Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What the Simpsons Gets Wrong About Nuclear Safety Culture

I love The Simpsons.  The Simpsons cleverly, mercilessly, and democratically gore everyone's sacred cows.  None are off-limits, including the professionals who comprise the commercial nuclear power industry.

What we are not.
From the avaricious Montgomery Burns, owner of the Springfield Nuclear Plant, to the bumbling Homer Simpson, control room operator and safety inspector, the people of the nuclear enterprise are portrayed as incompetent and unconcerned about their responsibilities to serve and protect their fellow workers, the public and the environment.  As you can imagine, the truth is quite different.

How different from that comedic portrayal are the real people of the nuclear power industry?  A recent briefing by our NEI colleagues, Sue Perkins-Grew and Rod McCullum, reminded us how different indeed.

Sue Perkins-Grew in action on the ropes course at SNPM.
Sue and Rod recently attended an elite leadership training course offered by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations' (INPO), the industry-supported agency for promoting excellence in all aspects of nuclear plant operations. They attended the  Senior Nuclear Plant Manager (SNPM) course.  This five-week curriculum is designed to give up-and-coming leaders a broader view of the nuclear industry.  The course includes team building exercises that promote out-of-the-box thinking, briefings on the roles of key institutions and stakeholders in our industry, and visits to operating power plants to observe how other leaders and cultures achieve excellence in nuclear operations. Sue and Rod spoke  enthusiastically about the quality of the training and insights gained through the SNPM course. 

And what did they learn about their classmates from across the nuclear power industry?

In short, they were greatly impressed by the caliber of people in the course.  They described them as showing the highest levels of integrity and professionalism, and the utmost commitment to safety.  Sue and Rod expressed high confidence that our industry is in good hands, and will remain so when these prospective senior managers take the helm at their respective plants and companies.

Those of us in the nuclear power industry understand two things very well.  One is that we share a commitment to safety at all levels and in everything we do.  The other is that, by Hollywood's standards, this reality - a culture that puts nuclear safety ahead of everything else - doesn't make for a very entertaining cartoon.  That's ok with us.  We'll just keep on pursuing excellence and providing safe, reliable electricity to power the 21st century economy. And we'll leave the laughs to Homer and the gang.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Have China and Russia Stolen the Nuclear Thunder from the U.S.?

wall-street-journalThis is startling: Lenin and Mao referenced in a pro-nuclear energy op-ed written by Eric McFarland of the Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation at the University of Queensland:

The ghosts of Lenin and Mao might well be smirking. Communist and authoritarian nations are moving to take global leadership in, and profit from, the commercial use of nuclear power, a technology made possible by the market-driven economies of the West. New research and development could enable abundant, affordable, low-carbon energy as well as further beneficial products for industry and medicine.

This is published in the Wall Street Journal, so the goal may well be to wake up the capitalists from the dolorous slumber.

Governments are right, of course, to monitor and tightly control the application of nuclear energy, as they do chemical and biological weapons. But the well-intentioned systems, agencies, regulations, legislation, safeguards and bureaucratic mass that have been applied to every aspect of nuclear technology since its inception have tended to prevent us from realizing its full potential.

Um, well, that should wake them right up – free marketeers view regulation with considerable suspicion, and it’s true that domestic nuclear energy has many, many regulations from many, many agencies to contend with. Finding the balance between safety and regulatory priority is a prime interest of the industry – and of the regulators, too – but I’m not sure regulation can be debited for not allowing nuclear energy to realize its full potential. That’s the argument, which the editorial carries a little further.

Globalization is real. Preventing the innovators in Western democracies from creating new cost-effective technologies using nuclear reactions won’t prevent it from being done. It’s ironic, but given America’s ever-burdensome nuclear regulations, it will likely be engineers from nondemocratic, authoritarian regimes like those in China and Russia who will be free to design the safe and cost-effective commercial nuclear technologies of the future.

I’d probably also focus more on markets, a WSJ thing, because reforming them to recognize nuclear energy’s value as a reliable and emission-free energy source would bolster the argument considerably.

Again, this is meant to wake up quiescent capitalists. The case seems overstated to me, but, as the editorial says about regulators, the intention is good. It’s worth a full read to see what you think.

Monday, April 27, 2015

What Americans for Prosperity Gets Wrong About the Ex Im Bank

Ted Jones
The following is a guest post by Ted Jones, Director of International Supplier Relations for NEI.

A spokesperson for Americans for Prosperity told The Hill last week that Congress should allow the U.S. Export-Import Bank to expire when its authorization ends in June.
If a particular sector like the nuclear sector needs Ex-Im to survive, “the fact that your industry has grown dependent on taxpayer-backed loans doesn’t mean that it needs to continue forever,” Russell said.
While that sounds like a principled free-market argument, a closer look at the realities of international trade demonstrates that it is a mistaken premise for ending the Ex-Im Bank. To the contrary, the conservative principles of fiscal responsibility and American leadership in global affairs should lead Tea Party groups to support Ex-Im.

