Tuesday, July 31, 2012

CNN Fails to Provide Context on Heat Waves, Droughts and Power Plants

Earlier today, CNN aired a report by reporter Sandra Endo concerning how high temperatures are impacting the operations of American nuclear energy facilities. In initially reporting the story, CNN failed to contact any party that owns or operates any of the nations 104 nuclear reactors.

After we contacted CNN, NEI's Steve Kerekes was interviewed for an updated version of the story, one that we've been led to believe will air sometime between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. U.S. EDT today.

The following response to the initial CNN report was written by NEI's Thaddeus Swanek:
CNN has aired a report in which it failed to provide context on the water needs of power plants that draw cooling water from lakes, rivers and the ocean. Though all thermal power plants—coal, natural gas and nuclear—use water for cooling purposes, CNN focused solely on nuclear energy facilities.

It also did not mention the electric sector's positive track record for maintaining power production during severe heat waves. Specially, nuclear power plants in many regions suffering extreme heat safely produce electricity 24/7 to keep consumers cool and businesses operating.

Thermoelectric power generation is among the smallest consumptive uses of freshwater by any economic sector, at 3 percent of total consumption—about one-half of residential consumption. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, thermoelectric power generation accounts for 3.3 percent of freshwater consumption nationwide, about the same percentage as the industrial sector (3.4 percent) and raising livestock (3.2 percent). These power plants withdraw more water than any other economic sector, but they return 98 percent of the water they withdraw back to the natural source. Among electricity sources, certain renewable energy systems exceed thermoelectric power plants in water consumption.

Here is a detailed look at the CNN report.

Myth: Only Nuclear Power Plants Need a 'Significant Supply' of Water

The CNN report left the impression that only "...nuclear power plants depend on a significant supply of reliable water to cool reactors." The report failed to mention that all fossil fuel (coal, oil, natural gas) plants need large amounts of water to operate.

The Facts

Nuclear power plants, like all thermal power plants, require significant amounts of water to generate electricity. Companies that operate nuclear power and fossil fuel plants have temperature limits, set by state environmental regulators, for water they discharge from their facilities back into local water bodies. As these water bodies get warmer during heat waves, these facilities may have to cut back on power production in order to meet those limits.

However, this is very rare for nuclear power plants. In fact, nuclear power plants have a track record of keeping electricity flowing even during record-setting heat waves.

Consider these facts:
  • The United States experienced 170 high temperature records in June. During that month, America's nuclear power plants—which follow stringent temperature limits on heat discharge—operated at an average of 90 percent capacity factor. Capacity factor is the ratio of the actual energy produced to the maximum possible during a given time period.
  • Severe, prolonged heat had a negligible effect on power production from nuclear power plants.
  • Nuclear power plant water use is comparable to coal plants. Natural gas plants use less water. (For water usage rates of different electricity generating sources, see the NEI study on water use below).
  • Power plants observe the temperature limit of their discharge water as set by the state regulatory authority, which determines the temperature that is safe for fish and plant life. Generally, nuclear energy and fossil-fuel plants return to full power when temperatures conditions in the water bodies allow it.
For more information, see the NEI article "How to Cool a Power Plant" and the NEI study "Water Use, Electric Power, and Nuclear Energy."

Also see NEI's blog for articles on water use during heat waves and droughts here and here.
We'll report back, if warranted, once CNN re-airs the report.

Almost 700 Million People Without Electricity in India

It's almost impossible to get your arms around the sheer size and scope of the blackout that's struck India over the past two days. Estimates say that about 670 million people are without electricity. As the New York Times noted, that's roughly equivalent to the entire population of Europe or more than the population of North and Central America combined.

By way of comparison, the largest blackout that ever struck North America, the 2003 outage that hit the Northeastern U.S. and parts of Canada, deprived about 50 million people of electricity for about two days. As we've seen in the past, power outages in advanced economies can lead to economic disruption and loss of life -- something that should give all of us pause when considering the magnitude of this event.

I'll close with some words from NEI's Senior Vice President of Government Affairs, Alex Flint:
The earth has 7 billion people on it. Today, 2 billion of those people’s principal source of energy is burning firewood or dung. More than 1 billion people have no access to electricity, and non-OECD electricity growth will far surpass that of OECD countries for several generations.

As we see population growth in those countries, we will see tremendous demand for electricity and energy of all sorts. It’s a moral imperative. There is a correlation between life expectancy and access to electricity.
India, pre- and post-blackout, as seen from Russia's Roskosmos satellite.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Japanese Contenders

220px-Tetsunari_iida2The Times has the story:

The race in Yamaguchi Prefecture between Tetsunari Iida, the founder of a renewable energy research institute and a leading figure in Japan's emerging antinuclear movement, and Shigetaro Yamamoto, a conservative former government official, had been seen as a test of how much the grass-roots protest movement had influenced public opinion.

This is the part that could use a little more elaboration.

Although Mr. Iida lost, the results were encouraging for the antinuclear camp, with a strong showing in a region considered to be a conservative stronghold. With 99 percent of the votes counted, Mr. Yamamoto had received 252,420 votes, or 47.6 percent, to Mr. Iida's 185,567 votes, or 35 percent, according to the public broadcaster NHK.

I assume conservative candidates usually win in Yamaguchi with a higher proportion of the vote, but however you slice it, 35 percent is a dreadful number. To put a different spin on this – and this is about politics, so the name of the game is spin – Iida may have run as a single subject, anti-nuclear energy candidate. Single issue candidates rarely win because constituent interests run to more than one issue in almost any given election.

