Friday, February 28, 2014

To Fast Track Nuclear Electricity

I’m sure the writer means “its first nuclear plant:”

Kenya will soon have the first nuclear plant in efforts aimed at drastically reducing the cost of electricity and attracting international investors to the country.

The reasons seem exact:

[Deputy President Wiliiam Ruto] said, “We want to grow the economy at double digits, deal with unemployment, underemployment by creating more job opportunities in the country.”

Ruto points out that “69 per cent of Kenyans … are not connected,” presumably to the electric grid. On the face of it, this all may seem a little unlikely, but let’s wait and see. Unlikelier things have happened and this could be very good for Kenya.

For further research, look at the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board. Mandate: “To fast track the development of Nuclear Electricity generation in Kenya.” Anyone can put up a web site, of course, but still, it points at serious intent.

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From The Financial Times:

Germany’s exports would have been €15bn higher last year if its industry had not paid a premium for electricity compared with international competitors, according to an analysis published on Thursday.

It gets worse:

Almost 60 per cent of the total loss (or €30bn) came in energy-intensive industries: paper, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, non-metallic mineral products and basic metals.

And worse:

Smaller companies were disproportionately affected, the analysis found. Unlike heavy energy users such as BASF and ThyssenKrupp, small companies are not eligible for exemptions from the energy bill surcharges that cover the costs of the move to clean energy.

The President of BASF has some very tart things to say, but I’ll let you read that on the site. Interestingly, the story does not mention nuclear energy at all. Which is correct – nuclear energy has nothing at all to do with this, its absence has everything to do with it.

Hard to work up any schadenfreude. This is just awful.

Why the Tubes in the Steam Generator at St. Lucie Are Safe and Reliable

St. Luice Nuclear Plant
Last Saturday, the Tampa Bay Times published a story by Ivan Penn concerning wear in the steam generator tubes at FPL's St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant. Earlier today, the paper published a letter to the editor from FPL's Joseph Jensen taking issue with the story's conclusions.

Steam generators are safe

The steam generators at the St. Lucie nuclear plant are safe. Since their replacement in 2007, our team of experienced engineers, with validation from independent experts and oversight from federal regulators, has inspected 100 percent of the tubes every 18 months during planned refueling outages. These inspections have shown that there are no tube integrity issues that would cause failure.

Steam generator tube wear is not a new issue in the nuclear industry. In fact, there is significant data and operating experience detailing how to safely monitor and manage this issue. Like belts in a car engine, a certain amount of wear is expected over time. But, with regular monitoring and inspection, the belt will be removed well before it causes any mechanical issue. The same is true for steam generator tubes.

While engineering analyses have shown that steam generator tubes can function with over 60 percent wear, no U.S. nuclear plant would ever come close to that level. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that tubes with 40 percent wear be removed from service. Florida Power & Light's threshold, however, is even lower and more conservative than federal requirements.

The Times article also pays considerable attention to the number of wear "indications" on the St. Lucie generator tubes. In reality, there is a significant difference between an indication of wear, which could be anything from a scratch to a rub mark, and the potential for failure. Again using the car analogy, it's like having a dent in your car door — you can see it, but it does not make the vehicle unsafe.

With respect to how these components would perform given the plant's power uprate, the safety performance of the steam generators was both verified and validated by independent experts and then again by the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — all of whom have detailed specific experience with the systems at St. Lucie. Given this fact, it is highly disturbing that the reporter chose to all but bury the perspective of our federal regulator, the NRC, while giving significant attention to the comments of two antinuclear activists.

Finally, some have implied that St. Lucie is similar to the now-closed San Onofre plant in California. Nothing could be further from the truth. The steam generators at San Onofre were a different design, made by a different manufacturer and operated at a higher power level. In fact, the type of wear evident at San Onofre is not present at St. Lucie.

Joseph Jensen
Site Vice President
St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant
Juno Beach
For more on the St. Lucie plant, consult the FPL website.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

On Miles O'Brien

One reporter we follow very closely is PBS science reporter Miles O'Brien. He's reported a number of stories on the nuclear industry in the wake of Fukushima, including a November 2011 Frontline documentary called "Nuclear Aftershocks." As my colleague John Keeley noted in 2011, "O’Brien is a solid journo with a reputation for resisting the melodramatic and sensational in favor of substantive and balanced pieces."

Needless to say we were shocked and concerned when O'Brien reported on his own website that a freak accident had resulted in doctors having to amputate his left forearm just above the elbow. Apparently, O'Brien is back in the U.S. and doing his level best to adjust to a new reality. The good news: despite the accident, O'Brien seems to be facing his disability with resolve, determination and even a little bit of humor.

So I woke up to a new reality in the hospital. It’s been a challenging week dealing with the phantom pain, the vicissitudes of daily life with one hand and the worries about what lies ahead.

But I am alive and I’m grateful for that. Please don’t worry about me. I’m sure I can cope just fine. If I need your help, I promise I will ask.

Life is all about playing the hand that is dealt you. Actually, I would love somebody to deal me another hand right about now – in more ways than one.
Best wishes to O'Brien in all of the challenges ahead.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fukushima Monogatari: The Ongoing Saga of Reopening Japan’s Nuclear Plants

Predicting when Japan will reopen its nuclear facilities might make for a good office pool, but bad for energy policy. The government of Shinzo Abe wants to get it done but understandably wants all the t’s crossed:

Japan will continue to rely on nuclear power as a central part of its energy policy under a draft government plan, effectively overturning a pledge by a previous administration to phase out all nuclear plants.

That’s actually news, though it feels we’ve been in this room before.

