Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Small Reactor Shocker!? Well, Maybe Not

You have to love Fox News. Even in a fairly straightforward story about small reactors, it  amps up the controversy, even when there is none:

A boon to the economy? Or a boondoggle? That's the debate raging over a new nuclear technology that -- depending on your perspective -- is either a game-changer in electrical generation, or a failure-in-the-making that will fleece taxpayers for a half-billion dollars.

If there is any kind of debate, these really are not the terms of it – small reactors are neither a game changer nor a potential fleecing. They are a promising application of a technology – and they interest the federal government – and that’s it. Some of the players are new, some are veterans, but none have been shown as potential swindlers – I suppose investors can always be swindled, but the government has no reason to believe it. Nor does Fox.

This bit gets to the nub of the story in an interesting way, although I don’t think the interviewee is answering the question the reporter assumes.

For supporters, the goal of replacing coal-fired plants is key. In his June speech on climate change, President Obama talked about shutting down dozens of older coal plants, which left open the question of how that electricity would be produced.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Babcock and Wilcox is betting millions of dollars that the answer to that question -- at least in part -- is small modular reactors.

"Small modular reactors are all about taking the risk out of the equation for nuclear," said Christofer Mowry, president of B&W's mPower division. "And that's what the industry wants -- they want to de-risk nuclear. They like nuclear because nuclear offers what no other source of energy does, which is basic, reliable, clean energy."

I think Mowry means financial risk – I doubt Babcock & Wilcox believes that nuclear energy is unsafe – and really, nothing here suggests B&W has its eye on coal. Or that the supporters of small reactors have that in mind, either. Coal and nuclear have co-existed for a long time without getting in each other’s way, whatever you may think of either, and most electricity production combines have both in their portfolios. The government is offering billions of dollars in loan guarantees for fossil fuel projects.

But Mowry is dead on about the appeal of small reactors. Although the financial risk is still rather nebulous, logic dictates that a small reactor that can built in a factory and co-located at a pre-existing facility will have lower costs withal. How much remains to be seen.

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Here’s the controversy:

Ryan Alexander, president of the group [Taxpayers for Common Sense], sees the potential for a nuclear version of Solyndra, the solar power company that went belly up after taxpayers poured a half-billion dollars into the company.

"There are a lot of cost questions that we don't know anything about, and it just seems like this is not going to happen without it being just incredibly expensive. So we don't want to keep putting taxpayer dollars into this idea that may or may not happen," she told Fox News.

TCS is a valuable organization for its work tracking Congressional earmarks and the donors who buy them, but frankly, if something involves government money, TCS will be very critical of it. That’s fine – that’s what it does – but it’s also predictable and not very controversial. But if you want to gin up conflict, you can always find a way.

Despite all the quibbling, this is really a pretty good story though one has to cut through the ideological fog to get to it.

NEI Launches New Website

The new NEI website has arrived! Over the course of 22 months, we created a robust site specifically with our members and stakeholders in mind. The result is a site that is faster and better organized so you can find the best intel on the nuclear energy industry in a click of a mouse.

The first thing you’ll notice about the new site is that the industry’s story is told in a more visually compelling way. We use multimedia throughout the site – including photos, infographics and videos – to illustrate the policy issues that matter most to the industry. What else will you find? Brand-new sections like Why Nuclear Energy? and the Knowledge Center, which position nuclear energy as a necessary part of the electricity portfolio to meet the growing demand for power. Plus, the site features an all-inclusive News and Media section, a Google Earth map of all nuclear plants in the United States and an intelligent Advanced Search function.

Take a few moments now to explore NEI’s new digital home and tell me what you think in the comments below. Remember to bookmark the site and tell your friends that NEI.org just got a major upgrade.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Building Up Vogtle 3 and 4

Georgia Power created this time lapse footage of Vogtle 3 and 4 construction (perhaps in ancient Rome based on the title treatment).



Very nice. But just for fun - and because this video reminded me of it - here is a 1901 film informally called Building Up and Demolishing the Star Theater. The demolishing is in time lapse forward motion and the building up is the same in reverse motion. it was produced and directed by F.S. Armitage for the American Biograph Co., later home to D.W. Griffith, and became part of the National Film Registry in 2002. As far as anyone has determined, it is the first film made entirely of stop motion footage. That makes Georgia Power's film the scion of an exceptionally long legacy.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

“The humanitarian imperative to using nuclear power”

What can be happening in editorials these days? Is nuclear energy going pear shaped under the weight of – economics? natural gas? gastric distress? No, none of these. Actually, the views of different news outlets and their op-ed writers is not so bad.

