Friday, August 31, 2012

NuScale Back in Action with Unexpected Support

The other day, we mentioned Babcock & Wilcox’s small reactor project and its indirect use in the Gubernatorial race in Indiana. Now, another vendor of small reactors, NuScale, has attracted some press attention from Reuters. It’s especially nice to see that NuScale has overcome its financial difficulties.

NuScale staff half-jokingly refer to the first half of 2011 as the "Great Pause," when NuScale could not pay its bills and dozens among its 100 employees at the time had to be let go. It now employs 260 people, and hopes to add another 70 by year-end.

And how did it do this, at least in part?

But NuScale is trumpeting the safety aspects of its new technology, and has found helpful supporters including U.S. engineering giant Fluor Corp, which bought a majority stake in the 5-year-old company last October.

Fluor is no stranger to the nuclear energy business. Start here for more on its activities. Fluor has been around for much of the nuclear age.

Like Indiana, Oregon, where NuScale is located, has no nuclear energy facilities. It closed its one plant, called Trojan, in 1992. But, as with Pence in the Hoosier state, NuScale has found some support from the Beavers.

Yet the NuScale design has managed to win over Oregon's national representatives, who tend to be against nuclear power. Senator Jeff Merkley, a self-described "proud progressive," surprised [NuScale Chief Executive Paul] Lorenzini by throwing his support behind SMRs.

The story talks a bit about other subjects – and is interesting in general – but the key point is that NuScale has found a path forward. There are a lot of hurdles yet to clear in the small reactor arena and some of the numerous competitors will probably fail as the marketplace develops. But let’s at least have the marketplace develop some more before/if the winnowing starts.

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If friends knew that I don’t like mushrooms, they might tease me by telling me they love them.

Then I would say, “Mushrooms wouldn’t exist without government help. No one would eat them.”

“But did you see the study that mushrooms are a great source of potassium?”

“More propaganda from the mushroom brigade,” says I. “Mushrooms are just dolled-up toadstools.”

And on and on.

So, in the middle of his story on NuScale, writer Braden Reddall felt the need to get the other side.

"SMRs are just the next chapter in a nuclear industry that can't stand up on its own," said Don Hancock, director for nuclear waste safety at the Southwest Research and Information Center. "So it always has to be funded by the government."

It can’t be fun having reporters calling on you to play the tarantula on the valentine all the time. I wonder if his friends tell him how much they’d like more nuclear energy facilities in the area.

NEI Energy Markets Report (August 20-24, 2012)

Here's a summary of what went on in the energy markets last week:

Electricity peak prices fell $1-$16 last week across the country to all settle below $40/MWh. “Next-day power markets were mixed but generally lower across the U.S. to open the workweek Monday, Aug. 20, as traders eyeballed higher load forecasts in most areas but also weak natural gas prices and an overall healthier generation picture. … Other sources of generation were improving Monday. According to data from IIR Energy, just more than 19,300 MW of various generation was offline across the U.S. early Monday. By fuel type, 3,866 MW was coal-based, while about 8,150 MW was nuclear-based and 1,969 MW was natural gas-driven” (SNL Energy’s Power Daily – 8/21/12).

Electricity production was down 8.3 percent last week compared to the same week in 2011. For the first 34 weeks of 2012, electricity production is down 2.3 percent compared to the same period in 2011.

For more of the report click here.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Indiana: Introducing Nuclear Energy into the Race

pence-gregg
Mike Pence (l) and John Gregg
Indiana has no nuclear energy facilities. It might never have them – well, never say never – and nothing, such as a ban, actually stops the state from having them. But any large infrastructure project needs a local advocate; one with authority in the state helps, too.

So – meet Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is currently running for governor of Indiana.
"When you look at much of the industrialized world today, the technology and the safety record of nuclear energy is one that I think Hoosiers ought to be willing to look at, in addition to developing all of our traditional sources of energy and our renewable sources of energy," Pence said.
The story explains that Indiana has flirted with nuclear facilities a couple of times, but has ended up instead as the rare Midwestern state without one. Illinois has 11, for example.
Pence isn’t hiding his enthusiasm for nuclear energy under a bushel. Many of the stories I looked at about this have it in their headlines and ledes. Pence isn’t the least shy in sharing his views.
“We have next generation nuclear power technology under development right here in Indiana,” Pence said. “Known as small modular reactors, this technology is less expensive and easier to deploy than older generations of nuclear power.”
I couldn’t find Pence explaining this in more detail, but he is likely referring to Babcock & Wilcox, which has a fabrication plant in Mount Vernon and will make its mPower small reactor there.
The Babcock & Wilcox Co. manufactures naval nuclear reactors for submarines and aircraft carriers. For security purposes, U.S. military technology will not be transferred to the mPower reactor project; however, the factories already exist and the additional investments for the initial stages of market adoption are minimal. Another advantage is that the reactor is small enough for the reactor vessel head and bottom to be forged in North America. The B&W Nuclear Operations Group’s Barberton, Ohio, and Mount Vernon, Ind., locations specialize in the design and manufacture of large, heavy components. These two locations are ASME N-Stamp accredited, making them two of only a few North American suppliers of large, heavy-walled nuclear components and vessels.
You can learn a lot more about this at the link.

A little more about B&W’s plan:
When you hear the words "green energy" what typically comes to mind is solar and wind power. However, one of the greenest forms of energy is nuclear. And we have an opportunity in Southwest Indiana to be a major player in the next stage of nuclear energy development.
Babcock & Wilcox recently showcased its newly acquired vertical milling machine that will be used for manufacturing nuclear components. The excitement is due to B&W's future launch of the mPower reactor, a small modular reactor that will be used in conjunction with Generation mPower LLC to design the world's first commercially viable Generation III++ power plant.
Back to Pence:
“In addition to developing all of our traditional sources of energy and our renewable sources of energy, we ought to look at adding nuclear energy to our portfolio if it’s economically feasible and keeps our energy costs low.”
Which it would indeed do.
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John Gregg is the Democratic candidate for Indiana Governor. He served in the Indiana House for 16 years, as Speaker of the house for four of them. He left politics in 2002, did a stint as radio talk show host and won a battle against prostate cancer before reentering politics via this race.
Daniel Altman, spokesman for the Gregg campaign, pointed to disasters such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima as reminders that nuclear energy can have serious negative consequences.
“John has been talking with Hoosiers for months about how to keep energy costs down for Indiana, while also creating good-paying energy jobs in the state,” he said. “As someone who has worked for two different coal companies, John knows that we have enormous potential not just for coal, but methane, natural gas, biomass and wind energy, and he will work to further develop these industries.”
Well, he’s an energy veteran, which is always a big plus in our book, but clearly not nuclear-friendly. That’s all right: he and Pence provide a clear cut choice in this regard, and that always makes for a good campaign and election season.

Of course, this is a race for Indianans to decide and I have no brief on the candidates. No one is (or should be) a single issue voter – even nuclear energy advocates -  and Pence and Gregg will happily share their thoughts on any number of topics of interest to Indianans. Some of them may even matter more than nuclear energy to a large group of voters.

Still – about Pence’s full-out support: good for him – and for introducing nuclear energy into the campaign, however it goes. That’s a decided value in itself.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Japanese Business to Nuclear Energy: Stay

Reuters has released a poll gauging the attitude of Japanese businesses toward nuclear energy. Based on a number of stories I’ve read, I expected the numbers to be extremely dismal.