Ex-Im Bank serves a crucial role for nuclear exporters that the private sector cannot. U.S. nuclear exporters turn to Ex-Im precisely because financing alternatives in the private sector don’t exist, not because they can’t compete as AFP claims. This happens for a variety of reasons, including the following:
  • Export credit agency support is almost always a bidding requirement for nuclear power plant tenders. Ex-Im Bank is therefore vital to the success of U.S. exports even in cases where the customer ultimately elects not to use Ex-Im financing. Without Ex-Im Bank, U.S. commercial nuclear suppliers would suffer a major competitive disadvantage or be excluded for failure to meet tender requirements.
  • Emerging markets – where commercial nuclear energy opportunities are concentrated – do not have well-developed capital markets. This makes competitive financing from a foreign export credit agency vital.
  • Ex-Im Bank participation enables commercial lenders to assume a role in financing nuclear power plants that they would not otherwise accept. Risk in nuclear power plant finance is typically low. But commercial lenders are averse to financing nuclear power projects for regulatory reasons – specifically, the higher capital requirements mandated under the Basel III accord.
George Landrith, President of Frontiers of Freedom, put it this way in a piece in 2014 at Breitbart.com:
By law, the Ex-Im Bank does not compete with private sector lenders. It is a “lender of last resort” and simply provides economically sustainable loan guarantees where they are not otherwise available. Some nations have underdeveloped economies or banking systems. The Ex-Im Bank fills-in banking gaps so that U.S. goods can be exported to nations where commercial financing is insufficient or underdeveloped.
Here’s one last note on this important point: Without Ex-Im Bank support, U.S. companies would specifically be at a severe disadvantage against international rivals, especially the Russians which offer competitive financing and strong state support for their nuclear bids. Without a doubt, Vladimir Putin is applauding AFP’s efforts to kill the Ex-Im Bank.

Ex-Im Bank is not a significant taxpayer risk. Ex-Im has highly diversified portfolio that spans the industry sectors and regions of the world, and it authorizes insurance, guarantees, and loans in a judicious manner. As a result, Ex-Im’s current default rate is just 0.194 percent – far lower than the typical rates in the commercial banking sector. In the nuclear energy market, sovereign guarantees usually apply because the customer is typically owned or backed by the foreign government.
Ex-Im Bank subsidizes the American taxpayer, not the other way around. Ex-Im uses the interest and fees it receives to cover all of its own operating expenses, meaning U.S. taxpayers don’t actually fund any of Ex-Im’s operations. When the Bank’s revenue exceeds the cost of doing business, taxpayers make money. In 2014, taxpayers made $675 million from Ex-Im. The year before that it was $1 billion. Over the last two decades, taxpayers have profited more than $7 billion. That’s $7 billion that went to reducing the U.S. deficit.

Current accounting methods are appropriate for Ex-Im Bank. Some critics of Ex-Im point to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that considers an alternative accounting method called fair-value estimation – an analysis that has come under fire from former OMB Chairman and one-time Congressional budget hawk Jim Nussle. While the fair-value approach has its uses, it does not provide actual data on whether or not Ex-Im is profitable. CBO’s fair-value analysis seeks to compare Ex-Im loans and guarantees to those of private banks. If private banks generated higher returns than Ex-Im for similar loans, one could conclude that Ex-Im and taxpayers are losing out on potential profits. However, there’s a big problem with this logic – there are no comparable loans or guarantees in the private sector. Ex-Im only lends where the private sector is unable or unwilling in order to match foreign competition.

Ex-Im Bank supports national security interests. As a group of former national security officials have argued, Ex-Im Bank provides critical support to exports that have strategic value. Nuclear energy is a prime example. When U.S. firms win foreign nuclear energy tenders, U.S. interests in energy security, nuclear safety and nonproliferation are advanced. U.S. firms face formidable international competitors – all of which receive competitive export financing. Russia, for example, has rapidly expanded its share of the international nuclear energy market – in large part due to its aggressive export finance. Without Ex-Im Bank to maintain a level playing field against Russian finance, the United States will cede many transactions – and influence – to Russia.

Looking at this issue solely through an ideological lens can obscure the facts about Ex-Im Bank. Ex-Im Bank enables the U.S. nuclear energy industry to compete for and win international nuclear energy tenders, reducing the energy dominance of Russian energy suppliers while generating billions of dollars in U.S. exports and tens of thousands of American jobs. But that is not all. Ex-Im Bank also eases the American taxpayer’s burden and reduces the U.S. federal deficit. That is a deal that all of us – and especially the Tea Party – should strongly embrace.

Friday, April 24, 2015

NRDC Misfires on Nuclear in Illinois Energy Poll

We have to hand it to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Their recent poll tries as hard as it can, but it can’t quite hide the truth about Illinois energy and its relative cleanliness, the subject of the poll.

It finds, quite reasonably, that people there are much in favor of clean energy, which NRDC is quite sure includes only renewables. Why should that be, I wondered – well, until I looked at the questions.

This is one of them:

Some people/other people say we should transition to more clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power in Illinois. Illinois residents already get most of their electricity with nuclear power; the last thing we need is more safety risks from building more nuclear plants.

This is part of another question.

We already have more nuclear energy than any other state, and it is too risky for our health and environment.

Yet, even with statements like that to ponder, 33 percent of respondents favor expanding nuclear energy in the state. Frankly, we expected pitchforks and hot tar, so this was surprisingly high.

Another finding asks respondents to choose their favored energy resource for an Illinois climate change reduction plan and doesn’t  include nuclear energy as a choice. It just doesn’t rate.