Take this from NJ dot com, a website shared by several state papers (the op-ed comes from the Times of Trenton):

There is good reason to give nuclear power a fresh look. It can replace fossil-fuel-burning power plants for generating electricity 24/7, avoiding air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions that could contribute to global warming.

This is nothing new to readers here, but we certainly purr when we hear it in the mainstream press anyway.

Now, this is interesting, an argument that really does tend to dwell among the nuclear friendly only:

There is a humanitarian imperative to using nuclear power. More than 2 billion people still lack access to electricity for basic needs such as clean water, cooking, sanitation and light. Nuclear power has the most potential to close the gap in energy availability between the world’s rich and its disadvantaged people.

Writer James McGovern really picks up points for promulgating what we might call the existential argument for nuclear energy. Electricity can transform a hell scape of underdevelopment into a (relative) garden of progress. We’re well past the point where people must have electricity and at the point where they will have it, one way or another. And McGovern, an energy consultant, sees that clearly.

The bottom line is that nuclear power is not the problem, but part of the solution. Together with further improvements in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, it can have a major positive impact in the battle against climate change.

Yup. He’s right every step of the way.

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From the International Business Times:

South Africa is the only sub-Saharan African country with active nuclear power plants. But research-oriented nuclear reactors have been tested in a few other countries -- including Kenya, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- and it is clear that there is widespread interest in a nuclear-powered future all across the continent. Uganda, Nigeria, Senegal, Niger and others have expressed interest in building up nuclear expertise within their borders.

Exactly what McGovern is talking about. The whole article is worth a read.

See, the thing is, many countries are struggling toward a late industrial revolution – a late information revolution – and the developed world has lately decided that carbon emissions are bad. But how do we keep the developing world from using fossil fuels if that is the easiest way to make electricity? Can we, morally? No, but we can suggest an alternative that keeps both goals in sight.

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From The Australian:

The inclusion of nuclear power in Australia's electricity generation mix could reduce power prices by 20 per cent and save about $150 billion from now until 2050 in greenhouse gas abatement costs and the health costs of burning fossil fuels, an analysis of future energy options has found.

This will never, ever happen, no matter what – I mean, the Australians accepting nuclear energy (you can throw New Zealand in there, too). It’s like a national blood pact, signed at birth. Love to see it happen, doubt it ever will. But that’s okay – tougher nuts are sweeter to crack.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Sour Sweet Nuclear Japan

“The central government’s policy on nuclear power generation will return to the pre-disaster one,” said Tatsuya Murakami, mayor of Tokai village in Ibaraki Prefecture, on July 21. “By postponing a solution to the problems resulting from the nuclear accident, the government will do what it wants to do.

“It is disappointing that Japan will not be able to change itself despite the serious accident it caused,” he said.

I know, it sounds like sour grapes. But Murakami has a grievance and maybe he’s letting off some steam. It’s really not true that the Japanese government has postponed solutions. 

Last month, Japan Atomic Power began installing filter-attached vent equipment and erecting sea walls to meet the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s new safety rules on nuclear power generation that took effect on July 8.

The reason Murakami is so unhappy is that the Liberal Democratic Party (the conservatives) took over the upper chamber in Japan’s diet, giving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party control of both chambers. And quite open about not working as hard as the Democrats with prefecture officials to win their approval for restarts. Hence Murakami’s dissatisfaction.

This month, TEPCO announced plans to hasten the restarts of reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture. The company did not offer any advance explanation to the local governments hosting the plant.

Actually, I think it was the central government not the companies working this side of things; still, it would have been better public relations for TEPCO to talk with the prefecture officials.

As we used to say in grad school, let’s unpack what Japan’s return to nuclear energy means. Japan has been in a political rinse cycle for a long time, with difficulties keeping a government in place for any length of time. What’s up today may be down tomorrow. Still, Japan’s political class has decided that, economically and industrially, it would be ruinous to replace nuclear energy in a resource-poor country, especially since it is unnecessary. It’s not just the carbon emissions profile of natural gas and coal that’s a problem, it’s that Japan has to import those items and that’s proven to be a mammoth financial burden. (It imports uranium, too, but needs much less of it to fulfill its energy needs.) It’s a dreadful double whammy that Japan is wise to avoid.