And while not exactly warming, they’re not nearly as awful as anticipated, either.

About one in five big Japanese firms wants to see the share of nuclear power in the electricity supply reduced to zero by 2030, a Reuters poll showed, amid a growing anti-nuclear clamor after last year’s Fukushima atomic disaster.

But underlining concerns about a rise in energy costs without nuclear power, the rest of the respondents supported a continued role for nuclear energy, with the biggest group opting for a share of 15%.

A little more specifically:

In the Reuters poll, 19% of big firms sought to cut nuclear power’s role to zero, but 39% called for 15% by 2030, as a majority of companies brace for slower economic growth as reliance on nuclear energy declines.

One-quarter said they wanted to see a 20-25% share and the remainder called for even greater percentages, according to the poll of 400 big firms, taken alongside the monthly Reuters Tankan business sentiment survey. A total of 268 responded during the Aug 6-21 survey period.

The share numbers here represent a rather modest reduction, as nuclear energy supplied about 27 percent of Japan’s electricity before the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. This means well more than half the respondents want the share reduced by less than half to barely reduced at all.

Of course, one would really need a series of surveys on this topic to grasp whether these numbers are growing. It’s bald intuition – and the experience of other industrial accidents such as the BP oil spill – to suggest that as time goes by, the impact of an accident becomes less. That’s been true of the Japanese accident in polls taken both here and in Great Britain. It’ll be interesting to see if this follows through in Japan as well.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said he would like to reduce nuclear energy’s share but is awaiting a medium-term energy plan before describing specifics. One can’t blame Noda for treading carefully.

To cope with increased electricity costs amid a prolonged shutdown of reactors, 69% said they would cut expenditure and 36% would seek cheaper power suppliers, according to the poll, which allowed respondents multiple choices.

Underlining conditions of prolonged deflation, 26% said they would pass the cost on to their customers, while 13% would shift operations out of Japan, according to the poll.

Noda has to balance the wants of a sizable constituency – a government poll shows about 47 percent want to zero out nuclear energy – with their need to retain employment and, from the government’s perspective, contribute to the economy. Carbon emission targets weigh in, too.

So the numbers are not great but not so horrible that they make closing the nuclear facilities a key to political survivability – at least, I don’t think that’s what they would show here.

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In this light, an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbon (a national newspaper) is less surprising.

Securing the safety of nuclear power plants is of course important. However, factors such as economic efficiency and a stable energy supply are also important in deciding the nation's energy policy. As a country poor in natural resources, Japan needs to have various sources of electricity, including nuclear power plants, to ensure a stable power supply.

Thus the government should promote a realistic energy policy of utilizing nuclear power plants from a mid- and long-term standpoint.

Which probably would not have been written a year ago. The paper also tackles public polling.

It is important for politicians to listen to the voices of the people. However, there is a risk that politicians may slip into populism, depending on how much they rely on public opinion.

A member of an expert panel tasked with analyzing the results of the surveys said, "We don't need politics if opinion polls decide everything."

The results of the surveys should be used as one element in discussing the nation's nuclear policy. The government should avoid having the results directly influence its energy policy.

This is a tougher needle to thread. The editorial goes on to say that people don’t realize that closing the nuclear facilities would hurt the economy and raise unemployment. This is true only in a speculative sense – a lot would depend on the length of time the facilities stay open – but politicians don’t have to be “populist” necessarily to accede to the public will even if it will harm them economically. See Germany for exhibit A.

Regardless, all these elements may suggest a consensus forming around nuclear energy continuing with a lesser share. But if this is the consensus, it’s at best a fragile one. We’ll know more after the energy plan is released.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Uranium of the Sea – and How to Get It – and Why

This is interesting, but it doesn’t seem quite enough:

Japan developed an adsorbent that attaches the uranium-loving chemical group amidoxime to a plastic polymer. ORNL examined the binding process between the plastic and chemical groups and used that knowledge to enhance the uranium-grabbing characteristic of the amidoxime groups on the adsorbent material's surface.

PNNL tested the adsorbent's performance at its Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Wash., DOE's only marine research facility. Using filtered seawater from nearby Sequim Bay, PNNL established a laboratory testing process to measure the effectiveness of both Japan's and ORNL's adsorbent materials. Initial tests showed ORNL's adsorbent can soak up more than two times the uranium than the material from Japan.

Why would anyone want to do this? With the Japanese, it makes sense because the country is so light on natural resources. But elsewhere?

The article – really an abstract – says that there are about 4.5 billion tons of uranium floating loose in the ocean – about 3 parts per billion – so the effort to find those fissionable needles in the aqueous haystack could pay off for whoever figures out how to collect them economically and then scales up the process to collect a lot of them efficiently. 

But even if someone accomplishes this and to scale, why do it – to what end? There are enough known uranium deposits for another century at least. A hundred years may not seem very long, but let’s say, in that time, thorium comes into its own or recycling used nuclear fuel becomes widespread – or fusion scales acceptably – or mining scouts discover new uranium deposits - then the lifespan for the currently known uranium deposits begins to multiply. So a hundred years may not be a long time, but it’s still enough time for a lot to happen – and just with the technologies and methods we already know much less those we don’t know yet.

In the meantime, perhaps we could learn more about this effort. If it hadn’t already passed, we could attend the – wait for it – Extracting Uranium from Seawater conference, hosted by the American Chemical Society. Having missed that, we can at least look at the conference coverage.

In introducing the conference, World Nuclear News explains why seawater extraction hasn’t caught on commercially yet:

Although these trials proved the principle of uranium extraction from seawater, the cost was prohibitively high - perhaps around $260 per pound. This compares badly to today's most economic mines on land, which produce uranium at around $20 per pound, while resources at higher costs up to about $115 per pound have already been identified that would last more than a century.

This almost gets at motivation, but I think it’s fair to say that, aside from scientific curiosity, the reason to explore this is that uranium will always have a market despite alternatives. At least, that’s the bet being made and probably a good enough one to take a slight risk to win. (I haven’t mentioned, but should, that uranium is useful for nuclear medicine and other purposes outside the energy business. Providing a steady source of uranium also guarantees energy security for whichever countries implement seawater extraction, avoiding artificial or real shortages on the vendor end – and avoiding bad actors among the vendors.)

Just as a scientific endeavor, the conference shows that a good deal of ingenuity is bearing down hard on the cost issue, with scalability perhaps a little further down the priority list:

Conducting research for the US Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has worked with Florida firm Hills Inc. to develop new adsorbent materials. Mats made from so-called 'HiCap' fibers, featuring high surface-areas, are irradiated and then reacted with chemical compounds that have an affinity for uranium. After an exposure period and extraction of uranium the mats require acid washing and conditioning with potassium hydroxide before re-use.

That sounds like – a lot of work. You clearly can’t just throw these mats in the washing machine. But the results make the complex procedure worth the effort.

Oak Ridge said the fibres delivered five-times higher adsorption capacity, faster uptake and higher selectivity than the previous best.

Even better than this outcome? This gets the cost of the uranium to about $135/lb. Still too much, but in the right direction.

Here’s an idea that would prove an economic boon to your local Red Lobster:

Another project presented at the ACS meeting concerned the use of fibers based on chitin - a long chain biopolymer that can be obtained from shrimp shells.

