Wednesday, February 29, 2012

New NEI White Paper: Making Safe Nuclear Energy Safer

With the anniversary of the incident at Fukushima Daiichi almost upon us, it's only natural for the public and other stakeholders to be asking questions about the safety of America's nuclear energy facilities. To answer those questions, NEI has published a white paper entitled, "Making Safe Nuclear Energy Safer."

The following passage is from the document's Executive Summary:

The nuclear energy industry’s primary and constant goal is to make safe nuclear energy facilities even safer. A decades-long commitment to safety and continuous learning is reflected in the operational focus and safety culture at our facilities. Companies that operate 104 U.S. reactors review safety procedures continually and update their facilities and training programs with lessons learned from those reviews.

The industry has a commitment to safety because nuclear energy is a vital part of America’s electricity portfolio. It helps achieve greater energy independence for America and produces affordable, reliable electricity for one of every five Americans. Safety is the foundation of a thriving nuclear energy industry in America and globally—with more than 430 reactors producing electricity and 65 plants under construction.

After the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the U.S. nuclear power industry is looking even more closely at ways to ensure safety is maintained in the face of extreme natural events. The U.S. industry and our global partners took immediate actions after the events in Japan, both to support the recovery of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors and to review critical safety systems at U.S. reactors. While we continue to monitor the situation closely and to learn from it, the nuclear energy industry in the United States is already implementing numerous measures to maintain and upgrade the already-high level of safety at nuclear energy facilities.
The paper clocks in at nine pages in length, and is easily digestible for readers who, while they might be aware of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, might not be completely up to speed on what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and U.S. industry have been doing in the interim to apply lessons learned from our colleagues in Japan. Click here to download it right now.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

PBS to Air Second Fukushima Documentary Tonight

Tonight at 10:00 p.m. EST, PBS will be airing another FRONTLINE documentary about the incident at Fukushima Daiichi entitled, "Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown." Unlike the "Nuclear Aftershocks" report that aired in January, tonight's program will focus exclusively on brave TEPCO employees and first responders who worked to contain the damage at the stricken reactor.

During the program, PBS will be offering live commentary from the FRONTLINE Twitter feed (@frontlinepbs). We'll be watching the program in real time as well, tweeting from our own feed, @N_E_I. To participate in the conversation, please be sure to use the #frontline and #fukushima hash tags so others can follow along.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Breakers in the Solar Wave

german-solarAlthough Germany has become something of a whipping post on this blog, it’s hard not to look at its energy profile since it decided to close its nuclear facilities and not see something like chaos. But a lot of that chaos is incipient, so there’s time – not a lot, but still some time – to figure out how to proceed.

For Germany, one of those ways has been encouraging the uptake of renewable energy. But now, the plummeting price of solar panels has unleashed a new round of, how shall we put it, chaos.

Germany plans to reduce government subsidies supporting solar power by up to 30 percent within a year because higher-than-expected demand has made the scheme far more costly than authorities initially expected.

At first glance, that seems a boon to the solar business and a vindication of those subsidies – they seeded the market and now the market can proceed on its own. But not so.

German companies producing solar panels, already under pressure from stiff competition from new manufacturers in China, protested against the new cuts. Several thousand employees of about 50 firms in the segment held protest rallies across the country, the German Solar Industry Association said.

Now, this could simply be a case of not wanting the money spigot turned off – that’s not unusual. The growth of solar energy in Germany in impressive but seems containable: installations ran to 7500 megawatts in capacity last year, more than double the 3500 megawatts the government expected to see (and based its subsidy system around.) Remember that solar power cannot achieve 50 percent of its capacity rating, so those numbers are a little deceptive on their face. Nuclear energy facilities, by contrast, achieve above 90 percent of its capacity rating routinely.

Beyond these issues, the subsidies have put considerable pressure on the price benefit from the installations, essentially erasing the savings for ratepayers:

Installations of solar panels have boomed due to feed-in tariffs, generous subsidies which have mounted into a growing burden passed on to energy consumers.

Clearly the economics of solar power have gone haywire, but how?

Here’s the beginnings of an answer, from Morningstar:

Looking forward, we expect module pricing will begin falling within the next month, and reiterate our projection that module prices will be in the mid-$0.80s by summer. At such pricing levels, even a company with best-in-class production costs will not be able to turn a net profit this year. We reiterate our belief that for now long-term investors should steer clear of the space.

That’ll help, won’t it? Other financial gurus take equally dire views. The prediction is that there will be a wave of bankruptcies followed by a retrenchment. Here’s the bankruptcy part.

That will inevitably lead to more bankruptcies in a sector already laboring under 100 percent or more over-capacity and where leading names have filed for insolvency, including U.S.-based Evergreen Solar and Solyndra, and debt restructurings such as the one at Germany's Q-Cells.

And the retrenchment part.

But further cost cuts across the supply chain - and in particular the upstream manufacturers of raw solar-grade silicon - will sharpen the technology's competitiveness and see it mount a serious attack on offshore wind, shaking up the relative outlook for emerging technologies.

I’d add here that this shakeout holds the potential to strangle the solar panel business in Germany in the face of competition from China – what those protestors are rightly worried about - and losing a nascent business sector in a nascent technology would be an unquestionably poor outcome. But what about that serious attack on offshore wind?

If solar economics can leapfrog those of offshore wind, this poses the question: why invest in such a complex, moving piece of machinery as an offshore turbine, stationed in an unpredictable weather environment with massive servicing costs, rather than a simpler, static and more proven solar panel array?

One answer is that there may be more limited space for solar panels in the best, south-facing spots compared with the available coastlines suited for offshore turbines.

So – maybe. Note that Germany is far from being a sun-and-fun kind of place – this argument for solar is actually more solid for the United States.

I may be wrong, but this sounds like an instance where a business gambled that it would have a substantial product to sell but has ended up with the equivalent of a widget – and what company, especially one with considerable worker needs, can survive with a single widget as its product line?

This will shake out. Watching it do so is likely to be incredibly painful, especially in Germany, and a real blow to the solar energy business just when, ironically, it is gaining traction. In the meantime, chaos – Germany has blown a giant hole into its energy outlook.

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You win some, you lose some:

Kuwait has decided to abandon civilian nuclear power production.

Abandon in this case means not build. Kuwait thought it might build four reactors by 2020 but has changed its mind.

We wrote about Kuwait’s plans two summers ago, based on this bit of news:

Kuwait is experiencing almost emergency conditions after power consumption hit an all-time high for the third day in a row at 10,921 megawatts at 2:30 pm, which is around 30 megawatts short of maximum production capacity. The record consumption was triggered by record temperatures that reached 51 degrees Celsius at Kuwait Airport, 50 degrees in Kuwait City and as high as 53 degrees at the Abdali border post with Iraq.

53 degrees Celsius is 127 degrees Fahrenheit. Kuwait asked its neighbors for help but didn’t get much.

So, this is Kuwait:

About a quarter of Kuwait's power is generated from gas. The rest is from oil. Besides the exorbitant cost, the use of fuel oil has a major environmental impact and Kuwait City is often shrouded in a brown haze.

I’ve lost track of who lost what here.