Obviously, this comes as close to useless as any poll on this subject could be. Numbers can always be turned to just about any purpose – polls complicate this because the numbers hide behind questions that can be fairly ridiculous. NRDC does this by associating nuclear energy with environmental and health impacts that it hasn’t had. “Would you vote for so-and-so, convicted kitten killer?” has about as much validity. It’s to NRDC’s credit that it posted the findings of its polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies, but it just makes the results look horribly skewed. And NRDC has really fouled the pot.

I can’t speak to NRDC’s motivation in taking this approach, but it does come on the heels of other  news. Recent legislation in the state house includes nuclear energy in the state’s clean air portfolio, because, after all, it really does produce no emissions, which is what the standard is all about. NRDC concedes that nuclear has a heavy presence in the state, but fails to say what that means: that 47 percent of the electricity in the state is already emission free via nuclear energy (renewables add another 5 percent, so 52 percent total). Illinois has further to go, but a lot less than states that are not suffering those imaginary safety risks.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What the Ecomodernist Manifesto Says to Nuclear Energy Advocates

EcomodernistTimed for Earth day, The Breakthrough Institute released what it’s calling the Ecomodernist Manifesto, a tract that deserves attention because of the quality of its creators and because it suggests a way forward – or perhaps I should say out of – the impasse between environmentalists and policy makers in crafting ways to protect the environment while maximizing the potential of people worldwide to prosper. It’s a blueprint to guide environmentalists away from seeing people as environmental destroyers – which, of course, turns off the folks they’re trying to appeal to – to partners.

The folks who signed on to this include Pandora’s Promise director Robert Stone and two participants in his pro-nuclear energy documentary, Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas, the latter of whom earned considerable admiration from me for his openness and curiosity toward nuclear energy despite considerable suspicion about it. Of course, it also includes the co-founders the Breakthrough Institute, Michael Shellenburger and Ted Nordhaus. The Breakthrough Institute has always looked at energy policy through an environmental lens but has not until now wrapped together the interests of environmentalists and energy policy makers as it does in the manifesto.

The authors takes as their premise that progress has caused people to “decouple” from nature, as agricultural technology has changed largely rural populations into urban ones. But the technological advances required to do this has presented its own problems:

The modernization processes that have increasingly liberated humanity from nature are, of course, double-edged, since they have also degraded the natural environment. Fossil fuels, mechanization and manufacturing, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, electrification and modern transportation and communication technologies, have made larger human populations and greater consumption possible in the first place. Had technologies not improved since the Dark Ages, no doubt the human population would not have grown much either.
Potential solutions:
Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species. Suburbanization, low-yield farming, and many forms of renewable energy production, in contrast, generally require more land and resources and leave less room for nature.
You could say that’s the nub of it for nuclear energy advocates and some of the argument plays into what one may call the “moral” argument for nuclear energy.
Plentiful access to modern energy is an essential prerequisite for human development and for decoupling development from nature. The availability of inexpensive energy allows poor people around the world to stop using forests for fuel. It allows humans to grow more food on less land, thanks to energy-heavy inputs such as fertilizer and tractors. Energy allows humans to recycle waste water and desalinate sea water to spare rivers and aquifers. It allows humans to cheaply recycle metal and plastic rather than to mine and refine these minerals. Looking forward, modern energy may allow the capture of carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the accumulated carbon that drives global warming
In other words, people must have access to energy to advance. But if the goal is to facilitate this advancement without further ecological damage, then nuclear energy has a unique role to play. It produces a lot of energy in a relatively tiny footprint.
In the long run, next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion represent the most plausible pathways toward the joint goals of climate stabilization and radical decoupling of humans from nature. If the history of energy transitions is any guide, however, that transition will take time.
That “radical decoupling of humans from nature” has a grad-school ring to it – it’s more idealistic than realistic - but the authors mean by it less of a reliance on natural resources and more on technology to advance human progress while allowing animal and plant life more latitude to reassert themselves in land cleared of humans.

There’s a lot more to this than I’ve described here. Some of it strikes me as a bit – overthought – and perhaps it is better at description than prescription. But in all, this is an exceptionally intelligent and practical survey of the environmental/energy nexus. That nuclear energy informs its view of how restoring nature while advocating human progress seems exactly right. Read the whole thing and tell us what you think. It’s not long and it’s bracingly optimistic – just right for Earth Day.
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I found Robert Bryce’s opinion on the manifesto interesting, because he turns it into a club to beat the the Divest Harvard crowd (which wants their college to divest from fossil fuels).
The absolutists are anti-energy. In a Divest Harvard video posted on YouTube, the group stated that its goal is to “stigmatize the fossil fuel industry.” The absolutists try to do that all the time. Just last week, the Sierra Club announced the expansion of its “beyond coal” campaign. The group’s backers — who include former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg — have pledged some $60 million in funding for the effort, which aims to shutter half of U.S. coal plants by 2017.
Even I’m reluctant to call anti-nuclear energy types anti-energy; Bryce’s formulation is pretty absolutist in itself.

