Friday, March 29, 2013

Protesting Nuclear Fusion On the Basis of Nothing

We sometimes bring up nuclear fusion as an object of fun, because activists say that fusion will scale successfully and become commercially viable in 10 years or so – and have been saying so for at least  20 years. That’s one joke. Another one is that it takes a city to power a town with fusion energy because it requires a lot of electricity to produce a little energy.

None of this is (completely) fair, of course, and there are several projects exploring the use of fusion. The most significant of these is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

ITER is a large-scale scientific experiment that aims to demonstrate that it is possible to produce commercial energy from fusion.

This undertaking requires a full-scale reactor – in fact, a full-scale facility. ITER is located in France and financed by the European Union, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, India and the United States – the big boys and girls of the nuclear world. (The EU is shouldering about 50 percent of the 13 billion euro project.)

Naturally enough, there are protests:

[M]any feel that the money and research would be better spent on renewable sources and addressing immediate problems instead.

The protester class in France is unusually full of know-nothings.

[M]any in France oppose the EU’s enormous financial investment in the project, in addition to the unknown environmental risks that it could pose. For instance, Sortir du Nucléaire [roughly, Get Out of Nuclear] opposes the project because the expensive, experimental reactor may never actually be able to produce energy commercially, there are unknown risks associated with fusion reactors, which still produce radioactive waste.

I’m surprised if anyone in this crowd really cares about the commercial prospects of the facility. These folks do make you wonder how France got to a Fifth Republic. It all feels knee-jerk – you say nuclear, we say “unknown risk.”

“While entertaining the myth of an ever-abundant energy source in a few decades, ITER is diverting attention from real solutions to energy problems like renewable resources and energy conservation,” said Charlotte Mijeon, of Sortir du Nucléaire.

No, ITER isn’t diverting anything – it has nothing whatever to do with renewable resources. Mijeon may mean that ITER is diverting money better spent on other things, but anyone can say that about anything that costs money. Europe seems pretty enthusiastic about renewable energy sources and ITER doesn’t seem to be impeding their uptake.

What struck me about these protests and how they differ from their American counterparts is that the French are standing against the potential for real scientific progress. Everything that leads to ITER’s goal is potentially productive in itself – a benefit of a large experiment – and if ITER does fulfill its goals, forget about it. The implications are immense. There’s a reason all these countries are partners.

And besides, even some of the fusion people can be seen as allies to the misbegotten.

The real effects, however, will be long-term solutions to energy shortages, he [Aris Apollonatos of Fusion for Energy]said. ITER participants are hoping that the research will be invaluable for the future when carbon and petroleum become scarce. Renewable energy sources like wind and water may not be enough, but nuclear energy as it is currently creates too much pollution and risk. With fusion, that could change. “Fusion, and by consequence ITER, is part of the long-term sustainable energy mix given the fact that it does not emit any carbon dioxide,” Apollonatos said.

Very much a “Can’t we all be friends?” moment that might seem a little cagey.

To be honest, I’m not sure how diligently to argue for fusion energy, the perpetual fifth wheel on the energy cart. But fair is fair – many bright minds have turned their luminosity onto fusion and some of the brightest are at ITER. I can see how this is how money should be spent and resources should be deployed – on projects that have the most potential to do the most good for the most people.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Little Controversies: A Slew of Nuclear Energy

From U.S. News and World Report:

Despite a slew of developed nations putting the brakes on nuclear programs in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster, global nuclear energy generation is expected to increase significantly, climbing 30 percent by the end of the decade, according to recent research.

A slew? Is that like a murder of crows?

Rapidly increasing demand for electricity coupled with surging fossil fuel prices is making nuclear power an increasingly attractive option for many countries, especially in those where large-scale alternative-energy generation—such as wind and solar—is impractical. Around 45 current nuclear-free nations including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Poland and Bangladesh are looking at adding the controversial power source to their energy portfolio, the GlobalData report noted.

That controversy might be a little overhyped if 45 countries that have never used nuclear energy are considering implementation. If you’ve really got to promote the idea of controversy in the teeth of contrary evidence, have at it. (Honestly, the story isn’t that bad and its data points are solid. What we’re talking about here is the requisite thicket one has to cut through to get to it.)


From Mother Jones:

But beyond his job in academia, [Department of Energy Chairman-designate Ernest] Moniz has also spent the last decade serving on a range of boards and advisory councils for energy industry heavyweights, including some that do business with the Department of Energy. That includes a six-year paid stint on BP's Technology Advisory Council as well as similar positions at a uranium enrichment company and a pair of energy investment firms.

Heaven forbid a prospective Energy Secretary should have been involved with energy companies. Mother Jones admits this is not so controversial. This is, though, in the magazine’s view:

"His connections to the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries threaten to undermine the focus we need to see on renewables and energy efficiency," said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

No, it doesn’t, because the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries know that utilities pursue energy diversity as well as energy efficiency. Moniz isn’t a child – he can separate the interests of nuclear and fossil fuel industry nabobs and energy policy in general. Really, people don’t live in test tubes.

To be fair, the story points out that Energy Secretary Steven Chu had ties to BP but nothing has suggested he favored the company while in office. That’s probably the view one should start with – there really isn’t any smoke here much less fire.


From Visual News (out of Australia):

Can Harnessing Ships and Tides Beat Nuclear Power?

I’m going with No.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Media Advisory: Be Sure to Fact Check Joseph Mangano, Janette Sherman and Robert Alvarez

We've gotten a heads up that Joseph Mangano, the brains behind the "Tooth Fairy" project, will be holding a press conference tomorrow afternoon fronting more junk science about nuclear energy. He'll be back with the usual suspects, Robert Alvarez and Janette Sherman, this time claiming that closing the Rancho Seco nuclear plant (click here for a photo) in California "might" have coincided with a decrease in cancer deaths.

Mangano and company are making these claims despite the fact that nuclear power plants only account for .1% of the radiation that a typical American is exposed to over the course of a year. Meanwhile, exposures from life saving medical procedures like CT scans and X-Rays account for about 50%.

Putting that aside, a number of third party experts and journalists have regularly taken turns debunking Mangano's research. In 2011, Michael Moyer of Scientific American said the following about one Mangano study that claimed Americans were suffering from severe health effects in the wake of Fukushima:

[A] check reveals that the authors’ statistical claims are critically flawed—if not deliberate mistruths.


Only by explicitly excluding data from January and February were Sherman and Mangano able to froth up their specious statistical scaremongering.