Neighborhood as solar array in Germany.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Thorium Faces the Hurdles on the Course

Baroness-Bryony-WorthingtonThe Indians are looking to build a nuclear reactor based on thorium rather than uranium, offering the first chance in some years to see if the thorium fuel cycle is scalable enough to establish it as a viable element to use in future nuclear energy plants. Thorium was used in early American facilities such as Fort St. Vrain in Colorado and Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania.

it’s not exactly an earlier Beta-VHS feud, though standardization doubtless had something to do with the decision to use uranium. Also, thorium has a somewhat more complex fuel cycle: it has no fissile isotopes, so must always be seeded by uranium or plutonium to be useful – they convert the thorium to uranium-233, which is fissile.

But why use thorium at all, especially since using it does not foreclose the use of uranium?

The Washington Post takes a stab at it:

[Thorium] is less radioactive than the uranium that has always powered U.S. plants, and advocates say that not only does it produce less waste, it also is more difficult to turn into nuclear weapons.

Another point: there’s a lot of mined thorium in the world – almost all of it unused. We ran a post awhile ago about a rare metal mining operation called Pea Ridge that was positively stuffed to the brim with thorium – and had no market for it.

More on the thorium reactor:

“A molten-salt reactor is not a pressurized reactor,” said John Kutsch, director of the Thorium Energy Alliance, a trade group based in Harvard, Ill. “It doesn’t use water for cooling, so you don’t have the possibility of a hydrogen explosion, as you did in Fukushima.”

Kutsch calls the molten-salt reactor a “liquid-fluoride thorium reactor,” and if thorium boosters really want to use it here, they’ll have to get it through the design licensing process at the NRC. That takes time, is resource intensive and requires a company to sit tight while the bills pile up.

Those aren’t reasons not to do it, or even reasons to become discouraged, but new designs from startup companies are a tough proposition. There’s fuel fabrication plants to build and license – that takes time – and coping with an energy and manufacturing infrastructure that has been built to support light water reactors. There are a lot of hurdles on this race course. (Not that the United States and the NRC are the only ways forward – see the recently licensed AP1000 for a counter example.)

But is it impossible to clear those hurdles? No.

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Interestingly, the Post actually seeks out someone to bad mouth thorium, which is like dropping an anvil on a kitten. What’s the point?

“There are small boatloads of fanatics on thorium that don’t see the downsides,” said Dan Ingersoll, senior project manager for nuclear technology at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. For one thing, he said, it would be too expensive to replace or convert the nuclear power plants already running in this country: “A thorium-based fuel cycle has some advantages, but it’s not compelling for infrastructure and investments.”

Ingersoll has a strong point here: thorium is fun to knock around because it is an element with a fan base, not just advocates and companies working on it. That can give it an air of frivolity. But his points against it only resonate if we freeze technology in place and  go no further. From this perspective, it’s almost as if thorium were dismissible because it has a strong case. 

And it isn’t really dismissible. “Replace or convert” need not be the only options (although replace seems eminently doable as older facilities retire some years hence). A lot of new designs are percolating through the small reactor community – TerraPower, Hyperion – so the thorium fuel cycle is not really so outlandish.

Be sure to check out the Thorium Energy Alliance here. (That web site, though. Oof!)

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Visit the Weinberg Foundation (in England) for some more hard core thorium advocacy. It even has a quote from Baroness Worthington:

The world desperately needs sustainable, low carbon energy to address climate change while lifting people out of poverty. Thorium fuelled reactors, such as the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) pioneered by the late Alvin Weinberg, could radically change perceptions of nuclear power leading to widespread deployment.

The baroness is an environmental activist in the House of Lords. So there you go. Alvin Weinberg, who died in 2006, was a nuclear physicist also much in favor of thorium.

The Baroness Bryony Worthington.

Friday, February 17, 2012

How Safe is Vermont Yankee? Ask the NRC, Not CNN.

Another colleague of mine here at NEI forwarded me a copy of the 4Q2011 Performance Summary at Vermont Yankee conducted by the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Open it up and what will you find? Nothing but the color green.

For more details, click here. Bottom line, this plant is operating safely and efficiently.

Some Facts on Vermont Yankee That Didn't Make the CNN Report

My colleague Tom Kaufmann shared a couple of data points with me that didn't make it into the excerpt of the CNN report by Amber Lyon that we watched today -- facts that demonstrate just how important the plant is to the state, its environment and economy.

  • VY makes 73.3% of the electricity generated in Vermont and accounts for 79% of the state’s emission-free energy.
  • VY’s three-year average capacity factor is 92.2% - above the industry average.
  • VY avoided the emission of 2.7 million metric tons of CO2 last year.
  • VY’s output could charge over 800,000 all-electric automobiles in one night / 2.4 million in a day. There are less than 300,000 cars registered in the state of Vermont.

A Preview of CNN's Report on Vermont Yankee

For a number of weeks, we've been waiting for CNN to air an extended piece concerning the fight to keep Entergy's Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant operating -- a battle that's been thoroughly chronicled at the excellent blog, Yes Vermont Yankee. CNN has just posted a 4:40 teaser on their Web site, and if this snippet is any indication, we're in for more of the sort of alarmist reporting that's helped send the former cable news giant's ratings spinning into oblivion.

Case in point, this on-screen graphic that CNN's Amber Lyon calls the "damage area," around Vermont Yankee.


In the nuclear industry, this is actually known as the emergency planning zone or EPZ, drawn in a 10-mile radius around every nuclear power plant in America. As NEI notes in one of its fact sheets on emergency planning:

Within the 10-mile EPZ, the main immediate protective actions for the public include instructions for sheltering in place or evacuation. The slow pace at which an event may unfold—over several hours or days—provides time for orderly sheltering or evacuation, if necessary.
The nuclear industry prepares for any eventuality at its plants even though the risk of an actual accident causing any fatalities is incredibly small. Just a few weeks ago, the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission released its State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analyses or SOARCA. Its conclusions are encouraging:
The study found there was "essentially zero risk" to the public of early fatalities due to radiation exposure following a severe accident. The long-term risk of dying from cancer due to radiation exposure after an accident was less than one in a billion and less than the U.S. average risk of dying from other causes of cancer, which is about two in one thousand.
Later, Lyon quoted anti-nuclear campaigner Arnie Gundersen as saying that many American nuclear plants are just one "earthquake, hurricane or flood away from disaster," backed with video of the terrible floods that plagued the state in the wake of Hurricane Irene. But what Lyon failed to mention is that even when Vermont Yankee's hometown of Brattleboro was inundated by those floods, the plant remained safe (thanks again to the precautions taken in design and construction of the plant) and continued to provide electricity to consumers as they recovered from the storm.

When it comes to extreme weather events, 2011 was something of a real-life stress test for American nuclear power facilities, with plants all over the country successfully enduring earthquakes, a hurricane, massive flooding in the Midwest and a spate of violent twisters in the Southeast. We chronicled all of this in an interactive graphic we posted on our SafetyFirst microsite back in January:


All of this information, and more, could really help provide some balance to the CNN report, which is scheduled to run at 8:00 p.m. EST on both Saturday and Sunday night. Unfortunately, for some reason, CNN never bothered calling us here at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's policy arm, to ask for an interview. We've since reached out to CNN's Amber Lyon letting her know that we're available. We'll update our readers if and when we get any response.

