Thursday, January 30, 2014

Friendships and Lasting Lessons from Training at Palo Verde

The following post was submitted by John Keeley, NEI's Senior Manager of Media Relations. We posted a video featuring John back on January 10 when he was about to begin a training course at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station on nuclear power plant systems. John completed the course this week and submitted this summary.

Against all odds – and certainly counter to any wagers my science instructors from my formal education would have made – I passed Palo Verde’s Plant Systems course this month. Michael Sexton and I shot another video about my odyssey, titled ‘Miracle in the Desert,’ and in it I attempt to articulate how powerfully meaningful success in the course is to me. I’m returning to NEI next week, Plant Systems diploma proudly in hand, and some time Monday morning I hope to walk into the office of my CEO, Marv Fertel, and thank him for making so significant an investment in my professional development.

NEI's John Keeley
Scott Bell, who led our instruction, is a very special spirit in the Training Center. His is a caliber of classroom I’d never experienced. It’s dynamic, interactive, and fabulously collegial. Perhaps best of all, learning in it is fun. Bell is a subject matter expert across a wide spectrum of plant operations here, but just as importantly, he wants his students to succeed and he wants his graduates to make Palo Verde a safer site. He worked us hard for four weeks, he made us master an exhaustive and exhausting breadth of material, but along the way he also regularly made us laugh, which I believe aided our learning. I learned a lot I think about learning from Bell.

One evening I shared a walk to the main parking lot with a site engineer who in the course of discussing Palo Verde’s history with me likened the site to Rocky Balboa, from the Rocky movies. And it’s true, not all that long ago Palo Verde was on the canvas with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Today however Palo Verde is in fine fighting spirit, and triumphant; it isn’t merely one of the finest operating generation facilities in our fleet but one of the best in the world. Now the hard part: you’ve got to maintain that operational excellence.

I needed only a few weeks here to realize that this is a special place. Scott Bell wants his students to appreciate how special and unique our technology is, but I want you to know how special what you do every day is. We in this industry make electricity safely and efficiently every day, but we also do so with a distinctive environmental stewardship. We power millions of homes and businesses without emitting carbon and other atmospheric pollutants. You don’t have to possess outsized environmental sensibilities to work in nuclear, but if you care about the quality of air we breathe ours is a wonderful industry to call home. This is a central message in the wonderful documentary ‘Pandora’s Promise.’ Watch it if you haven’t already and remember again how special you are.

A few words about the very warm welcome I was accorded here. A month is a long time to be away from home, but I made so many new friends here this month that I think of Palo Verde as a home away from home. A group of security officers and facilities managers invited me to join their Monday golf outings. A classmate wondered when next I’d return so I could use his cabin up near Sedona. I truly believe the Starbucks study group I was welcomed into ensured my passing Plant Systems. Special and lasting bonds, Bell informed us, are forged in his classroom. He’s right, but I also forged some just about everywhere I walked on site.
Palo Verde from Wintersburg Road
In my final days here Palo Verde personnel often asked me what I would miss most about spending January in the Arizona desert, figuring I’d identify the wondrous weather. This is a terrific outpost most particularly when Old Man Winter is putting a serious hurting on much of the Midwest and East Coast. But what I will actually miss most might surprise you. By my third day at Palo Verde I was badged for access, and by the end of my first week I found my pride swelling while driving down Wintersburg Road in pre-dawn darkness, in what I quickly came to associate as the parade of the dedicated. I really liked being badged in that big parade, feeling a part of this special team. I will miss that a lot starting Monday morning.          

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What About Switzerland?

cuckooSwitzerland will always be immortalized by a famous speech written by Graham Greene* and spoken by Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in the movie The Third Man:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Remember that this is spoken by a deeply cynical villain - it’s a pretty cynical view of world history – and one can allow the capper of the cuckoo clock despite it not being created in Switzerland but Bavaria. You get the point.

But just because Harry Lime didn’t believe in anything doesn’t mean the Swiss don’t. The government there announced at about the same time that Germany did, in 2011 after the Fukushima Daiichi accident, that it would close its five reactors. Germany was responding to strong public opinion, but the Swiss did not wait to gauge attitudes, assuming that this was a desired outcome. But it might not be:

Some 64% of respondents said that they considered Switzerland's five existing reactors essential in meeting the country's electricity demand. This is around the average level reported since the first poll in 2001, but marks a 3% increase from 2012.

This is a Datascope poll conducted for the Swiss version of NEI (actually, more like the nuclear segment of the Edison Electric Institute), called, naturally enough, swissnuclear, so consider that when reading these numbers. Just because the poll comes from an interested party doesn’t automatically disqualify it and the Swiss people have generally favored nuclear energy.

The results of the poll suggest that Switzerland's phase out policy is not fully supported by the Swiss people. Some 73% want Switzerland to be able to produce all of its electricity (75% in 2012), while 78% do not want federal policies to lead to Switzerland being more dependent on other countries. Some 88% of respondents said that the country's energy transition must not endanger its security of supply, up from 84% in previous year.