The BBC has a little more on this:

Chitin is a long-chain molecule that is the principal component in crustaceans' shells, but its toughness and its ability to be "electrospun" into fibers that can be made into mats make it an ideal sustainable and biodegradable choice for uranium harvesting.

The stories don’t provide enough other details to gauge this as anything other than an interesting idea – though I’d probably advise the University of Alabama, which is hosting the project, to downplay the whole shrimp shell angle – it suggests a ferocious Old Bay budget. The sustainable, biodegradable angle is far more of the moment.

Altogether? It’s an interesting ongoing inquiry into maximizing a commodity and it does appear to be making progress toward that goal – the efficient production of plentiful, inexpensive uranium.

But that’s rather highfalutin. Instead, let’s celebrate the human capacity to identify and solve problems. That’ll carry us a pretty long way.

NEI Energy Markets Report (August 13–17, 2012)

Here's a summary of what went on in the energy markets last week:

Electricity peak prices fell from $3 to $11 last week across the country in continuing mild weather to settle in a range of $31-52/MWh. Gas at the Henry Hub fell 13 cents to average $2.79/MMBtu for the week, and the rig count continued its decline by another eleven rigs to 484. …

Crude oil rose $1 last week, to average $94/barrel at Cushing, Oklahoma. “The U.S. average retail price of regular gasoline increased two cents this week to $3.74 per gallon, 16 cents per gallon higher than last year at this time. …”

Average nuclear plant availability fell to 89 percent last week. One unit returned to service, and seven shut down. Turkey Point 3 returned to service after a six month refueling and maintenance outage to uprate the unit 15 percent. …

For more of the report click here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fox Gets It Right on Emissions – Or Close Enough

Media Matters for America and Fox News are not the best friends in the media landscape, with the former often calling out the latter for what it perceives as bias in its reporting. I have no particular brief on that subject.

But I do recognize that the energy business has done a fair amount to bring down carbon emissions through the increased use of natural gas, renewable energy and nuclear energy (through uprates) – and is quite conscious of it - so I found this report from Media Matters somewhat amusing:

But Fox is ignoring the confluence of factors and touting the decline as a triumph of the free market. A Fox Nation headline today declared: "Free Enterprise Makes the Air Cleaner." On Varney & Company, Fox Business contributor Charles Payne said: "The free market, cleaning up our air. Says a lot about the free market, doesn't it?"

Payne is essentially correct here. We might focus on “bringing down carbon emissions,” though “cleaning up our air” is fine for the purpose. Media Matters says:

The Energy Information Administration announced earlier this month that U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions in early 2012 were the lowest measured for a January-March period since 1992. The report attributed the decline to a combination of three factors: reduced household heating demand during an unusually warm winter, a decline in coal generation due to low natural gas prices, and low gasoline demand as a result of a slowed economy and the shift towards more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Media Matters is correct, too – but you’ll note that it has to include items such as the “decline in coal generation due to low natural gas prices,” which the industry didn’t have to do a thing about – but it did – because it liked that it could bring down carbon emissions (and increase profit, too – let’s not be too na├»ve here – but let’s not be too cynical, either – this is an unalloyed good outcome.)

I’d also note “fuel-efficient vehicles” as a government-industry mandate/goal, disrupting the purring about the free market, but still – close enough.

If government priorities aren’t all bad, neither are free market prerogatives. The balance between the two can lead to (sometimes heated) arguments, but not the premise. So Payne has a valid argument to make here in favor of the marketplace.

We might have given all the points to Fox News on this one. But:

[Reporter Tracy] Byrnes went on to ask her guest why carbon dioxide emissions -- which are not "poisonous" or "inflammable" -- are even a problem in the first place.

So, there you go.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Plant Vogtle Crane One of Largest in the World

The 560-foot tall lift derrick at Plant Vogtle (Southern Company).
That is one mighty big crane. Here are all the details from Southern Company:
Testing has begun on a major component in the construction of two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle 3 and 4 – a 560-foot tall heavy lift derrick, one of the biggest cranes in the world.

The derrick, which will be used to move large pieces at the site of the first new nuclear units built in the United States in 30 years, has the capacity to move the equivalent of five 747 jets across the distance of more than three-and-a-half football fields in a single lift.

In addition, major components will begin arriving to the site later this year and early 2013, the first of which will be the reactor vessel for Unit 3. The Unit 3 condensers have arrived from South Korea, where they were manufactured. Unit 3 is scheduled to go online in 2016, and Unit 4 will follow in 2017.

Also at the site, significant work has been done on turbine islands, cooling towers and nuclear islands. Over the next several months, progress will continue to be made in the nuclear island, turbine building and module assemblies.

"The project is progressing extremely well, especially when compared to other large-scale infrastructure projects worldwide," said Joseph A. "Buzz" Miller, Executive Vice President of Nuclear Development for Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear. "The Vogtle 3 and 4 project provides at least $2.2 billion more value to customers than the next best available technology, according to Georgia Public Service Commission staff."
For more photos and videos from the construction site, click here.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Nuclear Today, Lignite Tomorrow: Germany’s Withering Choices

German Nuclear Plants (Wikipedia)
Color Bloomberg unimpressed:
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government says RWE AG’s new power plant that can supply 3.4 million homes aids her plan to exit nuclear energy and switch to cleaner forms of generation. It’s fired with coal.
And Herr Dieter Helm, energy policy professor? Also not impressed:
“Angela Merkel’s policy has created an incentive structure which has the effect of partially replacing nuclear with coal, the dirtiest fuel that’s responsible for much of the growth in the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions since 1990,” Dieter Helm, an energy policy professor at the University of Oxford, said by phone Aug. 17. Building new coal stations means “locking them in for the next 30 years” as a type of generation, Helm said.
The problem is that natural gas, inexpensive here, is expensive in Germany, so it isn’t as viable a fuel for large installations. As we’ve seen, Germany’s grid isn’t equipped (yet – let’s be optimistic) to handle the intermittency of solar and wind stably. What Merkel is doing actually makes some sense taken from one angle:
Merkel’s government wants utilities to build 10,000 megawatts of coal- and gas-fired generators this decade to replace older, dirtier generators and underpin a growing share for wind turbines and solar panels.
The problem is: natural gas and especially coal will replace the nuclear energy capacity while wind and solar will contribute additional electricity generation above that, so the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions is up. But some of the same forces that made nuclear energy toxic in Germany are understandably no more happy with this plan. Or shall we say: unimpressed?
Building new coal generators in Germany isn’t easy. A group of local utilities last month scrapped plans to spend 3.2 billion euros to construct the nation’s biggest hard-coal plant in Schleswig-Holstein after resistance from environment groups and the state government led by the Social Democratic Party and Green Party.
Can it be said that Germany’s options are withering away?
“It’s very alarming that leading German politicians praise a plant run on lignite,” Gerald Neubauer, a Greenpeace campaigner in Germany focusing on energy issues, said by phone on Aug. 16. “Burning lignite spews more carbon dioxide than using most other energy sources, and mining it inflicts major damage on the environment.”
I almost feel like saying: This is what Germany wanted and this is what it got. But this transition is just depressing, however you look at it, a casebook study of bad policymaking.
Great story for Bloomberg by Stefan Nicola and Tino Andresen. Do read the whole thing.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Most Polite Strikers Ever and Nuclear Energy in Canada