The proposed plan does get the basics right on the benefits of nuclear energy:

[The proposal] says that "nuclear power is an important baseload electricity source," meaning that nuclear plants would remain at the core of power production along with coal-fired and hydroelectric power plants.

Officials said nuclear energy remained an important way to reduce Japan's imports of fuel from the Middle East and limit carbon dioxide emissions. Mr. Abe has also described nuclear power as vital to keeping Japanese industry competitive.

And the story, by the Wall Street Journal’s Mari Iwata is smart to point out that waiting breeds uncertainty, which in itself can cause economic distress:

However, in an indication of the uncertainty created by cautious public opinion, the plan didn't specify how much of Japan's future power should come from nuclear plants. "It was impossible to plan any energy mix, as it's been unclear how many reactors can come back online," Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters.

We’re not idiots about this: if Japan decided to close all its nuclear plants after the Fukushima Daiichi accident, as first seemed likely, we might wonder how the country would proceed but could not argue against it as a decision. Japan took a dreadful blow after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed over 20,000 people and Fukushima Daiichi and nuclear energy could be seen to symbolize that – even if no one died due to radiation release, it was all undeniably harrowing. Japan, like all countries, has a right to determine its energy mix for any reason it chooses, however much we might consider shuttering nuclear to be short sighted. That’s just how it is.

The Japanese government has clearly decided to move forward, but equally clearly it wants to pry nuclear energy loose from symbolism and return it to its existential nature as a high performing electricity generator and climate change mitigator.

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South African writer Leon Louw looks at this reality vs. symbolism divide in a provocative column that you can read at the BDLive site. I’m a little uncomfortable with it because it is premised on the idea that “Fukushima provided what amounts to a controlled experiment.” That’s an unfortunate way of looking at a situation – the earthquake and tsunami - that included so many fatalities. The accident contributed to the overall chaos of that period but it’s impact needs to be sorted from that of the natural disasters. In any event, some experiments are better left in the lab. Still, that’s the point – the events are joined together and one has been allowed to inform the other. Honestly, Louw is more than aware of rhetorical overkill used during the accident by anti-nuclear advocates.

The World Health Organization’s "comprehensive" risk assessment concluded that there were and will be zero nuclear-related deaths and "there would most likely be no observable increase in cancer". The "risk for certain types of cancers increased slightly among (a few) children exposed to the highest doses of radioactivity".

The contrarian view, articulated by physicist Michio Kaku, is that it is a "ticking time bomb". Others say the US west coast "is being fried by radiation" from Fukushima, and that it is "the ultimate catastrophe" or "the end of humanity".

I’d say Kaku’s ludicrous views only work in the heat of the moment (with highly susceptible cable news hosts) and his lack of credibility exposes itself fairly quickly. But the odor lingers and Louw gets at that.

So we’ll see. Japan is edging ever closer to turning on a number of its nuclear facilities – and it should. Unquestionably so. But Fukushima and nuclear energy now carries a lot of baggage unrelated to it and that’s something that we cannot underestimate, or even reasonably criticize, in Japan’s calculation.

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Monogatari is a Japanese literary form similar to the epic. Foreign books translated to Japanese sometimes have Monogatari appended to their title to indicate their nature – The Lord of the Rings, for example, is Yubiwa Monogatari. (I’m not sure what yubiwa means – perhaps ring.)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Around Burke County and in Waynesboro

WaynesboroA little early for editorials on the Plant Vogtle loan guarantees. We took a look at Plant Vogtle’s local newspaper, The Waynesboro True Citizen, to see if it had weighed in and found this story:

Burke County residents celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by giving back to the community. … Rather than taking the day [MLK Day] off, members of Citizens of Georgia Power – Plant Vogtle Chapter, along with their spouses and children, participated in “A Day of Service” by teaming up with the Magnolia Acres Community Empowerment Committee to beautify the grounds in the neighborhood. … “This project wasn’t just about us coming out to do landscaping,” Citizens of Georgia Power member Katrina Bivins said. “We chose this because it gives us an opportunity to mentor these kids while doing the work.”

This is very typical small town newspaper stuff – I wrote a fair amount of it for a different Georgia paper years ago - still, it’s a reminder that Vogtle is a major employer in the area. But it’s more than just a supplier (and supporter) of generous employees.

SECLUDED COUNTRY LIVING- At its finest. Three bedroom, two bath brick home on 5.45 acres. Additional acreage available. Hot tub, large workshop, storage galore. Convenient to Vogtle and new Starbucks plant. $219,000.

Along with Starbucks, Vogtle brings a good deal of economic activity to Burke County - people have to live somewhere. And as you can see, the living is less expensive where Vogtle is – which is true of many nuclear facilities. It’s a property tax bonanza for a town the size of Waynesboro (pop. 5567), and for surrounding Burke County (pop. 23,000 and change), too. Plus, you get a hot tub.

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How about we watch the anti-nuclear crowd suffer a little:

Katherine Fuchs, a critic of federal loan guarantees and the nuclear subsidies campaigner for environmental group Friends of the Earth, said the loan obligates taxpayers to invest in nuclear energy in the event of a default.

“Taxpayers cannot afford to waste money on false solutions like Vogtle,” she said. “Instead, we need to be investing in real solutions like wind, solar and energy efficiency.”

I like that term “false solution” – it has the ring of Soviet self-criticism. “Nuclear energy does most of what we want it to do, but in the name of correct energy thinking, it is a false solution.” Loaded yet meaningless. More:

Critics of the loan guarantees have seized on the program's delays as evidence that it is misguided. Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that the cost of nuclear energy has climbed over the years to as much as $9 billion per reactor, according to UCS, while the cost of natural gas, solar and wind power is dropping. "Put simply, nuclear power has been priced out of the market," said Lyman in a statement.