The Swiss love referenda, so this will probably come to a vote at some point – two earlier votes to close nuclear plants, in 1990 and 2003, failed. And the plants are not scheduled to close until 2035, so there’s plenty of time to reverse a hasty decision. I’m not sure I’d put money on a German reversal – whatever might seem the smart thing to do – but I might on the Swiss. Heads are already cooling there.

* Welles may have written the cuckoo clock speech himself – I’m not sure that old dispute has been cleared up. It says something about its potency that it has multiple claimants.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Germany: It’s All About the Capacity Factor

Over on Atomic Insights, former NuScale chief Paul Lorenzini takes a look at Germany’s situation and bats away at misconceptions about the nuclear shutdown, one of which we’ve promulgated here.

First, the nuclear phase out did not result in an increase in coal plant construction. As noted in this study by Poyre, Germany’s coal construction plans predated the nuclear phase out and, if anything, has been cut back from previous plans.

Second, they did not fill the deficit created by shutting down their nuclear plants with fossil fuels.

To summarize, the increased generation from wind (12.9 TWh), solar (14.7 TWh), and hydro/biomass (12.7 TWh) during the period (all together accounting for 40.3 TWh), was roughly equal to entire deficit created by shutting down the eight nuclear plants in 2011 (41.1 TWh).

I don’t buy this completely because one can’t really assign a one-to-one correspondence between one kind of energy ramping up and another ramping down – though if one could – and with such precision – it would be the Germans. Anyway, the argument is not that Germany would build new coal plants, but reopen shuttered plants. That has happened, leading to a change of 14.7 percent in coal-based generation – less than solar but more than wind or hydro.

But Lorenzini is not correcting the record to ding naysayers, but because he wants to present a different theory on Germany’s energy woes and here he’s on intriguing ground. It’s not counterintuitive at all, but, well, see for yourself:

On the one hand, this [January 2013] was Germany’s best month for wind generation during the first half of the year. But during the period from days 7-25, there were eleven days when wind and solar combined contributed less than 5% of the load and only four where it was more than 10%. During this period, they had to rely on conventional generation for roughly 93% of their load.

Yes, it’s that devil in the details, capacity factors. Nuclear energy runs at 90 percent or more operating capacity almost all the time – outages bring the averages closer to 90, but closer to 100 when they are actually running - that’s most of the time.

Wind and solar are beneficiaries but also prisoners of the elements. This has always been the case and until there are real breakthroughs in battery technologies, always will be. I think renewable boosters expect this breakthrough will happen in enough time to make solar and wind more viable as baseload energy – and who knows? It could happen. It’s not that slender a thread.

According to the recent IEA review of Germany’s Energy Policies, the country is facing a major crisis of capacity in the next few years. Their large inventory of conventional (carbon-based) generation is meeting the need today, and they project adequate reserve capacity through 2015, thanks to the 2.7 GW of coal added to the grid in 2012 and the additional 5 GW of coal and gas forecast to be added by then.

Capacity can be a little confusing because rated capacity and operating capacity can be fairly close – as in nuclear energy – or quite distant – as in wind and solar. So when you see the rated capacity of a wind farm, it does not reflect the energy that farm can produce, only under ideal conditions. Even with advances in wind technology, it can be tough to depend on it. For example, wind won a lot of praise for weathering the polar vortex and spelling natural gas earlier this month in Texas – for a day. The next day, the wind died away.

A Salon article on this kicked off this way: “Renewable energy critics harp on the variability of wind and solar production, suggesting (or pretending) that this increasingly manageable challenge is some kind of fatal flaw.” Pretending not necessary.

And Germany?

What is clear is Germany’s plan to phase out their nuclear plants will add to the global carbon burden.

Pretending? Fatal flaw? Maybe the “fatallest” flaw of all.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Kadak, Meserve, Todreas and Wilson Endorse Call of Climate Scientists to Expand Use of Nuclear Energy

Richard Meserve
Our readers will recall that last Fall, a group of scientists led by Dr. James Hansen of of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, issued an open letter endorsing an expansion of the use of nuclear energy in order to help combat climate change.

Earlier today, Andrew Revkin of the New York Times published another open letter, this one signed by former NRC Chairman Dick Meserve, among others, applauding the actions of those four scientists and endorsing the same course of action on expanding nuclear energy.
The energy needs of the world are large and growing. The one billion people that do not even have access to electricity cannot be denied the ability to improve their quality of life. Nuclear energy provides a scaleable, clean source of safe power which, with other clean energy sources, can meet the world's needs in a sustainable manner. We applaud and support the efforts of the climate scientist authors of the originally cited letter. Drs. Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley, for bringing the issue of the need for nuclear power to the world environmental community and policy leaders.
The other three signatories to the letter are: former American Nuclear Society President Andrew Kadak; Neil Todreas, Former Chairman of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT; and Richard Wilson, former Chairman of the Department of Physics at Harvard University. Click here to read the full text of the letter.

Catfish, Swans – and Monticello Nuclear Plant

Uh-oh. Here’s a benefit of nuclear energy that falls under the heading of unintended consequences:

The shutdown of Xcel Energy’s Monticello Nuclear Power Plant on Friday is hurting fish and wildlife along the Mississippi River.

The flow of warm water from the plant stopped after the unplanned shutdown, and by Saturday the water temperature downstream had dropped from 75 degrees to just 35 degrees, said Joe Stewig, Department of Natural Resources area fisheries manager.