But, really, what does it matter? If the anti-nuclear crowd wanted this to be a referendum, so be it. They lost. They don’t get to turn a miserable drubbing into some kind of symbolic victory. They get to eat dust for dinner. That’s what happens when you lose. That’s politics.

Tetsunari Iida. We’re being a little harsh here, but really, Mr. Iida may be a perfectly viable candidate in a different context. More issues and close attention to prospective constituents and their needs may do the trick for him, even in a district not in total sync with his views.

Friday, July 27, 2012

More on Nuclear Energy Facilities, Summer Heat and Water Use

The following guest post was submitted by NEI Media Manager, Mitch Singer.

Perhaps it’s asking too much in today’s media climate (no pun intended), but it would’ve been nice if Ginger Zee refrained from making the flippant comment on America This Morning that cooling ponds near nuclear plants are “either getting too low or too warm for the plants to function safely.” Ginger’s wrong on a number of accounts.

Safety is paramount to the nuclear industry and all plants have contingency plans in place to adjust to extreme weather conditions and continue operating, albeit at a lower electrical power output. All nuclear power plants operate under their respective states’ water discharge permits and when the water’s ambient temperature reaches a certain level the plant’s power output must be lowered. Thus, they continue to “function safely.”

The Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) provides a great example of how in spite of extreme heat and higher-than-normal water temperatures a nuclear plant can continue to produce electricity. TVA’s Ray Golden explained it clearly to me in a conversation earlier today:
In the summers of 2010 and 2011 TVA had to reduce electrical power output at all three Browns Ferry units up to 50 percent (approximately 500 megawatts each) to maintain downstream river temperatures within the thermal compliance limits associated with its State of Alabama water discharge permit.
Browns Ferry draws water from the Tennessee River to cool plant equipment. In the process of cooling this equipment the water gets heated. This heated water is sent to a series of seven, very large cooling towers. The cooling towers use large fans to cool the water before returning it to the river.

When the river’s upstream ambient temperature rises to 90 degrees, TVA’s water permit does not allow any additional increase in water temperature. In order to comply with this regulation, at times Browns Ferry’s power output has to be lowered.  By lowering power output we reduce the discharge temperature.

During periods of extended high river temperatures and low rainfall, the company’s environmental compliance model requires the need to take prompt action to avoid exceeding any permit limits.

TVA returns Browns Ferry and other fossil-powered generating stations to full power when temperatures and river flow conditions are adequate for full power operation without challenging river temperature permit limits.

TVA has been proactively working on a project to address the issue of summer river temperatures and the requirement to reduce Browns Ferry power output.
In the summer of 2012, TVA completed construction of a seventh cooling tower which provides additional river water cooling during the hot summer months. The seventh tower is twice the size of the existing cooling towers and uses state-of-the-art engineering and equipment to maximize cooling capability. With cooling tower #7 in operation the need to reduce Browns Ferry’s power output has been eliminated so far this summer.

TVA returns Browns Ferry and other fossil-fueled plants to full power when temperatures and river flow conditions are adequate for full power operation without challenging river temperature permit limits.
Unfortunately, there are too many reports such as this morning’s where the issue of context is never considered. The fact is that ANY power plant, including coal and natural gas, that generates electricity through steam turbines and uses cooling water to condense the steam would face similar circumstances under drought conditions.

As my colleague David Bradish pointed out in his July 11 blog post, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the month of June experienced “170 all-time high temperature records being broken or tied throughout the country.” Yet, America’s nuclear plants operated at an average of 90 percent capacity, as they have done so for most of the past decade. That’s a record of consistency that would make baseball great Cal Ripken take notice.

The Brown's Ferry nuclear energy facility in Alabama. Pic courtesy of TVA.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

OECD and The Slowdown that Wasn’t

Nuclear energy, you may have heard, is not universally beloved and some countries would like to banish it from their shores. (Switzerland is an outlier, of course, having no shore.) It has always been disfavored in a few countries (Australia, for example, though not as strongly these days), some of which used it anyway and some of which never did. So be it – try as you might, that’s how it goes.

After the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, there were plenty of stories anticipating a wide-scale abandonment of nuclear energy or at least a dramatic slow down. From April of last year:

The future of nuclear power was bleak, even before the Fukushima disaster, said energy expert Mycle Schneider Wednesday at a press conference in Berlin, where he previewed an upcoming Worldwatch report on the outlook of nuclear power.
"The industry was arguably on life support before Fukushima. When the history of this industry is written, Fukushima is likely to introduce its final chapter," said Schneider, the lead author of the new report, which was previewed in Berlin today at an event hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
That “arguably” in “arguably on life support” provides an out, but Schneider certainly doesn’t seem very alert to the world he’s watching. I suspect that report gathers dust even at Worldwatch HQ.
Closing plants pell-mell and cancelling all plans seemed unlikely, more so after several countries announced they would take the lessons from Fukushima Daiichi and apply them to their facilities. And that’s what happened, still is happening in fact. So the dire stories receded.

