Thursday, November 29, 2012

To Space and Beyond With Nuclear Energy

One of the things that you can do with nuclear energy is produce a lot of energy for a long length of time with an exceptionally small amount of uranium – or dilithium crystals, whichever is available. So if you need energy for an extended period of time – say, the time it takes to get from Earth to Mars, then nuclear energy has considerable utility – and you don’t have to worry about dust blocking the sun, as on some of the solar driven rovers.

Now, a group of scientists are thinking bigger – sending astronauts to Mars and beyond and doing it in a way that could get them there and back successfully. This is a barrier that hasn’t been breached, so while this project is in early days, it’s very intriguing.

A team of researchers, including engineers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, this week reported their successful demonstration of a new concept that could provide reliable nuclear power for space exploration. The technology is still years away from the warp drive of Star Trek, but it could provide a means of propulsion for space travel beyond the moon.

I’m not sure warp speed is even a goal, but fine – it’s hard to avoid Star Trek in this context. And as long as this is what you’re up to, why not dream big? Pluto, anyone?

"We could have a nuclear-powered rocket that could get to Pluto in two years; whereas a chemical rocket would take seven years," said Paul Czysz, Ph.D., professor of aeronautical engineering at Parks College.

"We think it is the enabling technology," he told TechNewsWorld. "If you are really going to do something on this scale, you need to have something other than chemical rockets."

This article doesn’t say so, but even with this as a fanciful extension of the project, you probably couldn’t get astronauts out to Pluto and back with this technology – at least, not alive. And keeping the space travellers alive is a goal of this project.

Anyway, here’s what this gaggle of rocket scientists are up to:

"This is really a new old system, as it is a new platform build on an old technology," said Michael Podowski, Ph.D., professor of nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

"The Stirling engine is an old one," he pointed out, but "the concept is very healthy. The nuclear factor is not an issue at this point. However, [achieving] efficiency will require a lot more work.

"While the concept is interesting and it makes good use of the elements involved," Podowski told TechNewsWorld, "it will require more work. It is as simple as that."

How old is the Stirling engine? – think 19th century old. The article doesn’t really describe its characteristics very well, so I went over to How Stuff Works for a fuller explanation.

The Stirling engine is a heat engine that is vastly different from the internal-combustion engine in your car. Invented by Robert Stirling in 1816, the Stirling engine has the potential to be much more efficient than a gasoline or diesel engine. But today, Stirling engines are used only in some very specialized applications, like in submarines or auxiliary power generators for yachts, where quiet operation is important. Although there hasn't been a successful mass-market application for the Stirling engine, some very high-power inventors are working on it.

I guess the writer means the deep space scientists as well as others. But what is it about the Stirling engine that might work in a nuclear application? I’d point to these:

The gasses used inside a Stirling engine never leave the engine. There are no exhaust valves that vent high-pressure gasses, as in a gasoline or diesel engine, and there are no explosions taking place. Because of this, Stirling engines are very quiet.

So it appears to have a variation on a containment chamber. But it looks like the nuclear reaction would happen outside the engine:

The Stirling cycle uses an external heat source, which could be anything from gasoline to solar energy to the heat produced by decaying plants. No combustion takes place inside the cylinders of the engine.

A possible scenario would be to use reactors like those on nuclear submarines to drive the engine.

I’m still curious that no one has found a sizeable niche for these engines – I tend to be suspicious of “miracle” technologies that can’t gain traction – especially in nearly 200 years. That can mean scalability problems – I’ve read that it’s a big mechanism for the power it can generate. On the other hand, the engine’s ability to output a constant level of energy without much variation likely hurts it in an automotive context, but might be beneficial for a rocket.

In any event, this is an interesting development that might allow humanity to break through the artificial barrier between the moon and the rest of space. Maybe we won’t have to wait for dilithium crystals to send astronauts to Pluto.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Aliens or Nuclear Energy –That’s Your Choice

Fitting the quotidian into the eternal can be a heavy lift, as demonstrated by this article in the Huffington Post:

He spoke about Fukushima and how we do not really know how much radiation has already or will in the future rain down on us. Fukushima is still unstable yet we hear very little about it anymore. Sungjand Rinpoche said, « Fukushima releases a lot of radioactivity in the sky and it can fall on America, Alaska, China, Russia and Europe. We should end all nuclear energy because even that can be like a nuclear bomb. It will kill everybody. The main point is in society we have to change the insatisfaction [sic?] and selfishness to Love ».