Wait, what? The plant output raised the temperature of the water 40 degrees? That in itself would be deadly to all kinds of flora and fauna – it would seem – but …

I asked NEI’s William Skaff, director of policy management, about this – NEI did some work on water policy awhile ago but did not address this particular aspect. Bill said that it’s unlikely the plant’s water discharge could cause a 40 degree difference, but that Monticello may well be permitted to discharge warmer water – if not that much warmer - because it can be beneficial to animal and plant life in the rivers. He gave the example of manatees in Florida, which thrive in the warmer water emitted from energy facilities.

Indeed, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune story notes about Monticello, a plant may well be charged fines by the state for going offline and thus altering the temperature of the water. Bill said this can occur even during planned outages. I assume this is true of all thermal energy plants, including coal and natural gas, so the issue doesn’t “belong” to nuclear facilities specifically. It is not a particular benefit of nuclear energy, as I implied at the start, nor is it strictly true that it is an unintended consequence. It appears the state wants to keep plants up and running to keep the warmer water flowing even when they can be spelled by other facilities, hence the fine. And this episode is not a fishy apocalypse – the story reports 30 dead fish found along the shore – leading to the conclusion that the state has traded the occasional plant outage for a healthier aquatic ecosystem generally. That is a benefit.

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The story, while focusing on catfish, also addresses the colder water’s impact on swans:

Meanwhile, about 2,000 trumpeter swans usually winter in the open water near Monticello, but without the influx of warm water from the plant that open area has shrunk and become slushy, and some swans could leave, said Lori Naumann of the DNR’s nongame wildlife program.

Jim Lawrence, who lives on the river and feeds the swans, said he’s not concerned. There are other open-water spots in the region where the swans will go.

“I think they’ll be fine,’’ Lawrence said. “We will have fewer birds, possibly. But they’ll come on back.’’

So, no apparent swan fatalities, but I guess the combination of Monticello’s outage and the recent blast of winter weather proved less than fortuitous for them as well as the catfish. I suspect the cold weather might prove to have been determinative in these outcomes – the area around Monticello was 15 degrees below zero this morning. Still, we’ll be happy to see the plant return to service.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Glass of Wine with Your Thorium


This is minor beans no matter how you position it, but amusing anyway:
Thorium Core is a commercial distribution of ReactOS, the Open Source Windows compatible operating system, targeted for cloud computing.
Thorium Core is an attempt to build a commercial operating system and cloud services platform, based on ReactOS, which is an Open Source implementation of the NT architecture seen in modern versions of Windows.
I couldn’t find anything at the Thorium Core site to explain the name, so I assume the brains behind it wanted to play off ReactOS and reaction, as in nuclear reaction. That’s obvious enough. It also speaks to the sheer coolness of the word thorium over uranium, though Uranium Core doesn’t sound that bad to me. Maybe the relative unfamiliarity of thorium makes its use for an operating system less ambiguous.
If you follow the open source world, you know that groups of hackers will get together to do whatever can be done, however unlikely. Whether a thing should be done is a different issue, but the creative zeal can lead to interesting outcomes. In this case, a decades-long project called Wine (which reproduces Microsoft Windows libraries from scratch so that programs intended to run only on Windows can also run on, say, the Mac or Linux/Unix) spawned ReactOS (which  reproduces the Windows desktop and ability to interface with devices to run programs through Wine; that is, it’s an operating system heavily dependent on Wine) spawned Thorium Core (ReactOS in a browser). Look up the word convoluted in the dictionary and this is what you’ll find.
The original idea behind Wine was to get the benefit of Windows programs without paying Microsoft a license fee for Windows. Now, I guess, the Thorium Core group would like that license fee (There are commercial Wine derivatives, too).
But it’s all in fun and can be practical. If you want to focus on the fun side, run Thorium Core in a browser in an emulated Linux environment on a Windows host. Warning: may lead to madness.
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We probably owe thorium advocates a serious post after this diversion. In the meantime, visit Kirk Sorenson’s invaluable Energy from Thorium site for good reading. And watching – lots of interesting videos on the home page.
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About the picture:
In a secret research laboratory in California, our team of scientists went to work combining nuclear technology and pure awesomeness in order to create the missing elements all wines should have. We split atoms, we combined genomics, restructured nuclear elements, and then finally we poured legendary sauce all over everything. We created our very own experimental, Atomic Wine.
Not sure if NEI has this in a fridge somewhere, but it’s made to order, isn’t it?
It’s an art project by Jonathan Chin, not an actual product – unfortunately. Still, very nicely done.