Now, even while Germany struggles to find a way to turn off its plants, the rest of the world has settled in. Case in point: the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the much quoted OECD, which includes among its membership most first world countries) has issued an annual report on uranium that includes a forecast on nuclear energy:
Strong expansion of nuclear power as a carbon-free energy source in Asia is expected to press ahead despite the Fukushima accident in Japan that soured sentiment in some countries, a benchmark report said on Thursday.
Expansion, good. But it must be considerably lower than OECD has previously projected, right?
World nuclear capacity is, however, expected to grow by 44 percent to 99 percent by 2035, according to a biennial report from the United Nations nuclear body [the IAEA] and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
This was little changed from the range of growth of 37 percent to 110 percent in the edition two years ago of the report on uranium resources, production and demand, known as the "Red Book."
I think that’s what they call a statistical blip. This is actually very heartening news, because some of these countries are industrializing quickly and they could easily have favored carbon-emission-rich fuel sources (and admittedly, some still do, even with the nuclear facilities in the mix.)
Nuclear capacity is due to expand in East Asia by 125 percent to 185 percent by 2035, the report said. The strongest growth is expected in China, India, South Korea and Russia.
South Korea was (essentially) economically made by nuclear energy and Russia is Russia, but China and India, the two neighbors, have the potential choke off any hope at carbon reduction as they industrialize. Again, nuclear isn’t the only energy source used in those countries, but it will provide a boost to their environmental profiles.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the coverage given to the report, it is much less about nuclear energy than about uranium and its projected availability. You can look at the story to see what the spot price of uranium is (spoiler: about $50 per pound).

The OECD does say that there is enough uranium to power the expansion it describes for about 100 years and it’s fair, as long as we’re talking about the future, to wonder what happens to that figure if thorium, MOX fuel and/or a recycling regime enters the picture. “To infinity and beyond?” to quote Buzz Lightyear.

Let’s acknowledge that OECD is working with a large set of unknowns – not to mention that the future is inherently unknown. People who use such reports understand that, but also know that the projections are set on a solid baseline and carry it further in time logically.That makes the report useful in policymaking and that makes it more important than it might seem as first glance.

You can read the precis for the report here. The publication itself is rather expensive. It is a collaborative effort between the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is popularly called the Red Book, but the current iteration is titled Uranium 2011: Resources, Production and Demand.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Uprates Stymie the Search for Scandal

The Washington Post has an interesting blog post from Brad Plumer on the nuclear energy industry’s stealthy increase of electricity output via uprates. Here’s how Plumer defines an uprate:

According to a new analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the operators of 98 of the country’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors have asked regulators for permission to boost capacity from their existing plants.

Or, as Plumer points out, the equivalent output of six new reactors (though I would add that it is spread out among 30 or more states instead of six – a net positive. Altogether, there have been 145 instances of accepted uprate application – some reactors have been uprated more than once.)

Uprates aren’t peculiar occurrences, but you knew there had to be a catch:

In recent years, however, nuclear operators have started applying for much larger “extended uprates,” which can increase the output of a plant by as much as 20 percent. This process can include big changes to high-pressure turbines and other equipment.

Do these “big changes” create a danger? Well:

Utilities and regulators have used computer modeling to show that “a properly uprated reactor is no more vulnerable than one operating at its original capacity.”

It’s worth remembering that making a facility “vulnerable” does no one any good, so the conservative approach typically taken at nuclear facilities would dictate that plants avoid uprates if there were multiple instances of their being problematic.

That doesn’t mean there has never been a problem. But where there have been problems, there have been solutions.

In 2002, both reactors at the Quad Cities Nuclear Plant were restarted after having their capacity boosted by 17.8%. Pipes began to shake, and cracks formed in a steam separator, which removes moisture from the steam before it enters the turbines. In one case, a 9-by-6-inch metal chunk broke off and disappeared.

Broken parts were replaced, but the problem continued. Exelon Corp., which owns the three plants, and the NRC were mystified.

Problem.

Eventually the problem was uncovered: acoustic waves caused by the geometry of the steam pipes. The pipes were acting like a musical instrument. Their geometry was modified to "detune" them.

Solution. And the story also notes that the NRC has held up two uprate applications until “steam separator” questions are answered. These are industrial and regulatory issues that are handled in the course of doing business.

To be honest, while Plumer is looking for a way to make uprates newsworthy, building from an L.A. Times story, he’s honest in noting that they have not been problematic so far: the Quad Cities story above comes from the Times may seem to put a more sinister cast on uprates, but still nothing came from the incident. A problem occurred, caused no harm and was fixed.  That’s not very diabolical.

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Let’s be fair here. You want reporters to go after hidden and/or malignant behavior in industry – and nuclear energy facilities have been in the journalistic loop since the accident at Fukushima Daiichi – but the American nuclear energy industry just hasn’t been cooperating by revealing itself as a scandal ridden cesspool run by uncaring monsters.

The AP series last year ran several parts and ended up being about nothing because there was nothing really to find. That was an epic fail. Plumer and the Post more or less admit that the biggest scandal surrounding uprates is that they have supplied some 6500 additional megawatts of cleanly generated electricity. So at least we know that.

Steve Byrne of SCE&G on Controlling New Nuclear Construction Costs

Earlier this month, the Associated Press ran a story on its national wire concerning what it described as rising construction costs at America's new nuclear plants:

America's first new nuclear plants in more than a decade are costing billions more to build and sometimes taking longer to deliver than planned, problems that could chill the industry's hopes for a jumpstart to the nation's new nuclear age.
A couple of days later, I had a chance to spend a few minutes with Steve Byrne, SCE&G's President, Generation and COO, to ask him some questions about the topic. SCE&G's parent company, SCANA Corporation, is building a pair of new reactors at the VC Summer site in South Carolina (click here for the latest progress report from SCANA). I started off by asking Steve why claims that costs were spiraling out of control at VC Summer and Plant Vogtle in Georgia were incorrect:




I also had the chance to ask Steve about how "construction work in progress" provisions help utilities better manage construction costs and how the industry has taken lessons learned from the past and applied them to controlling costs. If you'd like to watch all three videos in sequence, click here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mo. Governor, State Leaders Signal Continued Support For Potential Small Reactor Project

072312_014A_Nixon_Announces_SMRs_ds_t620Vying for federal funds to support a potential small reactor demonstration project in the state, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) joined more than 20 business leaders, utility executives and state politicians Monday to reinforce his support for the project. Speaking from the University of Missouri campus, Gov. Nixon said that the potential project by Westinghouse Electric Co. and Ameren Missouri could “spark a new global industry” and be “transformational” for the Show-Me State.