Well, no, it isn’t releasing a lot of radioactivity in the sky and nuclear energy has no capacity to kill everybody. But you know, if you do believe that, you may as well set your cap on changing selfishness to love. That’s certainly a good goal.

He repeated that we were destroying the future for our children, destroying the planet, and bringing about destruction which in Buddhist teachings is usually left to unkind, technologically advanced aliens travelling to Earth to bring about the Shambalic [ed: I think the author means Shambhalic] ending of this world.

What does one say to this? Holding views sincerely don’t make them more correct.

This plain-speaking young man in his deep red and gold robes, praying with such intent for all of us, a living Buddha in his own right, expressed a deep compassion for the suffering of the entire planet and all of the living beings on it as he spoke of the nuclear threat.

Rinpoche is described as “the reincarnation, by the Dalai Lama, of the 4th Ngawang Drakpa, the disciple of Je Tsong Khapa who founded the school of Dalaï-lamas in the 15th century.”

Let’s let one of the commenters at the Huffington Post weigh in:

Perhaps Fukushima is being forgotten because radioisotopes are extremely easy to detect and track, and to date there are no deaths, and the total projected impact on human health is certainly smaller than the number of lung cancer cases caused by coal activities every hour. Yet, it is not being forgotten, because it is constantly being brought up as some sort of catastrophic extinction event by anti-nuclear activists. I work with nuclear and particle physics on a daily basis at Los Alamos, am trained and educated in the impact of radiation and the ways radioisotopes can reach humans, and know enough details of fundamental reality to be able to filter the comments of a Buddhist. Carbon Dioxide is the real enemy, don't ever forget it, and don't mistrust nuclear: its actually here to save us from ourselves.

This fellow identifies as Joey 03. “Catastrophic extinction event,” even by anti-nuclear advocates, seems an extreme characterization, but Sungjand Rinpoche believes it can lead to such. Although he holds some of the same views as an anti-nuclear activist, I would put him in a different class.

I think we can call Rinpoche wrong about Fukushima and nuclear energy without dismissing the positive qualities ascribed to him and expressed by him – and which are positive and life-affirming even if more readily accessible to Shambhala Buddhists. He isn’t primarily a pundit and, in a way, I wish the article had been on other subjects because focusing on nuclear energy probably sells Rinpoche short.

The least we can do is provide Rinpoche reading material. NEI posts its Fukushima update each week on its Safety First web site. The latest edition is here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Here Comes Thanksgiving

thanksgiving-vintage-postcardOn TV:

The Stivics' Thanksgiving visit is ruined when Archie finds out that the Meathead lost his job for marching against nuclear energy---in the nude. Mike: Rob Reiner. Edith: Jean Stapleton. Gloria: Sally Struthers. Murray: Martin Balsam. Stephanie: Danielle Brisebois. Barney: Allan Melvin.

Ah, the 70s – where an awful lot happened in the nude. I’m not sure why they left out Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker.

But surely nuclear energy must have something to contribute to the day:

I assume that you all know how a nuclear reactor works. In the oven idea, instead of steam spinning a turbine, it flows around an open topped box which food may be placed in, and viola a nuclear oven!

Viola! A perfect turkey in milliseconds.

Something to contribute, for real. In Oswego County, N.Y.:

Despite a downturn in donations, Catholic Charities’ food pantry will provide more than 250 families with all the fixings for a complete Thanksgiving meal.

“It has been a very challenging year,” said Helen Hoefer, supervisor of Catholic Charities’ Community Services Program. “Thanks to the generosity of businesses such as Fidelis, who supplied the distribution bags, employees of Constellation Energy Nuclear Group’s Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station, who adopted families, and other community members we are able to continue to distribute Thanksgiving food baskets.”

Not an unusual occurrence. Nuclear energy facilities are exceptionally good neighbors.

For example:

From Pilgrim in Massachusetts (how appropriate is this?), a wrap-up of 2011 activities:

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station's chapters of Women in Nuclear (WIN) and our North American-Young Generation (NA-YGN) [both associated with NEI – ed.] had another productive year. Together, these chapters conducted a "Fly the Flag" campaign that involved selling American flags as a fundraiser to support outreach programs, in particular our soldiers serving overseas; conducted a Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station campaign to raise funds as part of a Japan relief effort; hosted a Thanksgiving Day food drive; and sponsored a Christmas Toys for Tots campaign supporting Children's Cove in Hyannis, a center for abused children as well as a Winter clothing donation campaign.

I’m sure 2012 will be equally busy.

But something’s missing in all this - the nuclear energy that really matters on Thanksgiving Day.