Here’s what he says about the manifesto:
While the absolutists want one of America’s most prestigious universities to sell some of its investments — with the only goal being to stigmatize the world’s biggest and single most important business [coal, that is] — the ecomodernists are arguing not only that greater global energy consumption is inevitable, but that it’s good, that more energy use will allow more people in the developing world to live fuller, freer lives.
The manifesto does not argue for unfettered growth nor does it discount climate change. It favors nuclear energy and solar power as solutions for these reasons. It’s fair to say that the Harvard Divests crowd haven’t thought things out that far. Their protest represents a largely symbolic way to do something about climate change – much as the college students of my time protested against investments into South African Krugerrands.

But you could say that Bryce has zeroed in on his interest – the free market – as we have on ours – nuclear energy. So there’s that. That’s why you should read it yourself – from your own perspective.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Turkey Point's Innovative Waste Water Cooling Plan

Artist's rendering of Turkey Point 6&7
Today and tomorrow, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold a public meeting in Florida concerning adding two reactors to FP&L’s Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station. In this guest blog post, NEI’s Bill Skaff takes a quick look at how the nuclear energy industry is breaking new ground in using reclaimed water for reactor cooling.

Carbon-free nuclear energy must continue to play a major role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Moreover, the industry is responding in innovative ways.

For instance, Florida Power & Light's (FP&L) Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station plans to use 80-90 million gallons of recycled municipal waste water each day for the cooling system of its two new nuclear units (6 and 7). This shouldn’t be a surprise since the nuclear energy industry has been and continues to be a pioneer in the large-scale use of reclaimed water for cooling.

The Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona was the first nuclear plant in the world to use recycled municipal wastewater for cooling since it began operation in the 1980s. Proving that recycled water can be used to cool large baseload power plants, Palo Verde is the largest power plant of any type in the United States, as measured by electricity production.

In addition to the planned use of recycled water, Turkey Point has also been innovative in sourcing water used for cooling. The existing nuclear plants at Turkey Point draw their cooling water from a network of self-contained cooling canals. The canals are replenished by rainfall, plant storm water runoff and salt-water aquifers.

Another innovative idea at Turkey Point to offset the recent drought, which has increased the salinity of the canals, is to utilize excess storm water from a nearby drainage canal. The company will ensure that the required amount of storm water to meet Biscayne Bay requirements is first met before it is added to the cooling canals. Despite what some opponents have tried to argue, none of the water being added to the canal system to lower the salinity comes from the state’s drinking water supply.

Editor's Note: Besides being good stewards of the environment, FP&L's two nuclear plants also help power the state's economy to the tune of $1.4 billion per year.

Why the China 123 Agreement is Good for America

Dan Lipman
Dan Lipman
Dan Lipman is NEI’s Vice President for Suppliers and International Programs. Before joining NEI in 2012, he spent 31 years at Westinghouse Electric Corp.

In 1985, China had only recently begun its transformation into an economic powerhouse, and had just begun construction of its first nuclear power plant. It was also the year that the United States and China agreed to cooperate in commercial nuclear energy technology.

Thirty years later, China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest economy and it is the world’s largest market for nuclear power plants, equipment and technology. Consider: 23 reactors are now in operation, another 26 are under construction, and even more are preparing to break ground. Consider further: China’s nuclear generating capacity, which is about 19 gigawatts today, is expected to increase three-fold to 58 gigawatts by 2020 and to some 150 gigawatts by 2030. In short, for any company that is a global player in nuclear energy technology and equipment, China is the most important market in the world.

Major Chinese contracts awarded to U.S. suppliers have created billions in U.S. exports and tens of thousands of American jobs here at home. American companies supply not only reactors, but also equipment and a broad range of services, including engineering, construction, fuel cycle and training services. On top of all this, the progress China makes in building the U.S. nuclear plants in China directly benefits the plants of the same design that are currently under construction in the United States. Moreover, American companies are forming valuable joint ventures and business relationships in China to serve growing markets in third countries.

All this will be abruptly halted, irrevocably so, if Congress blocks renewal of the U.S.-China nuclear cooperation agreement from coming into force. These bilateral agreements between the United States and its nuclear cooperation partners are also known as “Section 123 agreements” after the part of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act that sets the terms for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear energy technology, equipment and materials. Without such an agreement, negotiated by the State Department, signed by the President and reviewed by Congress, none of this can occur.
AP-1000 construction at Sanmen

In recent years, certain nuclear trade agreements have attracted controversy. We have seen debates over whether to add new conditions for U.S. nuclear energy cooperation, such as a proposed requirement that partners foreswear technologies for enriching uranium or reprocessing used reactor fuel. China, a recognized nuclear weapons state, has used enrichment and reprocessing technologies for decades, so such concerns do not apply. If for some reason Congress were to oppose the renewal of the U.S-China Section 123 agreement that would be remarkably short-sighted. While China stands to gain safe, carbon-free electricity through partnerships with U.S. industry, the United States stands not only to promote its economic interests through exports and domestic job creation, but also to advance other national interests.

U.S. engagement with China has fostered significant advances in China’s nuclear nonproliferation policies and practices. The use of U.S. equipment and technology allows China to deploy top-flight technologies, including an advanced reactor design that has been standardized for most of China’s planned nuclear facilities. In addition, management systems employed by U.S. nuclear companies regarding operational excellence and safety culture are the envy of the world. Having China implementing these techniques is imperative. U.S.-China nuclear energy cooperation is deep and mutually beneficial on many levels, all of them consistent with and supportive of American priorities.