This is not to say that the radiation from Fukushima is not dangerous, nor that we shouldn’t closely monitor its potential to spread (we should). But picking only the data that suits your analysis isn’t science—it’s politics. Beware those who would confuse the latter with the former.
Thankfully, it appears that more and more journalists are starting to ask hard questions when it comes to Mangano's soundbites. In December 2011, Barbara Ostrov from Reporting on Health, a blog sponsored by USC Annenberg, warned journalists to "proceed with caution," when it came to Mangano's claims, especially considering that his research can only seem to find a home in a relatively obscure publication. To say the least, NEI echoes Ms. Ostrov's advice, and urges reporters to rigorously question his findings while also seeking out third party experts for their opinions.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

All the President’s Science Advisors–Endorse Nuclear Energy

President Barack Obama made climate change an issue he wants to focus on in his second term. This may lead somewhere or nowhere, depending on the variables, but so it goes.

In crafting a policy(which hasn’t yet emerged), the President turned to his advisors on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) for comment.

What is PCAST?

President Obama established the current PCAST in 2010 as an advisory group of leading scientists and engineers who directly advise the President and the Executive Office of the President; one of the members serves as the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (the Science Advisor). PCAST’s charter is to advise the President on matters involving science, technology, and innovation policy, including, but not limited to, policy that affects science, technology, and innovation, as well as scientific and technical information that is needed to inform public policy relating to the economy, energy, environment, public health, national and homeland security, and other topics.

So it seems the right crowd to address climate change in energy policy. They offered six key recommendations. I’ll let you find the other five at the above link, or more directly, here.

Over the past four years, emissions reductions have come primarily from declining oil consumption and a switch from coal to natural gas in the electricity sector. Further reductions in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions over the next decade will result from a continued shift from coal to natural gas and renewables in the electricity sector.

Which sounds disappointing, doesn’t it? Nuclear energy has been around so long that it’s possible to forget that its presence forestalls building fossil fuel plants. Building new reactors would do more of that.

But wait:

Nuclear power requires special attention, as the Federal Government’s role is different than for all other technologies. Nuclear power currently supplies 19 percent of U.S. electricity. Achieving low-carbon goals without a substantial contribution from nuclear power is possible, but extremely difficult.

Nuclear power involves large capital investments recovered over long time periods. Even if current market conditions driven primarily by low natural gas prices persist for a decade or more, it is important to eliminate obstacles now that would impede renewed commitments to nuclear energy as energy economics shift over time.

Today, a critical issue is progress in nuclear waste management, and we recommend implementation of the recommendations put forward by the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America’s Nuclear Future.

Indeed, nuclear waste disposal needs to be addressed independent of whether nuclear power deployment continues. The recent DOE strategy document generally endorses the BRC and proposes a timeline for some key steps towards a functioning waste management system. Implementation is key.

We also support adequate research funding for new and potentially cheaper nuclear technologies.

“The Federal Government’s role is different than for all other technologies.” This is the bolded portion  in the original and I have no idea what it means. I reckon it refers to the government taking charge of used fuel disposal, since this is brought up later in the section, but it’s ambiguous at best.

But that’s not the point. The point is “Achieving low-carbon goals without a substantial contribution from nuclear power is possible, but extremely difficult.” That sounds like something we’d say here – and have. Validation never hurts, though. And it puts nuclear energy in the mix, where it belongs.

(I do feel a bit guilty ignoring the rest of this largely non-nuclear-focused document. At only nine pages, it’s worth a read – I suspect it will be the basis of a lot of discussions and, who knows, maybe some congressional action in the next few months.)


PCAST is stating what has become common wisdom about cutting down greenhouse gas emissions. I’d say the council is reasonably neutral on nuclear energy usage while NEI, for example, isn’t neutral, yet this view is consistent.

It is even consistent among those with no real affection for nuclear energy. Take this bit, for example, from the dependably anti-nuclear Guardian in England:

If you believe strongly enough that we should phase out nuclear then with sufficiently strong political commitment around the world, this could be done consistently with tackling climate change. However, as a practical matter, we are far from being on course to limit carbon emissions to levels consistent with a 2C target. Ruling out one of the major low-carbon technology options currently available is bound to add to the difficulty and the risk of what is already looking like a very tough challenge. Balancing the problems of nuclear power against its contribution to climate mitigation (and other energy policy objectives) is an inescapable dilemma.

Making lemonade from lemons, I guess.

The Clear Case for CWIP – A Rebuttal to Mark Cooper’s Analysis on “Advanced Cost Recovery”

Uprate at St. Lucie impossible without CWIP.
Two nuclear critics, Peter Bradford and Mark Cooper, recently published a report (pdf) explaining how “advanced cost recovery” for nuclear plants in Florida and South Carolina “creates another nuclear fiasco.” Cooper’s main argument seems to be that Construction Work in Progress (CWIP) shifts to ratepayers all of the risks of building nuclear plants. This is either a deliberate distortion or a misunderstanding of how the cost recovery mechanism works.

How “advanced cost recovery” (aka CWIP) works

When a utility builds any type of project, it uses a mix of debt and equity to pay for the construction. The debt comes from banks and other investors and, of course, the utility must pay interest to use the debt. The equity comes from the utility’s shareholders and also requires a return for its use. The CWIP financing mechanism, which is also allowed by the federal government for interstate transmission projects, allows a company building a project to include the interest on debt and a return on investor’s equity (known as carrying costs) in its electric rates while the project is under construction.

SCANA’s latest filing to the South Carolina’s public utility commission (pdf), Appendix 3 (page 27) explains how CWIP works for the two-reactor expansion at its Summer station. These carrying costs are classified in accounting and electric-utility parlance as “allowance for funds used during construction” (AFUDC). When CWIP is allowed, AFUDC is basically what the power company adds to its rates, and collects from the ratepayers during construction. The AFUDC in SCANA’s case is $238 million.

What’s also shown on page 27 is the yearly and cumulative amount of cash flow SCANA needs to build the two reactors. This is currently $5.5 billion and is funded by debt and equity. Cooper neglects to explain that SCANA’s customers are paying only about five percent of the construction costs of the projects (the AFUDC rate) during construction, while the owners and investors are contributing 95 percent.

Cooper also neglects to explain another significant feature of CWIP. Because the interest on debt and return on equity are being paid each year, these carrying costs are not accumulating as they would in the absence of CWIP, to be recovered when the plant begins operation. Because these costs, like all debt, compound over time, the quicker they are paid, the less they build up. When ratepayers pay these carrying costs while the plants are under construction, customers will save substantial sums over the life of the units. From Georgia Power:
“Approximately $0.5 billion of these customer benefits are associated with the inclusion of CWIP in rate base.” – p. 36 from Vogtle’s 8th Construction Monitoring Report (pdf)
“Paying financing costs while construction is ongoing, as opposed to waiting until the project has been completed, will lower the cost of the new units by about $1 billion. We estimate this reduction will save our customers approximately $4 billion in electric rates over the life of the new units.” – SCANA Press Release
Peter Bradford asserted that these cost savings are false and the plants will cost customers more money in the end, but (typically) failed to provide any explanation of or factual support for these statements. A total of ten states – and the federal government – allow CWIP today because the legislators and public service commissions in these states know that such a cost recovery mechanism saves money for its customers.

