Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Ford Nucleon, Electric Cars and the Swiss Thought Experiment

Here’s something I did not know existed, even as far as it did exist:

In the 1950s, perhaps the height of the so-called Atomic Age, Ford developed a concept car called the Ford Nucleon. This nuclear-powered automobile was designed, according to Ford, based on the assumption that future nuclear reactors would be smaller, safer, lighter and more portable. The design called for a power capsule located in the rear of the car, charging stations replacing gas stations and 5,000 miles of driving before recharging or replacing the fuel. As is the case with many concept cars, Ford never built the Nucleon-only a model car half the size of a normal car.

Obviously, the most famous nuclear car is the DeLorean DMC-12 from the Back to the Future movies. The nucleon could not be powered because the technology to do it wasn’t plausible at that time – still, pretty neat, even if we are waiting for a flux capacitor.

In the meantime, where nuclear energy and cars can find common cause is with electric cars. These do not have the science fiction twang of nuclear cars, even if they have not yet found much traction with potential customers and remain for many a futuristic notion.

In an interesting thought experiment – in the form of a college thesis – fellow named Cihan Cavdarli looked at electricity demand if all cars (in his native Switzerland) went electric. I suppose some countries might consider mandating this over time, though none have to date. What Cavdarli found is that electricity use would rise 19 to 24 percent. How to power all these cars?

Anticipating the country's phasing out of nuclear power, Cihan looked at two scenarios. One assumes a high carbon footprint, with nuclear energy replaced by gas. The other boasts a low carbon footprint, with renewable energies stepping into the nuclear breach. "This latter scenario is the best fit for electric cars," added Cihan.

Cavdarli’s being realistic here, but what he is saying is clear enough. If Switzerland kept its nuclear plants open – it has five reactors in four facilities – then the country could power the cars without damaging the environment. But Switzerland, which is closing its plants as they reach 60 years old, will need to replace the plants – which will likely be with a mix of natural gas and renewable energy sources.

With the nuclear reactors, Switzerland is almost completely emission free (from power plants, anyway), as nuclear covers 36 percent and hydro 58 percent. And it is all base load energy. That’s very attractive for covering the needs of electric cars, something wind and solar cannot match. This seems a tough circle to square practically – and it’s distressing that it does not need to be squared. Switzerland is in a good spot already, if only they do it.

Anyway, that is, if electric cars become widespread, if Switzerland really closes its nuclear plants and if climate change begins melting the Alps. Lots of ifs – as we said, a thought experiment – with a lot to think about.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

From the Navy to the Commercial Nuclear Industry

Blain Highland is on a temporary rotation as a Chemistry and Radiation Protection Instructor at Diablo Canyon 1 and 2. He has worked at Diablo Canyon for more than four years, choosing to make a career in the industry after serving his country in the U.S. Navy.

Blain Highland
Blain Highland
How long have you been in the nuclear industry? 

I got my start in nuclear power in 2000 when I joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 17. I worked as an Engineering Laboratory Technician on a submarine and as a Radiological Controls Technician for the shipyard. I entered the commercial nuclear industry in 2010 as a contract Radiation Protection Technician for the decommissioning of Fermi 1. Nine months later I had the opportunity to join the Diablo Canyon team as a permanent Chemistry and Radiation Protection Technician. I’ve been a Pacific Gas and Electric employee here since January 2011.

What is your job and why do you enjoy doing it? 

Currently, I am a Chemistry and Radiation Protection Technician on a temporary rotation as an Instructor. The rotation in training is proving to be very enjoyable. Being able to see when something clicks in someone’s head is a rewarding experience. I’ve also found it’s true that in order to truly learn something, you should teach it. 

At the technician level, I enjoy my job because I am actively helping ensure that radioactive materials from the plant are properly controlled and I can personally assure people that their health and safety are our priority.

Why do you think nuclear energy is important to America’s energy future? 

Nuclear energy provides a stable baseload for the country to build on. With newer designs and increased safety capabilities, I see nuclear facilities continuing to provide economical and clean energy. For its level of reliability and amount of base generation, nuclear energy should be a mainstay for all portfolios. 

How are you bringing innovation into the nuclear industry? 

In several instances, I alleviated paperwork burdens and reduced errors by automating tasks. I also partnered with a colleague at the plant to roll out an orientation program designed to engage our employees in the plant’s mission. 

How does working in the nuclear industry affect your personal life?

Working in the nuclear industry allows me to provide for my family while also knowing I am helping provide the community safe, affordable and reliable energy when they need it. If I didn’t know what I was doing was safe, I would not be doing it. The commercial nuclear power industry has given my family peace of mind. There is no fear that something will happen to me like there was in the military. Everyone knows that daddy is coming home to play at the end of every workday.