No matter what family drama occurs throughout the year, on Thanksgiving, my complete nuclear family sits down together, gives thanks and eats pavo en chile rojo over Manischewitz, a seasonal sweet Jewish wine.

Turkey or pavo (or dindon or Puten). And your nuclear family and atomic friends.

Happy Thanksgiving from your atomic friends at NEI Nuclear Notes!

Monday, November 19, 2012

“Easy to shut down a nuclear power plant, but…”

kohler
Stephan Kohler
We’ve left Germany alone for awhile, you may have noticed. We perhaps overstressed the country’s difficulties in its projected transition from nuclear energy to (mostly) renewable energy sources. Maybe there was too much glee on our part at what is, after all, a terrible decision. The Germans have a word for that glee. It’s Schadenfreude, taking delight in other’s misery, and it’s not an attractive quality whatever motivates it.

Still … Still … there are things to say about this that are genuinely germane and instructive. Along these lines, I was very impressed by an interview Der Spiegel had with the German Energy Agency’s President, Stephan Kohler. Their chat contains a notably balanced look at the difficulties the country has set for itself. Here’s a sampler:
It's easy to shut down a nuclear power plant, but that doesn't mean you have something to replace it with. We know today, for example, that we don't have enough reliable power plant capacity in southern Germany to be able to offset the loss of nuclear energy.
Why can’t the country replace nuclear energy one-to-one with renewable energy sources?
When a new wind farm is opened and we're told how many thousands of households it can supply with electricity, that number applies to only a quarter of our demand. In Germany, 75 percent of electricity goes to industry, for which a secure supply -- that is, at every second, and with constant voltage -- is indispensable. Neither solar nor wind power are suitable for that purpose today. Both fluctuate and provide either no secure supply or only a small fraction of a secure supply. Solar energy has a load factor of about 1,000 hours a year. But there are 8,670 hours in a year.
But solar energy in particular can generate, on sunny days, a large amount of electricity. Isn’t that a good thing?
I don't want to bore you with the details, but a surplus and fluctuations lead to very unpleasant systemic effects. We have voltage fluctuations within the grid that create problems for industry. Or we overload the grids in neighboring countries. Poland is in the process of installing technical equipment to protect its grids by keeping out surplus German electricity.
Kohler goes on to make the point that many current wind and solar installations have been sited without much consideration of whether the electricity is needed there or even whether the installation can even connect to the grid without substantial new build. Additionally, where the energy isn’t needed – such as wind power in the north – there is no way to transmit the electricity to the south where it could be used. The transmission lines have to be updated first.

What Kohler describes is fairly messy, with a lot of moving parts (and expensive ones, too) that have not adequately been addressed. I found this statement to be especially telling:
In the 1970s, they believed that there is an annual 6-percent linear increase in the demand for electricity. That number was used to estimate how many nuclear power plants had to be built. … I thought the calculations were fundamentally wrong. Today we have a solar and wind euphoria, instead of a nuclear euphoria. We believe that there will be a 10-percent decline in electricity consumption by 2020. And, once again, we assume that this change will be linear. But I'm sure that we're probably going to be wrong this time, too.
Energy choices as a fad. Kohler is clearly interested in the environmental impacts of different energy sources and favors an increased use of renewable energy, though not at the expense of nuclear power. In this interview, though, he is focused on the implications of current German energy policy – and not thinking much of it.

Do read the whole thing – you’ll learn a lot about the complexities of delivering electricity steadily. It shows that energy policy matters a lot in achieving this. Making arbitrary changes to policy hurts the national treasury and ultimately, will hurt badly the people (and industries) who must have reliable electricity to thrive.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Indifferent to Nuclear Energy, Against Wind Power

Former Vice President Al Gore has never been the biggest advocate of nuclear energy:

In 2009, he said he saw it playing "a somewhat larger role" in the energy mix because of climate change and efforts to cut carbon emissions. "I'm not a reflexive opponent of nuclear. I used to be enthusiastic about it, but I'm now skeptical about it," he told the Guardian at the time.

But at least three years ago, not it biggest detractor, either. I think it’s fair to say that he is currently indifferent to it.

"It will play a role, but probably a limited role. I think the waste issue can probably be solved, and Fukushima notwithstanding, the safety of operation issue can probably be solved. But the cost is absurdly high and still rising," he wrote during a question and answer session on Reddit to promote his 24-hour Climate Reality webcast on the links between fossil fuels and extreme weather.

That happened Wednesday into Thursday. If the webcast fit your interest, you probably knew that. For everyone else, you can view some highlights here.