“Ratepayers are on the hook”

Cooper’s paper claims that “ratepayers are on the hook” and taking all the risk of building a nuclear plant because of CWIP. Apparently, Cooper does not understand how utilities build and recover the costs of power plants in regulated states.

In regulated states, when a power plant is completed, the utility requests approval from the Public Service Commission to place the cost of construction in its rate base, which means that the utility begins charging its electric customers for the construction costs. State public service commissions analyze the costs to determine if they were spent “prudently.” If the PSC deems the costs to have been prudent, then they can be passed on to ratepayers. This occurs with or without CWIP.

When CWIP is allowed, public service commissions exercise even greater oversight and cost control. Costs are audited, reviewed and subject to a prudence determination by the PSC, typically on a quarterly or semi-annual basis. The utility must also demonstrate the economic viability of the project before it even begins construction. 

Cooper and his fellow anti-nuclear critics contend that CWIP allows utilities to collect costs without having to build the plant. Cooper’s paper claims that they can get halfway through the project, cancel it, and then collect the incurred costs of construction from ratepayers without having to pay anything. This is of course an erroneous view of how states govern projects.

Cooper’s paper cites an Iowa Utility Board analysis to make its case against CWIP. Last year, the Iowa legislature debated a bill that would allow CWIP which may have provided MidAmerican Energy the opportunity to build a nuclear plant in the state. The Iowa House passed the bill but the Senate didn’t act on it. There was much discussion about the issue and MidAmerican provided a short explanation of the bill (pdf). The explanation clearly states that the utility does not have the unilateral ability to cancel a project. State public service commissions must approve both the decision to build a plant, the decision to cancel one, and how much utilities can collect in rates based on the prudency of spending.

Cooper’s paper claims that CWIP puts all the risk on ratepayers. CWIP actually lowers the risks to ratepayers because it makes the projects more affordable to build, increasing the chance of successfully completing the project.

Most Economical

The five reactors under construction in the Southeast U.S. (Summer 2&3, Vogtle 3&4, and Watts Bar 2) are being built because they’re the most economical projects for those utilities. Cooper’s paper claims that there are many more economical alternatives than those plants. The utilities and state regulators in that region disagree.

Renewable resources in the Southeast are thin and natural gas plants (despite today’s low costs) are still not cheaper than the nuclear plants in the long-run. Utilities are also looking to diversify away from coal, and improved efficiency only gets a utility so far before new capacity is needed. Here’s what Georgia Power says on page 45 (pdf):
“The weighted average expected value of the relative savings for completion of the [Vogtle] Facility as compared to the gas-fired [combined cycle] alternative is $4.0 billion ….”
Paying it Forward

CWIP provides clear cost benefits for customers when building capital-intensive projects like nuclear plants. The two nuclear critics in this case simply do not like nuclear power and continue to misinform and skew the debate about the benefits of CWIP. Here’s their paper’s foregone conclusion on page viii:
“Nuclear power is inherently uneconomic because it relies on a catastrophically dangerous resource that is vulnerable to human frailties and the vicissitudes of Mother Nature.”
When one begins with such a conclusion, it’s easy to guess the rest of the paper.

Many generating plants and transmission lines operating today – not to mention the interstate highways, hundreds of bridges, and dams – have largely been paid for by customers who are no longer on the system. All customers benefit today from cost-effective capital that was deployed years ago. CWIP is not new and, as shown above, allows customers the benefit of lower electricity costs from a reliable, affordable, emission-free source of power that can last 60 to 80 to 100 years. Very few, if any, other technologies can provide such benefits.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Nuclear Advocate Simona De Silvestro Kicks Off IndyCar Series in Florida

Simona De Silvestro will drive the
No. 78 Nuclear Clean Air Energy IndyCar.
Folks, start your engines. The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is this Sunday, March 24, and marks the start of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series. NEI is proud to join member companies Entergy and AREVA in sponsoring open wheel racing’s rising star Simona De Silvestro. This season De Silvestro joins the KV Racing Technology team and sits behind the wheel of the No. 78 Nuclear Clean Air Energy Chevrolet.

A long-standing advocate of the industry, the 24-year-old racer hails from Switzerland, where nuclear energy supplies 40% of the nation’s electricity. De Silvestro’s background gives her a unique appreciation for the importance of nuclear in providing emission-free power: “Nuclear is clean, safe and reliable, and that’s what makes it a quality option for producing electricity.” Her support is energizing our future workforce too, as proven by her recent visit to the University of Florida to promote STEM education and careers.

We are excited for the series and expect a great year for De Silvestro. Be sure to tune in as nuclear shares the spotlight with the talented racer on the streets of St. Petersburg. The race airs on NBC Sports Network at 12 p.m. (ET).

NEI Comments on Renomination of Allison Macfarlane to the NRC

Marv Fertel
Nuclear Energy Institute president and chief executive officer Marvin Fertel issued the following statement regarding President Obama’s renomination of Allison Macfarlane as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
“Just this week, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s most recent vote on post-Fukushima safety enhancements, we witnessed the importance of having a fully staffed, collegial NRC commission. The NRC has a unique safety mission in America, and maintaining its full complement of five commissioners of distinct and diverse viewpoints is central to fulfilling that mission.

“In her brief tenure as NRC chairman, Allison Macfarlane has achieved notable progress in returning a climate of collegiality within the commission. The nuclear energy industry commends her for this and supports the president’s effort in seeing the chairman continue in her leadership role.”
Click here to read NEI's previous statement when Macfarlane was first nominated to replace Greg Jaczko.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

One Nuclear Energy Student Makes the Case for Cost Recovery Laws

Diego Garcia (left) and Gators for long-term energy planning.
Earlier this week, a Florida State Senate committee held a hearing on the state's nuclear cost recovery law. Paul Genoa was on hand to deliver testimony on behalf of NEI, but today I'd like to focus on another individual who testified on Monday.

His name is Diego Garcia. He's a senior at the University of Florida currently and is double majoring in nuclear engineering and political science. He's also president of the campus chapter of the American Nuclear Society. That's him in the picture with a few of his classmates who showed up at Monday's hearing.