candu fuel assembly
The CANDU's fuel assembly
Way up north, a group of nuclear engineers are striking against contractors of Canada’s Candu Energy. They haven’t had a new contract since January 2011 and, presumably, want to negotiate a new one.
Striking nuclear engineers from SNC-Lavalin Group Inc's Candu Energy subsidiary escalated their dispute with the company on Wednesday, setting up picket lines at Ontario reactors for the first time and delaying shift changes at the plants.
Uh-oh. Does this close the plants?
The reactors' operators, Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation, both said the pickets do not threaten safe operations at their facilities.
"They delayed staff coming in but there was no impact on operations," said Ontario Power Generation (OPG) spokesman Ted Gruetzner.
Canadians being as they are, the whole thing seems very polite.
"We decided to do this to try to get our customers to send a message to our employer that it's time to do something about this," said Michael Ivanco, a senior scientist and vice president of the union.
And:
Following the morning picket, Bruce Power announced that it has struck a deal with the strikers that will ensure no further picketing at the Bruce plant.
None of the stories I’ve seen have said anything about how contract negotiations are going or even if such negotiations are happening. So we can’t assume anything – well, except that strikes and pickets can happen at Canadian nuclear energy facilities without shutting down the plants.
Everyone is operating within the spirit and letter of the law – I looked for, and couldn’t find, editorials from local newspapers weighing in, and news stories about this haven’t escapes the business pages - so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.
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It’s an old joke that Canadians are the tidy cousins to the anarchists to their south, but consider: nuclear energy in Canada contributes to a fairly responsible mix of energy types:
Canada generated 603 billion kWh in 2009, of which about 15% was from nuclear generation, compared with 60% from hydro, 15% from coal and 6% from gas. Annual electricity use is about 14,000 kWh per person, one of the highest levels in the world.
Well, I guess energy efficiency could be better, but I wonder how much of that kilowatt usage has to do with avoiding deep freezes. Still, if Canada scales back on coal in favor of nuclear energy (it is building an 18th reactor currently) or natural gas or renewable energy beyond hydro, it will be near perfect on the environmental front. Still, energy security is enhanced by using coal, as Canada mines nearly all of it domestically.
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Canada uses a home-grown technology for its nuclear reactors, called CANDU. These reactors use unenriched uranium – which saves money by bypassing enrichment – which is possible because the nuclear reaction is moderated by heavy water (deuterium oxide) – an additional expense. CANDU stands for Canada deuterium uranium. (Look here for a much fuller explanation of how the CANDU reactor works. It’s really fascinating.)
Canada chose this method in part because it didn’t have access to enrichment facilities when it began its nuclear energy effort in the 50s, but it has stuck with it and built a global business on it. The CANDU site lists several international buyers, including China and India, the latter creating its own CANDU-like design to create a native industry.
Within Canada, all but one of the operating reactors are in Ontario, with the exception being Gentilly in Quebec. Consequently, 56 percent of electricity in Ontario is generated by nuclear energy with hydro second at 22 percent.
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How popular is nuclear energy in Canada? Although this poll from Innovative Research Group released this year covers the whole country, it’s probably fairest to focus on Ontario. For example, the whole country is against building new facilities by 63-33 percent, not great. But in Ontario, 48 percent support the proposition (and Saskatchewan is in the 40s, too, maybe because of talk of using nuclear energy to extract oil from the tar sands.)
But the majority (or plurality) of Canadians think nuclear energy is dirty, expensive and overseen by vipers – “63% distrust big nuclear energy business” - except, when the provinces are broken out, in Ontario. Is knowing nuclear energy to like it better? It would seem so – plus, I wager, more effort was made in Ontario to explain its benefits.
There’s likely some overhang from the Fukushima Daiichi accident impacting these numbers, but they do suggest that Canadian nuclear interests need to offer some facts and figures to the public west of Ontario. It’s not that it needs to be a love feast – you can’t be loved by everyone everywhere - but it just isn’t true, for example, that nuclear energy is more expensive that solar power, as most Canadians believe. Just getting the facts straight would do a world of good.

Examining the Data in the INL Cave

Thanks to the folks at the ANS Nuclear Cafe for pointing to this video from Idaho National Laboratory's Center for Advanced Energy Research. It's all about the CAVE: a "computer assisted virtual environment" that enables researchers "to literally walk into their data and examine it."


Very cool stuff. Leave your comments here, or over at Reddit.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Nuclear Energy and Those Who Are Reasonable

It should come as no surprise that environmentalists oppose the use of nuclear energy in the same way they oppose coal or the fracking technology that is unlocking huge new reserves of natural gas. Currently nuclear energy provides about twenty percent of the electricity used in the U.S. Their attack on coal—led by the Obama administration—has driven its use down from just over fifty percent a few years ago to about 47% today.

Not to mention the rise of natural gas. But you’ve got to take your triumphs as they come.

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In Germany:

[Holger] Arntzen is now project manager of Wind Comm, a nonprofit that supports wind farm development. For him, the key to stopping the backlash against the power lines is to do more to inform Germans that the nuclear phase out comes with a price and changes in lifestyle.

"To show what is possible, and how I, as a citizen, can influence the load on the grid, like putting on my dishwasher only when the sun shines, because we have a lot of photovoltaics. Or waiting on my dishwasher if we have no wind," he says. "People must accept that the post-nuclear phase has a direct impact on how I live, how they live."

Here’s hoping Arntzen, the wind and his dishwasher stay synced or he’ll be eating off the floor in no time.

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From Andy Lemke at Forbes, providing a primer on issues around nuclear energy.

At the time of this writing, nuclear energy has support from both Democrats and Republicans in the United States. While it isn’t a  partisan issue, it is generally divided by those well informed on the topic and those who are uninformed. Between those who trust the  scientists / engineers and those who do not. Between those who are reasonable vs. general skeptics.

A pro-nuclear energy writer trying really hard to be even handed. (still good and he’s right - nuclear energy lost its partisan flavor some time ago.) 

Why We Need to Keep a Level Head About the Nuclear Butterflies from Fukushima

Over the last few days, we've seen thousands of stories around the Web concerning a study that concluded that radiation released into the atmosphere from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power had caused mutations in the local population of butterflies. At the same time, another piece of research noted that there hasn't been any observable effect thus far on people.

When I read the story, I do what I always do, and shot off a note to Ralph Andersen, NEI's chief health physicist. Here's what he had to say about the study:
Please note that there are species of plants, insects and animals that are particularly sensitive to changes in environmental conditions, including radiation. The pale grass butterfly is among the most sensitive, which is why it was selected for study following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi.

This article provides a rational perspective on what has been found, what it may mean, and what it doesn’t necessarily mean.

Similar findings in some species of biota were detected around Chernobyl in the first few years after the accident there, but impacts on the overall environment and ecology were relatively small and the area today is considered by scientists to be verdant and robust in regard to plant and animal life.

Fukushima Daiichi represents a major accident with significant radiological releases and there are and will be discernible consequences for some years to come. Our emphasis here is on taking actions to prevent such an event in the US and globally.

In regard to understanding the consequences there, we remain open-minded and objective, gaining (and sharing) a fact-based perspective on what it is and what it isn’t.
Good advice, and just the sort of guidance we ought to be paying attention to when we read headlines in the media. In the meantime, some nuclear bloggers have taken a closer look and have shared some similar thoughts. Please visit Atomic Insights and Nuclear Diner for more. Also, be sure to check in with the conversation on Reddit.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What Does the NRC’s Order on Waste Confidence Mean for New Plant Licensing?