U.S.-China nuclear cooperation also plays a critical role in addressing China’s pollution and carbon emissions -- a regrettable byproduct of China’s economic rise. There is growing unrest in China over air quality, especially in Beijing, where residents are literally choking on the smoke generated by its electricity generators fueled by coal and other fossil fuels. Expanding the use of nuclear energy is essential if China is to fulfill its ambitious transition to a lower-carbon energy portfolio. Given China’s standardization of a U.S. reactor design, the loss of U.S. cooperation would seriously disrupt China’s plans to reduce its carbon emissions by 2030.

The current Section 123 agreement is scheduled to expire at the end of this year. China will continue to expand nuclear energy with or without the U.S., but at considerable potential cost to this country. We cannot know precisely how the Congress will proceed with their upcoming review of the renewal of the China 123 agreement. But there are many, many reasons to renew it, including critical U.S. national interests.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Earth Day Reminds Us Why We Need Emission-Free Nuclear Energy

Tomorrow is the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. Last year, we discussed how the U.S. electric grid had evolved since the founding of Earth Day in 1970. The updated chart below tells the story of how nuclear energy grew to produce 19 percent of America's electricity. Though it might be hard to believe, oil produced more than 10 percent of the nation's electricity on that first Earth Day. That it doesn't any longer is in large part attributable to the growth of nuclear energy and other low carbon sources of electricity on the grid.

How America Generates Electricity - 1970 and 2014

Nuclear energy's growth over the past four and a half decades should not be taken for granted. One of the greatest environmental challenges we face today is reducing carbon emissions while maintaining modern living standards. The electricity sector is the largest contributor of carbon emissions (one-third) in the United States, and nuclear is the only source that includes 24/7, large-scale production, industry-leading efficiency and zero carbon emissions during the production of electricity.

Most mainstream analyses of climate change policy show that nuclear energy is essential to cut carbon emissions. Yet competitive electricity markets currently undervalue nuclear's attributes, putting high-performing nuclear plants at risk of premature closure. Guess what happens when nuclear plants close? Carbon emissions go up. Just ask Germany and Japan.

This week, Norris McDonald, the founder and president of the African American Environmental Association (AAEA), explained why we need nuclear in our arsenal to combat emissions (emphasis mine)
As the head of an organization dedicated to protecting the environment, I care deeply about reducing carbon emissions in order to improve human, animal and plant ecologies. One of the key ways to do this is to preserve our existing nuclear fleet.

It's a little-known fact -- especially among the environmentalist community -- that America's nuclear plants are the workhorses of our clean air energy production. Each year, these plants produce 63 percent of all the carbon-free energy generated in the U.S. These plants helped us avoid 589 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2013. To put that in perspective, that equals the amount of carbon emissions emitted by 113 million passenger cars annually. Plus, nuclear energy's life-cycle emissions -- including any emissions from mining, fuel production, plant construction, operation, and decommissioning -- are among the lowest of all electricity sources.
Sources of emission-free electricity, 2013
If the EPA is serious about reducing nationwide carbon emissions from the power sector by 30 percent below 2005 levels, not only do we need to maintain the nuclear supply to the grid, we need to expand it. In fact, earlier this year the International Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency published a report stating global nuclear generation would need to double by 2050 in order for the world to meet the international 2°C (3.6°F) warming goal.

Nuclear's benefits to the environment cannot be overstated. Nor can its importance when it comes to meeting climate goals. Policymakers should celebrate this Earth Day by reflecting on how much nuclear has given us, and what they can do to make sure we continue reaping its benefits.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Nuclear Caviar

caviarYou can tell right away that this report from the World Uranium Symposium in Quebec City is not very friendly toward nuclear energy, but I have to hand it to redoubtable attendee Arnie Gundersen for coming up with the least apropos simile ever:

The nuclear industry is gamely trying to rebrand nuclear power as the solution to climate change, but, as former nuclear industry executive Arnie Gundersen quipped at the symposium, "Trying to solve global warming by building reactors is like trying to solve global hunger by serving caviar."

Gundersen means that nuclear energy is as expensive in its way as caviar.

But caviar is also a deluxe food product. That works better. Caviar may be a poor choice for solving world hunger because its output is relatively sparse. That’s what makes it deluxe. The deluxe nature of nuclear energy is that, once you spend the (admittedly lush) sum to build a reactor, you have inexpensive, emission-free energy for 60 or more years that is far from sparse. Caviar, for all its yumminess, is, shall we say, a one-and-done affair.

Caviar is also a renewable resource. It depends on precise conditions to generate those salty little eggs. If those conditions falter, and sturgeon don’t spawn, then caviar becomes an even dearer commodity. If the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow, etc… Perhaps Gundersen could have found a more precise match in the energy world there.

Because nuclear energy putters along without worrying about the elements. Like sturgeon, it needs water, but otherwise, it just keeps pushing out energy – more efficiently, we should note, than sturgeon can produce roe but just as reliably.

Like any base load energy source, nuclear energy does not insist that its users maximize energy efficiency to realize its utility. Leaving aside the benefits of energy efficiency – which are considerable – that means that electricity flows even in an age of transition. The article kicks off with this:

On Saturday, April 11, 25,000 people marched on Quebec's National Assembly to demand action on climate change. Canada's premiers discussed energy and climate policy at their meeting on Tuesday, April 14, one day after Premiers Kathleen Wynne of Ontario and Philippe Couillard of Quebec signed off on a cap-and-trade system to reduce CO2 emissions.