Gas to Power puts a price on this:

The return to nuclear would reduce the share of gas in Japan's energy mix and electricity prices. The Institute for Energy Economics in Japan (IEEJ) forecasts restarting twenty six of the country's nuclear power stations in 2014 could lower the electricity fuel cost by 1.8 trillion yen [about $13.4 billion] and reduce generation costs by about 2 yen/kWh.

This really is the best direction for Japan to take. But even if we agree wholeheartedly with the Liberal Democrats’ decision, we might want to keep the celebration subdued and tasteful (and not loud and raucous, our preferred party mode). It might have been a sweeter thing if we could be surer that the Japanese people welcome this outcome.

Nearly 60 percent of voters oppose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to use nuclear energy to fuel economic growth, but 51 percent expect his policies to improve the economy, an Asahi Shimbun [Japanese newspaper] survey showed.

That’s a lot better than one would have seen a year ago. Maybe restarting the facilities – and rehiring furloughed workers – will push those numbers higher. But they are still not very high withal, making the decision to move forward with nuclear energy a braver one than most politicians would dare. Yet it is also a necessary decision – and not really a very difficult one, even for Japan.

So good for Abe. And good for the Japanese people and Japan’s nuclear industry. Maybe I could talk myself into thinking this problematic if I really worked at it – but it refuses to be problematic.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Nuclear Bad Time Story

Let’s take a step back, shudder, and look at a dire report from Mark Cooper of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at the Vermont Law School. Cooper releases reports like this occasionally, although why he continues to be interested in nuclear energy is difficult to pin down. He’s not trying to dispute the “lies” propagated by the industry nor try to show that nuclear energy does something other than it claims to do. He just sees the business crumbling into dust every couple of years – I guess that can qualify as an academic pursuit, even if it’s not exactly productive.

You can read the earlier articles linked above to see how Cooper’s ivory tower musings have not been as rigorous as they might be. In the current instance, he wants to grab the San Onofre/Kewaunee “nuclear is unviable” wave to assert that “more than three dozen U.S. reactors in 23 states are at greatest risk of early retirement, including nine reactors that exhibit the largest number of risk factors.” The six states with reactors in the latter category are Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York and Vermont.

But this would mean that the United States no longer requires the “at-risk” plants. The middle of summer probably isn’t the best time to ring that bell. Throughout this week, with all the swelter Mother Nature can dish out east of the Mississippi, most of the nation’s 100 reactors have been operating around the clock at full tilt. NEI put out a press release about this, with more details; it’s pretty impressive. Particularly during periods of extreme weather—hot and cold—nuclear energy facilities are vital to the nation’s electricity grid because electricity is vital to the well-being of the American people.

Cooper also tends to look at nuclear energy in a bubble without much reference to the rest of the energy market or even to the rest of the nuclear fleet. While there certainly are financial stresses on some nuclear plants, that’s also true of coal plants. Natural gas has displaced about 200 billion kilowatt hours of coal fired generation, the equivalent of about 25 percent of nuclear generation. Why? Natural gas improves the country’s carbon emission profile versus coal-fired plants but not nuclear facilities. I’ve seen some forecasts that suggest that as natural gas begins to rise in price, coal could re-supplant some of the natural gas. We’ll see about that, but the cost of natural gas is rising.

Natural gas spot prices averaged $2.75 per million Btu at the Henry Hub in 2012, up from $1.95 per million Btu in April 2012 (its lowest price). The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the Henry Hub natural gas price will average $3.76 per MMBtu in 2013 and $3.91 per MMBtu in 2014.

But let’s not go too far with this argument. Economic and regulatory stresses have weighed on the nuclear industry and the low cost of natural gas can be seen as exacerbating it. Still, only Kewaunee can be said to have closed due to harsh economic conditions and it’s a specific instance, a sort of orphan facility without a fleet to backstop its difficulties. Here’s how Dominion put it:

Dominion announced last fall that it would close the station and decommission it because the company was unable to grow a Midwestern nuclear fleet to take advantages of economies of scale and Kewaunee's power purchase agreements were ending at a time of projected low wholesale electricity prices in the region.

Still, let’s cede Kewaunee for the sake of argument – it’s only one facility. One to thirty (or even 12) shuttered reactors is a pretty steep climb – the industry would have to lose a great deal of its financial viability for such a partial collapse to make much sense. And electricity demand would likewise have to experience a collapse for such an outcome.