And Gore? Well, a bunch of countries, including the U.S., are throwing up a fair number of nuclear facilities – the World Nuclear Association pins it at 60. So Gore’s intuition simply sounds to me an expression of indifference. His interests are really elsewhere.

And that’s fine. I genuinely admire public figures like Gore who leverage their celebrity into good works. There are plenty who don’t. So Gore is indifferent to nuclear energy – so Bill Gates is all in. Let them do what makes them content. It’s all good.

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The Guardian seems to be on a roll with antipathetic energy figures. First Gore and now Conservative energy minister, John Hayes. In Hayes’ case, he really dislikes wind power.

In a letter to the chief executive of South Holland district council, seen by the Guardian, the energy minister said: "Wind turbines … create barely a trickle of non-storable electricity and none at all when wind speed is unsuitable. They will always have to be backed up by conventional power stations because of their unreliability. Because the wind by nature is intermittent and cannot generate a steady output of energy to supply constant demand, even thousands of wind turbines won't replace gas or nuclear power generation."

Unlike Gore, who can influence policy only indirectly, Hayes is the power in this realm, so he can move markets as well as policy.

His views will do nothing to reassure investors who are nervous about the battle within the government over energy policy. Several large multinational companies are holding off their final decisions on investments totaling tens of billions of pounds into wind turbine manufacturing plants in the UK because of the perceived political turmoil over the renewables issue.

To be fair, there is pushback:

His complaints were rebuffed by Maf Smith, deputy chief executive of RenewableUK who said it was a myth that wind farms were "unreliable". "Modern wind turbines are highly efficient – they generate electricity for 85% of the time. Just last week, National Grid announced that another record amount was being generated by wind – 13.5% of the UK's entire electricity needs. As we install more turbines onshore and offshore this is set to increase to 30% by the end of the decade."

Let’s take Smith at his word – though his numbers seem awfully high – and add that if I were him, the letter from Hayes would make me very nervous.

I’ll stop here since wind really isn’t our brief, but it’s interesting to see anything resembling an anti-wind crusade – there’s another story at The Guardian about a prospective parliamentary candidate who conspired with a newspaper columnist to run as an anti-wind candidate. This caused a kerfluffle, but I don’t understand British politics well enough to untangle it. See what you think.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A First Look at the World Energy Outlook

The International Energy Agency released its key annual report, World Energy Outlook, today and in it, makes a number of striking forecasts about the profile of energy.

And forecast is the right word – the IEA takes the pulse of energy markets as they stand today and projects them out to about 2035. These are not Nostradamus-like predictions of the future. The forecasts vary in detail from year to year, but are useful to policymakers and to those interested in energy-related issues.

This year, the IEA report has stirred some controversy.

In an indication how “fracking” is reshaping the global energy picture, the International Energy Agency today projected that the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2017.

And within just three years, the United States will unseat Russia as the largest producer of natural gas.

The response to this assertion has been mixed. Rob Wile at Business Insider polled his sources and found a decided lack of support:

But Manuj Nikhanj, the lead oil play analyst at research firm ITG, emailed us to there is no way that output alone would be able to meet U.S. demand, which already stands at 19 million barrels per day:

Do they mean energy independence on a million BTU basis including natural gas? The US consumes 19 million barrels of oil per day, so not sure how you become independent with less than 10 million barrels per day of production (based on the media chart they put out).

Nikhanj speculates that Canadian oil may fill the gap, but the IEA does not make that clear.

Another analysts dismisses this idea:

David McColl, who covers oil and gas stocks for Morningstar, emailed us to say Canada wouldn't be able to fill the gap either:

Consider Canada - on its own it isn’t likely to meet those needs, and they may be exporting more significant volumes overseas by 2020 as well. This means some U.S. refineries will still be relying on oil imports, which will likely be priced to international markets.

Bold in original. Even if the IEA has been exceptionally optimistic in its assessment, the U.S. is becoming more energy independent. That part isn’t in dispute. And remember – these forecasts are not meant to be predictive.

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And nuclear energy? Glad you asked:

“Our projections for growth in installed nuclear capacity are lower than in last year’s Outlook and, while nuclear output still grows in absolute terms (driven by expanded generation in China, Korea, India and Russia), its share in the global electricity mix falls slightly over time,” a trend likely to drive up the fossil fuel import bills and make it harder to meet emissions reduction targets aimed at slowing climate change.