With new rules coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there will be a lot of uncertainty about base load energy sources in the short term. That will get sorted in time, but one thing is sure: nuclear energy is utterly unaffected, because it doesn’t produce any carbon emissions. Only nuclear and hydro among baseload energy generators can claim that –and as we’ll see, that’s important to eastern Canada.

That gives these energy sources extra value: as reducing carbon emissions becomes a priority in energy policy, nuclear and hydro remain stable providers. (Call it rebranding if you must, but it has always been true. It just wasn’t an issue in the early years of domestic nuclear energy – or hydro, either. That they have these qualities should be considered environmental lagniappe.)

We can’t know, but we’ll assume Gundersen likes caviar just fine.  In the fish egg world, the drive is toward sustainability, something that ought to appeal to Gundersen about nuclear energy in the energy sphere. The value of caviar sustainability is that it stabilizes both its price and availability, the same as has long been true about nuclear energy.

So nuclear energy and caviar have a few points of contact. Maybe there’s one more. Nuclear energy helps caviar farmers and fishermen do their work reliably and sustainably. And perhaps caviar does contribute to the well-being of plant workers, at least on big splurge nights. I think we can conclude without fear of contradiction that the nuclear-caviar reciprocity is heavily weighted toward the atom.

Note: Quebec has no operating nuclear reactor, but a lot of hydro – making about 97 per cent of Quebec’s electricity. Its neighboring province Ontario derives almost 60 per cent of its electricity generation from nuclear energy. Frankly, the cap-and-trade bill referenced above seems almost a symbolic gesture – what is there left to trade much less cap?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How WANO & INPO Measure Excellence in Nuclear Operations

Anthony R. Pietrangelo
The following is a guest post from Anthony R. Pietrangelo, NEI's Chief Nuclear Officer.

Achieving one great year of performance for an industry or an individual is noteworthy. Sustaining exemplary performance over a decade or more is the true measure of excellence. The U.S. nuclear energy industry’s long-term performance is documented by the performance indicators monitored by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO).

Why are these indicators so important? They are used as a management tool by nuclear operators to monitor their performance and progress against their peers, to set ambitious goals for improvement, and to benchmark the best practices of operators worldwide.

According to the 2014 industry performance indicators, U.S. nuclear energy facilities set or approached record levels of performance in many categories. Nuclear power plants have multiple safety systems which, if ever needed, can be used to safely shut down the plant. A key indicator of their performance is availability, which is known as “safety system performance,” This indicator tracks the time period the systems are able to perform their safety functions. In 2014 these systems were available 96 percent of the time, the second-highest level since 2005. Demonstrating the consistency of performance in this area, the annual availability of safety systems has always been 93 percent or more since 1999.

Safety and reliability of electricity production go hand-in-hand. The median capability factor of U.S. nuclear plants in 2014, a measurement of the amount of time a plant is on line and producing electricity, was 91.7 percent. A high capability factor means a plant is successful in reducing unplanned outages and completing scheduled work efficiently during planned maintenance and refueling outages. This is the 15h straight year the industry’s median capability factor has topped 91 percent—the best capability of any electricity generating source.

Nuclear plants schedule planned shut downs for refueling and maintenance in the spring and fall when electricity demand dips. Thus, they are generating power when it is needed most during the sweltering summer and frigid winter months. The industry works diligently to avoid “unplanned” reactor shutdowns, and in 2014 the industry set a record for the fewest unintentional interruptions in electricity production dating back to 2003 (link).

What does this mean for residential and commercial customers? It’s an assurance that their homes and businesses will have electricity when they most need it.

It is no surprise that this commitment to safe operations also breeds one of the safest working environments, with a record-setting 0.03 industrial safety accidents per 200,000 worker-hours in 2014. This record is well below the industry’s 2015 goal of 0.1 accidents per 200,000 worker hours. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that it’s safer to work at a nuclear power plant than in the manufacturing sector, leisure and hospitality industries, and the financial sector.

Congratulations to the nearly 100,000 dedicated men and women who work at U.S. nuclear energy facilities or with industry suppliers. Together they demonstrate an extraordinary and lasting commitment to safe, reliable operation.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Yucca Mountain: Nuclear Albatross or Top 10?

A couple of mentions in the Nevada press about Yucca Mountain suggested that the state might become at least a bit more open about reactivating the project. You can read about this a couple of posts below.

That’s just the tip of the mountain. There’s lately been a regular boomlet in interest in the brown mound, keyed largely to a Congressional delegation paying a visit there:

Five U.S. Congress members are heading to the mothballed site of a proposed national radioactive waste dump in the Nevada desert, amid new talk about a decades-old problem — where to dispose of spent nuclear fuel stored at commercial reactors around the U.S.

Note the word “dump” there? We’ll be coming back to that.

The daylong tour is being led by U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, Republican chairman of the House Environment and the Economy Subcommittee and a supporter of plans to entomb the nation’s most radioactive waste 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. “Our nation desperately needs to advance our nuclear waste strategy and Yucca Mountain is a part of the solution,” Shimkus said in a statement.