But consider: nuclear reactors are springing up around the world (about 60 at last count and I just read that Saudi Arabia is training some of its people in nuclear tasks so it can start up a domestic industry), the U.S. is building five new reactors, which is more than in the 90s and aughts combined, Japan is certifying some of its reactors to return to service and so on and so forth. 

The main reason to pay attention to Cooper’s report is because it will get a little pickup in the mainstream press that, say, reports from Friends of the Earth and Beyond Nuclear would not. They have obvious agendas that make their reports easy to pass over, but the Vermont Law College? That has an academic patina. Often, reporters covering the report will call over to NEI for a comment, which is great, but Cooper’s paper will be the subject of the story.

This is what we get:  Report: South Carolina nuclear plant at risk for early shutdown (because Cooper wrote it), Report: Oyster Creek among nuke plants in danger of early retirement (Cooper again), Davis-Besse among 12 at-risk plants (guess who). Are any of these plants in danger? Well, not in the sense that the operators have made announcements about them, not really in any sense except that Cooper says so.

I cannot begin to speak to Cooper’s motivation and can only assume he is sincere. But sincere does not mean correct and Cooper cannot truly know the status of any given plant or extrapolate the economics of Kewaunee to lend legitimacy to his argument about other plants. It really is an academic exercise and Cooper will never return to it if he Is wrong about Oyster Creek, David-Besse and the rest. That’s not his brief; his brief is his paper and its promotion. Whether it’s compelling in argument or has predictive power is really beside the point.

We’ll probably see more of this kind of thing in the near term. It feeds a media narrative, and we’ll just have to ride out a few bumpy news cycles until it becomes clear that nuclear energy is not going anywhere. We might need to dial up our optimistic activist selves to keep the largely good nuclear story in focus in the face of sour news accounts, but really, a report portending dire days for nuclear energy? Tell us something we haven’t heard before.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Seats at the Nuclear Employment Table

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010 data), a nuclear technician can earn an average of $68,090 per year or $32.73 per hour with an Associate’s degree and no experience — none, as in nada, zilch, zip — in the industry. Power plant operators, distributors and dispatchers controlling systems that generate and distribute electric power can earn as much as $65,360 with a high school diploma, while nuclear engineers are paid $99,920 with a Bachelor’s degree.

The key word in that paragraph is nada, as the story in Politic365 is about the potential for ambitious young Latinos to join the nuclear energy industry. Now, you may ask, anyone can get into the industry without consideration of ethnic background, right?

That’s certainly true. For those that rankle at minority communities being targeted for potential careers and jobs, it’s really more an issue of communicating the existence and potential of those jobs than picking people off the street and installing them in those jobs. One still has to apply for them and prove capable of doing the work. And a good many of the jobs require educational achievement and even more than that.

“The nuclear energy industry pays more because it requires security clearance. As in police and firefighters’ jobs, young men and women in this industry need to ‘keep their nose clean’ and be on the right path. The difference is that right now state and local government jobs are fading away while these well-paid union jobs will continue to increase in the near future,” Avilla said. “So why not encourage our children to take those jobs?” — especially if they are being seeked [sic; sought] out by the industry.

Avilla is Hispanic Elected Local Officials (HELO) President Karen Avilla. She is also a member of the CASEnergy Coalition, a nuclear advocacy group that has shown an increased interest  in minority job recruitment in recent years.

The most marked aspect of the jobs available in nuclear energy is that they foster solid middle class lives, something that has become more difficult to achieve for the current generation of young people. You can buy a house, get married and raise a family in relative comfort on these salaries – not least because most nuclear energy facilities are not near urban centers, but more likely in suburban or exurban communities. Dollars go further.

However one promotes the jobs, the bottom line for any ethnic community – including Anglo-American - is that the work is available, pays well, does not always demand a large educational investment, provides work that cannot be exported, and encourages a diverse employment base. It’s a pretty welcoming picture altogether.

I realize this has gotten to be more of a sales pitch than I intended, but so be it. The nuclear energy industry really does have a lot of positives from a potential employee’s point of view. I’ll just go all the way with it and point you to NEI’s Careers and Education pages.

The pictures (and more on the companies’ diversity commitments) : PSEG, Entergy, and Exelon.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Being Sincere and Being Right on Nuclear Energy

There are things you  really oughtn’t to do, even if you have the best of intentions:

Une vingtaine de militants de Greenpeace ont été interpellés lundi 16 juillet pour avoir pénétré dans la centrale nucléaire du Tricastin, dans la Drôme. L'association entend pointer des failles de sécurité et provoque directement François Hollande, notamment sur le "risque terroriste". 