The above post was sent to us by PG&E for NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion. It aims to showcase the best and the brightest in the nation’s nuclear energy workforce.

For more on this promotion, follow the #futureofenergy tag across our digital channels. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Going Nuclear in Washington City, Utah, Pop. 22,000

washington_cityWe’ve sometimes taken a look at nuclear energy support – nascent or realized – in several states. Communities have occasionally weighed in, as potential hosts for consolidated storage sites, for instance. The folks of Lea and Eddy Counties in Nevada have consistently voiced support for Yucca Mountain.

Washington City, with a population of about 22,000, has gone a little further.

During a meeting Wednesday night, the City Council approved an agreement with the “Carbon Free Power Project” that will provide funds toward identifying potential sites for a nuclear power plant.

On first glance, this is a bit puzzling, as the city would seem unlikely to set up and run a nuclear facility without state and industrial cooperation – at least, not by itself. Indeed, this is true.

NuScale Power has proposed to build a power plant housing 12 of the compact reactors and produce an estimated 600 megawatts of power. The plant is slated to be built in the area of Idaho Falls, Idaho. If the project comes to fruition, the plant will be built and operational by 2024.

“We’re looking at approximately 11 megawatts, or 11,000 kilowatts (for the city) from this facility once it’s up and running.” Washington City Manager Roger Carter said.

That’s much more plausible, but then, what site are they looking for?

The agreement Washington City Council unanimously approved Wednesday devotes funds to a two-phase study related to identifying viable sites for the power plant, and then conducting an in-depth study into the location’s overall feasibility.

“This is the first of probably numerous agreements we’ll see,” Carter said. The project will progress in phases, with participating cities being given the option to sign or step back from the project if they no longer wish to pursue the project.

The story doesn’t quite explain this, but I think the idea is that the towns that sign on to the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP) all do this. The latter is a project of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), which describes itself as “a political subdivision of the State of Utah that provides comprehensive wholesale electric-energy, on a nonprofit basis, to community-owned power systems throughout the Intermountain West.” And it’s pretty specific about which carbon free power projects it has in mind:

The purpose and need of the CFPP is to provide for additional mid-sized baseload electrical generating capacity to meet the expected future needs of UAMPS' members. UAMPS has determined that new carbon free baseload capacity is necessary to replace the expected retirement of coal fired generating assets and that the UAMPS members need to have a carbon-free baseload generating asset as part of a balanced portfolio of generating assets. UAMPS SmartEnergy analysis concluded that small modular nuclear reactor technology is an important option for future consideration.

UAMPS has further determined that the proposed action will allow it to be responsive to EPA's Clean Power Plant Rule, which requires the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from coal fired power plants while recognizing the development of new nuclear generation as playing a vital role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the electric industry.

That ties it all together – and I imagine more cities through the UAMPS area will sign on as well. And why?

“Our concern of course is making sure that we have an adequate baseload come 2024, and power, especially with our growth,” [Washington City Manager Roger]Carter said. “What we’re finding is a lot of the baseload we’ve relied on in years past is fast disappearing.”

Indeed – the key words there are “adequate baseload.” And that nuclear energy can supply that.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Funding New Nuclear Technology (and There’s A Lot of It)

Under the somewhat alarming title, How Startups Can Save Nuclear Tech, Fortune writer Katie Fehrenbacher offers a survey of, well, startups promoting nuclear technology.

logo-terra-powerFortune finds this interesting for reasons that have become obvious to anyone who has looked at recent energy policy:

But four years after the infamous accident [that is, Fukushima], environmentalists, nuclear advocates, and researchers are now looking at nuclear tech as an almost necessary way to generate power without carbon emissions that, if used correctly, could be crucial to help the world avoid the worst of global warming. And unlike with solar and wind, nuclear reactors generate power around the clock.

heleonThe article zeroes in on the investor community, which, even if your primary interest is new nuclear technology, drives that technology to market. It makes sense for Fortune to spin the nuclear diamond to this particular facet – it’s the magazine’s bailiwick – and provides a unique perspective.

Last month, beneath the high-vaulted ceilings of the sleek offices of Founders Fund, a venture capital firm that backed Facebook, Airbnb and SpaceX, sits a small group of these passionate nuclear evangelists.

transatomicDoes nuclear energy fit the so-called sharing economy? Maybe not, but the SpaceX connection is interesting – it suggests a taste for counterintuitive thinking, in nuclear energy terms favoring alternatives to light water reactors and even fission.

Last Summer, Founders Fund invested a small $2 million seed round into an early stage nuclear startup calledTransatomic Power. Founded in 2011 by MIT nuclear scientists Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, Transatomic Power is working on a nuclear reactor that uses molten salt and nuclear waste as a power source. While molten salt nuclear reactor tech is decades old, Dewan and Massie are using new designs and materials.