Nuclear Pros and Cons As Winter Returns

electric-wire-ice-snowJohn Kemp, a Reuters market analyst, offers a negative view of nuclear energy. There's nothing in it that we haven't heard before, but it's interesting (I suppose) to hear the same arguments percolating as though they are new insights:

But the promise of safe, clean and reasonably priced nuclear power seems as far away now as it was 60 years ago. We are still waiting for the safe, cheap and reliable reactor designs that were promised in 1956.
Well, after watching a chemical spill send Charleston back to the 19th century - and beyond, since it could use the river then - I'd say safe and reliable is in the devil's eye. As for cheap:
In the United States, the economics of nuclear power have been fatally disrupted by cheap gas, and in Western Europe as a result of cheap coal.
This bit verges on the dishonest, especially the notion about coal - Kemp needed something to balance natural gas at home, but really? Coal? Eastern Europe in particular choked on coal in the Soviet era, is not too eager to return to those days and has begun a headlong rush toward - wait for it - nuclear energy. The U.S. has benefited from natural gas - it has proven a true market disruptor - but whatever financial blow was landed - to coal, renewable energy and nuclear energy -was not particularly fatal. None has gone away or begun a decline to irrelevance (well, coal is dealing with issues not solely related to natural gas and Kemp explains away renewable energy by noting federal subsidies for it, somehow allowing the old saw against nuclear energy - that it is too dependent on subsidies - to slip away.)
But to Kemp's credit, he does allow nuclear energy in under the wire:
It is possible that large-scale nuclear power could offer part of the solution to global warming, just as it promised to avert Hubbert's fears about peak oil. But the industry appears no nearer than it was then to building a favorable consensus or solving its cost and safety problems.
And just under the wire at that. Read the whole thing, but it certainly does seem a rear guard action of no particular moment.
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The performance of nuclear energy facilities during the Polar Vortex proved very controversial, at least to some of our readers, so it'll be interesting to see how things go during the extended sub-freezing weather that has started moving south. This, of course, is called Winter, and though we haven't had a real Winter in some years, it's not a particularly unusual occurrence - it has a name and everything. It's fairer to to say that the vortex was unusual in that it took whatever temperatures it ran across and flung them downwards quickly. The current cold snap has a less violent profile.

Still, the Dallas Morning News has noticed that, hey, it's cold out there:
Global warming notwithstanding, 2013-14 is likely to go down as America’s coldest winter in decades. As of the second week in January, 187 million people were dealing with subfreezing weather, and record low temperatures were being recorded in many Eastern and Southern communities.Not surprisingly, the electric power grid is being tested as never before, with some utilities asking customers to dial back their thermostats and to avoid using appliances during hours of peak demand. Even so, a few power companies have had to impose rolling blackouts and brownouts as they bump against their generating capacity.
And writer Bernard Weinstein has an answer for this:
Investing in nuclear energy remains the best strategy for ensuring long-term diversity and reliability of the power grid. Despite recent plant closures, nuclear power isn’t going away. Five new plants will come on line by 2018, and 14 other applications are pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.The value proposition for nuclear energy is stronger than ever. Nuclear plants operate around the clock safely and reliably, thereby providing stability to the power grid. They also provide forward price stability and are not subject to the price volatility associated with gas-fired plants. Nuclear operations support large numbers of high-paying jobs and add mightily to the tax base of host communities. Finally, nuclear power is environmentally benign: no particulates, no sulfur dioxide, and no greenhouse gas emissions. Just steam.
Oops, an argument against natural gas? What will John Kemp say? I guess this is special pleading of a kind - the issue is larger than just throwing more plants up - but it is true that nuclear plants benefit from being emission free and producers of gigantic amounts of electricity. Also, natural gas can take a big hit in winter because it is used by individuals to heat their homes and those folks get preference over energy plants in many parts of the country. Until the flux capacitor is invented, uranium has no such worries. Nuclear energy basically took over in New England during the vortex because natural gas was thus diverted.

Weinstein works at the Maguire Energy Institute in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, so he's an interested party, but I assume he is, like Kemp, interested in the whole energy picture.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Baby Step for Small Reactors in Indiana

One of the benefits of small reactors is that they will (in all likelihood) cost less than full scale reactors. The admittedly enormous price of a new plant can be offset by their relatively low running costs, so new ones can be built – as in Georgia and South Carolina – but small reactors can be envisioned in places and by utilities that have shied away from nuclear energy due to cost – and maybe also a sense of overkill in less populous areas. At least, that’s a thought to turn over, but there hasn’t been that much evidence of it even as small reactors enter their prototyping and licensing phases.

Until now:

Indiana hasn't tried to build a nuclear power plant since two efforts fizzled in the 1980s over high costs, nearly bankrupting one of the companies in the process.

But an influential state senator says it's time to encourage nuclear power again and has introduced a bill that would provide financial incentives to utilities to build nuclear plants.

As a picture in the Indianapolis Star story shows, the state is surrounded by states that do have nuclear facilities – including Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, with a couple right at the border – so Indiana probably already gets some of its electricity from nuclear energy.

His (state Senator Jim Merritt’s) bill, Senate Bill 302, would allow utilities to build a nuclear plant, or a small modular reactor, and pass along the construction costs to customers years before the plant goes into operation.

Small modular reactors, which are still on the drawing board, are less than a third the size of a standard 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor. One manufacturer, Babcock & Wilcox, has designed a 180-megawatt nuclear reactor that can be built on assembly lines rather than built from scratch on-site.