Which means (my translation – buyer beware):

Twenty Greenpeace activists were arrested Monday, July 16 after trespassing at the Tricastin nuclear power plant, in the Drôme [southeastern France]. The association intended to point out security vulnerabilities and directly provoke [Prime Minister Francois] Hollande, notably about the "terrorist threat" [presumably of a vulnerable nuclear plant.]

Tricastin proved not to be as vulnerable as the activists thought. There are some interesting details in the L’Express story. The security detail knew quickly that the plant grounds had been breached, but did not immediately engage the interlopers.Security decided that a group of 20 was unlikely to sabotage the facility, thinking that people intending harm would be both fewer in number and much more stealthy. And there was no evidence of weapons.

In fact, what the group got up to was the usual Greenpeace mischief:

Local media report that the environmentalists unfurled banners reading “Tricastin is a nuclear accident” and “François Hollande – disaster president?”.

I asked around about the potential American response to such a situation. There are similarities but definite differences. The goal would be to engage the group peacefully, try to resolve the situation and bring in local law enforcement if the trespassers will not leave. That’s what happened at Tricastin, too.

Chalk it up to the experience of 2001, but letting a group wander around facility grounds would not happen here at all. I was told that security would engage them at the plant perimeter (probably by guards patrolling the perimeter) and shoo them off. Still, in France, the level of aggression met the level of threat, which is to say, not much. An embarrassment maybe, but Tricastin’s security did read the situation correctly.

Did all this work to Greenpeace’s advantage? Well, since EDF, the French electric authority, plans to sue the group for trespass, I guess martyrdom and indignant noises are possible – so French, after all. But in terms of the goal behind this exercise, not so much.

The French government has launched an investigation into an intrusion Monday by Greenpeace demonstrators at the Tricastin nuclear power complex and wants new laws to make punishments of intruders harsher, the energy and interior ministries said in a joint statement.

This kind of activism can be useful: it can bring attention to an issue (Greenpeace’s goal here) or shine a light on malfeasance (Greenpeace does not seem to think EDF a snake pit). But all you can say about this specific event is that it shows the group is sincere and committed to not liking nuclear energy. That doesn’t make them right or helpful or preclude other views – the Greenpeace argument about nuclear energy has always been short sighted and founded on myth. This doesn’t change that. All of Greenpeace’s antics over the years have not make a dent – the arguments just don’t favor them.

Friday, July 12, 2013

No Sharks at a Nuclear Plant

It’s just a little thing, but after hoping that one of the sharks in Sharknado last night would sail toward a nuclear plant, I recalled that there was an equally fine picture about a nuclear energy plant in the path of a tornado and the “disaster” that would occur if the two crossed paths.

So I poked around on IMDB and found it: Atomic Twister (2002), starring Sharon Lawrence and Mark-Paul Gosselaar (between gigs on Saved by the Bell and NYPD Blue, I guess).

Now, in truth, nuclear facilities have been smacked by tornados – Davis-Besse in 1998, Grand Gulf in 1978 – and others by hurricanes – and nothing outlandish occurred. Plants powered down due to switch yard or power line damage or even because it seemed prudent with a storm on the way (this happened during Hurricane Isaac). One reactor at Indian Point powered down for super storm Sandy. Weather can provide considerable jitters, no question, but large industrial structures in general are meant to withstand it – and they have a good record doing so.

Now, all that said, let’s zero in on the IMDB Goofs page for Atomic Twister:

Too many inaccuracies in the way a nuclear plant and nuclear reactor work to list.

And the rating? 3.9 out of 10. Oof – Sharknado got a 4. Well, even into Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s career may an ill wind blow.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Man, A Plan, A Canal–Panama! – Oh, and A Floating Reactor, Too

Floating nuclear energy stations, highlighted by the Russian effort noted below, are not a new phenomenon and represent a further development with small nuclear reactors. The Akademik Lomonotov is the latest, but it has a longer legacy than one might think – a legacy well worth considering.

Consider the U.S.S. Sturgis, a repurposed World War II-era ship which contributed its hull to house the MH-1A (M=Mobile, H=High-Powered, 1A=First of its kind). Work began on installing the 10,000 kilowatt reactor in 1963, it was tested in Virginia in 1967 and then deployed to the Panama Canal (then under U.S. control) from 1968 to 1975 to supply electricity to the grid there.