Which is why Georgia Power is considering more nuclear reactors, right?

“Given our experience and our commitment to safe, reliable, clean and affordable energy, it should not be a surprise to anybody in the future to see Georgia Power start a process to preserve an option for another set of plants,” [Steve Kuczynski, the company’s chairman, president and CEO] said. “We feel nuclear has a strong role in meeting that objective. Beginning initial groundwork would allow us to preserve that option.”

Schadenfreude aside, pfft!

NEI Launches "Future of Energy" Campaign

Marv Fertel
The following is a guest post from NEI’s President and CEO, Marv Fertel.

By its very nature, diversity is an attribute that we desire.  Regardless of whether it’s the diversity of ideas, the colleagues with whom we work, or the options in any given strategy, diversity should be championed.
On the concept of diversity, most people ”get it,” but few recognize when we are on a path to lose it.

Such is the case in the electric sector. Many energy leaders from the Department of Energy, state public utility commissioners and other regulators only recently have begun to recognize the potential erosion of diversity in our electric supply system. This is due to the closure of base load power plants, including significant coal-fired production. Four nuclear reactors have shut down in the past year and others are at risk in competitive markets that have become skewed by layers of policy decisions. 

Maintaining diversity of supply is a theme of a new NEI campaign, aimed on communicating the need for a balanced energy portfolio as well as underscoring the value proposition of nuclear energy in that mix. In the process of building a 21st Century electric grid, we must hold to the virtue of diversity of technology and fuels.

Nuclear energy has proven its mettle in that mix.
 
Today, Greenpeace Co-founder Patrick Moore, Transatomic Power Chief Scientist Leslie Dewan, and Georgia Power’s Mark Verbeck, who is managing the training of reactor operators at the state-of-the-art Vogtle reactors under construction, will join me at the National Press Club today at 10:00 a.m. ET, to talk about the future of nuclear energy, its clean air benefits and considerable economic development that accrues to communities and states with new reactor projects. We'll be live streaming the event via UStream.


This is only the start of a conversation that we must have on several levels, and I’m pleased that Leslie, Patrick, Mark and Vicky Bailey, former assistant secretary at the Energy Department and an industry leader for two decades, are joining with us communicate the importance of these issues.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

DOE Finalizes Plant Vogtle Loan Guarantee

Here’s the good news:

The nuclear industry applauds the Department of Energy and Southern Company for fulfilling the promise of the clean-energy loan guarantee program enacted by Congress in 2005. The agreement demonstrates the Obama administration’s recognition of the key role nuclear energy must play in a successful clean energy policy. U.S. nuclear energy facilities have proven their ability to provide reliable, affordable electricity while protecting the environment.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced this yesterday at a luncheon and you may well be thinking that this happened a while ago – even a long while ago. Well, yes and no. Previous Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the guarantee to Southern Company in 2010. Reuters picks up the story from there:

But record low natural gas prices, tepid growth in electricity demand and the lack of a federal cap on carbon emissions have kept any such revival at bay.

Now only a few new reactors are projected to be built and Vogtle is the only nuclear power plant to receive a federal loan guarantee so far.

Southern's drive for a loan guarantee also got caught up in the political fallout from the high profile 2011 bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra, which had received a federal loan guarantee.

The Obama administration added requirements after Solyndra's collapse that complicated negotiations over Southern's loan deal, which was initially expected to be finalized in 2012.

But you know what? Almost none of this is germane. Southern has motored right ahead with the plant while negotiating loan terms with DOE. The rise of natural gas and collapse of Solyndra did not deter it in the least – and the issues around Solyndra were always more political than actual. If DOE makes a lot of loan guarantees, some are going to fail – and DOE has an exceptionally good track record. The value is in keeping the responsibility for building out essential infrastructure in private hands. Russia or France can splash out for a new nuclear plant or solar array (Solyndra was actually a solar panel company) because the governments will own the plants.

That’s not true here, but we still need these plants because we need the electricity. Loan guarantees make this possible – it makes gigantic projects plausible without government ownership. It’s what you want to happen in a capitalist economy.

NEI President and CEO Marvin Fertel gets into this while congratulating Southern Co.:

Loan guarantees have been in place for years and are a successful vehicle used by the federal government to ensure investment in critical infrastructure projects. In addition to electricity generation, these projects include shipbuilding, transportation infrastructure, exports and affordable housing. The loan guarantee program created in the 2005 Energy Policy Act will act as a catalyst in hastening the construction of low- and non-emitting sources of electricity, such as nuclear power plants.

Some of those kinds of projects fail, too, but most succeed.

And there’s even a bonus in all this: one of the issues raised in 2010 was that the American public would be on the hook if Southern could not finish the two reactors, but that’s no longer even a distant worry. Southern is doing fine and the reactors are on track. If this seemed, oh, let’s say 95 percent certain in 2010, it’s 99.94 percent pure now. Anything can happen, of course, but it didn’t seem a big issue then – except to professional worriers - and it’s a smaller one now.

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Here is Southern Company on the terms of the loan guarantee:

Under the terms of the agreement, total guaranteed borrowings will be the lesser of 70 percent of the company's eligible projected costs or approximately $3.46 billion and will be funded by the Federal Financing Bank. Georgia Power received an initial draw of $1 billion and future draws may occur as often as quarterly. The loan guarantees apply to borrowings related to the construction of Vogtle units 3 and 4, and any guaranteed borrowings will be full recourse to Georgia Power and secured by a first priority lien on the company's 45.7 percent ownership interest in the two new units.

Takes a couple of reads, doesn’t it? Moniz visited Plant Vogtle today to announce the loan guarantee to the workers. Click the leak for an account.