A bit about the venture capitalist Ray Rothrock:

Some of Rothrock’s nuclear ambitions are poured into a stealthy startup, Tri Alpa Energy, that is working on nuclear fusion (nuclear fission is what’s used in today’s reactors). Years ago Venrock backed Tri Alpha Energy, and the company now also has the financial support of the Russian government (through the nanotech company Rusnano), Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Goldman Sachs. Rothrock is Tri Alpa Energy’s chairman.

Tri Alp[h]a is new to me and I guess new in general – it doesn’t have a Web site yet – that must be the stealthy part.

nuscaleThere’s more, including Helion Energy (fusion), UPower (small reactors), TerraPower (used fuel as fuel) and NuScale (small reactors). The focus remains largely but not totally on investment. Well worth a read – both for a reminder of how lively the nuclear technology scene is and for this presumption that is driving (some of) the investment.

A recent disturbing report predicts that despite a colossal number of new solar panels and wind turbines over the next quarter century, the planet will still face dangerous rising temperatures. Basically even if these widely embraced clean energy technologies are put on overdrive, we’re still probably screwed.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Nuclear Safety Is Top Priority at Idaho National Laboratory

To continue building nuclear energy as a viable U.S. energy source, safety must continue to be the utmost priority. Nuclear safety is certainly Anne McCartin’s number one goal.

As a nuclear safety analyst, she is responsible for creating and maintaining the nuclear facility safety basis for the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) Complex at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory. Anne's work ensures the appropriate controls are established to maintain safe operations that are in compliance with nuclear regulations and laws. She also provides independent reviews of safety basis documents, such as experiment safety analysis plans and core safety assurance packages.

Anne McCartin
Anne McCartin
Anne knows all too well how important nuclear energy is to the future of America’s energy industry. “Our nation’s energy needs will only continue to increase,” she explains. “Nuclear energy provides a safe, reliable, carbon-free energy source on a scale that can meet those demands.”

The work Anne does for the ATR ensures a safe and reliable platform for irradiating experiments, which support material testing for the next generation of nuclear power plants and DOE's Fuel Cycle Technology Program. Her team’s efforts also help provide additional research opportunities for universities and other national laboratories through the ATR National Scientific User Facility.

Anne is proud to contribute to national security by providing research support in nuclear propulsion for the U.S. Navy and in nonproliferation for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative.

Being a nuclear safety analyst is technically challenging and requires a high level of attention to detail, which suits Anne’s personality. She admits to enjoying the challenging nature of the work, and the complexity and variety of assignments provide her with ample opportunity to learn and grow.

“I also enjoy the people I work with,” says Anne. “The people at ATR understand and believe in the importance of our mission, so we share in our successes.”

Anne has dedicated 16 years to the nuclear energy industry. She is the technical lead for ATR Complex Facility Safety Engineering, and she’s a licensing member of the ATR Complex Independent Safety Review Committee.

The above post was sent to us by Idaho National Laboratory for NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion. It aims to showcase the best and the brightest in the nation’s nuclear energy workforce.

For more on this promotion, follow the #futureofenergy tag across our digital channels. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Southern Exposure 2015: The Value of Emergency Preparedness Exercises

Sue Perkins-Grew
The following is a guest post by Sue Perkins-Grew, Senior Director, Emergency Preparedness and Risk Assessment at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Preparedness” is at the core of the nuclear energy industry culture, one reason why reactor operators have a half century of safe operations in the United States.

Part of the job of every licensed plant operator involves training to ensure they are prepared to address a spectrum of unlikely events that do not occur during normal operations. In fact, plant operators essentially work their entire careers without experiencing such events. Yet they still practice on simulators regularly, where they are tested with redundant failures of plant systems to gain proficiency in their response to various accident scenarios. This way, they are skilled in taking actions to control and correct any abnormal event. A qualified, multi-disciplined emergency response organization completes annual training and performance evaluations by participating in drills.

Such emergency preparedness training complements the layers of safety protection in nuclear plant operations. Commercial reactors located in 30 states are designed and built to withstand a wide array of extreme natural threats like hurricanes and flooding, security events and technical failures that may occur during electricity production.

And on a larger scale, every nuclear energy facility has plans in place engaging federal, state and local entities – as well as private and non-profit organizations that provide emergency services – to ensure all are prepared to respond to any event. In fact, nuclear energy facilities are required by federal law to have a federally approved emergency plan in place, and they must conduct integrated evaluated exercises alongside other principal responders. Typically, these same plans are activated by locales near nuclear plants for others uses, such as powerful storms or chemical spills.