Japanese Government: No Plans to Re-Start Fukushima Daini

Earlier this week, a Japanese government official said that there were no plans to restart any of the reactors at the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant.

Fukushima Daini was a textbook example of how things can go right at a nuclear power plant in the face of an extreme event, something we noted at our SafetyFirst microsite in December:

When the earthquake struck, the Fukushima Daini facility automatically shut down safely as designed. However, it went into a state of emergency following the tsunami when water damage disrupted heat removal systems in three of the four reactors.

TEPCO reactor operators were able to quickly bring reactor 3, which had retained its heat removal function, into stable condition in a matter of hours. Meanwhile, other employees worked feverishly around-the-clock to reestablish heat removal capability in the other three reactors and finished stabilizing them by March 15.

A key distinction between the post-disaster conditions at Fukushima Daini and Fukushima Daiichi was that off-site power was available at the Daini facility, whereas the Daiichi plant suffered a complete loss of electricity, including backup generators and, eventually, emergency batteries needed to power reactor cooling systems. Fukushima Daini workers were able to tap into electricity from a 500-kilovolt-transmission line – a key lifeline – to power a water injection system that helped cool the reactors as they shut down.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

You Say Tomato, I Say Tow-MAH-toe

On February 9, the Commissioners held a briefing on the status of implementation of the NRC's Safety Culture Policy Statement (an archived webcast of the briefing is available here). In a nearly three-hour briefing, the Commissioners heard from a panel of industry and public stakeholders and a panel of NRC program managers. In the first panel, NEI's Janet Schlueter spoke for the community of fuel cycle facilities; Lee Cox spoke for the Organization of Agreement States and the interests of the state regulators who are employing the SCPS with the radioactive materials users licensed by Agreement States. Ed Halpin, President and CEO of South Texas Nuclear Operating Company, spoke about his experience in cultural transformation at STP and his passion in the pursuit of a healthy and robust safety culture. Attorney Billie Garde, long-time advocate for employee concerns, provided her perspective on the NRC's success with the SCPS and the work that she sees as the next step in implementation.

Foremost among the items left to be done is the development of "common language". The task here is to describe the elements of safety culture in words that NRC, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, NEI and other stakeholders agree express their shared understanding of "safety culture". Until now, the two chief descriptions of safety culture used in the U.S., one from INPO and the other from the NRC, employ slightly different structures and terms to capture the features both institutions consider important in depicting safety culture. This might seem a matter of semantics, but trying to reconcile the differences when the stakes are high can be as taxing trying to convert Degrees Fahrenheit to Degrees Celsius in your head in the middle of a conversation.

The common language project got off to a great start in a joint NRC-INPO-NEI public workshop last December. Out of that workshop emerged an initial cut at a set of common terms that both NRC and INPO potentially could use. The draft common language now needs to be considered carefully, discussed further, and revised. Hopefully, by year's end or so, NRC and we will reach agreement on a shared set of terms to describe safety culture. That should ensure that everyone involved in evaluating, overseeing or maintaining safety culture fully understands one another.

The importance of common language was brought home to us in remarks made by Ed Halpin after the briefing ended. From his experience in cultural transformation at South Texas and his training in Crucial Conversations, he learned first hand the vital role that words play in establishing and communicating expectations and discussing gaps between expectations and outcomes. So, too, it is vitally important for everyone in our industry to know what NRC means, what INPO means, and what industry peers mean when they talk about any aspect of safety culture. The common language will greatly help us achieve that.

(A copy of the initial cut at the common language is available in the NRC's online documents system called ADAMS, under Accession Number ML113630124.)

Resurgence in American Nuclear Industry To Start in Ga., Says Energy Chief

SecretaryChu_TomFanning_PlantVogtleTour_2-15-2012In case you missed the tweets from @SouthernCompany or @EnergyPressSec yesterday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu  toured the site where two new reactors are being built at Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Ga. Reconfirming his commitment to nuclear energy, the Nobel Laureate spoke to the more than 500 workers already on site on the need to build new nuclear plants to create jobs for American workers and boost U.S. competitiveness.

“In his State of the Union address, President Obama outlined a blueprint for an American economy that is built to last and develops every available source of American energy,” said Secretary Chu. “Nuclear power is an important part of that blueprint. The work being done in Georgia and at research organizations like Oak Ridge National Laboratory is helping restore American leadership in the global race for the nuclear energy jobs of tomorrow.”

Just how many new jobs is Secretary Chu talking about? Business Week says:

About 1,700 workers are already on the job site and plant managers say that number will grow to nearly 5,000 at the peak of construction. Once the completed units go online, they will employ about 800 permanent workers.

Those numbers only capture the direct jobs from the project, but indirectly, Business Week explains that constructing the two new reactors means a lot more people coming to the area, consuming more goods and services at local businesses. Take, for example, Allen DeLaigle:

"Plant Vogtle has pretty well saved Burke County," said Allen DeLaigle, who owns and manages an RV park with his twin brother about 4 miles from the nuclear plant.

Since site preparation ramped up for the new units, DeLaigle's park has filled about 90 of its 151 spaces with RVs and campers owned by workers coming in from other states such as Alabama and Mississippi, West Virginia and Ohio.

Or Robin Baxley:

Robin Baxley, owner of a Waynesboro office supply store, added two new employees to keep up with deliveries of pens, paper, marker boards and thumb drives to the modular offices set up on the construction site. Her business also supplied the cubicles, desks and file cabinets for many of those temporary offices

"They helped us make it through the economic downturn," Baxley said. "Office furniture is not the first thing people buy when they can hardly make payroll."

The project also will create approximately 35,000 jobs for suppliers and manufacturers, which is why groups like the National Association of Manufacturers wholeheartedly support the project:

Manufacturers use one-third of the energy consumed in the Unites States, so building new reliable sources of energy is essential to our competitiveness. Building new nuclear power plants also means the creation of quality jobs for Americans at a time when we need them the most. The Vogtle plant alone will create 5,000 new jobs and will have a tremendous positive impact for the many jobs in the nuclear energy supply chain. 

The amount of jobs this project is creating has not gone unnoticed by the public. In fact, on the day of the announcement, I took a phone call from a member of the public asking where he could find information online to apply for a job. I also saw comments like this one on Twitter:

image

If the overall goal is to create new jobs, make America more competitive and invest in an emission-free, domestic energy source, then this is the way to do it, said Secretary Chu on the tour:

“America has the opportunity to lead the world in clean energy technologies and to provide a foundation for our future prosperity. What you are doing here at Vogtle will help us compete in the global clean energy race and provide domestic, clean power to U.S. homes.”

During his visit to the site, Secretary Chu announced a funding opportunity of up to $10 million for research and development toward advanced nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technologies and also announced that the agency will be putting together an internal working group—chaired by Peter Lyons—to recommend a nuclear waste strategy to the secretary by the summer.

Continuing with his busy week, today the secretary testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee on the agency’s fiscal year 2013 budget request. (See the committee’s archived webcast and Secretary Chu’s testimony for more information.)

Photo: Southern Co.’s Tom Fanning and Energy Secretary Steven Chu on a tour of the Plant Vogtle site. Photo courtesy of Southern Co.

NEI's Chief Nuclear Officer Appears on PBS News Hour

Last night, NEI's Chief Nuclear Officer, Tony Pietrangelo, appeared on the PBS News Hour to discuss the future of the industry in the wake of the awarding of a COL to Plant Vogtle.