PoliticMo has the highlights from the press conference:

“The returns of this industry are potentially tremendous,” Nixon said, noting impact on the construction, restaurant, and transportation infrastructure in the state. “When it comes to creating jobs, transforming our economy and building our future, projects just don’t get any bigger than this.”

Nixon said public sector funds — including over $450 million available from the federal government — will help get the emerging industry off the ground, and he said the stakeholders involved want that to happen in Missouri.

“This energy industry is going to emerge,” Nixon said. “The question is who is going to lead.”

To solidify his support, Gov. Nixon has created a new task force that will be charged with aligning the involved communities and ensuring that the infrastructure and other needs are in place if the time comes that they are required. The task force will be headed by Dan Atwill, Boone County’s presiding commissioner, and comprised of five other commissioners who represent the impacted counties.

Many state lawmakers, business leaders, labor unions and chambers of commerce have already expressed an interest in the project coming to the state. The Columbia Daily Tribune reports:

More than 500 letters supporting Missouri’s proposal have been submitted to the DOE [Department of Energy], not only from those directly affected but also from Missouri business and development leaders who see the potential, Nixon said. All of Missouri’s other electric power providers have expressed support as well.

Developing the project will stimulate the state’s economy by creating a large number of jobs, said Ameren Missouri’s President and Chief Executive Warner Baxter. He said that just one small reactor could provide more than 9,500 direct jobs and more than 9,000 indirect jobs, having a $3 million economic impact for the state.

“We’re bringing together national economic leaders, industry leaders, certainly business leaders are here, statewide legislators, as well as labor to come together to discuss a transformational opportunity to secure our state’s and our country’s energy and economic future,” he [Baxter] told the summit.

The state, which would add up to five small reactors at Ameren’s Callaway nuclear energy facility as part of its proposal, is among four finalists that are looking to receive a share of DOE’s $452 million for the public-private program to design, build and operate the next generation nuclear reactor. Other states where companies have expressed an interest in developing a small reactor as part of the cost-share program include South Carolina, Washington and Tennessee.

DOE is expected to announce the grant recipients by September.

For more information on small reactors, see NEI’s website.

Photo caption: Gov. Jay Nixon discusses efforts to develop next-generation small modular nuclear reactors in Missouri on Monday at the Bond Life Sciences Center on the University of Missouri campus. Credits: Don Shrubshell/Columbia Daily Tribune.

The U.S./South Korea Commerical Nuclear Energy Partnership

At the beginning of June, I recorded a short video with Dan Lipman, Senior Vice President with Westinghouse Electric Company, concerning the need for Congress to renew an agreement for peaceful cooperation on nuclear energy between the U.S. and South Korea.

Without these arrangements -- known as 123 agreements -- the ability of companies like Westinghouse to export nuclear technology around the world would be severely compromised.

Just a few weeks later, Dan had an opportunity to return to that same topic when he was interviewed by Alan Ahn of the Global America Business Institute. You can listen to the 28-minute interview by clicking the player below.
Alternately, you can click here to download the interview to your PC.

It was in 2009 that a Korean government consortium led by KEPCO won a contract to build four nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. Just last week, the UAE's Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation awarded the construction license for the first of those four reactors. As Dan explained in the interview, although the KEPCO consortium won the contract to build those reactors, it still needs to rely on Westinghouse as a subcontractor -- hence the urgency in getting the 123 agreement renewed in a timely fashion.

Dan Lipman (left) talks with Alan Ahn (right) of the Global America Business Institute at NEI's offices earlier this month.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fukushima Daiichi and Cancer Studies

Yesterday, a pair of researchers from Stanford University released a study that projected 130 people, primarily in Japan, will die from cancer over the next 50 years as the result of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.Some observers have already started to weigh in on its merits.

This isn't the first study about cancer and Fukushima, and there will certainly be many others. While no one at NEI has had an opportunity to review the study released yesterday in detail, we would point interested parties to an article that was written for the Los Angeles Times by Dr. Robert Peter Gale of Imperial College, London. Dr. Gale has been closely involved in studying the aftermath of the accidents at both Chernobyl and Fukushima:

[E]xposures received by Fukushima workers and the public are quite low, including among the 20,000 or more workers decommissioning the facility and the approximately 100,000 evacuees. This doesn't mean there will be no future radiation-caused cancers, as some claim. But because there may be so few cancers, it is unlikely any epidemiological investigations will detect an increase in Japan or elsewhere that can be directly attributed to Fukushima.
Earlier this year, the Health Physics Society hosted a briefing on the radiological consequences of the Fukushima accident. Dr. Gale was among the participants. You can click here to read a transcript.