This is especially true of Japan and Germany. Nuclear energy will still play a role in Japan but not Germany, which wants to move to renewable energy sources. Until it can do that, it will depend on its plentiful coal supply. As the report points out, this does carbon emission reduction goals no good.

A little more about the atom (really, the same thing put a little differently):

Although some OECD countries, particularly Germany and Japan, are cutting back on nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, nuclear power is still expected to account for 12 percent of global electricity generation by 2035, thanks to increased use of nuclear power in China, Korea and Russia.

This is based on what IEA sees happening today – that 12 percent can grow (and hopefully not shrink) in subsequent forecasts – there are enough countries with nascent industries to suggest future growth.

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The IEA is starkly negative about the world’s response to climate change:

“Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path. Global energy demand grows by more than one-third over the period to 2035 in the New Policies Scenario (our central scenario), with China, India and the Middle East accounting for 60% of the increase,” the report said.

Scenarios are projections based on different assumptions. The New Policies Scenario, for example, flows from policies in place today. Other scenarios make different assumptions, notably different energy mixes - for example, greater use of nuclear energy with all other assumptions left the same. These can be interesting in that they can show better or worse outcomes that policymakers can pursue (or avoid). The base scenario is fairly direct – if nuclear energy capacity doesn’t grow, carbon emission goals become harder to reach.

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You can visit the IEA yourself to get an idea of the organization’s work, but not to read the report – unless you want to pony up the 120 euro for the pdf. I’m basing this first look on published stories, but I expect to see the outlook itself soon – I know I’m interested in looking at the different scenarios and will post on them here.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Mobilizing across many miles for mutual assistance

No doubt you know that thousands upon thousands of utility workers are battling extraordinary conditions around the clock to try and restore power for hundreds of thousands of people along the Mid-Atlantic coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and then this week's Nor'easter. Some portions of the Northeast this week received a foot of snow on top of downed power lines and flooded out neighborhoods from last week. What you may not fully appreciate is the range and breadth of dedicated help that arrives when significant storms overwhelm local utilities and their power restoration efforts.

Electric companies impacted by significant outages routinely call on sister utilities to help speed power restoration. Men and women from utilities from all corners of the country have descended most particularly upon New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in an all-hands mission known as Mutual Assistance. The Edison Electric Institute formally established its Mutual Assistance Program in 1955, and it has become the cornerstone of utility assistance during emergencies. EEI has a fabulous tally of the mutual assistance efforts in the East to date.

According to EEI, more homes and businesses lost power as a result of Sandy than from any other storm . . . in history. Hundreds of thousands remained without power this week when the snow-making Nor'easter arrived. The almost unfathomable plight of so many in the East quickly caught the attention of power companies out West. Pacific Gas and Electric dispatched fully 250 of its workers to the Northeast. The deployment is believed to represent the company's largest assistance effort ever for a fellow utility. And Southern California Edison sent nearly 200 of its workers East to assist.

PG&E and SCE rank among the largest of America's electric utilities, meaning they could bring to bear significant resources in personnel and equipment for the storm recovery.

Among the hundreds of relief and restoration workers sent from California are underground and overhead damage-assesment personnel, electric field safety specialists, tree trimmers, and line workers. This was a real battalion of hard hats and suitcases shipped thousands of miles to a region that in many respcts still resembles a war zone.

Many PG&E personnel were enjoying the telecast of their beloved San Francisco Giants clinching the World Series on October 29 when supervisors rang their phones and instructed them to pack up and ship out. Though line workers often are on jobs for weeks at a time, the mission in this instance necessarily brought great uncertainty about the conditions workers would encounter.

Both California utilities sent more than manpower, too: heavy equipment -- some 630 tons worth! -- including bucket trucks and line trucks. The United States Air Force, at the behest of President Obama, deployed six C-5 and eight C-17 transport cargo aircraft to move the utilities' relief equipment across the country, much of it coming from Southern Cal Edison.

A good many of the California utility workers had never been to the greater New York region, let alone attempted to restore power through hurricane ("Frankenstorm") conditions, including the arrival of a very early winter. The workers were told to bring rain gear and a sweater -- not much comfort for a foot of snow. These workers have exhibited extraordinary bravery and dedication, and many will remain thousands of miles from family for weeks while carrying out their restoration efforts.

"We arrived late Thursday, November 1, and began dispatching our crews in coordination with local utilities on Saturday (after Sandy)," Southern California Edison's Dan Chung told me. "Our personnel have been working 16-hour days, yet I've personally witnessed nothing but the highest morale amongst the crew. They've worked through rain, 35-mph winds, sleet, and even a foot of snow."