Nuclear Fact Check: Jamie Reno and the Daily Beast

Earlier this week, Jamie Reno, a reporter for Tina Brown's Daily Beast wrote a story about San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, and the situation there concerning excessive wear in the steam generators. For an update on that situation, click here.

In any case, Reno's story attempted to tie the operating difficulties at San Onofre to Fukushima, and efforts by anti-nuclear activists in California to shut it and the state's other nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon.

The anti-nuclear power movement in the United States peaked in 1979, with widespread protests, the “No Nukes” concert in New York City, and the release of The China Syndrome, the gripping film about a near-meltdown at a fictional California facility that foreshadowed a real-life accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania just weeks after the movie’s premiere.

Since then, no new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S.
That's incorrect. 50 more reactors were built after Three Mile Island and number 51, Watts Bar 2, will be completed in 2013.

I recently got a note from one of my colleagues on our media team, Tom Kaufmann. For those of you who might not have heard his name before, Tom worked at Three Mile Island as a reactor operator before moving on to a career in media relations.

What bothered him about Reno's article was the contention that the incident with the steam generators at San Onofre should cause the public to worry that a Fukushima-like event could occur at the plant.

Here's the note Tom sent to me in response:
The assertion that the leaking tubes illustrates that what happened in Japan absolutely could happen here is baseless. Amassing more than 3,500 reactor-years of operation, commercial nuclear power plants like San Onofre have been operating in the U.S. for more than half a century. During that entire time, including the accident at Three Mile Island, no member of the public has ever been harmed by a reactor accident or radiation from any U.S. nuclear power plant. Why? Because the facilities were very well designed, the nuclear energy industry is committed to hold safety as its utmost concern, and it has continuously improved the plants by expanding and upgrading the layers of protection.

The improvements made after Three Mile Island and the 9/11 attacks helped the industry produce a safety record that is second to none. The improvements being made in response to the accident in Japan will push safety even higher. The nuclear industry isn’t perfectly safe, no industry is, but it is very well prepared to handle challenges. In fact, a recent state-of-the-art study by the NRC found that the likelihood of a serious accident causing anyone harm is very, very small.
The report that Tom refers to is the State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analyses that the NRC published earlier this month. Click here to read that report. For a closer look at it by NEI's Mark Flanagan, click here.

Back to Tom:
This current situation with the steam generator tubes at San Onofre proves how conservative and proactive the plant operator is toward safety. The problem was discovered early, the plant was shut down so a through investigation of the cause could be conducted, and the regulator and public have been kept fully informed. This is exactly what should happen.
As we approach the April deadline to submit signatures for the California ballot initiative to shut down the plants, we can expect to see more articles like this one. We'll keep an eye out.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The French Choice; The Iowan Misapprehension

francois_hollande_referenceEven in the context of a political contest, it’s nice to be reminded how nuclear energy benefits people in the nickel-and-dime sense:

France's electricity bills will rise less over the next two decades if it continues to rely on nuclear power for its energy needs, a government-commissioned report showed on Monday, two months ahead of the country's upcoming presidential election.

Neither President Nicholas Sarkozy (the conservative more-or-less) nor his main opponent in the upcoming election, Francois Hollande (the liberal give or take), wants to shut down the nuclear plants. Hollande wants to close an older facility and reduce the dependence on nuclear energy from 80 to about 50 percent. I’m not sure why, but there it is.

Still, French users could pay around one quarter less at the end of the next decade if the country decides to keep relying on nuclear power for at least 70 percent of its power instead of boosting renewable energy's role and lowering nuclear output to 20 percent of its needs, figures in the report showed.

I think the story means one-quarter less than other European countries not 25 percent less than now. In any event, suspicion about a “convenient” report (for Sarkozy’s view, since he holds the levers of government) is balanced somewhat by the reality that the French do not seem all that eager to tack away from nuclear energy. And anyway, the report isn’t saying anything outlandish – you could say Sarkozy is making a case, but that’s about it.

Currently, Hollande is ahead in polls, but neither he nor Sarkozy are above 50 percent, which makes a second round likely – that happened in 2007, too. The first round of voting comes on April 22 and the run-off on May 6. (Note that Sarkozy has not announced his candidacy yet – the stories I read suggest this is tactical rather than hesitancy, so every poll counts him as in.)

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It looks like Sarkozy is taking that report quite seriously:

Nicolas Sarkozy a décidé de prolonger la durée de vie des centrales nucléaires françaises au-delà de quarante ans pour permettre à l'économie de disposer d'une énergie bon marché, a déclaré dimanche 12 février le ministre de l'industrie Eric Besson, précisant que le chef de l'Etat a demandé aux opérateurs "de procéder à tous les efforts de maintenance, de recherche des plus hauts standards de sécurité et de sûreté, pour faire en sorte que ce parc puisse être prolongé".

Let’s see if my French is up to this:

Nicolas Sarkozy will prolong the lives of French nuclear power plants beyond forty years to allow the economy [I think an American politician would have said “the people”] to have inexpensive energy, said Minister of Industry Eric Besson February 12, with Sarkozy [the chief of state] asking the facility operators "to conduct all maintenance efforts to maintain the highest standards of safety and security so that the lives of the plants can be extended."

A little clumsy, but that does the trick. I reckon this will show up in American papers soon enough.

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Some Iowans are missing the point:

Some lawmakers and advocacy groups are questioning a measure that would help MidAmerican Energy pay for a possible nuclear power plant, arguing that slow-growing Iowa produces significantly more energy than it uses and doesn't need an expensive electricity generator.

Consider that about 9 percent of electricity in Iowa is generated by nuclear energy (at Duane Arnold, to be exact). 72 percent of it is coal-fired. Iowa has done a good job with renewable energy – about 15 percent. So you may say that Iowa has filled the energy coffers, but not in the best possible way.

But there’s an elephant in the room and the new nuclear facility can help push it out. The story almost gets there:

Potthoff said the excess supply in Iowa also likely won't continue for long because expected environmental regulations could limit coal-powered electrical plants at a time when an improving economy will increase demand. Although wind power is important, it's less consistent than coal or nuclear power, she said.

But not quite. Build a nuclear facility, shut down a couple of coal plants – or more, as Iowa seems able to afford it – and it’s your classic win-win.

Potthoff is MidAmerican spokeswoman Tina Potthoff.

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Coming from Warner Brothers: The Chernobyl Diaries:

Diaries is set in the city of Prypiat that once housed the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and follows a group of friends who, while vacationing in Europe, find themselves stranded in the abandoned city only to discover that they are not alone.

Presumably, the kids get left there by a tour bus. Whether they will be set upon by giant insects or Hills Have Eyes-style cannibals remains to be seen.

Francois Hollande – and yes, France has pointing politicians.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Running Out of Road in Belgium

TihangeGermany is a big country with a big problem when it  comes to closing its nuclear plants. Belgium is a smaller country with the same problem and somehow it’s still a pretty big one:

With just three years to go before Belgium is due to begin phasing out nuclear power, the country is still grappling with basic questions about its plans, including whether the 2015 deadline has to be adjusted to ensure electricity supplies remain reliable.