Merritt admits that utilities have not asked for this – so who knows if they want one – but it gives small reactors a bit of a boost and begins showing the result of their percolation. This’ll be interesting to track in the coming months – I reckon there’ll be more states taking an interest in small reactors and with them, nuclear energy.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

No Nuclear Pork at the Trough

The New York Times takes a look at the, well, pork in the omnibus budget bill being fast tracked through Congress. (This legislation will set budget priorities and fund government operations through October, the end of fiscal year 2014.) Read the whole thing, of course, but here’s the relevant part for us, which kicks off the article:

A cryptic reference turns up on Page 399 of a six-inch-thick piece of legislation that congressional appropriators unveiled Monday night, calling for an extra $155 million worth of financing for the Department of Energy to promote its nuclear projects.

This is the same program — helping for-profit companies build a new generation of small nuclear reactors — that has been called a boondoggle by some spending watchdog groups. But lawmakers, including Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, pressed by industry lobbyists, opted to increase the program’s budget by 21 percent above the Obama administration’s request.

“I’m very pleased with that development,” said Mr. Alexander, adding that he met with one of the main beneficiaries, the Babcock & Wilcox Company, two months ago and was assured that the program was “on schedule and on budget.” The first two nuclear reactors are being built in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — 30 minutes from the senator’s hometown.

The extra money for nuclear programs is a hint of the kind of deal-making in the 1,582-page spending bill, which leaders in both parties are urging their members to quickly pass into law to avoid another government shutdown. The House is expected to do so on Wednesday.

DOE’s small reactor program is a public-private partnership and bolsters the government’s interests in infrastructure, creating jobs, advancing international trade and, incidentally, ensuring that the reactors meet regulatory standards – in the case of NuScale, ensuring that the NRC’s regulations can accommodate the ideas behind the reactor. (B&W is modeled after full scale light water reactors and is an easier regulatory lift, at least theoretically.) In the case of B&W, the project involves other government entities including the Oak Ridge National Labs and the Tennessee Valley Authority. That Sen. Alexander is a regular cash register.

(Note, too, that Sen. Alexander is only “pressed by industry lobbyists,” not environmental lobbyists, and that watchdog groups calling the small reactor program a boondoggle have no influence whatever. Why? Because the industry lobbyists doing the pressing are wicked, driven by greed, and not pure, driven by altruism. Only the money hungry serpents “press.” This is a very naïve construction by the Times.)

Yes, it can all make you a little peevish.

Now, we will note that Taxpayers for Common Sense, an anti-pork group, really don’t like the small reactor program and the Times has picked up its view for the article. To be honest, the program doesn’t really need that much defending, but there is the issue of pork.

The budget legislation is awash in promoting and discouraging different policy priorities that must seem baffling to the average observer.

Lawmakers are again boasting about bringing home the bacon, whether it is Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, bragging on Tuesday about the new KC-46A refueling plane and P-8A Poseidon military aircraft to be built by Boeing in her state, or the three House Democrats from California taking credit for money they won to expand a border crossing near San Diego.

The Times doesn’t note if these are good or bad things to fund, though I guess we can assume it thinks them bad. If Sen. Murray is crowing in an unseemly way, her opponent in the next election might well mention it, so there’s that. Interestingly, the 2014 budget is lower than the 2013 budget and should bring down the deficit (if not necessarily the national debt). Pork is often seen as wasteful spending, but is it when it’s not wasteful? Might Sen. Murray have done her state some good in bringing in jobs for a worthy project, if indeed she did? Not sure – the article doesn’t care about any of that.

The idea of pork can be pretty ambiguous withal, useful for demagoguing disliked programs, sometimes exposing genuine waste – but even some of the examples used to demonstrate waste can be shown as pretty useful when fully explained – remember volcano monitoring? - so we have to allow a certain number of sloppy pig calls. If you don’t like a program, it’s pork. The small reactor program ($150 million in a $1.1 trillion budget) doesn’t cost cracklings, but it isn’t blasting a hole in the budget either and has the potential to do much good for a much wider group than composes the nuclear energy industry. 

I realize it’s a highly arguable point – and I can’t deny that the perception of politicians as willing to trade votes for questionable or silly projects has considerable truth behind it - but it does strike me that labeling what one doesn’t like as pork is a convenient way to divert attention away from serious policy matters to legislative trivia. If someone can definitively define pork and show that it can be banned without impeding progress or squashing valuable programs, then let’s talk. Otherwise, it’s just an excuse for the New York Times to take a shabby bash at nuclear energy when no facts actually weigh into its dislike of the small reactor program.

We’ll take a fuller look at the nuclear portions of the omnibus bill when it gets through Congress – which should be pretty imminent. Nuclear energy came through the sausage making process pretty well even without pork.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Germany’s Nuclear Fiasco and the Courts

Germany hasn’t done itself any favors by deciding to shut down its nuclear energy industry. It’s had to resort to coal, wrecked its climate change goals and tried to jumpstart renewables as a replacement way too early in their evolution. Other than that, though, spetzel ice cream, right?

The forced closure of RWE's Biblis nuclear power plant after the Fukushima accident was unlawful, the German Supreme Administrative Court has ruled. The utility is now likely to sue for considerable damages.

This has a quality somewhat similar to the shutdown of the Yucca Mountain used fuel repository in this country – similarly precipitous, largely political in nature and, ultimately, inspiring lawsuits that prevail over the government actions.