So why should we listen to Mr. Garcia? Put simply, nuclear cost recovery laws have been put in place all over the country in order to allow electric utilities to engage in the sort of long-term planning that's desperately needed on the electric grid. And when we're talking about facilities that could potentially be producing emission-free power for up to 60 years, it's safe to say that Diego and his young compatriots at UF have some genuine skin in the game.

Here's an excerpt from his testimony that I found particularly compelling:
It is easy to understand why the debate about nuclear power plant financing has become a topic of debate. I share the same values of accountability and oversight that many have been discussing. However there is much more to the issue than meets the eye; aspects that I have only been able to understand through my full-time studies of energy and the energy markets.


CO2 burning power stations are much faster and cheaper to build upfront. Nuclear power plants have significantly higher costs because of the magnitude of the infrastructure and the stringent regulatory standards that ensure safety, security and environmental protection. However, the subsequent operating costs (including fuel costs) for nuclear energy are low, making it economically competitive alternative to fossil fuel plants over the life of the plants. The problem of cleaner air is an economic one too. It is laws like the nuclear cost recovery clause that allow our state to move toward 0 emissions and a more stable energy market.

Nuclear energy is the only CO2 –free form of reliable electricity that can provide customers with stable electricity costs for decades. Because of its low operating cost and high reliability, nuclear power is not vulnerable to the price spikes that both oil and natural gas-fired plants can impose on customers. The nuclear cost recovery clause allows the private sector and ratepayers to be able to pass the hurdle of upfront costs in order to provide reliable, affordable, and clean-air energy solutions for our state.
We talk a lot about the future of the nuclear work force here at NEI, and safe to say, we're very anxious to see Diego graduate this Spring and take a job working in our industry. As far as we're concerned, he can't get here quickly enough.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Relying on Nuclear Energy to Keep the Lights Working

The nuclear energy situation in Great Britain has been full of drama, with Spanish and German interests dropping in and out of the mix and the government’s will to even build a new reactor brought into question.

But, really, the most notable thing about the virtually daily drumbeat of news was that there was a drumbeat of news – to me, that meant the issue wasn’t going to expire until a solution was reached one way or another.

Meet the solution:

Energy giant EDF was today given permission to construct a new nuclear facility at Hinkley Point C in Somerset.
The announcement was seen as a huge boost to the industry which ministers are relying on to keep the lights working.
EDF said the plant’s two nuclear reactors would be capable of producing seven per cent of the UK’s electricity, enough to power five million homes.

“Relying on to keep the lights working.” To quote Orson Welles from a notorious Paul Masson ad, Ahhhh the French. EDF just got knocked back by the NRC on building a new reactor at Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs because of foreign ownership rules, so this might seem just, if only partial, compensation.


The project will create as many as 25,000 jobs during construction and 900 permanent positions once in operation.

Mostly British, I assume. Might wish the jobs were in Maryland, but why be churlish? It’s all good.


Another bit of good international news, though I admit it’s a bit puzzling:

A new study suggests there is overwhelming public support for the UAE’s peaceful nuclear energy program.

Global research consultancy TNS has announced the results of its study regarding support for nuclear energy in the UAE — with 82 per cent of respondents in favor. That figure is up from 66 per cent a year ago.

There’s nothing suspicious about this poll – TNS is very reputable – but I wonder about the views of UAE people – or rather, who counted as UAE people in this poll. Here is the CIA’s reckoning of the population:

Emirati 19%, other Arab and Iranian 23%, South Asian 50%, other expatriates (includes Westerners and East Asians) 8% (1982)

note: less than 20% are UAE citizens (1982)

So less than 20 percent are citizens and 19 percent are Emirati – that’s a pretty firm correlation. The reason for this:

It is incredibly difficult to obtain UAE citizenship; it is usually only granted if you are married to a citizen for at least 10 years or if your father had citizenship.

So UAE is not primarily a country of citizens, it is a land of visitors. The four reactors at Barakah will benefit all of them, of course, and I think we can assume that those not invested one way or another into the UAE’s energy choices will be diffident in their views. Eighty percent is 80 percent, whoever TNS talked to, but it must be a curious place to poll.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

NEI Comments on NRC Decision to Commence Rulemaking on Containment Filtering Strategies

From the NRC Blog:

The NRC has already ordered numerous upgrades to nuclear power plant safety based on what we’ve learned about the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011. Now, the NRC’s Commission is doing more. They have just approved a two-track approach for additional improvements to systems at 31 U.S. reactors that would vent pressure during accidents.
The following statement concerning the NRC action comes from Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of NEI:
Tony Pietrangelo
“The nuclear energy industry concurs that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff should develop the technical basis for a rulemaking for filtering strategies and severe accident management of BWR Mark I and II containments. The rulemaking process is the proper approach for consideration of this matter, as it affords all stakeholders the opportunity to participate.

“With this direction to the NRC staff, the Commission is addressing the central issue: What is the most effective way to filter containment vents to reduce radiation releases in extreme situations where a reactor may be damaged?

“In addition, the order to enhance containment venting systems under severe accident conditions will also enhance containment integrity. Maintaining integrity of reactor containment buildings is critical to preventing significant radioactive releases. This can only be achieved by cooling the reactor and controlling containment venting.

“An important benefit of the rulemaking process is that it increases public involvement and transparency compared to a prescriptive order. The nuclear energy industry remains committed to pursuing the most reliable solutions that have proven safety results, based on science and the facts.

“We commend the Commission for its thoughtful deliberation on this issue. We look forward to participating in the rulemaking process.”
For more on filtered vents, see our blog post on the topic from March 8, 2013.