To be honest, if you want to close nuclear plants, you have to prepare for the loss of a lot of electricity and the very real possibility that the price to customers will go up, in some cases considerably. Belgium hasn’t prepared for any of this.

Melchior Wathelet, the country's new state secretary for energy, said in an interview that a study currently being prepared, for presentation by July, will assess whether there is "an alternative that would guarantee the security of supply at an acceptable price and respecting the environment."

If it were the U.S., one might poke up one’s hand and say, “Natural gas!” But that’s not a very good option for Belgium because it would likely get the gas from Russia – the whole reason, I’d guess, the phrase “security of supply” is in that statement.

Once you’ve eliminated natural gas, the answer to Mr. Wathelet’s conundrum is that Belgium will have to make an unattractive decision – accept higher electricity rates via imported sources – such as nuclear energy from France – or flip the switch on some of the shuttered coal plants.

But:

"I will say that I am getting out of [nuclear] only when I am sure I have an alternative ready," Mr. Wathelet said. Nuclear power accounts for roughly 55% of Belgium's electricity production.

Gulp! An alternative to 55 percent of your electricity production? And fast? Good luck, Mr. Wathelet.

We’ve said several times that nuclear energy is not a trap for the unwary – you don’t have to be wedded to it however much good it has done for your energy profile – but perhaps we should amend that. Nuclear energy is a trap for bad policy makers because the atom produces a lot of emission-free electricity for not very much money. (New facilities are relatively expensive to build but exceedingly inexpensive to run. As soon as you’ve paid off your fixed costs, gravy.) Countries reap the benefits with happier electricity customers – who are not paying as much as their non-nuclear neighbors and are doing their bit to combat climate change.

I genuinely don’t get why the Germans and Belgians would make  decisions that are likely to cause at least some social harm. I understand the German anxiety caused by Chernobyl colored its view of Fukushima, but I also know that that fear didn’t amount to anything. With Belgium, it was a bill blithely passed in 2003 to shut the plants after 40 years of operation – with the idea of what to replace them with kicked down the road like an old can.

Belgium is now out of road – and holding a can full of coal.

If the Germans and Belgians had behaved with any sense of responsibility, they might not have gotten into such an awful situation – and might still leave nuclear energy behind, though perhaps in a more orderly way and with further thought behind it.

---

What a difference a little time and cooler heads can make:

After last year’s disaster at Fukushima, many forecast the death of the nuclear power industry as countries jumped out of this potent fuel for other alternatives. Some looked for fossil fuels to play a bigger role in electricity production, while others predicted greater dependence on clean tech products such as wind and solar instead. While both of these types have increased somewhat in importance, nuclear power doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, at least in some markets.

From Christine Whitman and Patrick Moore:

The United States has taken an important step toward efficiently meeting the country's rising electricity demand by ensuring a greater supply of clean, safe nuclear power.

With plans in place in Georgia for the construction of the next generation of nuclear energy facilities, this industry expansion will promote economic prosperity and continued development of a sustainable clean energy source. We need a cost-efficient, low-carbon solution to the nation's increasing electricity demand- projected to rise 24 percent by 2035. Expanding nuclear energy as part of the mix of electricity generation options is necessary to meeting our nation's growing power needs cleanly and cost-effectively.

From The Trenton (N.J.) Times:

How can we best provide energy for New Jersey’s economic expansion? The answer is nuclear power — and building a new plant to capitalize on nuclear power’s economic and environmental benefits. Such a plant can supply large amounts of affordable power from a small amount of fuel all day, every day, without polluting the air or loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

This one almost goes over the top – but in a good way.

A quick look at the mid-Atlantic region and around the country shows that the revival of nuclear power is picking up steam and public support.

Some of this is reaction to Southern Co. getting a license to build two new reactors at Plant Vogtle – but some of what I’ve seen has just seemed free-floating support for the atom. Appreciated.

The Tihange facility in Belgium.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Faulty Thermometer Likely Cause of Fukushima Temperature Rise

Last week, we alerted our readers to reports out of Japan that the temperatures inside Unit #2 at Fukushima Daiichi were rising. At the time, we noted that some of the reports of the news were, "rather breathless." That judgment has been borne out, as we received the following welcome news from Japan overnight:

A faulty thermometer is likely to blame for rising temperatures inside a stricken nuclear reactor at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant, authorities said Monday, as Japan prepares to mark one year since a devastating earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear meltdown.

[...]

A nuclear expert agreed that a faulty temperature gauge inside the Unit 2 reactor is the most likely cause for the higher heat reading.

Tokyo mega-quake prediction Inside the Japan nuclear exclusion zone Japan considers restarting two reactors Japan exclusion zone's lone resident
Michael Friedlander, a former senior operator at U.S. nuclear power plants, told CNN that the prospect of another catastrophic explosion at the Fukushima-Daiichi is "virtually zero."

"If the reactor was going to become critical it would have become critical in March of last year, not now," he said.
We'd be remiss if we didn't not that the first person who raised the possibility of the faulty thermometer was none other than Will Davis at Atomic Power Review.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Adorable Little Death Throes

This ad, from the British company Ecotricity, tries to make the case that Britain should dump other kinds of energy in favor of windmills. It seems to me adorable and a complete misfire because it is adorable.

The benign cartoon cooling towers that collapse into dust, waving their cartoon hands in dismay, is pretty disturbing and would seem to cast the windmills shown at the end into the role of malignant usurpers. This has to be the opposite of what Ecotricity wants to portray. Judge for yourself:

 

On Vogtle: Reaction and News Coverage

vogtle-blog480The importance of the license granted (or virtually so, as the Commission technically authorized issuance of the license, but did not issue the license itself) to Southern Co. to build two reactors on its  Plant Vogtle site in Georgia is quite real – I noticed that the New York Times and Washington Post put on their first pages that it might happen today.

That’s anticipation for you.

Well, it did happen today – well, the NRC authorized it to happen. A little confusing, but as we’ll see, it’s largely treated as the big event.

Here is NEI’s President and CEO Marv Fertel:

This is a historic day. Today’s licensing action sounds a clarion call to the world that the United States recognizes the importance of expanding nuclear energy as a key component of a low-carbon energy future that is central to job creation, diversity of electricity supply and energy security. The Nuclear Energy Institute congratulates Southern Company, the Shaw Group, Westinghouse Electric and other project participants on this exciting achievement.

Read more here.

From Southern Co.’s President and CEO Tom Fanning – he’s on video in the post below this one:

“This is a monumental accomplishment for Southern Company, Georgia Power, our partners and the nuclear industry,” said Southern Company Chairman, President and CEO Thomas A. Fanning. “We are committed to bringing these units online to deliver clean, safe and reliable energy to our customers. The project is on track, and our targets related to cost and schedule are achievable.”

The company expects to deliver to customers more than $1 billion in benefits from the Department of Energy loan guarantees, production tax credits and recovering financing costs during construction.

Georgia Power expects Unit 3 to begin operating in 2016 and Unit 4 in 2017.”

More here.

From Shaw Group’s Chairman, President and CEO J.M. Bernhard:

“Shaw congratulates Southern on this major milestone for the Vogtle project, the first new U.S. nuclear construction commercial power project in more than 30 years,” said J.M. Bernhard Jr., Shaw’s chairman, president and chief executive officer.