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And speaking of Moniz, we can’t let this post past without a few of his comments from the lunch yesterday (our transcription):

“The construction of new nuclear power facilities like this one [at Plant Vogtle]—which will provide carbon-free electricity to well over a million American energy consumers—is not only a major milestone in the Administration’s commitment to jumpstart the U.S. nuclear power industry, it is also an important part of our all-of-the-above approach to American energy as we move toward a low-carbon energy future. The innovative technology used in this project represents a new generation of nuclear power with advanced safety features and demonstrates renewed leadership from the U.S. nuclear energy industry.”

It gets better:

“Investing in clean energy…is an opportunity to lead in global clean energy markets that are forming right now. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll ask those three and a half thousand construction workers [at Vogtle] how they think about the opportunities in this new economy.”

And even better:

“The president—I want to emphasize—did make it clear that he sees nuclear energy as part of America’s low-carbon energy portfolio. And of course, nuclear power already is a major part of our carbon-free portfolio.”

Spectacular.

Wind Ambitions “Chipped Away” and the EPA’s Unexpected Take on Nuclear Energy

There’s no particular reason for us to rag on wind energy, our gusty cousin, but in case you thought throwing up a few windmills was easy:

Birds, sharks and unexploded bombs from World War II are being blamed for holding up offshore wind farms, raising doubts about the costs of the technology.

and:

The U.K. market is crucial to the industry because it’s the biggest source of new projects and accounts for more than half the global installed capacity. Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has set incentives for offshore wind through 2019, hoping to stimulate clean-energy jobs.

Those ambitions are being chipped away as developers better understand the costs of the projects. Utilities have canceled as much as 5,760 megawatts of planned capacity since Nov. 26, when RWE AG dropped its 1,200 megawatt Atlantic Array.

And:

EON, a German utility, along with Dong Energy A/S and Masdar Abu Dhabi Future Energy Co. yesterday abandoned plans to expand the 630-megawatt London Array by as much as 240 megawatts. EON said it couldn’t guarantee progress even if it met requirements for a three-year study of impact on red-throated divers, a fish-eating bird that can swim more than a minute under water.

Every energy source, particularly in early days, deals with woes, pitfalls and unintended consequences – heck, that’s true of most human endeavor. Worth a read.

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From the Environmental Protection Agency, which is considering revising a 1977 rule that “limits radiation releases and doses to the public from normal operation of nuclear power plants and other uranium fuel cycle facilities":

Growing concern about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels has led to renewed interest in nuclear power. Nuclear energy emits very low levels of greenhouse gases, and unlike solar and wind power, provides a proven source of electricity capable of supplying a base-load that is not subject to varying weather conditions. The nuclear industry anticipates a demand for construction of several new nuclear power plants in the next 10 years. Increased demand would likely result in the construction and start-up of any additional facilities to support the fuel cycle for LWRs. Other parts of the fuel cycle are experiencing growth as well. For example, new uranium enrichment facilities are coming on line, such as the facility in Eunice, New Mexico by Louisiana Enrichment Services (Urenco USA). The facility was licensed by the NRC in 2006, began operations in 2010, and is an indication of the industry's improved outlook. The licensing and operation of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities are not expected in the near future.

So now we know. Could have knocked me over with a fuel rod.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On Wall Street and All Around the Electricity Grid

transformersIf you missed NEI’s Wall Street Briefing last week – and you might have if you were in a snow bound part of the country – there was off key singing, a scandal and a major fistfight. Well, ok, none of that, but a pretty good overview of the nuclear world in 2013 and 14. You can watch the archived webcast here and view the slides use at the presentation (as a PDF) here. It’s handy to have the latter at hand while viewing the former.

What you can’t see is how well attended and managed the event was, especially during a major snowfall. The trick in succeeding at this kind of event is to make sure the media has an opportunity to talk to the speakers. You can see the print press in action during the Q&A, but TV and radio reporters need special consideration – and got it, with several of the speakers able to appear on camera or on microphone to do one-on-one interviews.

This is important, because it gets the messages at the briefing out to a larger audience – the one that doesn’t read newspapers but is still generally interested in energy topics. You can’t really pick this up in the video, but it’s key to getting out the nuclear story.

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One of the points about nuclear energy that has gained considerable traction is its role in grid stability. Particularly in unregulated “merchant” electricity markets (that is, mostly outside the old south), older, smaller nuclear power plants provide a diversity of supply and help stabilize the electric grid, but, to quote NEI President and CEO Marv Fertel at the Wall Street briefing, they also “are vulnerable to weak market conditions. Absent necessary changes in policies and practices, this situation has implications for reliability, long-term stability of electricity prices, and our ability to meet environmental goals.”

Bolding mine – Fertel didn’t suddenly stress that. This was also the most important feature in to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) report – see the post a couple down for more on that – and it seems, in twitter-speak, a trending topic. Murkowski is more concerned with increased environmental regulation on coal plants knocking them off the grid, but she recognizes that losing any baseload energy plant, including nuclear reactors, has the unintended impact of potentially destabilizing the grid by sidelining 24/7 baseload energy.

Fertel takes up the subject in more detail in a post he wrote for The National Journal.

Unless you believe that natural gas prices will stay below $4 per million Btu for the next 20 years, there is no rational economic reason or public policy rationale to allow nuclear plants with safe and reliable operations, like Kewaunee in Wisconsin and Vermont Yankee, to shut down, as both will have done by the end of this year. Sooner or later, they must be replaced and, when they are, they will be replaced with generating capacity that will produce higher-cost electricity, and provide perhaps only 10 percent of the jobs lost when a nuclear plant closes.

Fertel is among a group responding to a forum question about Murkowski’s report and also about the armed attack on a California substation suggesting terrorist activity against the grid. The latter is very important but more correctly an issue for grid operators.