DryCaskStorage1-300x2252
Dry cask storage
It is not every day that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advises everyone to “take a deep breath,” but when it comes to people misconstruing the facts about new plant licensing activities following a recent order, that is exactly what happened.

In a nutshell—last week, the NRC issued an order saying that it would not issue final reactor licenses or license renewals until the agency addresses a recent federal court ruling on waste confidence. Many people and some news articles mistakenly reported that this means all current licensing reviews and proceedings will come to a screeching halt, which is simply not the case. The order basically means that licensing reviews will move forward, but that final licensing will be put on hold.

The NRC clarified its position in a blog post late last week:
Let’s be clear: Tuesday’s Order was not a “Full Stop” to NRC’s licensing process. The Commission stated that licensing reviews should move forward—only final licensing was put on hold.
NEI’s Vice President and General Counsel Ellen Ginsberg weighed in:
The commission’s order is helpful in that license applicants can continue to pursue their licenses. Although there may be some delay in issuing some renewed licenses, NRC regulations provide that plant operation can continue beyond the original license term and until there is a decision on the renewal application, so long as it has been filed in a timely manner.
A level-headed article in Forbes’ over the weekend provides further background on the NRC’s order and how it relates to new plant licensing activities (bolded text added by me for emphasis):
There has been some fist-bumping this week in the anti-nuclear sector over the recent vacating of two NRC rules by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in June; the waste-confidence decision and the storage rule. The judges felt that the agency had failed to conduct an environmental impact statement, or a finding of no significant environmental impact, before ruling that it is safe to store nuclear waste in wet pools and dry casks without a permanent solution in sight. But it was just that the initial NRC rule was too vague, not that this type of storage is unsafe (platts NRC Ruling).
In response, the NRC this week voted unanimously to delay final approval of licenses for new nuclear plants, or renewing the licenses of existing facilities, until the agency responds with a more complete ruling and addresses the dilemma of long-term nuclear waste storage across the country.
The 24 environmental groups that petitioned NRC to respond to the court are acting like they actually stopped all action on nuclear licensing (Marketwatch NRC Ruling). While no final decisions will be made in issuing licenses, the process for licensing new and existing plants will continue as before, the NRC said, which means the impact to the industry will be minimal.
Also, reactors can operate even after their present license expires as long as it is the NRC that is dragging it out. And most reactors have already been relicensed in the last ten years.  Only 18 out of 104 reactors are not and primarily because they have to operate beyond 20 years before they can apply. The four new GenIII plants being built at Vogtle (Georgia) and V.C. Summer (South Carolina) are also not affected at all since their licenses have already been issued.
The NRC’s blog post continues:
Essentially, the Order represents a regulatory agency taking a deep breath while trying to decide the best way to satisfy the Court.
So, let’s all follow the NRC’s advice: inhale, exhale.

How the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant Weathered the 2011 East Coast Earthquake

Dominion Virginia's North Anna Power Station
We're coming up on the first anniversary of the 2011 earthquake that jolted the East Coast of the U.S. While the quake did little damage -- other than fraying the nerves of millions who never experienced even a tremor that small all of their lives -- plenty of folks were moved to ask questions about the safety of nuclear energy facilities, especially as the quake came just months after the accident at Fukushima Daiichi.

As it turned out, virtually all of the plants on the East Coast endured the event without missing a beat. The only exception was Dominion Virginia Power's North Anna Power Station. North Anna was the nuclear facility closest to the epicenter of the quake in Mineral, Virginia.

When the quake struck, the facility shut down safely and automatically, just as it was designed to do. Just ahead of the anniversary of the quake, the team at Dominion Virginia has published a video recounting how its team responded to the earthquake, inspected it to ensure that it could be re-started safely and got the plant back into service



As you might recall, 2011 was quite a year for America's nuclear energy facilities, as plants across the country successfully endured a series of extreme weather events, something we chronicled in the following interactive graphic:


Monday, August 13, 2012

A Nuclear Namibia Nearer Than Naught?

windhoekIf you’ve read enough of our posts here, you know we like to keep up with what’s happening around the world – who’s interested in nuclear energy, who’s building facilities, and who’s making a big mistake – the aspirational, the inspirational and the laughable. But even when you pay close attention, a surprise will come along now and then:

The Minister of Mines and Energy (MME), Isak Katali, says the inadequate supply of power in Southern Africa leaves the door open for the possibility of a nuclear power station in Namibia.

Namibia? Really? It could use the development – half of its 2.1 million people live in poverty – and the country has enough uranium deposits to ensure energy security. It also has a stable government, no small thing.

Namibia currently imports about 50 percent of its electricity and is suffering shortages despite this (the story doesn’t really explain why).

Namibia will face a shortage of about 80 megawatts (MW) of electricity by this coming winter.

[Minister of Mines and Energy Isak] Katali said the deficit will continue to increase every year, with a shortage of 300 MW forecast for 2015.

As a net importer of over 50 per cent of its electricity demand, Namibia will always be directly affected by the regional power supply situation, which has been critical since 2008.

Katali gave his assurance that his ministry has been hard at work with power utility NamPower and the Electricity Control Board to speed up the completion of planned energy generation projects.

Namibia's main source of power generation, the Ruacana hydropower station, will be boosted with the installation of a fourth generator unit, and when commissioned in March, an additional 92 MW will be added to the current installed capacity of 249 MW at the power station.

And now nuclear – this story is from February, before the more recent addition of nuclear energy to the conversation. How seriously should this be taken? Well, let’s say it’s in the early talking stage right now.

"I am not saying we will have a nuclear plant, all I am saying is that government through our ministry and the electricity supply industry are looking at all power sources, among them, wind energy, hydro and coal-fired stations, a solar thermal collector and the possibility of a nuclear power station in the future," he [Katali] said.

Especially in terms of carbon emissions, Namibia has been exceptionally responsible in its energy profile, favoring hydroelectric and thermal power. Nuclear energy could actually make a good fit. Or would it?

With the country scrambling for new energy sources, including coal-fired power stations, biomass and wind power, nuclear aspirations are seen as contrary to government's advocacy for green energy.

Oh, really? Loads of electricity and no emissions? It solves almost all of Namibia’s energy issues in one swoop – no need to import electricity, a consistent source of generation and an engine for further modernization. (I can’t help but think that small reactor vendors would find a welcome home here, too, able to keep costs down if that’s an issue.)

We’ll keep an eye on it – who knows, it could prove a model for Africa.

---

One of the reasons Katali is thinking of nuclear energy right now may be this:

A new commission to coordinate and promote the development of nuclear energy in Africa is set to become fully operational after key founding documents were finalized and adopted. South Africa has agreed to host the commission in Pretoria.

I imagine the IAEA is involved in this effort, though it isn’t mentioned in the story. But the goals of the new organization show that it is serious in intent and somewhat modest in affect at this early juncture:

Afcone chairman Abdul Samad Minty of South Africa said that the commission "could play a useful role to facilitate the implementation by African states of the relevant legally binding instruments and codes of conduct on nuclear safety and security, and have in place their respective nuclear safety and security infrastructures." He noted, "A key aspect of our work is to promote nuclear sciences and applications."

Namibia isn’t listed among the originating members. They are: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritius, Senegal, South Africa, Togo and Tunisia. It’s a start.

Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. From a blog about the city’s night life (!): “For many of us born in the land between the Kalahari and Namib deserts it is the only big city we will ever know and for many others it will be the smallest they’ll ever know. To some it is an African city with European hopes, for others a European city whose sunshine and blue skies are the only betrayals of its unabashed Europeaness but for us of this land, Windhoek is our eternal city. The dwelling place of our gods and the sacred resting place of our ancestors.” And the bar scene? Read the site for that.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Japan: Onagawa Good - Emissions Very Bad - Nuclear Energy?

Onagawa[3]
Japan's Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant
The nuclear facility that was nearest the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake in Japan was not Fukushima Daiichi but Onagawa. How did it do?
An IAEA team of international experts on Friday delivered its initial report at the end of a two-week mission to gather information about the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake on the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station (NPS), saying the plant was "remarkably undamaged".
A little more:
Onagawa, facing the Pacific Ocean on Japan's north-east coast, was the nuclear power plant closest to the epicenter of the March 11 magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan and resulted in a devastating tsunami.
The plant experienced very high levels of ground shaking - among the strongest of any plant affected by the earthquake - and some flooding from the tsunami that followed, but was able to shut down safely.
The story doesn’t mention this, but Onagawa also acted as safe harbor for the people of the town, with over 200 taking shelter inside the plant. More on that here.
Within the nuclear plant, facilities are pristine, electricity flows directly from Japan's national grid, and evacuees can use its dedicated phone network to make calls.
"The general public isn't normally allowed inside, but in this case we felt it was the right thing to do," company spokesman Yoshitake Kanda said.
Just so.
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There were a fair number of stories over the last few days about the Japanese government pledging to use less nuclear energy at a annual remembrance ceremony at Nagasaki. That didn’t seem right – even though Japan may well end up using less nuclear energy – because using the ceremony to announce it just seemed crass.
This report seems closer to right:
In his address, [Prime Minister Yoshihiko] Noda said "we aim to establish an energy structure in the mid- to long term in a form that will reassure the people of Japan, under a basic policy of reducing our dependence on nuclear power," without elaborating.
This is much gentler, although Noda still walked it back a bit later. Nuclear energy really isn’t the issue here.
"The international community must act now by taking the first concrete steps toward concluding the Nuclear Weapons Convention," Mayor Tomihisa Taue said during the city's annual peace ceremony at Nagasaki Peace Park.
That’s the issue.
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Japan without (much) nuclear energy:
Japan, with only two working nuclear power plants, has discharged a record high amount of carbon dioxide in the year ended March 31 as it relied on crude and fuel oil to support its energy requirements.
According to Bloomberg calculations based on data provided by Japan's 10 power utilities, the companies released a whopping 439 million tons of CO2 for the year, a 17 per cent jump from 374 million tons a year ago.
Oil and crude? I wonder how the air quality is doing.
"Objectively speaking, there is no doubt that it is more difficult to achieve the 25 per cent reduction goal than before," Naomi Hirose, president of Tepco, said in June.
Objectively speaking.
Onagawa.

For Great Britain, New Nuclear is a Gold Medal Strategy to Reduce Carbon Emissions

U.K. Nuclear Stations
Our Olympics-hosting friends in Great Britain appear poised to react to climate change in a manner far different from the Germans, who have designs on abandoning nuclear energy. Britain Gives Nuclear a 2nd Chance, the New York Times informed this week, and in it we learn that the British government "is courting the nuclear industry." Why? "It wants low-carbon power to aid its goal, enshrined in law, of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050."

Those numbers caught my attention. They sounded eerily familiar to me, and for good reason. I work a lot with communicators at California's two nuclear energy facilities, San Onofre and Diablo Canyon. In 2006, then Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act.

Under that law California must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 -- about 30 percent. And the state must redeuce GHG by 80 percent over 1990 levels by 2050. Most ambitious -- and the moreso seeing as how California can't turn to new, carbon-free nuclear to aid its cause: it's got a moratorium on building new nuclear.

Like the U.S., Great Britain today derives nearly 20 percent of its electricity generation from nuclear power. Perhaps it's coincidence that Great Britain and California have identical GHG reduction targets, but how they'll respectively achieve them over the next few decades couldn't be different. EDF Energy, a British subsidiary of Electrice de France, envisions enough new nuclear power at the Hinkley Point site to power 5 million homes, according to the Times.
"The [British] government has identified eight sites, all with existing nuclear facilities, where new ones might go . . .

"I've bet my career on it, so I think that it is pretty high," Nigel Cann, Hinkley Point's manager, said of the probability that the plants will be built."
Siting new coal apparently is as problematic for the British government as it is their American counterpart. No doubt the Brits will broaden their conservation and efficiency strategies, but when it comes to making big gains with cleaner air, this nation of mighty winds appears poised to go with new nuclear as the best option. That we'll have two vastly different air-improvement approaches with new electricity generation, with identical targets and time frames, will make for fascinating energy policy watching in the years ahead.

"Nuclear investment is a high priority for the [British] government," said Charlotte Morgan, a nuclear expert at the law firm Linklaters. "There are few alternatives to deliver the U.K.'s long-term energy needs, its low-carbon commitments and security of supply."

Another Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy

We've been talking a lot about Australia in recent weeks (click here and here), where the debate over nuclear energy has been heating up. Long one of the world's top sources of uranium, some folks in Australia are wondering out loud whether or not it might be a good idea to turn to a home-grown energy source to generate electricity.

One of the people helping to drive that debate is Ben Heard of Decarbonise South Australia and Think Climate Consulting. A one-time skeptic, he's now embracing nuclear energy as the only rational way to battle climate change while producing the electricity we need to power advanced societies.

Recently, Heard took part in a television debate sponsored by the Australian Broadcasting Company. As we've written before here at NEI, we're not climate scientists and don't take a position on the validity of research that has concluded that climate change is caused by human activity. However, it's only logical to conclude that you want to reduce the amount of carbon emitted to the atmosphere while still generating enough electricity to power a modern society, nuclear energy has to be part of your energy portfolio.

With that, I'd like to share Heard's opening statement from the ABC debate:



Powerful stuff. Hat tip to Rod Adams for picking up the clip.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Crocs Live! --- With Help from FPL’s Turkey Point Nuclear Plant

aldecoaThe AP has an interesting story making the rounds about Florida’s Turkey Point nuclear energy facility. At first, I thought to call this post something like Unintended Consequences, because what’s happening there could seem a consequence of the facility being where it is. But really, it’s more than that, because Turkey Point, which is run by FPL, has taken an active hand in enhancing what is happening there. The good work there is active, not passive.

Here’s the story:

There are between 1,500 and 2,000 crocodiles in Florida — 40 years ago there were 300. They are listed as an endangered species by the state, but were downgraded a few years ago to "threatened" on the federal list.

And that’s because of Turkey Point:

Since the croc monitoring program began at the plant in 1978, some 5,000 hatchlings have been captured and marked. [Tukey Point biologist Mario] Aldecoa said that indicates that some female crocodiles are returning year after year to the habitat surrounding Turkey Point to lay their eggs.

And what does the presence of the facility have to do with this? There are two factors. The first is about the plant’s operation:

Its [Turkey Point’s] cooling canals are prime croc habitat and have been credited with helping the crocodiles' recovery in Florida over the last few decades.