“Shaw is proud to be part of such a historic project. Not only is this milestone another step forward in continuing to provide safe, clean and reliable energy for the future, but the project also will create thousands of jobs and provide numerous long-term benefits for the Georgia community. Shaw anticipates hiring approximately 3,500 employees during construction of the new units at Vogtle, with thousands of more jobs created as a result of construction and operation of the reactors,” said Mr. Bernhard.

More here.

From Westinghouse’s President and CEO Aris Candris:

"Westinghouse congratulates Southern Nuclear on the approval of its combined construction and operating license (COL) for Plant Vogtle by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"The granting of this COL is yet another important step in constructing the next generation of new nuclear plants in the United States.  The thorough and rigorous COL review, combined with the recent AP1000® design certification help to ensure Southern and its stakeholders of receiving greater levels of safety, increased project certainty and years of reliable electricity generation.  Additionally, these plants will contribute significantly to the local, regional and national economies by creating and sustaining thousands of jobs.”

More here.

---

Let’s look at some news coverage.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the project. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who has supported the project throughout the process, dissented, saying he was concerned that the reactors would not meet certain safety requirements put in place since Japan's Fukushima Daiichi accident.

"Significant safety enhancements have already been recommended as a result of learning the lessons from Fukushima, and there is still more work ahead of us. Knowing this, I cannot support issuing these licenses as if Fukushima never happened," Jaczko said.

The Augusta Chronicle. Augusta is the largest town near the Vogtle facility – I reckon a fair number of its workers live in Augusta:

Fellow commissioners expressed confidence that safety recommendations made since the Japan crisis will be properly implemented.

“There is no amnesia, individually or collectively,” commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki said of the NRC’s attention to lessons learned from Fukushima.

Newshounds. Always after conflict. The Chronicle gets a detail right that most other papers missed:

The license, which could be issued within 10 days, according to NRC staffers, will lead to the construction of the first AP1000 modular reactors in the U.S., creating a workforce expected to peak at about 3,500 during the next three years, with total job creation estimated at 5,000.

Symbolically, today’s the day, but practically, the license will be prepared by the NRC staff and issued inside a couple of weeks. Southern Co. cannot proceed without it, but now they know it’s coming. Good for writer Rob Pavey for picking that up.

The Chronicle has a page with stories about Vogtle. My favorite one was:

Twin brothers Abner and Allen DeLaigle can remember the flood of workers and money that inundated Burke County when Plant Vogtle first rose from the ground decades ago.

“We had a store, and a restaurant, just down from the front gate,” said Allen DeLaigle, “We also had a camper park with 380 spaces — and we stayed full for 10 years.”

During that era [meaning the 70s], the mammoth project lured 14,000 workers to the remote banks of the Savannah River, where the demand for housing, food and other commodities was so intense that their restaurant bustled seven days a week.

Sounds like a gold rush town. Wonder if they had a dance hall and a Marshal.

I looked at the Waynesboro paper, the True Citizen, (Waynesboro is the town nearest to Vogtle likely to have a paper), but it puts its content behind a pay wall. We may never know how they report it in Waynesboro, except that the headline is: High Expectations.

The Washington Post Story is here and the New York Times story is here. Both relegate it to the business pages. Better to stay local on this one, because this is really big news in that part of Georgia. I come from Georgia myself, so perhaps there’s a personal angle too and a bit of home state pride.

Plant Vogtle clears land.

On An Historic Occasion

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that it has approved Southern Nuclear's combined construction and operating license (COL) for the two-reactor Plant Vogtle expansion in Georgia. Southern Nuclear, a subsidiary of Southern Company, will build two Westinghouse Electric Co. AP1000 reactors at the site near Augusta, Ga.

In the following video, Southern Co.'s Tom Fanning discusses the historic approval of its license - the first since 1978 - to build and operate two new reactors:

    Wednesday, February 08, 2012

    In a Land of Wolves

    WolvesIn the short surrealist documentary Land Without Bread (1933), Luis Bunuel makes a point that has always stuck with me: good intentions can lead to terrible outcomes.

    In the film, the church tries to help the people of Las Hurdas, who live in grueling poverty. But the would-be recipients of this charity don’t want it, misuse through ignorance largesse or advice given to them and make their overall situation manifestly worse. (The title refers to the church’s effort to improve nutrition in the area by giving out loaves of bread, but the people don’t understand what bread is and throw it out.)

    None of this is literally true – Bunuel made it all up – yet it feels true, a description of the misery that can result from what anyone would consider the best intentions. (And the actual people of Las Hurdas spent years living down the dreadful image of them shown in the film.)

    In attempting to maintain an economic recovery and help the caribou herd that is fast disappearing as a result, Canada may have concocted its own version of Las Hurdas. Or has it?

    There is no question that Canada’s caribou population is dropping steeply and quickly in the western part of the country.

    Last month, Environment Canada released its long-awaited draft recovery plan for perilous herds of woodland caribou.

    It said that many of the caribou herds in Canada were in satisfactory shape, but in northern Alberta and parts of British Columbia, the situation is dire. Almost all the Alberta herds are classified as "very unlikely" to survive.

    Though the herd’s territory overlaps the oil sands region, the increasing development of that area is not considered to be determinative in the caribou’s fate. The work on the oil sands does, however, contribute to the increasing industrialization of the area, and that most definitely is the cause for the caribou’s plight.

    So it’s not a question of saying that working the oil sands should necessarily cease in order to save the caribou nor should any other specific activity stop. Canada wants the oil it can extract from the sands, it wants to foster employment in that area and it wants the caribou herd to stabilize.

    Enter the wolves, which kill young caribou:

    Environment Canada's research shows that 100 wolves would need to die for every four caribou calves saved. While Kent would not go through the math to say how many wolves he thinks are at risk in total, he did not disagree with experts' estimates.

    "It would be an astronomical effort. It would be thousands of wolves in the end. It's not a very appealing option," said Stan Boutin, a caribou biologist at the University of Alberta.

    I’ll say it’s not an appealing option: killing thousands of wolves must have an impact on the ecosystem. Another option being considered is creating a very large fenced area to keep in the caribou and keep out the wolves, but this idea has consequences, too:

    "It's a direct trade-off, and society and everybody is going to have to make some real hard decisions there, because you cannot, over extensive areas, have both of those activities going on and preserve caribou unless you go to other drastic conservation efforts like predator control or fencing," he [Boutin] said.

    "The fencing issue comes down to: will society buy into what many consider creating a bit of a zoo?"

    I’m not sure, in context, what Boutin means by “both of those activities,” but he gets at the problem here, which is that even the largest penned area will artificially contain the herd and limit its territory. That’s not a good way to foster a population expansion.

    This story really has nothing to do with the oil sands, except that the pursuit of energy sources involves an industrial process and an influx of people to drive it. This story could just as easily be about a nuclear energy facility. The specific situation demonstrates that good intentions can sometimes lead to unintended outcomes.

    But it need not be so. Electricity plants, including nuclear energy facilities, have dealt responsibly with the fact that pulling water from a river can lead to fish mortality.

    For example:

    Southern California Edison this week [this was published in November 2011] dedicated a newly completed wetlands area that provides a habitat for diverse fish and waterfowl populations near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

    While San Onofre’s ocean water cooling system has only a small impact on area marine life, it does affect some small fish and fish larvae. The wetlands restoration, along with several other environmental protection projects spearheaded by SCE, mitigates these effects.