H.B. Robinson, focal point of Southern Exposure.
This week, these principles of emergency preparedness will be demonstrated on a scale rarely experienced. A full-scale, integrated exercise called Southern Exposure 2015 at Duke Energy’s Robinson nuclear plant in South Carolina will involve the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Energy and scores of other federal, state and local agencies. Others include the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Labor, Interior, Transportation, Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“While we all hope we never have to respond to a real emergency of this type, it is important that we understand our individual roles and how they fit into the overall coordinated response,” said Victor McCree, who leads the NRC’s regional office in Atlanta.

The exercise begins on July 21 and continues on July 22, with additional discussion and review following the exercise. It will be a comprehensive demonstration of nuclear plant operators and responders from various organizations applying their capability and skills according to their plans and procedures. The scenario will include unrealistic failures of safety systems and other artificial constraints needed to drive the exercise and enable all organizations to demonstrate their capabilities.

In that sense, Southern Exposure can only strengthen the ability of industry, federal, state and local responders to effectively manage extreme events in a coordinated manner. And it promises to identify areas that need to be strengthened, while deepening understanding of the “whole community” approach to emergency response.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Amazon’s Windy Path to a Nuclear-driven Data Center

What becomes a data center most? Electricity – and lots of it.

[Mark] Mills [founder and CEO of the Digital Power Group] says the growth of information technology over the next two decades will “radically alter” the electric sector, reducing the use of electricity in many areas while consuming vast amounts itself. The big takeaway from this transformation, he says, is the paramount importance of reliable electricity supplies. […]

A few-thousand-square-foot [data center], Mills says, uses more electricity than a 100,000-square-foot shopping mall. He adds that there are tens of thousands of data centers around the country, “each consuming as much electricity as an entire town.”

Actual numbers for what data centers needs can be a little tough to pin down. But here’s a stab at it from someone who should know:

David Christian, the CEO at Dominion Generation, which operates Dominion Virginia Power’s four reactors at North Anna and Surry, agrees, noting that several new data centers have been built recently in the company’s Northern Virginia service region.

“Each of these centers can require some 40 megawatts or more of safe, dependable, high-quality electricity. Meeting that load reliably 24 hours a day, seven days a week requires a solid, diverse portfolio of electrical generation, and nuclear is an essential part of that mix,” Christian says.

We’ve noted a couple of times that big data centers – those run by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, etc. – have been migrating east generally and to the southeast specifically. And while the southern states have coal and natural gas plants, they have a lot of nuclear plants, too, with more to come in the next few years.

Recently, NEI looked at the issue of companies migrating to the southeast in search of cheaper electricity. We didn’t expect anyone we spoke to to care particularly about the generating source of electricity, just that there was a lot of it at a reasonable price. And that’s what we found.

[Jesse] Smith [of Oak Ridge National Labs] told NEI that for such enterprises the cost of electricity is paramount and TVA’s ability to produce electricity cheaply has always given the region an advantage in attracting new business. Electricity reliability is “expected to be a given,” he says. “In the case of the 3-D printing of the car, any interruption in the flow of electricity would result in them having to restart the building process all over from the beginning.”

Smith is talking about a company named Local Motors.

One of those companies is Local Motors, a Phoenix-based independent motor vehicle manufacturing company. In collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the company earlier this year built the first example of its Strati, the world’s first 3-D-printed electric car. The company is building a 44,000-square-foot micro-factory and showroom in Knoxville.

That’s impressive. Obviously, other cost factors besides electricity motivate companies to move to a state – employment, regulation, etc. – but we found that reliable, plentiful, inexpensive electricity is a big one for companies that bet their businesses on it. The line connecting that need to nuclear energy is quite bright, whether or not a company is aware of the connection or cares about it. (Oak Ridge is, of course, very aware of it and cares a lot.)

The NEI story doesn’t talk much about data centers, but, as we’ve seen, they are among the most electricity-hungry operations out there. What’s true for Local Motors is definitely true for, say, Amazon.

This story, from a data center-centric publication, discusses Amazon’s Virginia data center and how the company is also building a wind farm in North Carolina. Interestingly, though, wind likely will not provide electricity to the data center. What will? Well, we’ll come to that.

The wind or solar farms usually don’t feed the data centers directly. Instead, the company continues to buy power for the data center from the grid, but sells the renewable energy on the wholesale market while keeping the renewable energy credits and applying them to the power consumed by the data center.

And that in turn, despite appreciating the wind farm and all, annoys the easily annoyed Greenpeace no end. And you’ve got to love the reason why.

“Will the power from this North Carolina wind farm be delivered to the utilities that provide electricity to Amazon’s data centers in Virginia?” Greenpeace spokesman David Pomerantz asked in a statement. “Without an answer, AWS customers cannot be certain that the wind energy is displacing the gas, coal, and nuclear energy powering those data centers.