Some of the other responses show that Murkowski and Fertel are on to something. This is Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, taking it from the coal angle (NMA also includes uranium mining among its concerns):

The alarms sounding from this winter’s arctic weather conditions may foreshadow what lies ahead as looming regulatory deadlines threaten a growing portion of the coal-based power plant fleet that today generates 40 percent of the nation’s electricity, more than any other energy source. EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 just raised the official forecast for coal plant retirements to a total of 60 gigawatts by 2020. In energy industry terms, that’s just around the corner – and 60 GW is a sizable portion of the 310 GW of total coal-based capacity that existed a little more than a year ago.

And that has implications for the grid.

More reasonable regulations based on the best available clean coal technologies would be a much wiser course – bolstering grid reliability while continuing to provide environmental gains for the nation. 

Now, obviously, there are competing priorities at work here – carbon emissions vs. grid reliability. In the nuclear instance, carbon emissions do not apply, but the relative value of nuclear generated electricity certainly does. If nuclear energy can keep the grid stable when other energy types cannot – as natural gas could not during the recent cold snaps – isn’t that worth something?

I’m tempted to say that the polar vortex caused this issue to snap to the fore, but Murkowski was certainly working on her report well before that. Let’s call it a fortuitous coincidence that provided an opportunity to talk about the grid – and emphasize another area in which nuclear energy shines.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Back to the Old Nuclear Arguments–in a Good Way

The argument advanced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) – that taking down baseload energy plants has the capacity to destabilize the grid – a couple posts down should not lead anyone to imagine that the tired old arguments are anywhere near dead – or old or tired, for that matter.

Lyons says a major problem is that the market presently has no mechanism to sensibly recognize the value of carbon-free power generation, particularly nuclear power. “When well-run, clean [nuclear] energy sources are forced out of the marketplace due to a combination of reduced demand, low natural gas prices and market structure,” Lyons was quoted as saying by the Greenwire energy-news service, “our markets are providing the wrong signals.”

Lyons here is Peter Lyons, the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy. He was also an NRC commissioner in his time. So he may be an interested party but also an extremely knowledgeable one.

Lyons said that the DOE studied a scenario where 30 percent of the county’s 100 reactors would be shut down. He said the DOE regards many of the nuclear plant closures currently on the calendar as premature. If those closures were to go ahead as per that scenario, there would be no way to meet our goal of cutting emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Lyons also says that there is “no mechanism to sensibly recognize the value of carbon-free power generation…” which may sound like a return to trying for cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.

Forbes writer Michael Krancer gives Lyons a lot of space – he spoke at a Platts conference not long ago – and as always, Lyons is on point. The whole piece is well worth a read. Whereas Murkowski broadens the conversation by warning that overregulating baseload energy – she’s including coal and natural gas in her figuring – Lyons brings back the issue of climate change and carbon emissions. Which is still valid and worth having in the mix. When you take in all the plausible policy goals one might develop with energy these day, nuclear energy, at least as a key element in a diverse portfolio, comes out ahead- way ahead.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Billionaire’s Nuclear Dream: House of Cards Returns for Season 2


D.C., rejoice! Season 2 of "House of Cards" is almost here. If you haven’t seen the first season, spend your snow day binge-watching because tomorrow we get the next chapter in this thrilling political drama. The award-winning series—centered on Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood, House Majority Whip and ultimate political schemer—is filled with nuanced characters, excellent performances and unexpected plot twists.

Want an even better reason to watch? Nuclear energy gets some time to shine. Energy is touched upon peripherally throughout the series, and by season's end, the plot hits upon the nation’s energy supply and nuclear’s role in it. For those wanting a quick recap of how nuclear energy ties in during season 1, read on.

[Spoilers ahead] In the penultimate episode, Underwood visits billionaire Raymond Tusk to vet him as a possible replacement for Vice President. Tusk, an influential friend of the President, is a big investor in nuclear power:
Underwood: You think I could get a tour of your Fulton Plant while I’m in town?

Tusk: If you’d like, but I don’t know why you’d want to be there when you can be out here.

Underwood: I’ve never seen a nuclear plant.

Tusk: Not much to see. Steel. Concrete. A lot of steam.

Underwood: The President hasn't exactly been a big supporter of nuclear power. Is that part of your hesitation, the fear that the administration might –

Tusk: He's just being savvy. Nuclear energy is a tough sell after Japan. But it's the only option we have right now that doesn't completely trash the planet. The argument against nuclear power is an emotional one.
[Bigger spoilers ahead] We later find out that Tusk has actually been vetting Underwood for the Vice Presidency during this visit. Tusk offers his stamp of approval provided that Underwood returns “one and only one” favor (one which is quite the anticlimactic reveal given the dark turns this series took before this point, but I digress). Not willing to be controlled, Underwood doesn’t even wait to hear what Tusk wants. He tries to set up a hostile takeover of Tusk's nuclear subsidiaries to distract him and ultimately stop him from becoming the nominee for Vice President.

In the end, Tusk outmaneuvers Underwood in a way that ensures his nuclear investments won’t be touched. He is still willing to back Underwood for Vice President, as long as Underwood uses his influence to secure favorable trade tariffs with China. Why? Tusk needs Samarium-149 for his reactors, and “China controls 95% of the world’s supply.”

Admittedly, the end of the season is where the plot is weakest and starts departing from reality. But what the writers do get right is the influential billionaire investing in nuclear energy and China becoming a major player in the nuclear industry.

Regardless of some flawed logic, this storyline accurately reflects the growing importance of nuclear and its role in a diverse energy mix. Tune in tomorrow to see where it goes in season 2.