There are differences, too. Yucca Mountain is inscribed as the repository in the Nuclear Waste Act, so closing it runs afoul of a federal law. In Germany, the laws of which I know next to nothing, the situation is different:

Efforts to force the shutdowns were "formally unlawful because [RWE] had not been consulted and this constituted a substantial procedural error," said the court.

As I said, what this relates to, I have no idea. It could be a nuclear specific law or one that applies to industry and business generally or maybe just to utilities. But the upshot is significant:

Plant owner RWE can now sue for compensation over the loss of the Biblis units as an asset.

Well, someone can sue, as we’ll see further on. The World Nuclear News story reports that other reactor operators such as Vattenfall, e.On and EnBW will likely not pursue RWE’s approach – apparently this is (at least partly) a state action – that is, brought by the state itself - and would have to duplicated in the states where these companies operate, so the decision doesn’t apply throughout the country. But the companies are not sitting idle, either, unlike some of their reactors.

Instead the companies are contesting the constitutionality of the 2011 amendment to the Atomic Act which redrew operating periods for remaining reactors. Another set of questions on the fuel tax have now been referred by German courts to the European Court of Justice. Sweden-owned Vattenfall is contesting the shutdown via international arbitration.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer country – sincerely, I worked for a spell in Germany some years ago and enjoyed the experience mightily – but what a mess. We’ve argued that a country must make its own choices about its energy options without pesky outsiders weighing in. If nuclear energy “loses”, it loses. You can’t win them all. But it’s not just nuclear energy that’s losing here, it’s the German people, too. That’s the real shame of all this.

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I poked around some German sites to see if there’s some interesting additional information there, but World Nuclear News caught the highlights really well. One story said that RWE lost this action in a lower court before prevailing in the state supreme court. One thing about these stories is how blunt German reporting sounds next to English:

Die vorübergehende Stilllegung des Atomkraftwerks Biblis war rechtswidrig. Das hat das Bundesverwaltungsgericht bestätigt. Hessen drohen damit Schadenersatzforderungen in dreistelliger Millionenhöhe. Die Landesregierung will das Urteil prüfen.

Which means (roughly – my German was never very good):

Closing the nuclear facility Biblis temporarily was illegal. The Federal Administrative Court confirmed this. Hesse [the state; Frankfurt is the biggest city] has threatened to sue for hundreds of millions [of Euro, I guess] in damages, but the state government said it will study the ruling first.

Right to the point. It’s also almost identical in content to the World Nuclear News lede, except that it stresses the role of the state government and says it will be the state that brings suit, not RWE. I can’t really tease out how Hesse and RWE interact as a matter of law – World Nuclear News may have this correct because it has a better understanding of this than I do. RWE is not owned by Hesse or Germany, so perhaps its corporate identity and who can sue who for what in Germany are factors, too. Subjects for further research.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Nuclear Systems Training Program at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station

One of our colleagues, NEI's John Keeley, is spending most of the month of January in a classroom at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station attending a training course on nuclear power plant systems. Late last night, he filed this video report from Arizona:


Many of our readers will recall that John accompanied a delegation of Chief Nuclear Officers on their historic visit to Japan last year to tour Fukushima Daiichi. We'll have additional updates from John throughout the month about his progress.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Industry Eager for Renewal of U.S.-Taiwan Nuclear Cooperation Pact

Richard Myers
The following post was submitted by Richard Myers, NEI’s vice president of policy development, planning and supplier programs. It addresses the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement with Taiwan submitted to Congress for review on Jan. 7. The agreement was signed by the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. The agreement will be reviewed by Congress for 90 days of continuous session before entering into force. 

The U.S. nuclear energy industry thanks the Obama Administration for concluding negotiation of an agreement to continue nuclear energy cooperation between the United States and Taiwan. The industry is eager for the renewal of the agreement for cooperation with this longstanding strategic partner.

U.S. exports of nuclear technology, equipment and services to Taiwan support thousands of U.S. jobs. Two General Electric nuclear energy facilities are under construction in Taiwan at Lungmen, and other U.S. companies provide equipment, services and fuel to Taiwan’s six operating nuclear power plants. Renewal of the bilateral cooperation agreement will result in up to $10 billion of U.S. exports. This could create or sustain up to 50,000 high-paying U.S. jobs, according to the Department of Commerce.

This agreement maintains U.S. leadership and influence in the critical issues of global nuclear safety, security and nonproliferation. It also continues the pragmatic, bipartisan U.S. policy on nuclear energy cooperation agreements under Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Nuclear Fleet Shrugs Off the Polar Vortex Like a Comfy Old Coat

This really may seem kind of a nothing from a nuclear energy standpoint, but it’s not. It got cold – really, really cold – in much of the United States this week. Several sections of the electricity grid got pretty close to meeting their winter demand records, and some facilities – non-nuclear facilities – got knocked out by the cold. In fact, nuclear energy became the primary provider of electricity in New England, as natural gas choked up. Actually, the total impact, while good for nuclear, wasn’t all it could be:

The decrease in natural gas electricity generation forced regional grid administrator ISO New England to call on costlier and dirtier coal and oil plants to make up the difference.