What the President Said About Nuclear Energy

The President doesn’t talk about energy issues that much in his weekly address – it isn’t the homiest topic, I guess – but this week, he did, from the Argonne National Labs. The motivation for this is the recent spike in gas prices, coming a little earlier in the year than previously.
Obama’s approach to rising gas prices is to continue to invest in technology to make gasoline less necessary.
But the only way we’re going to break this cycle of spiking gas prices for good is to shift our cars and trucks off of oil for good.  That’s why, in my State of the Union Address, I called on Congress to set up an Energy Security Trust to fund research into new technologies that will help us reach that goal.
Here’s how it would work.  Much of our energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together.  So I’m proposing that we take some of our oil and gas revenues from public lands and put it towards research that will benefit the public, so that we can support American ingenuity without adding a dime to our deficit.  We can support scientists who are designing new engines that are more energy efficient; developing cheaper batteries that go farther on a single charge; and devising new ways to fuel our cars and trucks with new sources of clean energy – like advanced biofuels and natural gas – so drivers can one day go coast-to-coast without using a drop of oil.
It’s kind of ingenious the way he avoids naming hybrid and electric cars – maybe they poll badly – but at least battery technology is here.
Anyway, aside from the fact that electric cars and nuclear energy go together well on the emissions front, nuclear only got a bit of a mention, but as an item on a checklist. The talk was really about gas prices.
But it led the White House to release an energy fact sheet. Such things can be parsed like the Rosetta Stone or a Papal Bull for clues to deeper intent – much as I noted the avoidance of electric cars above - but we’ll stay on the surface here.
In the fact sheet, Obama says that his administration:
Supports a responsible nuclear waste strategy. Under President Obama’s direction, the Energy Department created a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to recommend how to manage the challenges associated with nuclear waste storage and disposal. After careful consideration of the Commission’s input, the Administration has issued a strategy for action in response to the recommendations and looks forward to working with Congress on implementing policies that ensure that our Nation can continue to rely on carbon-free nuclear power.
The other three points under the subhead “Producing More American Energy” are: doubling renewable energy capacity by 2020, making the permitting of renewable energy (and other) sites easier, and leveraging natural gas. That’s pretty good company and means that, at the least, nuclear energy is considered part of the carbon emission reduction strategy articulated by the president. If nuclear energy were missing from this lineup, that would be a worry.
Under “International Leadership, nuclear appears again:
Supports American nuclear exports. We are providing increased support for American nuclear technology and supply chains to promote safe, secure, low-carbon nuclear power growth in countries that are pursuing nuclear energy as part of their energy mix.
This is actually a key point, one it’s great to have the President single out. The U.S. suffers in nuclear trade because of the considerable government vetting procedure. This is not to downplay the significance of nuclear technologies, and certainly not to lessen concerns about proliferation, it has more to do with the plethora of agencies that have to approve exports. It can take a year or more before a company can export an item. Countries such as Russia and France evade this by controlling their nuclear energy industries, but even countries with industries configured similarly to the U.S., such as South Korea, have proven more nimble internationally.
NEI has a bunch of pages on this subject. Start here and dig in.

Guest Post: The Callaway Coastdown

Tom Kauffman
The following is a guest post written by NEI's Tom Kauffman. Though Tom now works in NEI's media relations shop, he spent 23 years working at Three Mile Island, seven of those as a licensed reactor operator. 
Ameren's Callaway Energy Center in Missouri is in a "coastdown." No, it's not rolling to a stop like a skateboard that's missing its rider, it's actually running low on fuel - exactly as planned.

Nuclear plant operators shut down their units to refuel the reactor (aka refueling outage) and do a lot of maintenance work every sixteen to twenty-four months depending on the unit's operating cycle. The Callaway reactor is on a year and-a-half operating cycle.

The uranium fuel in about a third of the fuel assemblies in the nuclear reactor has been used so those fuel assemblies will be removed for storage. The fuel assemblies have been in the reactor for a few cycles of operation and are now located toward the center of the reactor where the greatest fuel use occurs. Of course the operators don't want any of the valuable uranium to go to waste, so it's important that as much as possible has been used to make electricity. Engineers carefully calculate the fuel loading in the reactor to make sure they have enough for each operating cycle, while minimizing the amount that could be unused.

A refueling outage requires hundreds of contract workers, tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of parts and materials, and a tremendous amount of planning. In order to be cost effective, thousands of work hours must be completed in a very structured timeframe. Refueling outages usually take 30 to 40 days, so it's important they start on time. Delaying or extending an outage can cost millions of dollars a day and effect fuel use.

Callaway Energy Center
Outages are normally performed during the spring or fall when demand for electricity is low. Nuclear facilities safely produce large quantities of continuous electricity that is vital for grid stability especially during the summer and winter when demand is high. Therefore, the outages need to be done in a relatively short time window. That's why the workers follow a carefully orchestrated, 24/7, computer-driven work plan.

If during an operating cycle a plant has to shut down or reduce power for some reason, that event might delay the start of the outage. If it's lengthy shut down, it may require removing some unused uranium in the fuel assemblies. It also complicates the fuel loading calculations and outage planning. Ideally there are no shut downs during the operating cycle. But how many million horsepower machines can operate non-stop at full power for a year-and-a-half?

That brings us back to the Callaway nuclear facility. It looks like this operating cycle, like its last operating cycle, the unit will run "breaker-to-breaker." This means they started the Callaway unit and ran it continuously at or near full power until it is shut down for the refueling outage. That's outstanding, but it gets even better. Precisely as anticipated (because of their extremely accurate fuel loading calculations) several weeks before the scheduled start of the outage the reactor has started to slowly reduce power because the fuel in the center of the reactor can no longer support full power operation. When power reaches about 80 percent they will shut the reactor down and begin the outage right when their team scheduled it to start. The bottom line is, the unit has run very reliably and the fuel use was on target. It doesn't get any better than that.

By the way, in 2012 the nuclear industry's average capacity factor (a measure of reliability) was a bit under 90%. Callaway's 2012 capacity factor was 99.4%.
Thanks to Tom for filling us in on these details. I think it's also important to point out that nuclear outages are a real boon to local economies. Earlier this month, Exelon's Quad Cities Generating Station began its own outage that drew an additional 2,000 workers to Cordova, Illinois. What's the bottom line financially: $2.7 million pumped into the local economy.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Issues in Context: The NRC Webinar on Palisades Nuclear Power Plant and Pressurized Thermal Shock

Palisades Nuclear Power Plant
In recent days, we've seen a lot of media coverage concerning an upcoming NRC webinar on the Entergy's Palisades Nuclear Generating Station in Michigan. Earlier today, Entergy released the following statement by Tony Vitale, the plant's site vice president:
"The Palisades nuclear plant is a safe and secure facility, and we have an NRC license to operate this facility through 2031.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has strict rules, regulations and limits for all aspects of nuclear plant operations. This includes a program to monitor nuclear power plant reactor vessels and the potential impact of a rare accident scenario – pressurized thermal shock – in which a large amount of cold water is injected into the reactor resulting in rapid cooling of the reactor vessel.

This is not a new topic or one that is unique to Palisades. In fact, for decades pressurized thermal shock has been well understood and well monitored by the owners and operators of the nation’s pressurized water reactors.

Every pressurized water reactor plant in the nation is required by the NRC to continually update its calculations to confirm reactor vessel strength – meaning every plant must conduct periodic reactor vessel inspections and analyze reactor vessel samples. Consistent with these NRC requirements, Palisades will conduct these inspections and analysis during our refueling outage this fall.

We have every reason to believe the test results will again demonstrate the safety and strength of the Palisades reactor vessel – which will enable us to continue operating through the end of our license in 2031. We will submit an updated evaluation to the NRC for its review in the spring of 2014.