    This comes from NEI’s member newsletter, so no link. If you’d like to learn more about this, here’s another story about fish around nuclear energy plants. It should also be noted that fish are excellent self-sustainers and will make spawn more fish if circumstances warrant.

    The response to fish mortality issues represents an instance where long experience bore workable solutions. In the same way, Canada is trying to find a responsible solution to the caribou problem. But the proposed solutions in this instance are exceptionally terrible. Everyone in the story about this from Global Calgary seems to think of the situation as sickening, especially when considering the fate of the wolves.

    So - there really is no plausible solution yet. Canada isn’t going to put the breaks on industrialization or send Alberta’s economy into a tailspin.

    And, to take the pessimistic p.o.v, slaughtering the wolves may not save the caribou. Fencing in the caribou may not save them because their changing habitat may trump all attempts to protect them. All the best efforts may come to naught.

    In which case, as the wise man said, Chaos reigns, and Alberta could find itself denuded of caribou and wolves, surely the worse possible outcome. But then again, as with the fish, a good solution might yet be found. The trade between good intention and problematic outcomes need not lead to despair, though it’s hard not to sympathize with the people working on this problem.

    ---

    There are a lot of stories out there, some linked above, blaming all this on “rapacious” oil sands magnates. Certainly, the development of the oil sands cannot be denied as a cause, but climate change has also played a large role, particularly in the Northern Territories.

    I wonder about this particular tack, though, because industry is always in the crosshairs of environmentalists, however tenuous the link. Killing off caribou would be, probably is now, terrible public relations. Rapacious magnates would prefer to divert not attract attention. So – maybe. Too naïve can be as bad as too cynical.

    Tuesday, February 07, 2012

    Got Nuclear Waste? We’ll Take It!

    imageOver the past few weeks, the people of Carlsbad, N.M., have been busy making one thing known: they want the United States’ nuclear waste and they want it bad.

    Their support is being driven by recommendations released last week from the Obama administration’s blue ribbon commission on how to fix the nation’s nuclear waste management program. Most noteworthy for the people of Carlsbad is the recommendation by the commission that the United States pursue a “consent-based approach,” where local communities are engaged in the project from the beginning so that they avoid a situation where politics later trump progress on a much-needed repository (*cough* Yucca Mountain *cough*). My colleague Mark Flanagan explained this approach and the reasoning behind it on the blog last week.

    Carlsbad is unique from any other area of the country because it is home to salt beds, an ideal burial place for transuranic waste because of its self-sealing qualities, which is why the U.S. Department of Energy built its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) there in the 1980s, a project that has garnered a lot of community support. Here’s what a DOE fact sheet has to say about the geologic conditions at the site:

    Bedded salt is free of fresh flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable—an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment.

    Throughout the 1960s, government scientists searched for an appropriate site for radioactive waste disposal, eventually testing a remote desert area of southeastern New Mexico where, 250 million years earlier, evaporation cycles of the ancient Permian Sea had created a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed.
    Because of its unique geologic qualities and growing community support, Carlsbad and Eddy County officials this past Saturday joined together in offering New Mexico’s salt beds as a final destination for U.S. high-level radioactive waste.
    "Eddy County has proven that involving local governments and citizens in the planning and oversight process leads to a successful mission. Community support and involvement in every step of the process, especially emergency services and transportation, is absolutely essential." said Roxanne Lara, Eddy County Commissioner and Energy Communities Alliance Secretary. "The BRC recognized the importance of this model. The bottom line is that Southeast New Mexico has the knowledge, the location and the desire to be a solution to this nation's nuclear waste problem. Let's get moving."
    The blue ribbon commission, although not tasked with the responsibility of picking a site to hold the nation’s nuclear waste, echoed some of the positive aspects of the Carlsbad site in their report:
    The crucial difference in the WIPP case [from Yucca Mountain] was the presence—also from the outset—of a supportive host community and of a state government that was willing to remain engaged. Starting in the early 1970s and continuing to the present, elected officials and other local leaders in and around the WIPP site, particularly in the Carlsbad business community, made it very clear that they approved of the development and use of the facility to dispose of defense TRU wastes. This unwavering local support helped to sustain the project during periods when federal and state agencies had to work through disagreements over issues such as the nature of the wastes to be disposed, the role of different entities in providing oversight, and the standards that the facility would be required to meet.
    (They also provided an overview of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on page 21.)

    Not only does the Carlsbad community have the know-how and the right environment to support a nuclear waste repository, but they also view it as a way to boost the local economy, which is a major contributing factor to their overall support. A recent Forbes piece captures it perfectly:
    This attitude—“Yes in my backyard,” if you will—has brought near permanent prosperity to this isolated spot that until recently had no endemic economic engine. Unemployment sits at 3.8%, versus 6.5% statewide and 8.5% nationally. And thanks to this project—euphemistically known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP—New Mexico has received more than $300 million in federal highway funds in the past decade, $100 million of which has gone into the roads around Carlsbad.
    Before WIPP the area’s economy was mostly limited to potash mining, oil and gas drilling, and a passel of tourists stopping on the way to ­Carlsbad Caverns, an hour south. The Department of Energy’s $6 billion program created 1,300 permanent jobs, many of them high-paid engineering positions. Energy’s annual budget for WIPP is $215 million, much of which stays in the community as wages.
    The surrounding communities are not only supportive about accepting the nation’s nuclear waste, Forbes said they have “doubled down” on the opportunity:
    The leaders of neighboring Lea and Eddy counties have doubled down on the nuke biz, establishing a 1,000-acre atomic industrial park. ­Already uranium fuel maker Uren­co Group has built a $3 billion fabrication plant there, employing 300.
    Now they’re seeking to build a surface-level facility to store used nuclear fuel rods in 100-ton, 15-foot-tall steel-and-concrete casks.
    Given that the community and local leaders support developing a nuclear waste repository, what’s the hold up? Forbes explains:
    Even if the money’s there, and the will, there’s still a lingering question of how the salt would react when in contact with canisters of high-level waste, 600 degrees hot.
    Trapped within the salt are microscopic pockets of 250-million-year-old seawater. Because heat increases the solubility of salt in water, the more heat, the more salt dissolved. One theory suggests that high heat will attract nearby water toward the waste canisters, potentially corroding them. Ned Elkins, Los Alamos lab’s chief salt repository scientist, who works at WIPP, says all current modeling indicates that neither the heat nor water should pose any significant problems, “but we have to let the science speak for itself, to erase all doubt.” The DOE has begun a $40 million study to prove it out, but conclusive results will take at least three years.
    Letting science dictate policy sounds like a good idea to me, so I guess it’s a wait and see game to determine if the site is technically qualified. Either way, it is encouraging to see that there are American communities out there that are willing to accept the nation’s nuclear waste and stand determined to make their case known.

    --

    (For an interesting read, check out Spiegel Online to see how Sweden was able to build community support for its permanent nuclear waste repository and actually had to choose between two willing host communities. The blue ribbon commission visited Sweden during the course of its two-year evaluation and believes it to be a good example for how a country can sustain public trust and confidence to see a facility through to completion.)

    Photo: Photograph taken by Chip Simons and featured in Forbes’ “Nuke Us!”