This trip will include Nevada Rep. Cresent Hardy (R), who got the ball rolling (a bit, anyway) with his op-ed we reference in the post below. He represents Yucca Mountain’s district.

Is it possible that Yucca Mountain is actually a countervailing force in the discussion of used nuclear fuel? The Hill has a long (long) article on the implications of reviving Yucca Mountain and titles it The Yucca Albatross, based on this comment:

The Yucca Mountain issue ... is dragging the whole effort to move forward on spent nuclear fuel,” says Timothy Frazier, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center who spent more than two decades managing nuclear programs at the Energy Department. “Yucca is like an albatross around its neck.”

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what Frazier means. The sooner Yucca Mountain is dropped, the better for moving forward on used nuclear fuel?

That doesn’t seem remotely true, as the article itself reveals:

The administration is forging ahead on interim storage, announcing on March 24 that the Energy Department would begin establishing a consent-based process for siting temporary facilities and reaching out to communities that may be interested in hosting spent fuel.

Used fuel policy can contain multitudes – consolidated storage sites and a permanent repository and splitting defense used fuel from domestic used fuel for storage and Yucca Mountain. Maybe Frazier means that stopping the Yucca Mountain project back in 2008 introduced uncertainty into the used fuel discussion. That’s true enough, so if the uncertainty were removed, by reviving the project, that would be good, wouldn’t it? (The article itself is balanced and very thorough – well worth a full read.

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NEI has posted a list of 10 facts about Yucca Mountain, also pegged to the Shimkus delegation. This is where the whole dump thing gets shaken around:

Reporters appear to delight in calling the proposed repository a “dump,” even though it would be a precisely engineered, state-of-the-art facility. As the National Waste and Recycling Association says of municipal solid waste landfills, “the ‘garbage dump’ is no more.”

A friend’s father owns a sanitation company and I wouldn’t care to run the word dump by him for fear of getting scorched, much less apply the word to something like Yucca Mountain. I think we can say that dump in almost any context is freighted with judgment and should be retired unless it truly fits. Bette Davis intoning “What a dump!” about her own home in Beyond the Forest (1940) works, but that’s about it.

Nine of the points are on target. We’ll let you discover the 10th – it involves lizards or maybe it’s insects – yourself.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Resilience Inside and Outside the Nuclear Plant

Bechtel-logoYesterday, a group of folks got together to talk about sustainability and resilience, especially in energy infrastructure and especially as a means of developing urban centers responsibly. It may seem that nuclear energy has only a tangential role here: it provides emission-free electricity to cities that want to be as emission-free as possible. But there’s more to it than that.

Sustainability in this context means doing the least damage to the environment in building and operating buildings and entire cities, with special attention paid to urban infrastructure in developing countries – a project in Cameroon was mentioned a couple of times as an example. Resilience proved to be a bit more interesting (to me) because it spoke to issues that have engaged the nuclear industry since the Fukushima Daiichi accident – ensuring that a facility can withstand and recover from a catastrophic natural disaster.

The major appeal of this meeting was the participation of Amos Avidan, the senior vice president and manager of engineering and technology at Bechtel. Bechtel is an engineering, construction, and project management company that does a lot of work in the nuclear energy industry – it is involved in both the V.C. Summer and Plant Vogtle projects, for example, so what Avidan has to say about energy infrastructure and its resilience is, by definition, interesting. This subject is obviously right in the company’s wheelhouse.

Most of the conversation steered around specific energy types, though solar panels got a shout out because they’re relevant to cities – you can put them atop buildings to provide emission-free electricity. Perhaps a bit problematic in Seattle, but very worthwhile in Phoenix.

Avidan looked at the subject from a broader view. But some of his comments did graze against the nuclear experience.

This is a little cleaned up from the transcript:

“One quick example is when Superstorm Sandy hit and you didn't have electricity for a while. The gas stations in your area wouldn't be able to pump gas because they didn't have a backup system for electricity; or when Hurricane Katrina hit years ago, the pipelines that supply refined products of the Gulf Coast to the Northeast were shut down for a couple of weeks. So there's much more interdependency in the energy infrastructure and hence it's important for us to look at systems and make those systems more resilient for the future, and that's what we call future-proofing.”

Which is exactly what’s been going on with American nuclear plants following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. I haven’t heard it called future-proofing per se, but the effort to further harden nuclear plants against earthquakes and flooding certainly fits into Avidan’s formulation. So does the FLEX program, which installs emergency kit into all the facilities and at two central locations that can be shipped whereever needed.

But a nuclear plant is as useless as any other kind of plant if other components of the energy infrastructure, such as substations and transmission wires, are damaged. This can seem at least a little more intractable, so the goal is to beef up the resilience of the system. (FLEX contributes considerably here, too.)

Here is Avidan again on ways in which resilience can be enhanced:

We also use a lot - all the vast amount of information, for example. Geographic information systems which not only give you detailed maps of an area, but you can use them to simulate if there is this kind of increase in sea water level and this kind of an extreme weather effect, like a hurricane or a tsunami.

How would you protect those systems so we can design for that? And we can use the information to prepare for the disaster, to avoid it if we can, and during the - when there's an extreme weather event, people tend to use this kind of information, social media and others to react much faster to it. As you know, resiliency means recovering quickly from events that you couldn't stop.