Our unrelenting commitment and focus are on operating Palisades at the highest levels of safety and reliability – now and for many years to come.”
Thanks to Entergy for providing some needed context to counter some of the breathless coverage.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Negative Nuclear News Narratives

Because of the low price of natural gas, which has benefitted utilities and caused some of them to reweigh their portfolios, the prospects for coal, nuclear energy, even renewable energy sources have become considerably stiller – milkier - stagnant. Agree?

If you’re looking for a simple narrative around energy, I suppose that works well enough apart from being false. But variations on it can feed news stories and editorials for quite awhile. You don’t have to like or dislike nuclear energy (or coal, etc.) to fit it to the narrative, it’s all very “factual” and non-partisan. It’s like a theory, really. You observe events and derive a larger meaning from them.

Here’s the thing: theories evolve with the collection of new data, but news narratives often do not. They can be useful in a quick moving newsgathering environment, but a bane, too, because they allow reporters to lean on set storylines rather than on the relevant fact set. The latter can even become a bother if it clashes with the narrative.


washington_post_logoTake this story, for example, from the Washington Post. It does not quite generate a set narrative to fit nuclear energy into, but you can see an effort is being made in that direction:

Only five years ago, industry executives and leading politicians were talking about an American nuclear renaissance, hoping to add 20 or more reactors to the 104-unit U.S. nuclear fleet.

But today those companies are holding back in the face of falling natural gas prices and sluggish and uncertain electricity demand.

And here are the facts to back it up.

On Monday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reiterated its refusal to issue a license for a new unit at Calvert Cliffs, Md., that a French company had hoped to make the model for a fleet of reactors. A pair of reactors in Southern California are under scrutiny over whether a major contractor and a utility there concealed concerns about potential cracks in the tubes of a steam generator. And nuclear plants in Wisconsin and Florida are closing down because their owners said they cannot compete with less expensive natural-gas-fired electricity.

None of these involve energy players “holding back,” but is a collection of episode, all of which have individual causes without much to link them together. In their accumulation, they do not respond to a single explanation unless you make the scope exceptionally broad.

As for the overall demonstration of nuclear energy’s struggle, join me, please, in a heartfelt “Meh.” Writer Steve Mufson does a reasonably good job with his evidence (he explains the AREVA deal fairly, for example), but there just isn’t much cohesion to the narrative. Even he admits, more-or-less, that the industry is not stagnating in the ways one usually uses the term and never has been a still pond.

Despite the relatively stagnant growth of U.S. nuclear power plants, the industry has found ways to maintain its roughly 20 percent share of electricity generation. The NRC has issued 73 license renewals for plants, and operators have figured out ways to improve efficiency and add the equivalent of 24 (sic – see below) new 1,000-megawatt units over the past 20 years, according to Farrell.

upratesSee? I’m not sure I’d attach “stagnant” to that description and this was during a time when few new nuclear facilities were built. 27 new plants, however, were “built”-in-place, an impressive display of technological savvy (click on chart for larger). And the fleet capacity factor went from the 60s to the 90s during the same 20 years, which demonstrates a growing familiarity with the technology and the experience and efficiency of the work force.

capacity factorBut the theme of the narrative remains “nuclear energy industry gone fetid.” Regardless, Mufson keeps demonstrating that it is not really true.

Many companies are also talking about the possibility of turning to smaller, cheaper reactors. [NRC Chairman Allison] Macfarlane said she expects an application for design certification in 2014.

Industries in holding patterns tend not to invest in new technology.

I don’t know about this story – it has a theme it develops and is technically well-written and researched, with nothing to quibble about except details. The headline is “In U.S., nuclear energy loses momentum amid economic head winds, safety issues,” so my expectation was that the tone would be far edgier and downbeat on the industry.

But nuclear energy has not lost momentum – even the story says so - unless you look at predictions from 10 years ago and conclude that not fulfilling them equals stagnation. If you applied this rationale to politics, for example, then all Presidential terms lose momentum because not all the campaign promises came to pass.

I probably should have skipped over it, but it was on the front page of the (printed) Post, so the paper really wanted to make a play with it. I don’t think it demonstrates that there’s anywhere near enough stinkweed down at the nuclear energy farm to rate pulling. Maybe the coal industry will fit the storyline better. I wouldn’t bet my paycheck on it, though.

Monday, March 11, 2013

San Onofre: Closer to the Truth, Further from the Bluster

This sounds serious:
[Sen. Barbara] Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a letter to Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Allison Macfarlane that a confidential report obtained by her office shows Southern California Edison and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the Japan-based company that built the generators, were aware of design problems before the equipment was installed.

Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the report written by Mitsubishi raises concerns that Edison and its contractor rejected safety modifications and sidestepped a more rigorous safety review.
A little mysterious, yes? This is about San Onofre, which has been off-line for a little over a year because of a steam generator problem. If Edison and Mitsubishi pressed ahead with a problematic steam generator, that would be very bad, but also rather inexplicable.

Just to get you up to date, here’s a refresher course on what happened at San Onofre:
Both of San Onofre's reactors have been offline for more than a year. The Unit 2 reactor had been taken down for routine maintenance early in January 2012, but on Jan. 31, 2012, a small leak of radioactive gas prompted the shutdown of Unit 3.
Inspections revealed unexpected wear among thousands of metal tubes that carry radioactive water inside the plant's four steam generators, two for each reactor.
Our friend Rod Adams over at Atomic Insights explains why the idea of a conspiracy is highly unlikely:
Aside from the fact that such an assertion was absurd – why on earth would any corporation take the risk of installing components known to be faulty into a vital, multi-billion dollar production facility capable of producing between $1-$10 million in daily revenue – it exposed a visceral dislike [by Rep. Boxer] of a power source that has been cleanly and safely supplying 20% of the electricity in the United States for several decades.
Let’s call that last bit an opinion – Sen. Boxer generally nuclear energy a fair shake in her committee, though she can be pretty tough. Let’s call that an opinion, too.

Rod also clarifies what the Mitsubishi report says:
After many months of investigation, tens of thousands of hours of analysis, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of lost production time, it is now clear that the two steam generators installed in San Onofre Unit 3 contained a minor manufacturing feature that resulted in a “perfect pitch” harmonic. At just the wrong condition – 100% steam flow – a combination of relatively dry steam, precisely manufactured anti-vibration bars (AVB), and densely packed u-tubes resulted in a few hundred (out of nearly 10,000) tubes vibrating with a large enough amplitude to make contact. The unexpected vibration and contact resulted in accelerated wear and caused one tube to fail while the steam generator was operating.
That sounds a lot more plausible and certainly not an effort by Mitsubishi and Edison to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot – well, head really, as such a conspiracy would certainly do considerable damage to both companies. The entire Mitsubishi report can be found here.