And second, there are FPL’s efforts to foster and support the recovery:

Aldecoa is part of a group hired by the state's largest public utility, Florida Power and Light, to monitor the hundreds of crocodiles that roam the swamps surrounding the plant.

Good neighbor policies on the part of business and industry are not new, and many many nuclear energy facilities put a high priority on being good stewards of the land around them and the animals that call the facilities home, but I doubt FPL knew the crocodile expansion would happen until it started happening – so it seems remarkable that it decided to put considerable effort and resources into making sure it continued along a positive path.

Aldecoa and his group search out baby crocs, measure them, affix microchips on them for tracking (many of them end up in adult crocs’ bellies) and help the state keep records on them:

He [Aldecoa] had searched weeks earlier for hatchlings at a spot where he was sure he would find a nest but came up empty. Once he started pounding on the dirt, the grunting from underground began. He dug up 34 crocodiles, "the highlight of the year so far," he said.

The story by Suzette Laboy is very good. By all means, take a read.

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If you want to know more about the return of the crocodile in Florida, try Crocdocs, a site run by the University of Florida. From the site:

The American crocodile has made a comeback in South Florida in areas where suitable habitat remains and in some areas where habitat modification has made it more attractive to crocodiles. Nesting habitat was inadvertently created through construction activities at the Turkey Point Power Plant site, at Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and other locations has to some extent compensated for the loss of nesting habitat elsewhere.

Inadvertent – there’s that word again. And of course, they recognize that the croc population increase has its downside:

Although the presence of crocodiles throughout south Florida is good news for this endangered species, it does present challenges for land and water managers. As crocodiles continue to increase in number and occupy new areas, encounters with humans will increase, thus, more complaints. Therefore we need a proactive educational program describing the recovery of this endangered species. This knowledge could be used to prepare people for the arrival of crocodiles into new areas and aid in the continuation of what is currently a successful recovery program.

I think this is a little overstated – remember, 3000 crocodiles in Florida, about 1.3 million alligators.

A company I worked for had a warehouse in Florida that often attracted alligators to its air conditioning vents, something that erecting fences around the vents could not prevent. Once, an alligator strode right through the front door of the warehouse, causing considerable, shall we say, consternation.

Living with creatures that eye you as food and aren’t always shy about letting you know it certainly provides challenges. Consider it a codicil to the proposition that humans have dominion over the fishes, the fowls and the beasts.

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Now, if I ran Turkey Point, I’d make some hay out of this. This is a genuinely terrific initiative and no amount of cynicism about corporate motivation can make it less so – this is a uncomplicatedly benevolent activity – so why not tout it?

Maybe FPL is classier than I am. It’s actually pretty low key:

About nine-tenths of the Turkey Point property remains in its natural state of mangroves and fresh water wetlands. There are more than 60 known species of birds and animals that inhabit the property. Of these, 17 are endangered.

The endangered American crocodile enjoys a favorable habitat in the plant cooling canal system. We protect the crocodile and conduct research by counting crocodile nests annually to record population changes. More than 3,000 crocodiles have been marked and released, and FPL is committed to continuing protection of the species while encouraging ongoing public education.

FPL is also involved in the Florida Everglades Mitigation Bank. We are returning nearly 13,500 acres of wetlands to their natural, historical condition. We preserve this area to best serve Florida citizens and our own company goals because of the site's ecological value.

Turkey Point was recognized with the top industry award for land management and environmental stewardship.

A salute then to Turkey Point and FPL. Good neighbors, good stewards of the land, a friend to crocs and modest about it, too. Oh – it also produces a lot of electricity, I hear.

This work has been covered quite a bit. Check here (complete with slideshow!), here (video) and here for more.

Mario Aldecoa – looking happier than you’d expect a man holding a crocodile would look.

Less to Wind Energy Milestone Than Meets the Eye

Early this morning, the American Wind Energy Association pushed out some data that caught our eye:

Electricity generated by the doubling of the U.S.’s crop of giant wind turbines in the past four years now equals the output of 11 nuclear power plants, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group representing manufacturers and developers.

After a big build up since 2008, the U.S.’s total wind output currently totals 50,000 megawatts, or 50 gigawatts.

It looks like AWEA has the calculations correct. Fifty gigawatts (GW) of wind at a 30% capacity factor generates about 131,400,000 megawatt-hours of electricity in a year. This is roughly equivalent to the annual generation from 11 new nuclear reactors with an average capacity of 1,400 MW, each operating at a 90% capacity factor. It’s also equivalent to the annual generation of nearly 17 nuclear reactors with an average capacity of 1,000 MW, each at a 90% capacity factor.

This is a great milestone for the wind industry, however, they need to increase their capacity by roughly another 250 GW to equal the annual generation of the U.S. nuclear fleet. For those who haven’t seen our infographic, the amount of land needed by wind to produce the same amount of electricity as nuclear in a year is equal to an area the size of West Virginia.

It’s also worth noting that the quality of power from 50 GW of wind is much different than the quality of power from 11 nuclear reactors. Wind is intermittent, only available in certain locations, requires significant amounts of transmission, and produces the least amount of electricity in a year during the summer and winter months because the heat and cold stifle wind flow.

Nuclear is just the opposite. It produces continuous power 24/7, can be located anywhere, helps maintain grid stability, and produces the most amount of electricity in a year during the summer and winter months (pdf). ‘Nuff said.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Nuclear Emergency Planning Pays Off Big in Iowa

cedar-rapidsWhat becomes nuclear energy most? Many things, but surely, most of all, It has to be safety. The accident in Japan might have made this seem a folly – at first – but polls, and early ones, showed that people in the U.S. understand that the accident there was extraordinary and not reflective of the safety of U.S. plants.

That doesn’t mean that the Fukushima accident did not lead to a drive to improve safety, especially in the area of natural disasters such as the mammoth earthquake and flooding (the United States is not prone to tsunami per se) that overtook Fukushima. But there are other issues, too, including evacuation and access to resources to mitigate harm.

A lot of lessons are emerging from Japan and the industry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission take them very seriously.

So – then – how effective are efforts to protect against events that haven’t happened?

Let’s consider the experience of Cedar Rapids, which is about 50 miles from the Duane Arnold facility. No, there was no accident at Duane Arnold, but there was plenty of preparation for an accident.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Here’s what happened:

In May and early June 2008, tornadoes and floods struck Iowa. The largest single tornado in the state in a 30-year period, an EF-54, struck the town of Parkersburg, Iowa, 85 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids on May 25 and caused millions of dollars in damage, eight deaths, and the mobilization of significant state and local emergency response resources.

Believe it or not, it gets worse and threatens the kind of double disaster that flattened the northeast section of Japan:

The water levels in the Cedar and nearby Iowa Rivers and their tributaries had risen throughout the spring as the agricultural land that covers 74% of the state, still saturated from the heavy winter snow melt and without crop cover, together with an extensive network of subsurface clay drainage tile systems, contributed extensive runoff into the rivers.

This is all from a report called Disaster Resilience recently published by the National Academy of Sciences, which explains the precision of the details. We’ll talk about resilience and what the report means by it a little later.

The narrative goes on to say that the Cedar River did not produce a “100-year flood,” as feared, but a “500-year” flood, much worse – that is, a flood that could be expected to happen only every 500 years. The Cedar River crested at over 31 feet.