“More information is needed especially because Amazon’s main utility provider in Virginia, Dominion, is pursuing expansions of gas and nuclear power plants, justified by the growth of data centers like Amazon’s.”

“Cannot be certain?” How about “Does not care?”

Let’s not question Amazon’s motivation here. It’s building a big wind farm and putting it on the grid. Good. Perhaps it feels it is performing a civic duty. Fine. Still, Amazon’s data center needs a lot of electricity it can rely on. We know it can depend on Surry and North Anna to supply some of it – maybe most of it. If the goal here is to run the data center as cleanly as possible, Amazon has the right idea – one if by wind, two if by nuclear. And Greenpeace is vexed. Win-Win, however you cut it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Nuclear Editorial Choices in Ohio and Virginia

ABJ2_20100305181736_320_240The title of the Akron Beacon-Journal’s editorial is “A Compromising Position for FirstEnergy and Ohio.” Uh-oh – what could this be about? As it turns out, nothing bad at all:

Too many environmentalists have a blind-spot for nuclear power. Yet, if the problem of climate change is dire — and it is — how reckless to cast aside a clean power source capable of generating an ample and steady supply. Those who applaud the Obama White House for preparing to issue limits on carbon emissions also should cheer plans to keep Davis-Besse in operation.

FirstEnergy wants to charge ratepayers a bit extra to keep Davis-Besse and a coal plant afloat while natural gas remains inexpensive. You might expect the local newspaper to find fault with that – it could be made to sound like a greedy utility with its hand out - but it doesn’t.

This is an exceptionally mature viewpoint, a recognition that what’s true now – low natural gas prices – won’t be true forever. What the newspaper does not point out is that, while it’s possible to reopen a shuttered coal plant, once a nuclear plant closes, that’s the end of it. That’s down to the cost of sustaining it in cold storage, not for technical reasons, but gone is gone. And when you’ve got an existential issue breathing down your neck, that’s a rough prospect – for FirstEnergy and Ohio.

An analysis by The Brattle Group, prepared for the organization Nuclear Matters, reported last week that average annual carbon-dioxide emissions would be about 11 million tons greater without the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants.

Now, what about the compromise in the title?

What a sound energy strategy requires is a worthy concession from FirstEnergy in return, and that involves restoring the energy efficiency and renewable energy standards that the utility worked so hard to put on hold for two years, their fate still to be decided.

This actually sounds like stuff Ohio needs to do legislatively – and if it could include nuclear energy into a clean energy standard while it’s at it, great. Frankly, FirstEnergy needs to do what works best for its customers and shareholders, not environmentalists (or pro-nuclear folks, for that matter.) This editorial shows a lot of counterintuitive intelligence, and its priorities are exactly right.


lynchburgA second editorial, from the Lynchburg News & Advance, takes nuclear energy as it comes – it’s called “Nuclear Must Be Part of Virginia's Energy Mix.”

Like Ohio, Virginia has two facilities and like the Akron paper, the News-Advance is focused on nuclear energy’s capacity as a climate change mitigator.

What’s interesting is that the paper reviews the renewable energy scene with discouragement and says almost nothing about nuclear energy directly. This is about it:

In the final analysis, the cleanest and safest way to generate power at the levels required in a developed economy is nuclear.

True enough. The arguments about renewable energy sound like our recent post about land use. We commented there that this is a rising issue among policy makers, and the News & Advance editorial only emphasizes its continuing relevance.

In the Virginia Highlands, for example, proposed construction of a wind farm several years ago generated heated opposition because foes said it would spoil the natural landscape of the Appalachian Mountains. In Massachusetts, a wind project off the coast of Cape Cod met vociferous opposition for the same reason.

Solar farms, in order to provide a reliable power stream, have one major need that has also proved controversial: scale, acres upon acres of panels to capture the power from the sun’s rays. In the American Southwest, for example, environmentalists have raised alarm about solar farms’ impact on desert flora and fauna.

I’m not sure where the Virginia Highlands are – the Appalachians run down the western side of the state, so they could be anywhere from north to south. But you get the idea – land use and some unfortunate NIMBY. The latter could be true of new nuclear reactors as well, but new reactors tend to be welcomed, especially as additions to existing facilities. The concerns about land use are on-target, but I expect Dominion will find ways to make renewable energy work in Virginia. The idea is not to pin all one’s hopes on a single energy source – nuclear, wind or whatever- but Virginia could do worse than encourage Surry 3 or North Anna 3.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Exploring Pluto and Other New Horizons With Nuclear Energy

The following is a guest post by Richard Rolland, an intern in NEI's Nuclear Generation Division.

Richard Rolland
Like many of my colleagues in the scientific community, I’m looking forward to viewing pictures of Pluto and its moons from the images taken by the space probe New Horizons on Tuesday morning. My excitement is enhanced by the knowledge that these pictures are made possible by nuclear power. New Horizons is powered 100% by nuclear power with a radioisotope thermal electric generator.