This paper from the WM (waste management) Symposium describes the origin and purpose of the Sturgis:

In March, 1963, the World War II Liberty Ship Charles H. Cugle was selected from the Mobil Reserve Fleet for conversion to a mobile power source containing a high power (>10,000 kW) pressurized water nuclear reactor designated MH-1A. The propulsion plant was removed from the vessel and the midsection was replaced with a new midsection containing the power plant, a 350-ton steel containment “spheroid,” and a concrete collision barrier. This new midsection was approximately eight feet wider than the original vessel, and contained not only the nuclear reactor, but also the main components of the primary and secondary cooling systems, as well as the electrical equipment. The vessel, which essentially became a barge, was renamed Sturgis. It began operation in 1967 at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia and after one year was towed to Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal Zone where it was used to generate electricity for military and civilian use.

The Sturgis was the most powerful of the Army’s (small) nuclear fleet and the last to be decommissioned. Why?

Budget cutbacks in the US Army, the high price of maintaining the vessel and an upcoming nuclear refueling led the US Army to remove the Sturgis from the Panama Canal and shut down the MH-1A reactor in 1976. The ship was brought to the Reserve Fleet at Fort Eustis where she was stripped of her Nuclear Fuel and sealed off to prevent any potential contamination to the surrounding areas. She is presently maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers and is slated for disposal, most likely through the US Navy's Nuclear Ship & Submarine Recycling Program (NSSRP) at Bremerton, WA.

Rod Adams over at Atomic Insights offers further information, which enumerates the pitfalls of being the first-of-a-kind:

Eventually, even the MH-1A became too expensive to maintain. Like all of the Army’s nuclear power plants, it was a one-of-a-kind machine, with a unique set of spare parts, operating procedures and machinery quirks.

It also required a group of highly trained specialists, all of whom required a regular rotation away from the plant in order to continue their Army careers. The burden of maintaining several unique specialties, ensuring adequate training, and keeping a suitable management structure was difficult for one small generating plant to handle on its own merits.

Maybe, too, when it became clear the U.S. would cede the canal to Panama (the U.S.-Panama treaty mandating the handover was signed in 1977), it made sense to transition away from the nuclear barge.

(The canal was started by the French in 1888 and finished in 1914 by the Americans, who operated it for the rest of the century; Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903 in part to facilitate the building of the canal.)

The WM Symposium paper only says:

The Panama Canal Company acquired additional land based electrical capacity and in 1976 it was determined that the Sturgis was no longer needed.

Make of it what you will. But one can see that the Sturgis in the 70s and the Akademik Lomonotov today answer the same issues as small reactors do  – the latter in particular basically is a modern small reactor, albeit built on Russian naval technology:

They have many useful applications, including generating emission-free electricity in remote locations where there is little to no access to the main power grid or providing process heat to industrial applications. They are “modular” in design, which means they can be manufactured completely in a factory and delivered and installed at the site in modules, giving them the name “small modular reactors,” or SMRs.

I’d probably add water desalination as an especially worthy application, but you get the idea.

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Consider this post a corrective to the one below. While the Akademik Lomonotov represents a genuinely interesting development in the deployment of nuclear energy in itself, small reactors are its cousins and Sturgis is its parent. Recognizing that it is building upon a legacy – and an American one at that - only makes the case for its utility stronger.

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I’m going to hazard that the Sturgis was named after Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis (1822-1889), who served during both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. More on him here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sure, A Nuclear Plant, But Does It Float?

This one does:

In three years, Russia will have the world’s first floating nuclear power plant, capable of providing energy and heat to hard-to-get areas as well as drinking water to arid regions.

The unique vessel should be operational by 2016, the general director of Russia’s biggest shipbuilders, the Baltic Plant, Aleksandr Voznesensky told reporters at the 6th International Naval Show in St. Petersburg.

The Akademik Lomonosov is to become the spearhead of a series of floating nuclear power plants, which Russia plans to put into mass-production.

This is a pretty large portfolio of activities – electricity, heat, desalination – it’s like the Ginsu knife of nuclear facilities. Although shaped like a boat, it has no means of locomotion. instead, it is towed where ever it needs to be and anchored in place. I suspect what it ends up doing depends on who buys (leases?) it.