What Cedar Rapids needed was an effective risk mitigation strategy, most particularly the risk to people needed to be minimized. Happily, the city already had such a plan; beyond that, essential personnel had drilled on the plan many times.

The city and county have a risk mitigation strategy in place for the nuclear power facility: the city’s emergency planners, hospital personnel, and citizens drill four times a year along established evacuation routes. These drills, including the relocation of essential medical facilities and personnel proved essential during the response to the flooding of the Cedar River into the city in the second week of June 2008.

And the result?

According to the health personnel and emergency responders with whom the committee spoke in their visit to Cedar Rapids, the preparation and planning involved in preparing for that single, human-induced hazard played a large role in the fact that no lives were lost to a different hazard that evolved into a disaster during the flooding in 2008.

I think the reference to a nuclear accident as a “human-induced hazard” means that people erected the plant not that employees there would cause an accident and, by contrast, the flood was a natural disaster.

So, in this instance, an emergency plan intended to keep people well away from radiation kept them equally well away from water run wild – and, let’s repeat from the NAS report, “no lives were lost.” (It is fair to add that, industrial accidents aside, no one died at Fukushima Daiichi, either. But it’s also not fair to minimize the impact of what happened there, so let’s keep the point parenthetical.)

Now, the NAS report is largely about natural disasters and the subject of the report is resilience in the face of them. The report defines resilience thusly:

Resilience: The ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from or more successfully adapt to actual or potential adverse events

Which sounds very much like what the nuclear energy industry is doing.

In the report’s terms, the benefits of preparing for “adverse events” is not only good for mitigating harm to life and property, it even makes sense economically.

For example, the Multi-Hazard Mitigation Council (2005)
found that for every dollar spent on pre-event mitigation related to earthquakes, wind, and flooding, about $4 were saved in post-event damages. Furthermore, the planning and preparation for one type of disaster (such as the nuclear accident planning experience in Cedar Rapids, Iowa), can reap benefits for other types of disasters or unexpected adverse events.

If it seems tacky to bring up money, consider it instead as a finite resource. Draining those resources in the face of one disaster will lead to a lack of resources for the next disaster. And we seem to face more natural disasters in recent years, not fewer.

In fact, the report is really dour about the nation’s preparedness for natural disasters.

An alternative to the resilience vision is the current path of the nation—the status quo in which innovations are not made to increase the nation’s resilience to hazards and disasters. Unless this current path in the nation’s approach towards hazards and disasters is changed, data suggest that the cost of disasters will continue to rise both in absolute dollar amounts and in the losses to the social, cultural, and environmental systems that are part of each community.

It seems to me very striking that a nuclear accident mitigation plan proved so effective in preventing loss of life and limb in a natural disaster. (And it happened in 2008, three years before the accident in Japan.)

The cost of preparing that plan and of working out the kinks in it through drills – to the nuclear industry and to federal, state and local government agencies – paid off is a big way – and in exactly the way it should have, albeit not in response to a nuclear accident – and to the universal benefit of the people of Cedar Rapids.

The NAS report is long enough that I could have missed it, but it  seems that the nuclear energy industry points some useful directions for natural disaster planning that could be more widely adopted – even if it was created to mitigate the effects of a “man-made hazard.”

So - what becomes nuclear energy most? Safety – and the experience of Cedar Rapids.

Cedar Rapids, dangerous swimming hole.

Monday, August 06, 2012

A Nuclear-Powered Space Rover Lands on Mars, Brings New Hope for Space Exploration

“If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space, well, there’s a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”
lat-bcpix_m8bwzdpd20120806073854This statement came from John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, this morning following the landing of a 2,000-pound nuclear-powered space rover, Curiosity, on the surface of Mars. This marks the first time that NASA has ever safely landed a human-made object of this size and weight on the surface of Mars, a notable feat in American engineering.

Early reports from The New York Times describes the rover’s landing on the Red Planet like a scene in a movie script:
As the drama of the landing unfolded, each step proceeded without flaw. The capsule entered the atmosphere at the appointed time, with thrusters guiding it toward the crater. The parachute deployed. Then the rover and rocket stage dropped away from the parachute and began a powered descent toward the surface, and the sky crane maneuver worked as designed. 
“Touchdown confirmed,” Allen Chen, an engineer in the control room, said at 1:32 a.m. Eastern time, followed by cheers, hugs and high-fives. 
Two minutes later, the first image popped onto video screens — a grainy, 64-pixel-by-64-pixel black-and-white image that showed one of the rover’s wheels and the Martian horizon. A few minutes later, a clearer version appeared, and then came another image from the other side of the rover.
This pivotal moment in space exploration is even more exciting because of the far-reaching implications Curiosity’s mission has for the nuclear energy field. The space rover is fully outfitted with an advanced nuclear power system called the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG (for those who like acronyms), to power its large frame over the two-year mission.

Mars CuriosityAshwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, explains that Curiosity needed a good, strong, reliable source of power to keep it going over its two-year mission. Other Mars Exploration Rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—have used solar panels for a source of power, but the engineers have found that they did not have enough power at times to complete their objectives because of dust settling on the panels or during the short days of winter. With Curiosity measuring two times bigger, five times heavier, and holding 15 times the weight in scientific equipment than the former space rovers, Vasavada said that the space rover needed a power generator that would be guaranteed to charge its battery year-round in all types of harsh conditions, which is why the laboratory turned to nuclear energy.

Curiosity’s generator serves a dual purpose: it provides electrical power and heat to the rover. The generator has a capacity of 110 watts of electrical power, which is used to continuously charge the rover’s battery and keep the rover moving and operating its technical devices. The heat that is created can then be pumped off using pipes, but maintain the warmth on the inside of the rover, including the scientific instruments.

Vasavada explains the reasons for selecting the nuclear-powered generator and how it works in the following video:


For a more technical explanation on how the generator works, see this description by Canadian Energy Issues:
Curiosity’s electronics are powered by what’s called a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). An RTG is a device that uses the heat from disintegrating radioisotopes to generate an electric current. In Curiosity’s case the radioisotope is plutonium-238, a strong alpha emitter with a half-life of around 88 years. A disintegrating Pu-238 atom ejects an alpha particle from its nucleus with an energy of 5.5 million electron volts. The ensuing collision between that ultra-high-energy particle and the first material it encounters generates a lot of heat.  
All missions to Mars and beyond are powered with Pu-238. By the time you get out to Mars, solar energy is too weak to generate meaningful amounts of electricity.
Over the course of its mission, Curiosity will be searching for indications that Mars was once habitable, such as examining rocks and other organic matter and sending images and samples back to Earth. The Washington Post says this is the first time NASA has embarked on a mission to Mars since the Viking missions in the 1970s. Since then, scientists have discovered that the planet was once wetter and warmer, which signals improved possibilities for life on the planet.

Photos from Curiosity’s first day on Mars are available on NASA’s website. You can also follow the space rover’s mission on Twitter: @MarsCuriosity and on Facebook: NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover.

Have thoughts to share about Curiosity? Join the conversation about the space rover on NEI’s Facebook page.

For more information on nuclear energy’s applications in outer space, see NEI’s website.
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Photo captions: Image #1: One of the first test images from NASA’s space rover Curiosity upon landing on Mars to signal that everything was operational (credits: NASA TV, via The New York Times).

Image #2: Engineers work on a replica of NASA’s space rover Curiosity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (credits: Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press, via The Los Angeles Times).