    On the Temperature Increase at Fukushima Daiichi Unit #2

    Over the past 24 hours we've seen a number of account concerning rising temperatures inside reactor #2 at Fukushima Daiichi. While we noted this item over at SafetyFirst.nei.org yesterday morning, some accounts of the news have been rather breathless.

    If you'd like a sober account of what's actually happening there right now, I'd suggest reading the following account from World Nuclear News. Here's the relevant passage:

    This stability of unit 2 was disturbed for a few days, however, when Tepco tried to improve cooling further by tuning the rates of water injection.

    [...]

    After making this change, Tepco noted a tendency for increasing temperature at the bottom of the reactor vessel. Within a matter of hours the company decided to reverse the change and restore the previous injection rates, but the temperature continued to slowly rise.

    Two of the three temperature sensors at the bottom of the reactor vessel edged up by about 2 degrees C. The third, however, rose by around 20 degrees C to hit 72.2 degrees at 5.00am today. Tepco acted to stem this increase by injecting an extra cubic metre of water per hour through the feedwater line, and this stabilised the sensor at about 70 degrees C. It has since decreased to 68.5 degrees C, while the other two sensors were at a new low of around 41 degrees C.

    Tepco was able to discount recriticality as a potential cause of the temperature rise after conducting an analysis of charcoal filters in the containment gas control system. These showed very low traces of fission products that were below the threshold that would indicate criticality. Nevertheless Tepco this morning injected boric acid into the reactor vessel as a precaution and increased the core spray injection rate by three cubic metres per hour.
    The bottom line here: at no time did the temperature of the bottom of the reactor vessel exceed, or even approach, 100 degrees C, which was one of the important conditions TEPCO has to maintain for cold shutdown conditions.

    We're keeping an eye on this and will report back if events warrant.

    NBC Los Angeles Gets it Right on San Onofre

    Over the past few days we've seen a raft of coverage about the incident at San Onofre last week, but little of it has put the events there in the proper context. The one exception to the rule is this report by Vikki Vargas of the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles:


    View more videos at: http://nbclosangeles.com.


    More later.

    Monday, February 06, 2012

    When 51 Percent Say Yes

    env-koodFrom the department of unlikely mind changes, India division:

    An anti-nuclear forum spearheading the stir against Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant today said they would withdraw their protest if most locals favored the project and demanded that the state government constituted panel visit all villages and towns affected by KNPP.

    NEI will close its doors as soon as a majority of Americans decide nuclear energy is not for them. The President will resign his position if his approval rating slips below 50 percent. My chance of surviving this disease is slightly less that 50/50. Time to reach for the bottle.

    Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do. But it’s called the  People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy for a reason. So even if what it will win will be a pyrrhic victory, with the taste of ashes on its tongue, I hope it doesn’t quit on the prospect of 51 percent going against its views. We wouldn’t. But it can make you think.

    ---

    So shrill you almost have to be a dog to hear it:

    With the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) believed to be within days of announcing the final federal approval of the controversial Vogtle nuclear project, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) has asked a court to stop more than two years of stonewalling by Southern Co. and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which are resisting any meaningful public disclosure to taxpayers of the risks to which they are exposed in the massive commitment of $8.33 billion in conditional federal loan guarantees to Southern Company and their utility partners for two proposed new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia.

    But really, they had me at controversial. How many more paragraphs does SACE have to go before Solyndra hits the mix? You guessed it: one. And SACE probably liked Solyndra.

    ---

    China will slow approvals of nuclear projects after the resumption, which is expected to take place this year, according to an industry expert from a national energy think tank.

    Okay, I guess that makes sense.

    "China will be cautious in pursuing nuclear power and is likely to approve only three or four projects each year,…" said Xiao Xinjian, a nuclear industry expert at the national Energy Research Institute, affiliated with the National Development and Reform Commission.

    Oh. Wait, what?

    The country had been accelerating its nuclear development since 2008, with 14 reactors approved in 2008 and six in 2009.

    So there you are. It’s all relative. Wonder how SACE would take it.

    ---

    It can’t all be good news and snark, can it?

    Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha recently announced that the government will postpone the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Shkoder region until issues regarding its potential impact on the environment and territory are fully resolved, AENews reported.

    Albania is hesitating because the Shkoder region is seismically active. There may be surprises in the Japan lesson learned reports,  but the accident there appears to have had the tsunami as its main cause, not the earthquake.

    Regardless, if Albania chooses to proceed, and it would be smart to do so, it will be with enhanced safety in mind, and that’s never a bad thing. We expect at least 51 percent would agree.

    Koodankulam nuclear facility.

    Friday, February 03, 2012

    SOARCA and the Decreasing Risk of Death

    How likely is it that a major accident at a nuclear energy facility would kill you? Japan just had such a major accident and no one died due to radiological exposure – there were industrial accidents at Fukushima that led to worker death but those were specific to occurring at a physical plant. The general public, while suffering displacement and its attendants stresses – not to mention those caused by the earthquake and tsunami that precipitated the accident – has been fatality free.

    The NRC has been investigating the risk of death from a nuclear facility accident and has an answer: your risk is vanishingly small.

    The study found there was "essentially zero risk" to the public of early fatalities due to radiation exposure following a severe accident. The long-term risk of dying from cancer due to radiation exposure after an accident was less than one in a billion and less than the U.S. average risk of dying from other causes of cancer, which is about two in one thousand.

    Another conclusion: severe accidents at nuclear energy facilities would unfold more slowly and potential releases of radioactive material would be much smaller than earlier studies indicated.

    The NRC looked at Surry and Peach Bottom for the study because they are different kinds of reactors.

    If core cooling is not restored [following an accident], the NRC said containment failure and radiological release could begin at about 8 hours for Peach Bottom and at 25 hours for Surry.

    That’s the worst case scenario, of course, with safety systems intended to prevent its occurrence at multiple points. (Remember, though, that this report assumes that all these systems fail and radiation is released – that eventuality is what it wants to model)

    The story doesn’t go into evacuation, but the report does:

    For the purposes of evaluating accident consequences in the SOARCA project, the most evident part of a plant's emergency response plan is the evacuation of the public in the 10-mile (16-km) plume exposure pathway Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ). Actions in this EPZ could be expanded if the plume projections suggest that the population in a wider area need to take protective actions. Thus, the project team assessed additional aspects of emergency response, including relocation from areas of relatively high potential for exposure, as well as variations of evacuation and sheltering of population groups outside the 10-mile EPZ to a distance of 20 miles from the plant.

    The plume is what many think of as a cloud of radiation.

    The report also says that existing safety measures—including those put in place after 9/11—would be highly effective in protecting the public. Moreover, even if mitigating measures fail or are not used, “the analyzed accidents would cause essentially zero immediate deaths and only a very, very small increase in the long-term cancer deaths.”

    Any industry – from chemical and gas plants to paper mills to refineries – has to know the worst possible event that can happen and figure out how to keep people alive though it and get them out of the way should it occur. These are the risks of an industrialized society and not specific to the nuclear energy industry.

    But it does suggest the responsibility industry and government regulators have to know the risks and how to mitigate them. This report, State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analyses (or SOARCA, in Washington-acronym speak), provides a careful analysis and concludes that the risk is present, and must be acknowledged, but it is very, very small.