In nuclear plant operations, there's longstanding protocol to mobilize and assist as needed the moment word arrives of a neighbor plant experiencing a technical or safety challenge. Among electricty utilities, that same spirit of assistance has been in place more than 50 years, getting homes and businesses powered back up faster than they otherwise would.

“We are in the midst of a great American story,” said EEI president Tom Kuhn of the ongoing utility assistance.

The IAEA Annual Report

iaea
IAEA Director Yukiya Amano
The International Atomic Energy Agency is important, in part, because it encourages, supports and helps organize the regulatory and safety regimes necessary to have a viable domestic nuclear energy industry. Countries with mature industries – the United States, France, Russia, etc. – may not need that kind of assistance, but they all participate in the IAEA’s activities to support it. The IAEA is like the engine that allows the nuclear energy industry to motor ahead globally. (Terrible analogy – I don’t think countries want to be seen as cogs.)

So, I’m always keenly interested in the IAEA’s annual report to its home base, the United Nations. A lot of the report is routine speech filler, but it’s always intriguing to see how the organization characterizes the world of nuclear energy and nuclear energy in the world. To an extent, it informs how nuclear energy will be discussed over the next year and the issues that may gain prominence.

You can read IAEA Director Yukiya Amano’s statement here. He didn’t deliver it to the U.N. General Assembly as he usually does, a benign casualty of Hurricane Sandy. I’ll highlight a couple of portions here and leave the rest to you. It’s pretty long.

On safety following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi:
Measures have been taken to improve protection against extreme hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Countries are upgrading their emergency preparedness and response capabilities. IAEA safety standards are being reviewed. Our program of expert peer review services is being expanded. A key priority for all nuclear power plant operators has been establishing reliable back-up electricity supply in the event of a prolonged blackout.
Already, it is fair to say that nuclear power is safer than it was before the Fukushima Daiichi accident. But the process of ensuring that the right lessons are learned will continue for many years. It is essential that the Action Plan is implemented in full.
The expansion of expert peer review is very promising. The IAEA has repeatedly floated the idea of international safety standards, in some iterations with an enforcement component. But it has always proven problematic because it raises issues of national sovereignty and cultural priorities. The U.N. prefers consensus, which is very difficult to achieve.

The peer reviews, though, provide a framework of cooperation that should be warmly greeted, allowing new or small industries to stand up and operate regulatory authorities and implement a safety culture. Take a look at this peer review report on Slovakia to see how this can work – you can find a lot more on the subject on the IAEA Web site. The peer reviews (really they’re executive summaries done as press releases) are really interesting to read through.

On the future of nuclear energy:
Nuclear power remains a growth area globally, despite the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Growth is likely to be slower than we anticipated before the accident. But our latest projections show a steady rise in the number of nuclear power plants in the world in the next 20 years.

The IAEA works very closely with what we call newcomer countries - those which are building, or plan to build, their first nuclear power plants. The United Arab Emirates recently became the first country in 27 years to start building its first nuclear power plant. Countries as diverse as Vietnam, Bangladesh, Poland and Belarus plan to follow suit.
We’ve written about many of these countries here – I’ve linked to samples above. And there’s a lot on the UAE – use the search box on that one.

There’s a good deal more, on a number of topics – be sure to take a look at the sections about nonproliferation – but we’ll stop here.

The bottom line for me is the statement above – “Nuclear power remains a growth area globally, despite the Fukushima Daiichi accident.” We touched on this in the last post – that is, the relationship between public support of nuclear energy and the accident in Japan. That nuclear energy is growing globally is positive generally and it also offers a strong opportunity for American manufacturing – a lot of very specialized plant parts are made here. It wouldn’t hurt the trade balance, either.

I always find the IAEA’s activities very interesting and on-point, even when I don’t always agree with its proposals and outcomes. I can’t begin to compare the agency’s effectiveness against, say, UNICEF, but it seems an exceptionally functional and useful U.N. effort to keep countries synced up on nuclear energy.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Pitfalls of Arguing Against Nuclear Energy

There’s little to agree with in Lucy Birmingham’s editorial against nuclear energy in Time, but I must admit, I enjoyed it. She argues her points with reasonable data points, not as common as one might hope, even if the conclusion she comes to doesn’t really follow the data.

As Sandy made landfall on Atlantic City, Oyster Creek nuclear power plant nearby was fortunately on a scheduled outage. But Indian Point 3 in Buchanan, N.Y., Nine Mile Point 1 in Scriba, N.Y., and Salem Unit 1 in Hancocks Bridge, N.J., all experienced shutdowns because of high water levels or electrical disruption.