At the time, Dr. Gale recorded the following video concerning his opinion of the future health risks to workers at Fukushima Daiichi:



For more information concerning how the American nuclear energy industry is working to ensure the safety of our facilities here at home, please visit our Safety First microsite.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Germany, Electric Cars and Collapse

german electricGermany wants to put one million electric cars on the road by 2020 but is falling a wee bit short – to date there are about 4500 such cars clogging up the autobahns. And maybe that’s a good thing, at least in the short term:

But the Ministry of Economics and Technology argues that placing strict limits on vehicle charging would require electricity providers to concentrate renewable energy generation in areas with large shares of electric vehicles. This could overburden the power grid and threaten the country with blackouts, according to renewable energy experts within the ministry.

Given the short time left to get 996,000 electric cars onto the road, I was poking around to see if the country was offering tax rebates, as the United States and other countries are doing to seed the marketplace. It appears not, at least not yet:

Germany has not decided whether it too will offer subsidies to electric vehicle consumers. The government estimates, however, that subsidizing as much as one-third of the cost of a vehicle's battery should allow for competitiveness with gasoline-powered vehicle counterparts. How the subsidy would be financed remains to be decided, but likely sources include general tax revenue or the country's relatively high gasoline tax.

Not only is the market nascent, but so is government policy regarding it. And let’s put these numbers in proper context: Germany has about 53 million cars on the road, so even the goal has a smell of the nascent about it.

To date, the electric (and hybrid) car market has not caught much traction. The most compelling reason for this (among several plausible explanations) is that they are too expensive – $40,000 at a minimum. About a third of that cost goes to the battery. But what if that changed?

New research from analysts at the McKinsey & Company suggests that the price for lithium-ion batteries could fall by as much as two-thirds by 2020. Instead of $600 per kilowatt-hour today, batteries would cost just $200/kwh in 2020 and $150/kwh in 2025. And that, the report suggests, would upend the entire automobile industry.

That leads to the conclusion that Germany and the U.S. are risking that this will happen and the appeal of the cars will increase. Everything aligns rather nicely in 2020, too, though that’s largely guesswork. And the reasons people might not want such cars regardless of cost will still have to be overcome. So the risk remains high – so does the reward, if reward there will be.

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Electric cars and nuclear energy have always seemed a natural pair, because the latter can produce the electricity on grids as they currently exist while “smart” grids (which can manage the intermittency of renewable energy sources better) are built out. These are exceptionally large infrastructure projects and just on cost alone, you wouldn’t want to try to build one in a year even if you could. Hence, the German energy grid as it is threatens to collapse if it tries to power cars with renewable energy sources.

And, as it happens, it doesn’t need cars to (almost) bring that about.

Germany’s lights were kept on by solar power last winter, after Berlin’s rapid phase out of nuclear power brought the country to within a whisker of complete breakdown, senior energy industry sources say.

And that’s because February was an uncharacteristically sunny month – want to count on that happening next February? Or the next?

“The data don’t lie,” Brandon Mitchener, a spokesman for First Solar, a leading PV manufacturer, told EurActiv. “They prove that solar and wind can provide real power right when it’s needed most, when demand is at its peak.”

Feels almost pagan, doesn’t it? We needed the sun and the sun responded. May the sun always respond thusly.

Germans love cars almost as much as do Americans – their automotive industries contribute equally to their national identities. I believe this sporty little number is a prototype made by Daimler AG.

Friday, July 13, 2012

SEJ Honors AP Report Criticized by Columbia Journalism Review

We just got the news a few minutes ago that the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) has presented an award for in depth reporting (3rd place) to Jeff Donn of the Associated Press for his series on the safety of nuclear energy facilities. When the series first appeared in June 2011, NEI had this to say:

The coverage has factual errors, fails to cite relevant reports on safety that contradict the reporting, and raises questions about historic operating issues while ignoring more recent evidence of improved performance in areas that it examines.
As it turns out, we're not the only ones who found the series wanting. Specifically, I'm referring to the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review:
[T]he AP series, while it tackles a critically important public policy issue, suffers from lapses in organization, narrative exposition, and basic material selection, what to leave in and what to leave out. Too much is left to rest on inconclusive he-said-she-said exchanges that end up more confusing than illuminating for readers.
CJR's Irene M. Wielawski also concluded: "Reading it was, for me, a hugely frustrating experience." Something tells me she wasn't the only one.

POSTSCRIPT: Click here for additional material we published here on NEI Nuclear Notes, including links to other third party sources that found the AP's work less than convincing. NEI's Chief Nuclear Officer, Tony Pietrangelo, outlined his objections to the reporting in a video report that can be found here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Electricity as a Moral Imperative

Seoul, KOREAWe cannot fully endorse everything that puts nuclear energy in a favorable light:

It isn't hard to see the one energy source that's grown lockstep with South Korea's economic ascension...
The country built its first nuclear power plant in 1977. Its rise to economic powerhouse began in 1980.
Today nuclear accounts for 30% of generation, but because of its high reliability, it accounts for 45% of the country's total electric consumption.
Since that first reactor in the late seventies, South Korea has built 22 more. The United States hasn't built any.
(The U.S. ranks 26th in Internet connectivity and has no high-speed rail. You decide if there's correlation.)
Korea plans to bring 11 more reactors online between now and 2021, bringing nuclear's share of electric generation up to 60%.
It's not true that no U.S. plants went online after 1977, but the point here is that the author overloads nuclear energy with responsibility for South Korea’s phenomenal economic growth. It is electricity itself that should receive that credit because it allowed the country to industrialize. (70 percent of electricity generation there is not nuclear-based, after all.)
Electricity generation is indeed a key to growth for developing nations – South Korea then, other countries now. Alex Flint, NEI’s senior vice president for governmental affairs, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April, explained it exceptionally well, insisting on a moral dimension that gives the argument considerable force.
“The earth has 7 billion people on it,” Flint said. “Today, 2 billion of those people’s principal source of energy is burning firewood or dung. More than 1 billion people have no access to electricity, and non-OECD electricity growth will far surpass that of OECD countries for several generations.
“As we see population growth in those countries,” he continued, “we will see tremendous demand for electricity and energy of all sorts. It’s a moral imperative. There is a correlation between life expectancy and access to electricity. I believe politicians who do not provide sufficient energy for their growing economies and populations will face political peril.
“As a result we are going to see energy deployed around the world principally based upon its cost and availability, and other considerations like the environment will be secondary in most of the world.
Flint concluded, “In that world, I see a tremendous need for baseload electricity. I think nuclear energy will provide a substantial amount of that.”
OECD is the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Is Flint implying that the environmental factors are relatively unimportant? Of course not: but nuclear energy answers to the issues of “cost and availability” while also answering to environmental considerations. Almost nothing else currently does (hydro comes closest).
But we need to be clear: it is electricity that matters. If that happens to be generated by nuclear energy, so be it and all to the good.
Seoul, South Korea

U.S. Nuclear Plants Humming Along During June 2012 Heat Wave

Yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the month of June experienced 170 all-time high temperature records being broken or tied throughout the country. They also reported that the first half of 2012 has been the warmest first half period on record back to 1895. As such, we wanted to share that most all of the U.S. nuclear plants were humming along at full power during June, helping provide electricity to air conditioners to keep all of us cool during these hot times.

Below are three charts breaking out the daily availability data from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which we aggregated based on the North American Electric Reliability Council they belong to. You can find the list of plants and their region on page 4 of this report.

image

The following chart shows a daily average of the 104 nuclear units. Overall, the U.S. fleet was running at a steady average availability of 90.5% during the last four weeks.

image

And the last chart shows the NERC regions, how many reactors belong to each region in the U.S., and their average availability.

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It’s worth pointing out that two of the regions, MRO and WECC, had  a lower average availability factor of 82% and 68%, respectively. This was mainly because three of the 14 reactors in those regions have been in long-term shutdown.

Average availability in MRO is lower because Fort Calhoun is down (1 unit out of 6). If we take Fort Calhoun out of the calculation, the plants that are running in that region have an average availability of 98.2%.

Similarly in WECC, the two San Onofre units are down. If we take San Onofre out, the other six reactors in the region have an average availability of 90.3%.

And in SERC and FRCC, Crystal River (1 unit out of 38) has also been down. Take Crystal River out of the equation, and the plants running have an average availability of 95.5% (vs. 93.0% for all 38).

Performance of Other Technologies

There isn’t similar daily availability data for other technologies to compare their performances to nuclear during the same heat wave. But to give an idea of how they perform annually, below is a chart of average capacity factors for various power sources.

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August is typically the summer month for peak nuclear generation. As the summer progresses, we’ll see nearly all nuclear units online by then.

Though this year’s trend isn’t looking promising, hopefully temps will be a bit cooler for everyone during the rest of the summer. Stay cool.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Megatons to Megawatts Reaches Another Milestone

megatonslogo_220Yesterday brought some happy news from our friends at USEC:

USEC Inc. announced today that the Megatons to Megawatts(TM) program has converted 450 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium from dismantled former Soviet Union nuclear warheads into low enriched uranium fuel to generate clean, reliable electricity in commercial nuclear power plants. The program is now 90 percent complete.

[...]

Megatons to Megawatts is a 20-year, commercially financed government-industry partnership in which 500 metric tons of Russian weapons-grade uranium is being downblended to low enriched uranium for use as commercial reactor fuel. USEC, as executive agent for the U.S. government, and JSC "Techsnabexport" (TENEX), acting for the Russian government, implement the program.

The Megatons to Megawatts program is on track to downblend the equivalent of 20,000 nuclear warheads into nuclear fuel by the end of 2013. The fuel generated to date has the energy equivalent of more than 193 billion gallons of gasoline, which equals more than 17 months of U.S. consumption. In past years, up to 10 percent of the electricity generated in the United States came from nuclear power plants using this fuel.
We've been writing about this program since the very dawn of the blog, and it's always been great to see USEC marching through milestone after milestone on its way to the completion of the project. Just think of it: what other government/industry partnership has transformed a national security threat into a pillar of energy security?

Monday, July 09, 2012

A Vote for Nuclear Energy in Japan (Maybe)

Despite the fact that it’s a good outcome, there is some room for doubt:

But those favoring restarts took heart in the victory Sunday in Kagoshima of Gov. Yuichiro Ito, a staunchly pro-restart two-term incumbent. The nuclear debate took center stage, with Mr. Ito championing the importance of the local Sendai nuclear-power plant to the southwestern Japanese prefecture's economy, and his opponent, Yoshitaka Mukohara, a local publisher and head of a local antinuclear group, calling for its closure.

Mr. Ito took 66% of the vote to Mr. Mukohara's 34%, according to final results from the prefecture.

That’s the outcome.

Here’s the reason for doubt. Gov. Ito’s general popularity – the story said he won 71 percent in his previous election – suggests that good political instincts played a strong part this time. Maybe an exit poll would show the extent to which restarting Sendai made a difference. In the meantime:

But Gov. Ito successfully made the case that the reactors were central to the area's economy. He called for the restart of the Sendai plant—once Tokyo affirms its safety—and rebuffed any suggestion the prefecture should set up its own advisory board on nuclear safety. His campaign focused on his pledge to uphold "security and stability"—a slogan emblazoned on bright yellow banners held up by his campaign members at many street corners in downtown Kagoshima. The slogan didn't specifically refer to nuclear reactors, but the message was clear.

