukushima-like disaster at the Indian Point nuclear plant because a crisis would unfold slowly, the top U.S. nuclear regulator said.

“Nuclear accidents do develop slowly, they do develop over time, and we saw that at Fukushima,” U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, 41, said in an interview today at Bloomberg's headquarters in New York. It's unlikely a nuclear accident would require prompt action beyond “more than a few miles,” where the highest radiation levels would be, he said.
That's a point that O'Brien ought to include in tonight's broadcast, because after all, he's already been told just that. Back on December 1, 2011, O'Brien interviewed Joe Pollock, then Vice President of Operations at IPEC. A representative of Entergy recorded that interview and we made a transcript:
MR. O’BRIEN: But because of all those people, it – the problem of evacuation, if something goes wrong, is a bigger challenge, isn’t it?

MR. POLLOCK: The evacuation is handled through the state and the counties, but the – at Indian Point we do a traffic study – emergency traffic study – every year. It’s required once every 10 years, but here we do that analysis, and we provide that to the state as well as the counties to implement evacuation. It considers ongoing weather; it considers a football game at West Point; so how would you handle the crowds on that day. So we continue to update that.

The key thing to remember – and it actually showed in Japan – these are not fast-moving events, you know, where you have to evacuate in two hours. In fact, there are days – a long time before they would be to a level that, should something happen, you would have to have that evacuation.

MR. O’BRIEN: So there’s – the notion of an instant event that would require everybody in a 50-mile radius to get out is hard to imagine?

MR. POLLOCK: It’s hard to imagine. Matter of fact, if you look at all the studies, all the analysis done by both the NRC, independent labs and the manufacturers, that there is not a scenario that’s an instant scenario.
We'll be posting that transcript on our Web site later today.

Here are some other points to keep in mind when considering IPEC and a potential evacuation:
  • Indian Point Energy Center —like other nuclear facilities—is designed with wide margins to withstand the toughest natural phenomena predicted for its area.
  • It has a very robust safety record, including during severe events. In 2011 alone, American nuclear facilities were able to withstand hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and even an earthquake. Click here to view the interactive graphic that recounts those events.
  • The EPZ standard for evacuation—created and approved by the NRC—is 10-miles. Indian Point is 24 miles from NYC.
  • The 2nd EPZ of 50 miles is for monitoring of radiation levels—not evacuation.
We have a number of resources available on this topic for readers who would like to know more:

NEI Web site: Emergency Preparedness;
NEI Fact Sheet: Nuclear Power Plant Emergency Preparedness: Protecting Our Neighbors in the Event of an Emergency

We'll have other updates throughout the day. Please stay tuned.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Consequential Elections

TaipeiThere’s some good news:

China has 28 plants under construction, and India is building seven reactors and has plans for 20 more. And despite its proximity to Japan, South Korea, with 21 active nuclear reactors, is moving forward on 18 more. Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are all actively seeking to join the nuclear-power club.

But mostly bad:

When voters here choose a president and a new legislature on Saturday, their decisions will also determine whether Taiwan pulls the plug on a state-backed nuclear power industry that provides the country with a fifth of its electricity.

This is because the challenger Tsai Ing-wen has a good shot of unseating the current President Ma Ying-jeou. I was curious about this, because Ma has overseen a economic boom due to a financial rapprochement with mainland China. Tsai prefers no contact with the mainland. Of course, this is a key issue in any Taiwanese election – much more so than nuclear energy could ever be – and consequently, according to this story on CNN, many Taiwanese working on the mainland are returning home to cast votes:

"Because of the closeness of the race, this election has the highest ever number of returnees," says Professor Ray-Kuo Wu of Fu Jen University, adding that estimates could be as high as 250,000 returnees. "Corporate bosses have mobilized their employees to participate in these elections like never before.

"Hon Hai Precision is chartering six planes to get people back to vote and Formosa Plastics Group is another company that is helping employees return for the election."

If you think the U.S. is the heart of free enterprise, you clearly haven’t been to Taiwan. Anyway, Taiwan is essentially in the same spot as Japan when it comes to nuclear energy because it is an island devoid of oil, gas and coal reserves. That mean – well, why not let the New York Times make the argument?

Proponents of nuclear energy say all the talk of a nuclear-free Taiwan neglects one important detail: how to replace the power generated by the reactors. Taiwan produces about 1 percent of its energy supplies and relies on a mix of imports: oil from the Middle East, coal from China and Australia and natural gas from Indonesia and Malaysia.

And the answer, unfortunately, is a little desperate:

Ms. Tsai speaks of increased conservation and of shifting the Taiwanese economy away from power-hungry manufacturing. Part of her “2025 Nuclear-Free Homeland Initiative” also calls for the construction of gas-fired turbines and an expanded reliance on solar and wind power.

There you go – kill your economic base and plant wind farms on extremely limited land resources.

I took a look at the 2025 initiative referenced by Tsai. Here’s what it proposes in handy Q&A form:

How could Taiwan replace nuclear power?

(A) Increase the proportion of renewable energy: the DPP’s initiative calls for increasing renewable energy by about 6.5% of total electricity generation by 2025.