Oil? That’s awful. Let’s be thankful this event didn’t go on for a week or more. At least, ISO used this as a teaching moment on the value of energy diversity:

ISO had warned the region about the increasing dependence on natural gas as both electricity generator and home heating fuel. As the weather continued to be cold Tuesday, the demand for natural gas in home heating spiked, leaving less fuel for the power plants.

But nuclear energy plants? Well, this past weekend the fleet was working at about 97 percent capacity and Tuesday, the height of the “polar vortex” – about 95 percent capacity. And no reactor went off line because of the cold. Wholesale electricity prices spiked, but that’s due to demand, not one energy source or another – your capitalist system at work.

So, nuclear energy facilities do not find extreme cold all that intimidating from an operational standpoint. Plants might power down with a hurricane bearing down – or something like superstorm Sandy -at least when the winds are highest – but cold? Not so much.

But there is still diligence – in fact, diligence is the key. The NRC blog goes into this a bit:

The NRC’s regional offices in the Midwest and Northeast are keeping an eye on plant owners’ responses to the unusually low temperatures. Plants in the affected areas have entered off-normal procedures that entail minimizing regular surveillance activities and increasing the frequency of checks and walkdowns (visual evaluations) of equipment that could be impacted by the temperatures.

I spent some time in Quebec in the winter, so it’s all a question of what you’re used to – Montreal is built so you barely have to go outside, ever. Nuclear plants in cold climates – Canada, Russia, etc. – are not unknown. Industrial plants in general are indoor operations. What’s unusual to us is not that unusual really.

The NRC has long recognized the need for nuclear plant owners to be on guard for extreme cold-related issues. Along those lines, the agency in January 1998 issued an Information Notice on “Nuclear Power Plant Cold Weather Problems and Protective Measures.” Although such notices do not require a specific action or written response, they do serve to make plant owners aware of possible concerns.

Which doesn’t mean that what the operators and NRC do to mitigate any harm the cold could do isn’t needed and welcome. So, all right, cold weather really isn’t a ho-hum topic – and the nuclear fleet did, um, weather it with flying if frigid colors. The vortex, in all its frosty fury, will recede pretty quickly – DC is forecast to be in the 60s this weekend. It’s legacy will be recalled by a generation that will tell its grandchildren that this is what it was like in the teens, so toughen up already.

Note (1/15/12): Some of our commenters have questioned whether we might have made more of the nuclear performance than was warranted. What I  wrote above was true when I wrote it and still seems on-target. I’ve read stories since that say reactors may have been idled by blown transformers or external plant problems. I asked ace NEI statistician David Bradish about this to see if we could better pin down the issue. This is what he wrote:

As of right now, the extreme cold isn’t known to have caused any nuclear plants to shut down during the polar vortex. Fort Calhoun shut down January 9 after the “vortex” passed due to ice damage to one of its six sluice gates which is on the waterway. Beaver Valley 1 shut down January 6 because of a fault in the transformer. FE [FirstEnergy, Beaver Valley’s operator] has not determined whether the subzero temperatures were the cause of the transformer failure yet: http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2014/01/firstenergys_beaver_valley_nuk_1.html

So let’s leave it there for now.

Monday, January 06, 2014

“A dependable and clean energy”–India PM on Nuclear Energy

In our year end wrap up, we more-or-less ignored international doings to stick with the domestic industry. That makes sense given NEI’s interests, but it does undersell the larger context of nuclear energy’s value. We can argue about the costs of building new facilities or the impact of natural gas all we want – and they’re important issues – but for much of the rest of the world, such as India, the reaction is a big “meh.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday strongly advocated nuclear power as a 'viable and clean option' for emerging India's growing energy needs. Addressing a gathering at Jassaur Kheri village of Jhajjar district after laying foundation stones of four projects, including Global Centre for Nuclear Energy and Nation Cancer Institute, Singh said the country was aiming to generate more than 27,000 MW of nuclear power in the next 10 years.

The juxtaposition of nuclear energy and cancer is awkward, but both centers are certainly excellent undertakings and employment and economic boons for Jassaur Kheri. Singh really isn’t mincing words here:

"Nuclear energy is a dependable and clean option to produce power. India is among the very few nations which have developed technology to install nuclear power plants and have achieved the capability to make nuclear fuel. Our aim is that in the coming ten years, we should achieve the capability to generate more than 27,000 MW of nuclear power," Singh stated during the occasion.

All this is gratifying to hear, but about what you’d expect at a groundbreaking – Singh says similar nice things about the cancer center – but why is he so pleased? That really is the crux of it.

The Prime Minister said as the country's population grows and more urbanization happens, the demand for power will also go up. Ensuring that there was enough power for our growing economy was the need of the hour, and while there were various sources like coal, hydro, wind, gas to generate power, nuclear energy was a viable and clean alternative, he said.

“A viable and clean alterative – the demand for power – population grows – urbanization.” These are the values. I’d throw in industrialization, too, but Singh has it exactly right.

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So what is the Global Centre for Nuclear Energy?

The Center will have five schools for research into advanced nuclear technology, training and education, international seminars, and courses. Subject areas will include nuclear energy systems, radiological safety, applications of radioisotopes and radiation technologies, and nuclear security. India hopes to attract foreign visiting nuclear experts for international seminars, and is working with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency and Russia, in that regard.