The argument is good, but the story is determined to see this election as a leading indicator of Japanese attitudes towards their nuclear facilities. Maybe: even leaving aside Ito’s popularity, voters tend not to fasten on a single issue to determine their votes (unless some moral failing has tainted one of the candidates) and we can’t know for sure if that’s happened here.

But if it was a single issue race, score one for nuclear energy. So, we’ll take it – with a caveat.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The States and the Blue Ribbon Commission

Arkansas state houseExpressions of support for moving used nuclear fuel from reactor sites to consolidated storage facilities continue to grow among state legislatures and governments.

Arkansas and Pennsylvania are the latest states to advance resolutions urging Congress to expedite this and other recommendations for managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel from the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. They join Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont and other states.

The Pennsylvania resolution passed unanimously in the legislature, and the Arkansas Resolution passed in committee. The resolutions, which are virtually identical in language, link consent-based siting of consolidated fuel sites with the nuclear waste fund, suggesting the federal government offer “incentives to interested communities funded by the accumulated Nuclear Waste Fund.” Alternatively, the resolutions say, the government should refund the money in the fund to ratepayers.

Marshall Cohen, NEI’s senior director for state and local governmental affairs, said the unanimous nature of the votes in Pennsylvania and Minnesota itself sends a message. “Not a dissenting vote in either body is something very rare in today’s highly charged partisan atmosphere around the country,” Cohen said.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 requires the federal government to remove used fuel from commercial reactor sites starting in 1998. However, the government has yet to meet its obligation, and used nuclear fuel remains stored at nuclear energy facility sites around the country—including several that are shuttered, such as Maine Yankee, which Maine Gov. Paul LePage references in a letter to the state's congressional delegation.

Maine Yankee closed in 1996 and was successfully decommissioned in 2005. What remains at the site is a storage facility that holds the reactor’s used nuclear fuel while it awaits federal disposition.
LePage said that while he recognizes Maine Yankee is “safely and securely storing the more than 550 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel,” taking the fuel to a consolidated storage site “will likely result in cost efficiencies that flow through to ratepayers by relieving them of the cost burden of maintaining sites that no longer generate electricity.”

In May, Maine’s two senators, Olympia Snowe (R) and Susan Collins (R) signed on to a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, thanking him for restoring funding to regional transportation stakeholder groups planning to assess infrastructure crucial to moving used fuel from decommissioned reactor sites. The letter was also signed by Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.)

LePage’s letter follows a similar one from Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Cohen said the issue of used fuel disposal “resonates in New England,” because there are three decommissioned reactors with used fuel containers awaiting disposition—in Connecticut and Massachusetts as well as at Maine Yankee.

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We have no evidence that any given editorial moves public opinion – or influences policy - one way or another. We do know that editorials keep the conversation on a topic going after the initial news interest dies away and that can make a difference in public opinion and policy formation.

From the New York Times (on July 4th, no less):

That group [the Blue Ribbon Commission] recommended the creation of one or more surface storage sites to accept used fuel rods from 10 reactors that have ceased operating. It would be easier to monitor and inspect the rods and cheaper to guard them in a central location. The group also urged that a permanent burial site be found through a “consent-based” approach in which states and communities might be offered financial incentives to accept the waste.

Those recommendations are sensible, and President Obama and Congress should work with the states to move that ahead. If nuclear power is to have a future in this country, politicians, scientists and industry leaders need to commit to finding a solution instead of just hoping that everything will somehow work out.

To be fair, these are the last two paragraphs – most of the editorial is about Yucca Mountain. Still, the commission’s ideas are really percolating – in the states, in Congress and on editorial pages. Good.

The Arkansas state house.

Critical Differences Between the U.S. and Japanese Nuclear Energy Industries

Yesterday, news broke that an independent investigation by the Japanese parliament has concluded that the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was a "man-made" failure that could be laid at the feet of both Tokyo Electric Power Company and the government. According to Tokyo University professor emeritus and Committee Chair Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the Fukushima accident "cannot be regarded as a natural disaster ... It could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response."

The report also points out that elements unique to Japanese culture and industry also played a role in Japan's response to the events at Fukushima:
“This was a disaster ‘Made in Japan, ”Kurokawa said in the report’s introduction. “Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program,’ our groupism, and our insularity.”
But if the accident at Fukushima was unique to Japan, what differentiates their culture and nuclear industry from others around the world, especially here in the U.S.? Just prior to the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations’ release of a detailed timeline of the events at Fukushima, I asked NEI's Chief Nuclear Officer, Tony Pietrangelo, to clarify what sets the U.S. nuclear energy industry apart from Japan:




To read the entire report, click here.

Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa, addresses Japanese legislators yesterday while presenting his committee's report. Photo courtesy of Voice of America.

Paul Scalise on Japan's Need for Nuclear Energy

As our Mark Flanagan noted yesterday, Japan restarted one of the two reactors at the Ohi Nuclear Power Plant yesterday. The plant's second reactor is due to come back online sometime later this month.


The restart is welcome news, and the why behind it was put into the proper perspective by Paul Scalise, an energy analyst with Oxford Analytica and Eurasia Group, when he was interviewed yesterday on Bloomberg News (click here to launch the video).

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Japan Fukushima Commission Report

The Japanese government has released “The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission,” a 600-page report that is notably harsh in its criticism of the, for want of a better word, Japanese-ness of the accident. You can read the 88-page English summary of the report here.