Side note: Most of the characters involved in this storyline are motivated by personal gain, but Tusk may truly care about promoting a clean, affordable and reliable energy source for America. He seems at least partly motivated by the fact that nuclear energy won’t destroy the 6,000 acres in his backyard. (That’s correct, 6,000.) Maybe this pro-nuclear billionaire is really being positioned as the good guy. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for his newsboy cap and recitation of Walt Whitman. Guess we’ll find out tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

NEI’s Wall Street Briefing

Wall-StreetEvery February, NEI briefs Wall Street analysts and media on the nuclear energy industry – both where it’s been in the previous year and where it’s going the current year.

The briefing will address 2013 power plant performance, 2014 priorities, the impact of changes in electricity markets, the status of new nuclear plant construction, small modular reactor development and a lot more. It’s really worth watching if you follow nuclear energy. It starts tomorrow, February 13, at 8:30 am EST. A webcast is available and it will be live tweeted (twittered, tweetered) at @N_E_I and @NEI_media (#NEIWSB).
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I was curious after reading through Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s report on grid stability yesterday (see post below) as to where plants fired by other than nuclear energy are located in the United States. It’s certainly possible to just assume that where there is a nuclear facility, it basically makes all the electricity for that part of the state, but that’s just naïve. You mean there still are other plants? Madness.

Happily, the Energy Information Agency has a very well-done map of the country that allows you to pinpoint every natural gas works, every wind farm, every oil well – well, everything energy. Sounds like it could be a mess, but it provides all the controls you need to figure out what’s where. Well worth a look if, like me, you make your local coal plant fade into the background with nuclear sharp in the foreground.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sen. Lisa Murkowski: “A wake-up call to the continued importance of baseload capacity.”

There’s absolutely no reason for a senator from Alaska to be so knowledgeable about nuclear energy, yet Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is and has been one of its staunchest advocates. This is doubtless because she is the ranking member of the Environment and Natural Resources committee. Congressmen can be notoriously poor at learning the relevant issues of their committees, but Murkowski isn’t one of them – she really knows her energy beans and, as a bonus, has been one of the least ideologically driven members of the committee. She has worked comfortably with (the very liberal) Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on legislation that avoids partisan potholes and aims to fix problems in the energy realm. 

So we were very interested to see what Murkowski had to offer at the winter NARUC (National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners) meeting here in DC.

She used the occasion to release an unusually on-point report called “Powering the Future: Ensuring that Federal Policy Fully Supports Electric Reliability.” Why on-point? The stability of the grid, sorely tested recently by the polar vortex, has been percolating as a subject for awhile now. One reason for this is the growing understanding that shutting nuclear plants underscores their value as grid stabilizers - they produce plentiful electricity on close to a 24/7 basis. Replacing a nuclear plant is not an insolvable problem, but it does raise significant issues, one of which is ensuring enough baseload electricity to withstand significant demand, as occurred during the vortex.

This is what Murkowski says about the grid:

In stark contrast to far too many around the globe suffering in energy poverty with limited or no access to electricity, for most Americans the light turns on when they flip the switch. Keeping
the lights on, however, is a highly complex undertaking, requiring extensive planning and coordination. The lack of few efficient and commercially viable large-scale electricity storage mechanisms becomes more important as the energy resource mix changes and requires an electric grid that is both flexible and resilient. This is especially true when baseload generation is taken offline and grid fundamentals change.

Baseload energy includes coal, hydro, natural gas and nuclear energy. Hydro and nuclear energy do not produce carbon emissions. No renewable energy source aside from hydro can claim this. Nuclear energy is sometimes described as sustainable rather than renewable because its fuel, uranium, is not infinite, but can sustain electricity production for the foreseeable future (and uranium is, of course, not the only fissionable element).

The polar vortex makes an appearance in the report – Murkowski also cites superstorm Sandy and the derecho (all these new weather terms to learn!):

The Bulk Power System (BPS) has already been challenged in 2014. The deep freeze brought on by January’s polar vortex resulted in at least 50,000 megawatts of power plant outages. The electric industry has an impressive history of learning and improving from these system challenges. Among other things, what we learned from the Polar Vortex is that for one key system 89 percent of the coal capacity that is slated for retirement next year was called upon to meet demand. We also learned that nuclear power plants operated at over 90 percent capacity through the event, demonstrating their consistency, resiliency, and reliability. This should serve as a wake-up call to the continued importance of baseload capacity.

Oh, there we are – and there’s the call: not to nuclear energy per se but to baseload energy. That’s important – it’s key to Murkowski’s argument.

Murkowski is not proposing legislative action in this report, instead she is refocusing the energy discussion on the grid and government actions that can apply significant stress to it. Much of this has to do with regulation, particularly those issued by the EPA. While this is a persistent Republican issue, Murkowski tilts the argument away from regulation as a job killer to too much regulation as a grid stressor:

The concern is not just one single rule, but rather it is the accretion of rules and the process by which they are unrelentingly proposed and implemented, as if in a vacuum. Multiple EPA rules will impact the utility industry; particularly, the following suite of regulations continues to draw the most attention.

I won’t list the “suite,” but here’s one that pertains to nuclear energy:

Cooling Water Intake 316(b) – Stringent fish mortality and water intake velocity standards, without regard to site-specific factors, may make the standards unachievable.

Actually, this impacts any thermal plant, including gas and coal plants; most of Murkowski’s list zeros in on coal regulation in particular:

Coal Ash – Regulation of the storage and containment of coal ash, a byproduct from power plants, which could further drive up compliance costs at new and existing plants.

I don’t agree with slackening on this issue at all, as unleashed coal ash can be fantastically destructive. Here’s a story from CNN:

The coal ash poured out of a broken pipe into the Dan River, turning water into dark muck.