The two most common power sources for space probes today are solar power and RTGs. The benefits of solar power rapidly decrease the further a probe travels away from the Sun.  While radioisotope thermal electric generators (RTGs) function by utilizing the heat created from radioactive decay to produce electricity no matter the location. As we venture further into the depths of interplanetary space, nuclear power provides our space probes with a reliable source of electricity no matter the distance. With an RTG strapped to a space probe, it can venture wherever we wish.

Not only is the distance unrestricted, but the mass utilized in RTGs is trivial. The nuclear material that will power New Horizons for years to come will be less than 2.5% of the total mass of the spacecraft. Lowering the mass of the RTG allows it to carry additional scientific equipment.
Artist's conception of New Horizons approaching Pluto.
RTGs have been utilized before in some of NASA's most important missions. RTGs provided electricity for instrumentation and equipment while the Apollo astronauts were exploring the surface of the Moon. Even Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, which were both launched in 1977, are still operable due to the long-life of RTGs. The new Mars rover relies on a RTG to provide electricity. With an RTG on board, you never have to worry about a dust storm blocking sunlight and rendering the rover temporarily inoperable.

The nuclear industry has more to offer than electricity for space exploration. Nuclear thermal propulsion has the potential to cut the time it takes to travel to other planets in the solar system. Using nuclear thermal propulsion would cut travel time to Mars in half compared to today’s methods. It has been estimated that a probe, with some small advances in material science, would be able to employ nuclear thermal propulsion to reach Pluto in 6.5 years without a gravitational assist; while New Horizons took 9.5 years with a gravitational assist.

As we look to the future of space exploration and the pictures of Pluto, let us not forget the nuclear physics that made it possible. During the twentieth century, some of America’s most extraordinary accomplishments, splitting the atom and entering space, have been combined to allow for a future that humans once only dreamed of. Let’s continue with RTGs and bolster the research of nuclear thermal propulsion to make reliable and faster space exploration a reality.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For some, the arrival of New Horizons near Pluto represents the culmination of a career. That's the case with NASA mission scientist Andy Cheng, who has marked several life milestones as the probe traveled to Pluto. It's also important to point out that the RTG that's powering New Horizons relies on Plutonium-238, an isotope that's in short supply these days. While there's more than enough of a stockpile for now, NASA is looking at alternatives.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Diablo Canyon is Helping Fight California's Drought

Last month NEI's Nuclear Energy Overview team covered news that the Diablo Canyon Power Plant has on site a desalination facility that it uses to generate fresh water from seawater. And lots of it  -- the Diablo desal facility is capable of producing 1.5 million gallons of treated water a day. So in addition to producing 2,300 megawatts of carbon-free power, nearly 10 percent of all electricity generated in California, and enough energy to meet the needs of more than three million Northern and Central Californians, Diablo Canyon is poised to be a source to aid California with its historic drought. From the coverage:

Plant operator Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has entered into a five-year agreement to use the facility’s excess capacity to provide the county’s Office of Emergency Services with fresh water to help tackle the ever-present risk of wildfires.   
This news merits broader coverage, and credit the San Luis Obispo Tribune for following through. Its coverage notes that the facility "is the largest facility of its kind on the West Coast." The state, and San Luis Obispo County especially, is enduring a fourth consecutive year of brutal drought. The Tribune continues:
For the first time in Diablo Canyon’s 30-year history of operation, its desalination plant has become the object of intense public interest because of its potential to serve neighboring communities.

Water from Diablo Canyon’s desalination facility is helping fight wildfires.
And read more here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

On Bill McKibben, The New Yorker & Reducing Carbon On the Electric Grid

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Last month Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker magazine about a family in Vermont that had insulated its house, replaced its oil burner with electric heat pumps, added solar panels to the roof and, presumably, cut its carbon footprint. It’s a noble concept but I’m not sure it’s working.

Bill and I go back a long way. We took a trip together in September, 1984, to Hydro-Quebec's James Bay plant, then nearing completion, and he wrote about it in March, 1986, in an article in The New Yorker about the various sources of energy for his apartment in New York. I believe it was one of Bill's first assignments for The New Yorker. I was then a reporter at The New York Times and wrote about the project immediately. Both of us have closely followed the evolution of energy and climate science ever since, but our paths have diverged somewhat. Bill is the co-founder of, which seeks to hold the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million. (It’s now over 400.) My bet for clean air is nuclear.

I've never met the family he wrote about, the Borkowskis, but I'm familiar with the energy system that they (and I, and Bill) live in. Alas, that system is not set up to take advantage of the changes they've made in their home.