Here’s a sample from the prefatory letter written by Commission Chairman Kiyoshi Kurakawa.

With such a powerful mandate, nuclear power became an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society. Its regulation was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion. At a time when Japan’s self-confidence was soaring, a tightly knit elite with enormous financial resources had diminishing regard for anything ‘not invented here.’

This conceit was reinforced by the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy, by which the first duty of any individual bureaucrat is to defend the interests of his organization.
Carried to an extreme, this led bureaucrats to put organizational interests ahead of their paramount duty to protect public safety.

Only by grasping this mindset can one understand how Japan’s nuclear industry managed to avoid absorbing the critical lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; and how it became accepted practice to resist regulatory pressure and cover up small-scale accidents.

It was this mindset that led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

This is a very uncomfortable description – “the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy” – and he goes further even.

What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.”

Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.

Still, though this sounds as though the report will be an exercise in national self-abasement, it’s not. There’s a little of that – the report calls the accident “man-made:”

The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.

Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly “man-made.” We believe that the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.

The earthquake and tsunami, we should note, undid the best efforts of civil society. The context of the accident remains a very important consideration – an enormous number of people at Fukushima lost family members, friends and large parts of their towns.

Still, the report is largely objective in tone and will bring questions of national character – however uncomfortable they may be – into discussions of mitigating risk.

By all means, read the whole report. We’ll certainly be coming back to it.

Ohi in the House

The first of two reactors at Japan’s Ohi facility has rejoined the grid:

"We have finally taken this first step," said Hideki Toyomatsu, vice president of Kansai Electric Power Co., which operates the plant and hopes to restart another reactor there in the few weeks. "But it is just a first step."

That’s good news. The second reactor is expected to join its partner at the end of the month

“Theoretically, the restart of the two reactors at Ohi plant would reduce Kansai Electric’s crude-oil requirement roughly by 60,000 barrels a day,” Osamu Fujisawa, an independent oil economist in Tokyo who worked for Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K. (5002), said in a telephone interview yesterday. Kansai Electric used 510,000 kiloliters of crude in May, or about 103,000 barrels a day.

Even better.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Whither British Nuclear Energy?

Martin Freer is a professor of nuclear physics at the U.K.’s Birmingham University. He lets us know that he wants his country to stop dithering when it comes to nuclear energy:

There are very strong arguments for making nuclear power a crucial component of Britain's overall programme of low-carbon energy generation. Indeed, there is a compelling case for the country to be rebuilt as a nuclear nation if it is to tackle the threat of global warming and other colossal concerns. Although a number of hurdles must be overcome if this is to happen.

And perhaps some of the problems are a least somewhat systemic.

Now the R&D workforce stands at fewer than 600, while funding has fallen to less than 10 per cent of the historical level. Similarly, we are far from having an appropriate workforce in place in the event of a build programme getting under way. At this point in time there is a very real worry that the scale of training achievable will not match demand.

It’s a striking difference from the American experience. There has been much discussion of rebuilding the nuclear work force in the face of coming retirements. Both industry and government here are putting some muscle (and money) behind nuclear related degree work. If Freer is right in his 10 percent figure, that argues for industry to step up, at least to some degree.

In the United States, industry offers scholarships to students and partners with colleges to offer relevant programs. Some of these are two-year degrees for well-trained nuclear “factory” workers – nuclear facilities being essentially factories for producing electricity – and four-year degrees in the nuclear sciences. You can read more about this here.

But it sounds as though the British industry is just coming to terms with these issues.

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Freer offers no particular solution to the issues he sees holding back the U.K. nuclear industry. There have been stories circulating that interest in building new facilities has flagged somewhat – cost and the accident at Fukushima Daiichi being contributing factors – but there is a need to refresh the country’s fleet, the government is behind new build and there is a decided interest.

Enter: China?

Westinghouse and Areva have both said they will not comment on press reports that they have each teamed up with a Chinese company to bid for the British nuclear power venture Horizon Nuclear Power.

Press reports in the UK said Areva and Westinghouse, which make competing designs of reactor, are thought to have each secured the backing of a Chinese state company.

Enter: Russia?

Rosatom, the state atomic energy corporation, is holding consultations over its possible involvement in the British nuclear program, according to deputy director general Kirill Komarov.

Hmm. That sounds – provisional. People “hold consultations” about things all the time.

Jukka Laaksonen, vice-president of ZAO Rusatom Overseas (Rosatom’s subsidiary set up to promote Russian nuclear technology abroad) announced at Atomexpo-2012 that Rosatom would apply to the British and US supervisory agencies to have its VVER PWR reactor technologies certified with them.

There are other reasons to do this than to open these particular marketplaces.

According to Nuclear.Ru, he said Rosatom plans to complete standard generic design assessment procedures within five years, in order to obtain licenses for the construction of VVER reactors in the UK.

It plans to apply later to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for certification of the VVER design. Approval by the British and American regulatory authorities will help promote VVER reactor technologies overseas, Mr Laaksonen believes.

In case you needed evidence that NRC license approval is considered an international gold standard. I don’t mean to suggest that the Russian presence would have sinister undertones, just that the effort to break into the American marketplace would take a lot of will – and money. So far, Rosatom hasn’t expended much of either.

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Currently, Horizon is owned by the German concerns E.ON and RWE, which has followed Germany away from nuclear power. When the ownership issue is settled – French, French/Japanese/Chinese - there will be a better sense of how the British industry will proceed – or at least might proceed.