Now, the report can make your head spin – it’s very dense and detailed. The estimable Will Davis over at Atomic Power Review takes a crack at it:
The root cause of this problem is essentially not a design flaw per se, nor even a miscalculation.  It is the basic, fundamental belief that in-plane fluid elastic instability in a vertical U-tube steam generator is not possible if out-of-plane instability has been guarded against.  This principle is described several times in the linked MHI material.
Well, I told you it was head spinning – and this is the simplified version. A little more:
What this means is that the designers of steam generators have essentially used a Maginot Line principle in preventing out-of-plane fluid elastic instability... which was supposed to inherently then preclude any chance of in-plane fluid elastic instability, which leads to serious tube-to-tube wear.  Singularly focused effort to prevent out-of-plane FEI has led to the situation in which in-plane FEI did actually occur through a set of very complicated circumstances which, when investigated, eventually implicates practices of manufacturing tolerances, fitting, calculation and even design variance between the two units' steam generators.
I’d probably avoid the word “implicates” as it often appears with the word “criminally,” but that’s not what Will means here. These are, rather, the elements that have to be looked at to understand how the problem occurred. This is a hard post to excerpt – you should read the whole thing. Here, for me, is the bottom line:
Now we can see clearly that MHI [Mitsubishi Heavy Industries] felt that it had developed replacement steam generators for San Onofre which were world-class in their design prevention of tube vibration, based on all the years of experience MHI has had in fabricating steam generators for PWR-type nuclear power plants.
This is completely believable. As Rod points out, the nuclear energy industry has a “squeaky clean” profile for manufacturing QA. It’s an industry that avoids – has to avoid - low-quality junk. N-stamps that validate nuclear equipment, a highly capable (and always present) regulator, a very strong safety culture – all these and more keep the vigilance against shoddiness very high. And Mitsubishi isn’t exactly Moe’s Steam Generators out in the valley, running a two-for-one sale.

I’m sure there will be more to say about San Onofre. But the public release of the Mitsubishi report takes a lot of the edge off the harsher statements made by a few politicians about the facility.
Speaking of which, both Rod and Will are really furious at the politics around this and particularly about statements made by Sen. Boxer and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) over the last month. Both Boxer and Markey pulled unflattering bits out of the Mitsubishi report to highlight, but the report makes that possible for them. There are unflattering bits in there.

In my view, a report by the maker of flawed equipment would be inherently suspect, but this episode – and perhaps bluster from Capitol Hill - has put Mitsubishi’s reputation on the line. Consequently, Mitsubishi has produced what seems to me an honest assessment, with a lot of detail to back it up.

So why did some of the comments from Congress seem so intemperate? I don’t know. I do know that the motives of politicians, especially the experienced ones, are rarely singular.

Press Release: SCE&G Completes First Nuclear Concrete Placement

Just received the following from SCE&G:
SCE&G Completes First Nuclear Concrete Placement

CAYCE, S.C., March 11, 2013—South Carolina Electric & Gas Company (SCE&G), principal subsidiary of SCANA Corporation (NYSE:SCG), completed on March 11, 2013, placement of the nuclear island basemat for V.C. Summer Unit 2 in Fairfield County, S.C. This major milestone is the first new construction nuclear concrete to be poured in the U.S. in three decades.

“This is an exciting achievement for SCE&G, Santee Cooper, CB&I, Westinghouse Electric Company, and others who support our new nuclear project,” said Kevin Marsh, chairman and CEO of SCANA. “We recognize the significance of this event and appreciate the strong commitment to safety and collaboration demonstrated by all involved in reaching this milestone.”

Lonnie Carter, president and CEO of Santee Cooper, which co-owns V.C. Summer, said, ”This is a tremendous day for South Carolina as we work with SCANA to deliver new nuclear generation that will help ensure reliable, affordable electricity for decades to come. We’ve come to this point through the diligent and conscientious attention to task by everyone involved, from our crews to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

The basemat provides a foundation for the containment and auxiliary buildings that are within the nuclear island. Measuring 6 feet in thickness, the basemat required approximately 7,000 cubic yards of concrete to cover an area about 250 feet long and 160 feet at its widest section. Completed about 10 a.m. today, this 51.5-hour continuous pour of concrete covered a surface totaling 32,000 square feet.

About 1,550 workers are currently involved in constructing two new reactors at V.C. Summer, where Unit 1 has operated safely and reliably for 30 years. The new nuclear project will peak at about 3,000 workers over the course of three to four years. The two 1,117-megawatt units will add 600 to 800 permanent jobs and bring SCE&G’s portfolio to 60 percent non-emitting sources when they start generating electricity in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
What great news. Congratulations to everyone at VC Summer and Westinghouse on reaching such an important milestone. More news as it develops.