This is all factual – a nuclear facility will also shut down if winds heading toward it surpass 75 miles per hour. This happened at Waterford 3 in the face of Hurricane Isaac. This is what you want to happen. Birmingham, however, sees this and harsh weather in general as dangerous to nuclear energy plants.

Equally dangerous are drought and record heat conditions the U.S. experienced last summer. In August, one of two reactors at the Millstone nuclear power plant near New London, Conn., not far from where I grew up, was shut down because water in Long Island Sound needed to cool the reactors got too warm.

Again, this isn’t a negative action on the part of the facility. I agree that terrible heat conditions can be dangerous, but not due to its effect on a nuclear facility. As you can see, Birmingham is sticking to a correct fact set – it’s a fact set that leads me to an opposite  conclusion than hers, but there you go.

Another good approach she uses is to acknowledge the benefits of nuclear energy. When you want to make a case, it helps credibility to not demonize your opponent.

Of course, nuclear power can bring significant economic benefits. The Nuclear Energy Institute states that every year the average U.S. plant generates about $470 million in sales and services and about $40 million in total labor income to local communities.

There’s more along these lines, too, with information gleaned from NEI – don’t want to get too horn-tooty, but it’s all true.

But then the entire argument goes to pieces in the clutch.

But we must weigh the risks. It’s estimated that superstorm Sandy will affect more than one fifth of Americans and cost up to $20 billion in damages. Imagine the addition of a major nuclear accident, potentially more lethal than Three Mile Island.

Here’s the thing: Three Mile Island was non-lethal. No one died as a result of it. That not corporate spin – that’s the fact. Allowing that to be written in Time does no favor to the magazine’s credibility. That’s the one major fail in this article, but it’s a big one.

But more relevant to the overall thrust is that Americans have weighed the risks against the benefits and decided that nuclear energy, as run by the U.S. industry, is safe. Not “safe enough” – safe. (If you don’t want to depend at an industry-sponsored poll to show this, here’s Gallup.) This factors in reactions to the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, of course, and while it’s not dismissed, it is also not seen as determinative on views of the American industry.

Now, I read a lot of ridiculous screeds against nuclear energy, full of fear mongering and, shall we say, inventive fictionalization. But Birmingham has racked up the pros and cons in a reasonably fair way and come out, in her case, con.

That’s allowed – it just doesn’t align with what the facts mean to most other people, much less myself, and it depends on hypotheticals that the industry already handles quite well. There may be reasons to fear the weather – but  nuclear energy is not one of them.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Hurricane This Time

Oyster creek
Oyster Creek
It’s so annoying when things don’t go your way. Take Hurricane Sandy:
Critics of U.S. nuclear-safety requirements said a few breaks, including that reactors such as Oyster Creek were idled for refueling, prevented a disaster, and that plants need stiffer government standards to cope with a likely increase in the number and severity of storms.
This is akin to a losing politician saying that he would have won if only his competitor had committed adultery (murder, treason, take your pick). If only Oyster Creek had run into major problems, it would have proven how dangerous it is – ah, if only. 

This amusing example of  negative wish fulfillment comes from a Bloomberg story about nuclear energy facilities weathering Hurricane Sandy quite well. Even if there was no reason to expect any of the 34 reactors in the storm’s path to develop major problems, the post-Fukushima environment in which the storm took place means that we must expect stories like this – though the actual content is now differently organized than it was after, say, the Virginia earthquake. The lede is no longer – well, like the paragraph above.