(B) Improve the efficiency of thermal power: In addition to increasing power generation efficiency, invest in thermal power plants in order to reduce the amount of carbon emissions.

(C) Construction of natural gas power plants as priority because natural gas is a cleaner energy, and future power plants should give priority to using natural gas.

What are other methods to reduce power consumption in the long-term?

(A) Energy Conservation: the Government can encourage people to use energy-saving products.

(B) Adjust industrial structure: instead of just focusing on economic growth, we should encourage green policies among energy-intensive industries.

(C) Liberalization of the electricity industry: the government should liberalize the electricity market, which not only alters the issue of Tai-Power’s monopoly, but it also encourages the development of the renewable energy industry.

Yikes.

Now, nuclear energy isn’t meant to be a trap from which there is no escape, but Taiwan, even more than Japan, really needs to think this out. Nuclear energy was a boon for its growth as an economic power – lots of clean electricity from a limited land mass – and a viable way to replace it would need very careful planning. This plan seems based on some very dubious premises.

Election on Saturday. We’ll check back next week.

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Tell me what you really think:

The authors—in their effort to support a crackpot theory— used data that is essentially useless.

This is Josh Bloom, a scholar at the American Council On Science and Health, commenting on the recent article by Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman that radiation from Fukushima Daiichi has been killing Americans pell-mell. Eric has done a series of posts on this over the last few weeks, so no need to go over it again; still, Bloom’s takedown is really fun.

In trying to make a case against nuclear power, the authors have succeeded only in embarrassing themselves.

Richly deserved.

Taipei at night.

Industry Presents New Strategy to Increase Safety, Address NRC’s Post-Fukushima Recommendations

The industry will present a strategy to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission today on how it plans to enhance safety at the nation’s 67 plant sites to better equip them for unexpected events. The strategy—known as the “diverse and flexible mitigation capability,” or FLEX—addresses many of the recommendations set forth by the NRC’s Fukushima task force and takes into account some of the early lessons from the Fukushima accident on the need to maintain key safety functions amid conditions where electricity may be lost, back-up equipment could be damaged, and several reactors may be involved.

NEI’s Adrian Heymer, executive director for Fukushima regulatory response, held a media briefing Wednesday to explain the FLEX approach:

FLEX is a set of portable equipment that is located in diverse locations around the plant. We think there needs to be more than one set of equipment at diverse locations that can be quickly deployed and connected to provide injection and power supplies for instrumentation. What you want to do is inject water so that you keep the reactor [and spent fuel pools] cool. At the same time you want to know what is going on in the reactor—so it’s instrumentation for monitoring, for which you need power supplies.
FLEX will include equipment such as additional pumps, generators, batteries and chargers that will be located in diverse locations—for instance, on the east and west sides of the plant site. The equipment will be commercial-grade, but with program controls—which are still being defined—so that the equipment will be tested with results being subject to NRC oversight.


The strategy is “flexible” in that it does not dictate that permanent equipment be installed, but rather that the plant sites prepare portable equipment that could be used for any catastrophic event. The New York Times’ Matthew Wald explains:
A clear problem at Fukushima, he [Heymer] said, was that the tsunami was bigger than what the plant was designed for. If the operators had taken an approach based on specific hazards, he said, “instead of having a meter high barrier, they might have had a 10-meter high barrier,” although the actual tsunami was 14 to 15 meters high. The institute’s approach would be to take some general precautions rather than depend on the commission’s regular approach of determining probability before deciding what steps are needed.
Thus, the FLEX approach allows the industry to more quickly address high-priority safety concerns ahead of NRC regulations, which Heymer said could take time to implement due to the administrative analyses and technical reviews that would be involved:
Eventually there would be, we think, a rulemaking that would go in parallel. But this is a way of installing and achieving additional mitigation contingency in a shorter period of time. So, you get the same benefit, but rather than going through the normal process we try to expedite it by just getting on and installing the equipment and having a rulemaking to go in parallel.
In a blog post yesterday, the NRC acknowledged the industry’s FLEX plan as a step in the right direction:
The NRC staff believes this approach is a reasonable starting point, although more work is needed on defining these strategies. We also must ensure the NRC can inspect how plants put the strategies in place and that we can hold plants accountable for keeping those strategies ready and available.
The bottom line is that we believe these combined developments may enhance the agency’s approach to implementing the recommendations.
The FLEX approach is just one part of a larger industry response to the events at Fukushima. Heymer said that the FLEX strategy would allow for at least three days of keeping the nuclear fuel cool, and that regional response centers are also being pursued as yet another line of defense against a catastrophic event. As the various levels of safety enhancements are added, the industry plans to train and test its plant workers regularly so that they are well-equipped for emergency situations.

The FLEX concept is based on how the industry responded to the events of 9/11, in which additional security precautions—such as portable generators, water pumps, hoses and batteries—were put in place to mitigate against “beyond design-basis events,” or unlikely events that are considered outside the scope of what a plant should be designed or regulated to withstand.

Please note, this story was also cross-posted at NEI's Safety First microsite.