Bill McKibben
For starters, Vermont Yankee, the reactor that provided 630 megawatts of round-the-clock, carbon-free electricity, closed last year, the victim of a market system that did not value its reliability, its ability to perform on demand, and its role in keeping the air clean. And New England could close another reactor in the next few years. So it's true that the Borkowski’s heat pumps have replaced oil, but what produces the electricity they use instead?

Natural gas and coal. Electrification (as in electric heat pumps replacing oil) can cut the carbon footprint but not always. In this case, an oil burner that was probably at least 80 percent efficient, and possibly 90 percent, has been replaced with a mixture of 34-percent efficient coal, and 60 percent efficient natural gas, minus transmission and distribution losses.

The efficiency of the heat pumps – that is, how many BTUs they provide to keep the family warm, compared to the number of BTUs they pull off the grid—is a complicated question, depending in part on the temperature of the air they’re drawing the heat from. When Vermont gets cold enough, the system will switch to plain old resistance heat, which has a bigger carbon footprint than the oil did. Whatever the efficiency, to meet our national carbon goals, the proper approach is to keep low-carbon sources on the grid.

Solar won't hurt, but its help will be limited. Bill says solar panels can save the utility system from building more central-station power plants by making energy at peak hours. But that happens only if your peak is at noon. In northern New England, peak is likely to be during dark winter nights, when the solar panels won’t do any good. Farther south, it will be late afternoons in summer, when the sun is too low in the sky to be much help. And heavy subsidies for solar can squeeze out other, round-the-clock zero-carbon sources.

Bill says that solar power is the most disruptive energy technology. It might become so – if there is a parallel breakthrough in batteries, which is not now on the horizon – but for now, the energy revolution isn’t solar, it’s fracking. Solar produces about 0.4 percent of our electricity, and natural gas about 27 percent, and rising rapidly. Ten years ago natural gas was 19 percent.

One reason natural gas grows is because it is chained to wind. To keep the electric system stable, adding wind requires adding natural gas turbines, which can start quickly and stop quickly, to compensate for wind’s uneven production. These gas burners are not particularly clean, and not particularly cheap to run, and certainly not zero carbon. But the combination of cheap gas and subsidized wind has pushed down the price of electricity in regional wholesale markets, which is bad news for actual zero-carbon generators, like nuclear.

Solar actually is zero carbon but it collects big subsidies from governments and all utility customers.

I contributed to the Borkowski’s panels, because they got a solar tax credit, and so did every other federal taxpayer. I contribute monthly to my neighbor's solar panels, through my utility bills, by providing what amounts to a cost-free, perfect battery (the electric grid). My neighbor sells energy to the system at noon, at a fixed price, and buys it back at the same price at 5 pm, when his panels produce little but his demand is highest, and when the wholesale price is far higher. In addition, I now contribute more than my fair share for building and maintaining the wires needed to meet his 5 pm peak demand – he pays system charges only on the net kWh he buys.

Bill and I visited northern Quebec at an odd time in energy history. Hydro-Quebec, flush with new capacity, was trying desperately to find new markets for power. But in the Montreal hotel we stayed in at the beginning of the trip, stickers on the bathroom windows asked guests to conserve precious energy.

We are at an odd time now, too. Heat pumps like the ones Bill wrote about could help electricity displace fossil fuels in consumers’ lives. Electric cars would do the same. But if we kill off zero-carbon nuclear, through markets and government policies that don’t recognize its value, then the future will not be as low-carbon as we hope.

Monday, July 06, 2015

STPNOC Brings 24 New Apprentices Onboard

Clarence Fenner
As part of the STP Nuclear Operating Company (STPNOC) ongoing workforce development efforts, 24 entry-level apprentices were recently brought onboard with STP. The apprentices will join Operations (10); Electrical Maintenance (5); I&C (4); and Mechanical Maintenance (4).

The new employees were all part of the company’s “Grow Your Own” initiative, which is a focused effort on building pipelines through partnerships with local community colleges and four-year institutions. The employees were part of the Educational Incentive Program as well as Nuclear Regulatory Commission Scholarship students.

“We couldn't have accomplished attracting this many solid candidates without the NRC’s scholarship investment,” said Clarence Fenner, Workforce Development/Knowledge Transfer Coordinator. “Our company’s and the NRC’s efforts to build a pipeline of knowledgeable candidates who are ready to work in the nuclear industry are paying off for STP,” Fenner said.

STP's Kevin Knox, briefs 24 recently hired apprentices.
Most, with few exceptions, of the new employees have a two-year associate degree in operations or maintenance technology; others have an associate degree with related industry experience.

“STP will be replacing about 44 percent of its workforce over the next few years,” Fenner said. “These scholarships not only provide us with high-quality candidates, it fuses stability – and most importantly sustainability – into our efforts to attract quality candidates for years to come.”