Each ship will have two modified KLT-40 naval propulsion reactors together providing up to 70 MW of electricity or 300 MW of heat, which is enough for a city with a population of 200,000 people.

The Russians admit that there’s nothing particularly new about the technology, just its application.

The floating power-generating unit, aimed at providing energy to large industrial enterprises, port cities and offshore gas and oil-extracting platforms, was designed on the basis of nuclear reactors which are equipped on the icebreakers ships. The technology has proved itself for over 50 years of successful operation in extreme Arctic conditions.  

The reaction to the Akademik Lomonosov has been mixed. ZDNet’s David Gewirtz compares it to the scheming of a Bond villain:

I'm also betting that the producers of Bond flicks could build an entire movie around this premise: "See, okay, this evil villain Leonid Arkady has become the head of Spectre and wants to make his own power."

"He doesn't want to be dependent on other countries for power ever again, see, so he's gonna launch this floating nuke plant and then destroy the world and start civilization over, all living off the power of his floating nuke plant."

Wasn’t this Ras-al-Ghul’s plan for Gotham City in Batman Begins? At least Gewirtz suggests that it is the plant that keeps life plausible after the earth is otherwise denuded of people.

The Week’s Keith Wagstaff keeps the issues in better balance and comes out in favor:

Still, the barges themselves don't seem to be any more dangerous than Russia's nuclear-powered ice-breaker ships, which use the same KLT-40 naval propulsion reactors. The reactor-equipped barges would hold 69 people, and would have to be towed to their locations. They would also be able to power 200,000 homes, and could be modified to desalinate 240,000 cubic meters of water per day.

I could have done without this line:

Of course, no nuclear reactor is completely safe.

No car or anything else is completely safe, either. Nuclear reactors come closer than a lot of human activities, but I’d be willing to just retire the line. Consider it a compromise.

Frankly, the Russians have been beavering away at this project since 2007, until running short of money. It maybe a project worth reviving, but it’s worth hesitating before deciding it’s value. If the Russians can find some customers, fine. Right now, it’s an odd variation on small reactors, if also admittedly an interesting one.

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Mikhail Lomonosov was an 18th century – well, everything. He was a scientist in several fields, a poet, an historian, and several etceteras. His pile of accomplishments is quite high. Russiapedia has a thorough accounting, though you have to accept lines describing him as “the first Russian scientist-naturalist of universal importance.” National pride and all.

Monday, July 08, 2013

TIME and the Nuclear Energy Conundrum

time coverTIME Magazine offers a bit of a head scratch today. For most of Bryan Walsh’s article, mostly about nuclear energy, the author is quite the downer on doing anything with any energy source. And his approach is peculiarly inexact. For example:

Even with massive help from the Obama Administration, renewable energy start-ups like Solyndra went bankrupt, challenging existing technology.

Not “start-ups like Solyndra,” “Solyndra.” Most other solar panel companies are doing okay. The last phrase, “challenging existing technology,” is completely mysterious. Other solar technologies? I just don’t know.

This is how Walsh rolls, apparently.

With the fracking revolution pumping out cheap natural gas in the U.S. and renewables preferred in much of Europe, nuclear will remain in decline in the developed world unless it can get cheaper.

If Germany is much of Europe, fine, but otherwise, nuclear energy is not seen as in decline in Europe. But after being annoyed with Walsh’s style and uncertain grasp of facts for several paragraphs, he suddenly has an epiphany – with which one can agree.

According to statistics from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, between 1993 and 2002, carbon-free sources — meaning nuclear, hydro and renewables — made up 19% of total increase in global energy consumption. Between 2003 and ’12, as the rate of global energy consumption doubled, carbon-free sources made up only 14% of that increase. (Hat tip to Roger Pielke Jr. for pointing out these trends.) Despite the very rapid increases in renewables like wind and solar over the past decade — albeit from a very tiny beginning — we are losing the war to decarbonize our energy supply.

This still suffers from details scattered all over the place. At least they’re the right details and the point is good: even with all the best intentions, it’s tough to get to a carbon free profile on renewable energy alone – not tough at all with nuclear energy.

I think nuclear can play a significant role in decarbonization, but it will only happen if atomic power isn’t expensive — all the more so given that most of the increase in global energy consumption will be coming in developing countries that are especially price sensitive.