It took nearly a week to stem the spill, which sent millions of gallons of sludge from a retired power plant into a river that supplies drinking water to communities in North Carolina and neighboring Virginia.

Workers stopped the spill by plugging the broken pipe with concrete this weekend. Now government scientists and the United States' largest electric utility face a daunting task: cleaning it up.

But that’s okay. Murkowski is making a point, not issuing a directive. All her examples are arguable to someone. The point is, she’s raising in importance the issue of the cumulative impact of regulation. That is important and should be addressed – energy companies have really swayed a bit from regulatory overload, and the nuclear industry in particular has had to implement what seems to be an endless bout of post-Fukushima rulemaking. It’s not that the rulemaking is terrible – just that its piles up to the extent that it’s impossible to untangle the essential from the inessential from the optional. And that lack of discrimination, as facilities scramble to meet deadlines, can defer what is most useful and safety-enhancing. Murkowski has performed a valuable service by opening up this topic to a wider audience.

You can read her presentation here.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Japan, UAE (Sharjah This Time) and Sadness in Vermont

From Japan:

A candidate backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won Sunday's election for governor of Tokyo, frustrating a rival's efforts to make the vote a referendum on the Japanese leader's pro-nuclear energy policy nearly three years after the Fukushima disaster

The widely-expected victory by former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe comes as a relief for Abe, who had suffered a rare setback in another local election last month.

So Abe lost one and won one – which proves only that Japanese voters are tough to move on a single issue – and that nuclear energy is not a potent enough issue, if it ever was, to sway elections.

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A striking example of how a nuclear energy facility can benefit neighboring communities:

The University of Sharjah has announced that three nuclear energy laboratories worth Dh7 million will be set up in the university, with the aim of preparing highly qualified human cadres specialized in nuclear power.

The first ever integrated laboratory for students of the undergraduate program in nuclear engineering will be opened in September, while the other two labs will be opened later, Dr Waleed Mutawalli, Coordinator of the Nuclear Engineering Program at the university, said.

The facility here being Barakah in Sharjah’s UAE neighbor Abu Dhabi. Sharjah itself has only about 900,000 people in it, so this program will presumably enroll people from around UAE and other Arabic-speaking countries considering nuclear energy.

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I ran into this definition of Barakah: 

“Barakah is the attachment of Divine goodness to a thing, so if it occurs in something little, it increases it. And if it occurs in something much it benefits. And the greatest fruits of Barakah in all things is to use that barakah in the obedience of Allah (Subahanahu Wa Ta’ala)”

This sounds a bit like the Christian concept of grace, but manifesting as a series of occurrences rather than a state of being. In the nuclear sphere, it seems to refer to a little uranium generating a lot of electricity, an unalloyed good. A guess, but it fits the metaphorical bill.

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This is a sad video of the impact to local charities when a nuclear plant closes. Now, a lot of what is covered in the video has to do with the charitable giving of Vermont Yankee’s employees, the people who have set down roots in the towns around the facility. But Entergy, which owns Vermont Yankee, has also sent charitable vines and shoots out into the community. Decommissioning the plant will take some time, so Entergy isn’t packing its fuel rods and decamping in the middle of the night all at once. An Entergy spokesman in the video makes it clear that the company will be making donations going forward.

Still – this is how it goes. It’s not unique to nuclear energy facilities or even energy outlets. Companies come and go and open and prune branches every day.  In each instance, the result is good or bad for the local people. In this case, the communities impacted will adjust their expectations and looks for other sources of charitable giving because – this is how it goes.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The Downside of Saying No: Nuclear Energy in Australia

The Australian energy business is an imperfect analogue to the American – the antipodean market has its own quirks, but both leave electricity production to private industry, not to the government. So a report on Australia’s energy policies can be seen as having utility on this side of the world. All that said, a report from the Energy Policy Institute of Australia is less interesting as a potential alternate guide for America than for what it says about nuclear energy.

In the interests of reducing policy uncertainty and of lowering the risk to investment in the energy industry, governments should no longer pursue energy policy and climate policy independently of each other – governments must integrate energy policy and climate policy into a coherent whole, whilst they continue to facilitate open energy markets.

This does sound like something applicable to the United States. In any event, it leads to this recommendation:

The continuation of the prohibition of nuclear power generation in Australia is unnecessary and should be removed; the powers of ARPANSA [Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency] as independent regulator should be broadened to cover all developments throughout Australia; although ARPANSA is already accountable by law for its performance as a safety regulator, there should be public participation in its activities in the public interest.

ARPANSA would likely regulate any nuclear energy facilities built in Australia, so this makes sense. It also makes a pitch for small reactors, though this may be an attempt to get something through the door:

There are significant technological advances in safe nuclear power generation. In particular, factory-produced, small modular reactors (SMRs) are faster to install and are less capital-intensive than the larger, traditional nuclear power plants. SMRs are considered suitable for powering mines and towns in remote locations in many parts of Australia.

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This is think tank stuff, so one has to consider who is footing the bill for nice lunches and energy friendly reports. But I have to say that the Energy Policy Institute seems reasonably non-judgmental on energy choices. But there are things like this:

Technological innovation is necessary but is universally characterized by patient, high-risk, high-reward investment. This is particularly the case in the clean energy sector where good ideas abound but true innovation through to widespread commercial deployment is rare (e.g. renewable energy with storage and carbon capture and storage). As a result, global achievements in decarbonizing the energy sector continue to lag global ambitions.

This leads to a bit I find dubious:

Attempting to pick individual technology winners exposes governments to the risk of a specific failure becoming a political issue and being used to reduce or shut down support for a particular technology, or even the broader clean energy programs.

