Monday, December 30, 2013

The Best Nuclear Energy News of 2013

Your list of the best nuclear news of the year, part 1, and in no particular order. All good news is number 1, right?

1. Pandora’s Promise – There has been a movement by environmentalists to support nuclear energy for some years because of its continued safety record, the inability of renewable energy sources to provide baseload energy and, most especially, the looming spectre of a climate change-driven catastrophe. Robert Stone’s movie Pandora’s Promise made this tectonic shift in attitude manifest for many people. Stone does a lot more than provide talking heads, however, dispelling myths, showing the anti-nuclear movement as driven more by fervor than rationality and facing fully the implications of the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

Still, what a great bunch of talking heads: Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Richard Rhodes and more. They all articulate their conversions on the road to nuclear energy with great intelligence and humor. For me, Lynas is the breakout star and his visit to Fukushima a highlight of the movie. Theatrically, it’s still working its way around the world, but in the U.S., you can buy it on iTunes if you’re so inclined!

Be sure to check out NNN’s unofficial guide to the movie, an invaluable resource.

2. Yucca Mountain redux – Though President Barack Obama shuttered the Yucca Mountain used fuel repository project in 2009, it never really seemed the last chapter of the story. Yucca Mountain as repository is inscribed into law – The Nuclear Waste Policy Act – and Congressional oversight committees never really bought into any proffered scientific rationale for stopping it. So the fact that the courts are not buying into it either is not surprising – not because its decision clears the way for an inadequate repository but because we can now find out how adequate Yucca Mountain would actually be.

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The states of Washington and South Carolina, Aiken County, S.C., state public utility regulators and others sought a court order to force the NRC to resume its review of the Department of Energy’s license application for the repository. NEI participated in the suit as a “friend of the court.”

In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the case held in abeyance to give Congress an opportunity to clarify its intent on funding the program and directed the parties to file status updates during this period. However, the court indicated that, given existing statutory language in the Nuclear Waste Act and the funds available to the NRC—approximately $11 million—it likely would order the license evaluation to continue unless the NRC resumed the process or Congress enacted legislation to either terminate it or clarify that no additional funds should be expended on licensing.

In August, the clock ran out.

“Since we issued that order more than a year ago … the [NRC] has not acted and Congress has not altered the legal landscape,” the court said in its Aug. 13 decision. “As things stand … the [NRC] is simply flouting the law.”

The NRC commissioners directed staff to reactivate the license review process. This does not mean in itself that the repository will pass muster or that Yucca Mountain will become the permanent repository. But it doesn’t mean it won’t, either. Look at it as a simple act of fairness and let the process play out to the end, whatever that may be.

[We’ll talk about the suspension of the nuclear waste fee separately – it’s related, of course, but important on its own account.]

3. New build – Five, count ‘em five, reactors are being built in the United States. Four of them are brand new: two each at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle and South Carolina’s V.C. Summer. The fifth, at Tennessee’s Watts Bar facility, was abandoned in 1985 but will now be completed. The important thing about these reactors in 2013 is that they are maintaining their schedules and budgets effectively, a key point for the industry and its regulator. If construction continues apace – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t – then it will show the effectiveness of the Combined Construction and Operating licensing process and the efficacy with which more generic designs – the Westinghouse AP1000 in the case of the four new reactors – can be erected.

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Earlier this year, construction at Vogtle reached a milestone when the 900-ton containment vessel bottom head was placed into the cradle in the reactor 3 nuclear island, the heaviest lift at the site to date.

Upcoming work at reactor 3 includes setting the cavity that will house the reactor vessel in the nuclear island.

At reactor 4, nuclear construction is about to begin; the basemat concrete pour will take place soon.

Next steps for construction at the Summer site include setting the first containment vessel ring and the auxiliary building module for reactor 2 and construction of the containment vessel bottom head support module at reactor 3.

Obviously, the real news will be the generation of electricity. Watts Bar should be first in 2015, with the Vogtle and Summer reactors online beginning in 2017. Sometimes, anti-nuclear advocates complain that getting new reactors on line takes too long. But 2015? 2017? They’ll be here before you know it.

Next up (probably): the nuclear waste fee, the waste confidence rule (a lot went on in the used fuel category in 2013) and small reactors. If there are issues you would like to see included, leave a comment.

2 comments:

SteveK9 said...

Vogtle and Summer might also benefit from publicity on the startup of the AP1000's at Sanmen and Haiyang. That will happen THIS YEAR. I hope it gets the coverage it deserves. We are likely to see a new large contract placed for AP1000's from China as well. Westinghouse should play this up as much as it can.

VogtleBoy said...

For the record, Vogtle Unit 4 started the basemat concrete placement @ 9:20 AM on November 19, 2013 and completed the 6,945 cubic yard placement in 40 hours and 46 minutes.