The Nuclear Death By a Million Little Cuts

You’re motoring down a lonely country road. Ahead of you, there is a person walking in the middle of the road. You honk your horn. Nothing. So you go around the person, take a quick look to make sure there’s nothing wrong, and continue on your way.
But you might have had a collision and killed the person. That was close, a near-miss. You saw risk (person in road who might be killed by your driving), tried to reduce the risk (honked at person), avoided the risk (drove around the person). But the risk was always there and could have ended in disaster.
So, logically, driving when other people are around, even only one other person, always presents a risk. Shouldn’t driving therefore be banned to eliminate the risk? We’d be safer, right? Even if the initial risk is small and you mitigate it and avoid it, risk is risk.
So when I hear the Union of Concerned Scientists offer its comments about nuclear energy, I sometimes wonder, Why not driving? Why nuclear energy? Isn't driving riskier?
UCS sees some of the benefits of nuclear energy.
While there are currently some global warming emissions associated with the nuclear fuel cycle and plant construction, when nuclear plants operate they do not produce carbon dioxide. This fact is used to support proposals for a large-scale expansion of nuclear power both in the United States and around the world.
Let’s leave aside the fact that building and transporting wind turbines cause carbon emissions – that’s the world we live in- and say: they do get some of the benefits, somewhat. But still:
It must be borne in mind that a large-scale expansion of nuclear power in the United States or worldwide under existing conditions would be accompanied by an increased risk of catastrophic events—a risk not associated with any of the non-nuclear means for reducing global warming.
These catastrophic events include a massive release of radiation due to a power plant meltdown or terrorist attack, or the death of tens of thousands due to the detonation of a nuclear weapon made with materials obtained from a civilian—most likely non-U.S.—nuclear power system.
I suppose UCS sees the person in the road of nuclear energy and frets. In the UCS view, that person will be run over sooner or later – either in a way that has never happened (terrorist attack) or is strongly guarded against (proliferation) or is dynamically prevented (safety issues – by dynamic, I mean the safety culture is always evolving.)
But while UCS waits for the inevitable disaster, all it can do in the meantime is cut away at nuclear energy, a little at a time, one little thing after another after another until the portrait of nuclear energy looks like that of Dorian Gray in the attic, warped and corrupt. Call it the death of a million little cuts, no one of them fatal, but damaging in their accumulation.
Lately, UCS tried for 14 cuts, releasing a report that says that 14 "near-misses" at nuclear plants in 2011-12 indicate that the United States "has been lucky" to avoid a serious nuclear accident. Lucky?
Let’s take a look at one of the more alarming sounding near-misses.
After an age-related problem caused one of four reactor coolant pumps to fail, the Unit 1 reactor and turbine automatically shut down as designed. Due to a design error in a recent modification, the decreasing voltage output by the main generator caused electrical breakers to open that disconnected Units 1 and 2 from the offsite power grid. One of the emergency diesel generators started but failed to supply electricity to safety equipment due to another design error when it was installed in 1984.
And this is how the NRC describes the same event (I’ve bolded some bits to cut through the thicket):
On 04/04/12 at 2003 hours, Unit 1 tripped from 100% power following a trip of reactor coolant pump 1D. Shortly after the Unit 1 generator power circuit breakers opened, the Zone G protective relaying system unexpectedly actuated on an instantaneous under frequency condition as a result of an error in the relay logic. This opened the switchyard breakers thereby isolating Unit 1 from the grid and resulting in a Loss of Offsite Power (LOOP). At the time of the trip, Unit 2 was in Mode 5 during its End-of-Cycle 18 Refueling Outage with both of its essential busses aligned to Unit 1 offsite power. Therefore, Unit 2's essential busses lost power as a result of the LOOP. Both emergency diesel generators (EDGs) on each unit automatically started and powered their respective essential busses as designed. A Notification of Unusual Event (NOUE) was declared as a result of the LOOP and the Catawba Emergency Response Organization was activated. Approximately five and one-half hours later, after confirming that the sources of the fault were cleared, offsite power was restored to one essential bus on each unit and the NOUE was terminated. The root causes of this event and the planned corrective actions in response to this event are described in detail in the respective sections of this LER. All plant safety related systems required to litigate the event were operable and capable of performing their required safety related functions. These systems functioned as designed in response to this event. Therefore, the health and safety of the public were not adversely affected by this event.
No need to get into busses and LOOPS unless you want to. A near-miss in UCS terms means something out of the ordinary occurred at a plant and the personnel did exactly as it should to solve the problem. But that’s not good enough. If I were inclined to be unfair, I’d say UCS’s solution here would be to close the plant, tear it to the ground, and salt the earth on which it stood.
But fairness dictates that UCS says no such thing. It is saying that this is one episode among many episodes. For UCS, it is one of a million little cuts that shows you their “truth” about nuclear energy.
Now, to square this up really fairly, the NRC has a category that tracks closely enough to UCS’s “near-miss” for our purpose which it calls an abnormal occurrence. This is defined as an unscheduled incident or event that the NRC determines to be significant from the standpoint of public health or safety. Federal law requires that the NRC report these to Congress annually.
During the past 11 years of reporting (2001-2011), the agency found only two abnormal occurrences at U.S. nuclear power plants (Davis Besse in 2002 and Browns Ferry 1 in 2011). That’s two too many, but that’s all – not 14, not a million, not even actual near-misses as most people would define the term.
After more than 50 years of commercial nuclear energy production in the United States—including more than 3,500 reactor-years of operation—there have been no radiation-related health effects linked to the operation of nuclear facilities – and that’s not overlooking the Three Mile Island accident, which frightened people but did not do harm.
But there is one person standing in the road waiting for the car that is just around the bend. That person has to be rescued, even if by a million little cuts.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Filtered Vents and Boiling Water Reactors: It’s Not About the Costs

Recently, we've seen a spate of media reports that have accused the nuclear industry of opposing the installation of filtered vents on Mark I and II boiling water reactors (BWRs) simply because of cost considerations.

Needless to say, a number of us here at NEI are troubled by that accusation given the extensive research industry has produced buttressing our position that demanding that filtered vents be installed on every Mark I and II BWR is a "one-size fits all" solution.

Instead, the industry advocates what we call a "performance-based" approach where each of the 31 BWRs in the U.S. would make an individual determination of what course constitutes the best way forward -- an approach that would neither rule out nor mandate the installation of filtered vents.

To shed some additional light on this alternate way forward, Jason Zorn, NEI's assistant general counsel and Steven Kraft, NEI's senior technical advisor, have co-authored an article called, "Filtered Vents and Boiling Water Reactors: It’s Not About the Costs." We've posted the article in full at our Safety First microsite, but here is the relevant excerpt:
Is there a better solution? Yes.

One approach marries the need to cool the uranium fuel debris by injecting water into the containment building with filtering radioactive material from the vent gases with that water.

A September 2012 report by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) evaluated several potential radiation filtering strategies and assessed their abilities to avoid radiation releases. The report emphasized the need to cool the fuel debris during a severe accident. Otherwise, the melted fuel will rupture containment and releasing radioactive materials into the environment bypassing the vent and any filter that might be installed.

Ensuring core cooling this way has the added benefit of “filtering” radioactive material inside the containment building. The water in containment would work the same way that it would in an external filter. Thus, keeping damaged fuel cool through the injection of water, with its inherent filtering capability, challenges the basis for compelling external filters at 31 reactors.

Details on filtering options. Click to enlarge.
This is not a new concept. In the late 1980s, when the NRC wanted the BWR Mark I plants to add containment vents to prevent over-pressurization during an accident, the vents were piped through the internal suppression pools (water already in containment as part of the existing design to cool and reduce the pressure of the containment atmosphere during accidents). NRC staff reviews dating back to 1993 stated that an “external filter would not significantly increase the removal of radioactive material….”

In light of the significant body of research on this issue, the industry has recommended that the NRC consider less-prescriptive filtering strategies. Consistent with the EPRI research, filtering strategies focus primarily on providing additional ways to get water to the fuel during a severe accident and to control pressure in containment. Rather than a prescriptive solution like external filters that has limited benefit and may not provide for additional water to cool the core, the industry envisions that each company would assess the issue on a site-by-site basis and develop an approach that best suits each site.

As pointed out numerous times industry testimony and letters to the NRC, filtering strategies based on the individual plant evaluations could result in the installation of a vent filter if that’s what makes sense for a given plant.

Even the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards -- an independent body that reviews NRC staff activities and provides independent recommendations to the Commission – supports the proposal to look at performance-based solutions at each reactor.
In 2012, NEI published this infographic with details on exactly how these filtering strategies can work. Click here to read it right now.