Which is the kind of thing that gets written when you want to shut down nascent or developing ideas. It’s ambiguous enough to let pass, though it does raise a flag. Free marketeers like to take fairly absolutist positions – see The Heritage Foundation in this country for a more local example  –and one learns to bypass it as perhaps a little too utopian – at least, if that’s your utopia.

I imagine the institute finds its money from different energy companies, but none seem too interested in trashing renewables or any other potential energy source – and the report does point out that the world is doing itself a disservice by politicizing energy, including nuclear energy. Still, a healthy skepticism should always be brought to think tank reports.

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Let’s reiterate a general feeling about Australia (and neighbor New Zealand): It will never put up a nuclear facility. It’s almost an article of faith, similar to the way that no Maryland politician of any political stripe would suggest drilling for oil in the Chesapeake Bay or do anything perceived to besmirch it. It’s a tribal thing, detached from politics and tied up with regional or national identity. But Australia (if not New Zealand) has been making more conciliatory noises lately, particularly because it has had little success ratcheting down its carbon emissions. So I’ll stick with my assessment – for now. The Australians can prove me wrong anytime they want.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Nuclear Cyber Security and Its Discontents

The minority (that is, the Republicans) on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee released a report that shows a number of federal agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, exercising lax cyber security. In some instances, the brew is rather weak – antivirus software has not been updated at some agencies, which probably has Symantec worried - but there’s some substantial stuff in it, too.

This sums up the report’s finding on the NRC:

Yet just about every aspect of that process [addressing cyber security weaknesses] appears to be broken at the NRC. Problems were identified but never scheduled to be fixed; fixes were scheduled but not completed; fixes were recorded as complete when they were not.

The first thing to note is that this has nothing whatever to do with cyber security at nuclear energy facilities. In some ways, this report confuses network security with what is a much broader topic. Government agency network security has been low hanging fruit when one seeks an issue to publicize, which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed.

Bill Gross, NEI senior project manager, engineering, who has done a lot of work on nuclear facility cyber security, wrote a blog post for us early last year outlining some of the steps the industry has taken to address the subject. Well worth a read for anyone interested in this issue. His conclusion:

No cyber security program will be 100% perfect.  These interim measures well position the plants to ensure that the public health and safety are maintained, and that the sites will reliably continue to make their significant contribution to the nation’s electrical supply.

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We can’t really answer for the NRC and what it might need to do to digitally clean its house. We can say that this is a partisan report. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member, keeps the pot at a simmer in presenting the report’s findings on his We site.

“Weaknesses in the federal government’s own cyber security have put at risk the electrical grid, our financial markets, our emergency response systems and our citizens’ personal information,” Dr. Coburn said.  “While politicians like to propose complex new regulations, massive new programs, and billions in new spending to improve cyber security, there are very basic – and critically important – precautions that could protect our infrastructure and our citizens’ private information that we simply aren’t doing.”

So, yes, partisan. I’m not sure the report addresses risks to infrastructure or financial markets – agencies overseeing them, perhaps, but that’s not the same thing. It seems to both want and not want regulation; it just depends on what’s being regulated. It’ll be interesting to see how or even if the NRC responds to this report.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Welcome to the Nuclear Club, Poland!

It’s always particularly interesting when a country that has never used nuclear energy – when it could have – decides to start an industry. UAE is a recent example of this. Poland is another:

Donald Tusk, the prime minister, and his cabinet finally adopted the Polish nuclear power program on January 28th, giving the green light to construction of the country's first nuclear-power plant.

I somehow bypassed Poland while touring around eastern Europe in the mid-80s, but I would say that based on my experience of Hungary and East Germany’s wretched air quality, it is not a big surprise why Poland might turn this way.

Currently, hard coal and lignite are used to produce roughly 88% of the electrical grid. Dependence on Russian gas imports, and pressure from Brussels to reduce carbon emissions by 2020 beyond the 20% level previously already agreed, have pushed the government to look for alternatives.

That’ll do it, all right. The Economist put this story in its Ex-Communist blog and I’d say 30 years is a long enough time for Poland to consider its options before moving off lignite. As it is, the first facility, which France (that is, EDF and AREVA) seems to have an inside track on building, is expected to run at 3000 megawatts, enough to take over 17 percent of Poland’s electricity generation. And it’s just a start. Poland was building a nuclear facility when the Communist government collapsed and that’s one of the potential sites for the new one.

I read a story from a Polish news source that says the country wants to follow up quickly with a second facility – which I guess would get nuclear energy up to 34 percent of the country’s generation – and the Polish electricity authority is certainly not holding back on enthusiasm:

Nuclear power turns to be one of the most sought after/prospective sources of energy, which apart from being CO2 emission free, guarantees independence from the typical ways of obtaining energy sources.

Not sure what that means  - awkward translation effort - but I suppose it refers to trying to get Russia to keep the natural gas spigot on – and the benefits of no longer having to do that. What about renewable energy? Well:

Energy prices have soared in Poland, with the hike partially caused by high subsidies having to be paid out to develop the so-called 'renewable sector', including wind and solar power.

Poland signed up to the pledge to bring renewables up to 20 percent of its energy mix by 2020, though now the EC has indicated that in the period, 2021 to 2030, national governments will be allowed to decide how achieve cuts in carbon emissions.

I’m not sure from reading the stories why nuclear energy is more attractive than these subsidies, but it probably has to do with what you get: baseload energy for a reasonably low levelized price. By that I mean that the cost of building the plant may be high, but the cost of running it is quite low. And that can bring down the cost of electricity a lot. And it’s 24/7, not just when the wind decides to blow. But that’s a guess – the stories I’ve read haven’t really explained the economics of the decision.