Thursday, July 02, 2015

How Much Land Does Nuclear, Wind and Solar Really Need?

bellefonteNot too long ago, we reviewed a report that looked at nuclear energy (and other energy sources) as biodiversity agents. This had to do, in part, with the amount of land a facility needs to function. Nuclear energy and fossil fuel plants use relatively little, wind farms and solar arrays quite a lot of land.

Based on an objective and transparent analysis of our sustainable energy choices, we have come to the evidence-based conclusion that nuclear energy is a good option for biodiversity conservation (and society in general) and that other alternatives to fossil fuels should be subjected to the same cost–benefit analyses (in terms of biodiversity and climate outcomes, as well as sociopolitical imperatives) before accepting or dismissing them.
Writer Barry Brook, who collected 75 scientists to endorse his paper, is interested in land use as it impacts flora and fauna. Biodiversity concerns do not get as much play as they might – and, when they do, it annoys many when land is withdrawn due to a specific lizard or weed - but it’s an important factor in siting new buildings of any sort.
WindPower022415But what about land use as an issue in itself? It’s a fair argument that nuclear energy provides a lot of energy in a relatively small amount of space. But how much really? Is it potentially an important issue or just another argument to throw on the pile?
Jesse Jenkins takes a look at land use over at the Energy Collective and concludes, using Brook’s figures:
To fuel one-third of the United States’ 2050 electricity demand with nuclear power would require only 440 sq-km [169 square miles], according to the land use figures compiled by Brook.
If solar provided one-third of Americans’ electricity in 2050, it would require just 4,000-11,000 sq-km [1500-4250 square miles].
That’s – a pretty big range and at least 9 times the space used by a nuclear energy plant.
Wind (also using figures from Brook):
Powering one-third of the country's projected 2050 electricity demand with wind energy could take a land area spanning on the order of 66,000 sq-km… [25,480 square miles]
And that’s just gigantic, about the size of West Virginia
theparkhasapNEI has tried the same exercise recently. Instead of of Jenkins and Brook’s calculation of one-third of American electricity, NEI compares the space needed to supply 1000 megawatts, about the amount of a full-scale reactor. (A nuclear baseline makes sense for NEI, yes?)
NEI also takes into account capacity factor. This refers to the amount of electricity a plant actually puts out against its rated capacity, expressed as a percentage. Nuclear reactors achieve an average capacity factor of 90 percent, largely because they shut down occasionally for refueling.  Wind farms, depending on location and other factors, have a capacity factor between 32 and 47 percent, solar arrays between 17 and 28 percent. (See the charts at the link for a more visual comparison.)
Does this give nuclear energy an advantage? You bet it does. Is it fair to consider it? Yes, I think so. Renewable energy advocates often ignore the whole capacity factor thing because it drags numbers down, but that’s the nature of intermittent (solar, wind) versus baseload (nuclear, hydro) energy. If there’s a big  jump in battery technology (a big if), wind and solar will improve their capacity factors. Until then, the numbers are what the numbers are. And it will take more land to make up for them.
A 1,000-MW wind farm would require approximately 85,240 acres of land (approximately 133 square miles). Accounting for a range of capacity factors (32-47 percent), between 1,900 MW and 2,800 MW of wind capacity would be required to produce the same amount of electricity as a 1,000-MW nuclear plant in a year. The land needed for wind energy to produce the same amount of electricity in a year as a 1,000-MW nuclear plant is between 260 square miles and 360 square miles. A 1,000-MW solar photovoltaic (PV) facility would require about 8,900 acres (approximately 14 square miles).
Accounting for a range of capacity factors (17-28 percent), between 3,300 MW and 5,400 MW of solar PV capacity is required to produce the same amount of electricity as a 1,000-MW nuclear plant in a year. The amount of land needed by solar to produce the same generation as 1,000 MW of nuclear capacity in a year is between 45 and 75 square miles.
To be honest, if mischievous, you could make this comparison even better for nuclear energy. Consider that the five reactors now being built in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee are at existing facilities. They take up no more land than has already been committed to the facilities. Almost all new wind and solar installations are new builds – of course, mischievous wind and solar folks have distributed energy installations in their camps (roof-top solar and the like). But let’s just call this a minor factor withal – some proposed nuclear reactors could be in newly built facilities.
The conclusion however you look at it is almost foregone: if you want a lot of cleanly generated electricity in a (relatively) small space, then nuclear energy is the way to go. As Brook points out, this could be determinative in places where land is at a premium or when biodiversity concerns rise in importance. In places like the U.S., it is, or should be, a factor in considering the mix of energy types. These may have started as exercises, but they reveal real issues to consider in energy policy.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The NEI paper, "Land Requirements for Carbon-Free Technologies," is available on NEI's website.