To be clear, “atomic power” isn’t expensive, though it does have daunting up-front costs. Additionally, the electricity it adds to the grid won’t blow any holes into an electricity bill. For some countries – we’ve recently talked about UAE – it’s not essential to decarbonize, though that’s a excellent goal, but to make a lot of electricity. Here’s a bit from ENEC, the UAE government agency overseeing nuclear energy-related activities:

Energy demand in the UAE is growing at an annual rate of about 9 per cent – three times the global average. Developing a reliable supply of electricity is critical to the future growth of the Nation. ENEC is taking on this challenge, with a target of delivering electricity to the UAE grid in 2017.  By 2020, it is projected that nuclear energy will produce nearly a quarter of the nation’s electricity needs.

Significant quantity significantly fast. ENEC doesn’t ignore global warming, yet it does not even get a mention here. It’s important, but “the future growth of the nation” is more important. (I don’t necessarily agree with the priorities, but UAE is allowed to have its own, yes?)

Walsh’s piece is headlined Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap? with the subtitle: Outside of the developing world, nuclear energy is on the retreat, thanks largely to the spiraling costs of new atomic plants. But innovative reactor designs could change the equation.

TIME makes nuclear energy and its use seem more a conundrum than it really is, even though its heart is in the right place. Take a look at the article – I did not mention the innovative reactor design (spoiler: molten salt) at all.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

TVA: An “industry leader in the transition to cleaner energy?”

There’s been some talk of privatizing the government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority, though it comes in the form of President Obama’s 2014 budget request and then only as a suggestion to look at TVA’s overall situation. Southern politicians love TVA on a bipartisan basis, so such efforts rarely move far. As always, we’ll see.

But the notion has led to some stories – here’s one – about a University of Tennessee study that concludes TVA would have to be sold to several prospective buyers to avoid a monopoly situation. You can read the study to see the answer to the study’s title, “Should the Federal Government Sell TVA?”

Energy Biz has an interesting Q&A up with TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson:

ENERGYBIZ: How important will nuclear power be to TVA in coming years?

Johnson: By 2023, our generation will be about 35 percent nuclear, 30 to 35 percent coal, 20 percent gas, and then the rest hydro and renewables.

Hydro power is probably the key when it comes to TVA, since its creation in 1935 led to the large federal role in hydro (TVA has 29 hydro facilities) that it does not have in other electricity generators. The invisible hand bypasses that part of the energy portfolio. Not much to say about that – except that it makes some sense because of hydro’s interaction with rivers and dams.

But back to nuclear. Aside from the new reactors in Georgia (at Vogtle) and South Carolina (Summer), TVA is finishing the long halted Watts Bar 2 project. Those will be the five reactors built in the U.S. in the teens.

ENERGYBIZ: You are also testing development of small modular reactors.

Johnson: Part of our mission by law is innovation in energy technology.  So the small modular reactor to us is nuclear innovation and technology. We are in a consortium or partnership with Babcock & Wilcox called mPower, and we have qualified with the DOE for funding. It is a cost-sharing arrangement.  We are the first people out of the box on this, closely aligned with the DOE and industry to see how this concept works.

Johnson admits that there are aspects of small reactors that remain unknown for now – such as their security needs versus full-sized reactors – but I like that he attaches the project to fulfilling TVA’s mission. It does do that and gives small reactors a decided boost.

Interestingly, The Knoxville News-Sentinel links these moves to President Barack Obama’s climate change speech last week, at least in passing.

Nuclear power — which does not release carbon into the atmosphere — is part of the mix as well. TVA is adding a reactor to its Watts Bar plant and is seeking regulatory approval for a modular reactor plant to be built in Oak Ridge.

And:

TVA already is upgrading pollution controls on its [coal-fired] power plants. The federal utility plans to spend about $1 billion on controls at its Gallatin Fossil Plant, which should reduce emissions by 90 percent. TVA also plans to retire 18 units at its 11 coal-fired power plants by 2018.

The utility is using more natural gas, too. There are 106 natural gas units at 13 sites spread across TVA’s service area.

This gives Johnson’s 2035 numbers more context.

The gist of the editorial is that energy providers need to change priorities to meet the president’s goals and that TVA is ahead of the games.

The transformation to a cleaner power industry will take time and will challenge utilities to reduce emissions while keeping rates low. We are confident they are up to the task. TVA already is changing, and is positioning itself to be an industry leader in the transition to cleaner energy.

Sounds good to me. Utilities can have pretty fractious relationships with localities, but that’s not the case here.