Why Russia and not the U.S.? Well, the article explains that U.S. has bridled on an Indian decision to hold vendors rather than operators responsible for an accident. This doesn’t apply to Russia because its industry is state owned. I’m fairly sure Russia wouldn’t enjoy this proviso either, so I don’t think that’s it. Easier to conclude: why not Russia? It’s certainly a big nuclear player in its own right.

This story explains the India-U.S. kerfluffle in more detail. It discusses the liability issue and also growing differences about the way the U.S. is dealing with South Asia – notably India’s neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan. This gets into the murkier realms of diplomacy that supersedes trade agreements, but still, let’s stick with: Why not Russia?

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Rest of The Best Nuclear Energy News of 2013

Well, you know, not all the rest, but a few more items. This could go on all day:

nuscale1. Small Reactors – In December, The Department of Energy selected NuScale Power as the winner of up to $226 million in funding support for a cost-shared public-private partnership to develop innovative small reactor technology. The award will be disbursed over five years and will help the company design, certify and achieve commercial operation of its 45-megawatt NuScale Power Module small reactor design by 2025.

DOE’s selection criteria for this award focused on reactor technologies that have unique and innovative safety features to mitigate the consequences of severe natural events similar to those at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi. NuScale’s press statement noted that its design’s “unique and proprietary break-through technology” using natural forces of gravity, convection and conduction will allow “safe and simpler operations and safe shutdown.”

DOE’s first award in 2012 focused on small reactor designs similar to certified large reactors that had the potential to be brought quickly to design certification and licensing. That award went to Babcock & Wilcox and its 180-megawatt mPower small reactor.

Small reactors have been discussed for over a decade and really came into focus in the last five years. The NuScale (and Babcock & Wilcox) awards represent  significant milestones.

2. Cumulative Impact of Regulation – This can be a tough topic, because it can read as though the nuclear industry is trying to skirt regulation. But actually, it ensures that all regulations are implemented in the order of their safety significance and without faltering because resources (human and otherwise) become unreasonably strained.

Over the years, the amount of regulatory activity and industry-driven requirements have increased, requiring nuclear energy facility operators to devote more resources to compliance efforts, some of which the industry believes do little to enhance safety. The industry supports adoption of a coordinated approach to regulation—informed by safety insights and cost-benefit analysis—to help ensure that high-priority actions are taken before those that would have less of an impact on safety and that there are no conflicting requirements or regulatory gaps.

In October, the nuclear energy industry submitted preliminary draft guidance to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to begin discussions on a process that ultimately would help plants make safety improvements more quickly. The guidance’s basic concept is to determine the relative safety contribution of various activities—both regulatory and plant-initiated—and place those with greater impact higher on facilities’ to-do lists.

The industry approach is consistent with a regulatory initiative proposed by two NRC commissioners as part of the agency’s efforts to improve regulatory efficiency and safety focus. NRC Commissioners George Apostolakis and William Magwood proposed an initiative in which licensees would prioritize regulatory actions in a 2012 memorandum to their fellow commissioners

This will definitely be an issue to track in 2014 and beyond.

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2013 had its share of discouraging news too – the plan to close several plants is a major one – but even these came with asterisks. The low price of natural gas unsettled the energy marketplace generally, but intimations of doom for nuclear energy rather stubbornly refuse to become explicit. The closing of Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee for economic reasons suggested to many that nuclear energy has become uncompetitive, but other closures were for technical reasons. 

Nuclear energy facilities are expensive to build but relatively inexpensive to run – especially for the amount of electricity they generate – so closing a functioning plant early is not necessarily the most economic move imaginable. That doesn’t mean that facilities won’t close early in 2014 and beyond, just to suggest that it is a more complex decision making process than it may seem at first blush.

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Speaking of bad news, don’t get us started on Germany. Its decision to shut its nuclear plants is tragedy or comedy depending on the day’s news.

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We’re not writing anything about international doings in this wrap-up, though it’s a subject we cover a lot here at NNN. Nuclear energy has at least two roles to play internationally – combatting climate change while producing baseload energy (see the rising interest in places like Saudi Arabia and especially the UAE, which is building out its first facility; I’d also include eastern Europe’s insistence that nuclear energy be included in the European Union’s renewable standard); and permitting quicker industrialization in developing nations. Climate change mitigation plays a part here, too. Countries such as India and China may be more focused on serving rapidly growing consumer needs as much as industrial development, but there are also a lot of countries nosing around nuclear energy to push their industrial development forward more quickly – Vietnam and Ghana come to mind, but there are many more.

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2013 proved to be a significant year, with plenty of milestones and developments to ponder. With Japan planning to restart many of facilities, the accident at Fukushima Daiichi has become an opportunity to make nuclear facilities even safer not an excuse to shutter the industry. The role of nuclear energy as a carbon emission free baseload energy source has never seemed clearer nor its benefits more manifest. I’m not sure I could have said that in 2012, at least outside core constituencies, but now it seems indisputable and generally accepted.

Except in Germany. As I said, comedy or tragedy. For the rest of the world, a good way to kick off 2014.