Instead:
Hurricane Sandy’s wrath shows that U.S. regulators should swiftly implement nuclear-safety rules developed after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, a top lawmaker said, as industry officials said the lack of major problems during the storm showed that they were ready. 
Although the top lawmaker is not a great supporter of nuclear energy, the industry broadly agrees with his sentiment. In fact, the story even focuses on FLEX (an industry initiative the NRC agrees is a useful approach to disaster preparedness) though without naming it:
Reactor owners have begun buying mobile equipment, including pumps and generators to have in the event of an emergency. While Chicago-based Exelon has installed portable, diesel-fueled pumps at its facilities in response to the NRC’s Fukushima regulations, the company didn’t need to use them to respond to Hurricane Sandy, David Tillman, a spokesman for Exelon Nuclear, said in an e-mail.
If there are going to be stories about nuclear facilities not falling over every time nature raises its ferocious head and roars, reporters stuck with the assignment should reference what  Kasia Klimasinska and Brian Wingfield have done here. Well worth a read.---
The tone of the Bloomberg story echoed through a number of stories I read about the hurricane’s impact on the energy sector, whether nuclear or not. National Geographic's story covers several sectors; when discussing nuclear, it bluntly sets its interest in the shadow of Fukushima:
Oyster Creek shares the same design as Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, which suffered a catastrophic meltdown after the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. 
Oyster Creek again. But:
At Oyster Creek that didn't happen. The plant declared an "alert" for 36 hours when winds and heavy rains generated tides 6.8 feet above mean sea level at its water intake on the Forked River. But the water never rose high enough to impact the operation of plant equipment. When the electricity from the New Jersey grid went out, two locomotive-sized backup diesel generators started automatically and continued to power the crucial pumps that circulate cooling fluid through the reactor and the pool where spent fuel rods are stored. Cooling systems also continued to function at all three other nuclear reactors that experienced shutdowns—Indian Point and Nine Mile Point in New York, and Salem in New Jersey.
The writer here even garnered a similar sourpuss reaction as at Bloomberg, this time from David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists:
The Fukushima plant wasn't of appreciably lower quality or poorly constructed compared to the U.S. plants," Lochbaum said. "It was given a much more severe challenge. None of our reactors would have survived that either."
That’s called a bald assertion, with no evidence at all to back it up. 

Another story worth a fuller read.
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The coverage I've seen has been largely positive, if informed by intimations of potential trouble. By way of contrast, over at Forbes, writer James Conca goes all out for nuclear energy:
Nuclear did best of all. Natural gas, not so well. Houses built on shifting sand, very badly.
Nuclear power plants had no problems riding out the storm. Although many ideologues tried to stoke fear about how we were going to have a Fukushima here in America, and how we only narrowly averted it, there was never any real danger.
That’s exactly correct, though as we’ve seen, writers have been fair in noting that the plants did not crumple despairingly at the sight of Sandy. But these other stories at least faintly imply, and included quotes from people who directly said, that the industry dodged a bullet. Oyster Creek was being refueled – whew! Indian Point didn’t have to face a tsunami – phew! In reality, no bullet was dodged because the hammer was never cocked – Oyster Creek and other facilities operated exactly as expected.

Conca’s article acts as a partial corrective to the worried tone found elsewhere by directly making this point - which happens to be true.

---The stories linked here all do a good and thorough job. What’s most important about them from my perspective is that they recognize – after the wild weather ride of the last two years – that nuclear energy plants, much like other power plants, are well able to withstand the elements. 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Guest Post: Responding to Anti-Nuclear Fearmongering

Earlier today, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Phillip Lipscy, Kenji Kushida and and Trevor Incert entitled, "Protecting nuclear plants from nature's worst." Steve Kerekes, NEI's Director of Media Relations, left the following comment in response at WashingtonPost.com:
This is a pathetic case of opportunistic fear-mongering. To the extent that there really is public concern about U.S. nuclear plants’ ability to withstand extreme events, it centers around what MIGHT happen in fantastical scenarios. This week, here’s what actually DID happen: The largest Atlantic storm ever recorded slammed into the New Jersey shore, creating record human and property devastation, yet every nuclear energy facility in this super-storm’s path – including the oldest nuclear plant in operation – managed through it safely and expertly with no threat or damage. Every … single … one.

Does this mean we should stop looking for safer ways to operate? Of course not, and we never will. At this very moment, the public has the opportunity to comment to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on draft guidance that nuclear energy facilities would use to perform flooding hazard assessments as part of the response activities under way to the Fukushima Daiichi accident. This is being done with an eye toward providing another layer of protection above and beyond those that already exist and that make nuclear energy facilities exceedingly capable of withstanding extreme events of all kinds.

The authors – who somehow seem to think that natural events can affect only nuclear facilities and nothing else around them – are simply are wrong in claiming that facilities on the Eastern seaboard have “minimal protection” against inundation. The Salem/Hope Creek plant, for example, is designed for a category 4 hurricane arriving during high tide and a full moon. During Hurricane Sandy, the plant saw river levels consistent with some of the highest levels in its past (between 97 and 98 feet). This was still below the facility’s site grade and more than 20 feet below the water levels it is designed for.

As objective observers seek to better cope with devastating events like Hurricane Sandy, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’ll identify other priorities for action before they feel a need to better fortify the nuclear energy facilities that are our nation’s largest source of low-carbon electricity.
For the latest information on how the nuclear industry has been applying lessons learned from Fukushima since the March 2011 accident, please visit SafetyFirst.nei.org.