I’m sure this has been true since the first telegraph wire was strung. Still, sometimes, the old ways are good ways, especially enhanced in the ways Avidan describes.

Avidan did speak a little about the accident in Japan. Frankly, it would have been interesting to hear more from his perspective, but the discussion clearly wanted to stay away from specific applications of sustainability and resilience to focus on these issues generally. The benefit of this approach is that it makes you fill in the energy-specific blanks yourself, as I’ve been doing in showing how the ideas discussed might apply to nuclear energy. Even if the nuclear pickup at this event was light, the topic is one in which the nuclear industry is fully engaged.

The forum was sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of DC’s more even-handed policy shops. You can watch the 90-minute presentation here.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Yucca Mountain: “What if the answer were ‘maybe?’”

YUCCAThe ongoing discussion on used nuclear fuel has taken a number of twists and turns over the years, with interest in consolidated storage facilities growing – and Waste Control Specialists in Texas offering to provide such a facility – and and a permanent repository, such as was the purpose behind the Yucca Mountain project. It’s not an either/or proposition – the first collects used fuel from military and domestic sites – where it is safe as is – and the second will be its final resting place. Consolidation is the right word for the goal – it reduces the number of sites holding used fuel, over time, from many to some to one. It’s been a vexing issue, but not impossible.

Nevada’s Yucca Mountain holds a special place in the conversation because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act specifies it as the permanent repository and because the project was progressing apace until President Barack Obama closed it down soon after his first election. This fulfilled a campaign promise he made during a Nevada primary debate in 2008, but ending the project has always met resistance in Congress. One rarely listens to a Congressional hearing on used fuel – or any hearing about nuclear energy - without at least a mention of Yucca Mountain.

When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completed the safety evaluation on Yucca Mountain earlier this year - under court order - it concluded that the repository will be capable of safely isolating used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste for the million-year period specified in the regulations. So interest in Yucca Mountain rose even higher.

Now, Nevada’s congressional delegation has always been resolute that Yucca Mountain should never open. Might that be wavering? Here is Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nevada) in the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

When was the last time someone from the Department of Energy or the White House asked the most basic of questions: Is there a scenario in which Nevadans would actually welcome nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, northwest of Las Vegas?

The answer to that question may, of course, be that no such scenario exists. In that case, perhaps another state would like to be considered, and I will be the first in line to fight for the will of my constituents.

But what if the answer were “maybe”? What if a permanent investment were made in Nevada schools — the kind of investment that could take us from the bottom 10 percent to the top 10 percent?

Hardy is being exceptionally careful here, but you can’t blame him. Opposing Yucca Mountain has been almost an article of faith for Nevada politicians of all stripes. Hardy’s district includes Yucca Mountain.

The paper’s editorial board answered Hardy’s ideas directly – and is open to them, a big change:

First, Nevada leaders can stop the alarmism. Decades of politically expedient doomsday predictions have served no productive purpose and instead risked becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Nuclear waste is not a hypothetical material. It not only exists, it’s being stored safely in all kinds of environments. And Nevada’s nuclear proving grounds are isolated, unfit for productive use and secure.

Then federal officials can stop pretending that science has any meaningful role in determining whether a site is suitable for nuclear waste storage. This is a political calculation, and nothing more.

The second paragraph shows the hurt that Yucca Mountain has caused – and I mean emotional hurt. It’s also wrong: the science surrounding Yucca Mountain is key and essentially settled – but if you’re hurting, that can be hard to accept. Even with all that, the paper recognizes that Nevada stands to benefit. It might be in a highly sarcastic tone – and very, very bitter - but there it is.

To be fair, here’s an article in the Las Vegas Sun, also responding to Hardy’s op-ed, on the state of play in Nevada. Just a taste:

Nevada's Democratic leaders and ardent Yucca opponents responded predictably.

Taste enough?

The nuclear industry has interest in this debate to the extent that the federal government live up to its obligation to develop a solution for used nuclear fuel. That’s what the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is all about and that’s what the industry has poured billions of dollars into the Nuclear Waste Fund to achieve.  It’s very interesting that Nevada might be ever so slightly open to reactivating the Yucca Mountain project, but, really, any solution that is safe will do. Interesting days ahead.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Missing the Nuclear Target by a Populist Mile

Daily_CameraThe Boulder Daily Camera offers what can only be called the economic populist’s objection to nuclear energy:

On the economic side, we have this Darwinian capitalism that emphasizes profit at all costs. Nothing can ever be done without everybody slurping at the trough, somewhat of an unstated mandate to always put the risk on the other guy and not pay for it ourselves, and the disastrous need for short-term profits. This would force the operators and owners to cut corners on maintenance and safety, use low-cost unqualified labor, try to circumvent the rules, and pull the profit out in terms of money early in the endeavor so as not to put the profits at risk.

You can see where this argument, if valid, could go in the nuclear energy sphere. Movies such as The China Syndrome and even the more sophisticated Cloud Atlas showed capitalistic greed trumping good sense in nuclear energy (actually, Cloud Atlas made the villains the coal industry out to crush a nuclear plant).

But this argument, and these movies, are, at best, populism gone berserk. In order to develop his angle, writer Glenn Bennett wears blinkers that are alarmingly thorough in blocking reality:

What we need for nuclear power is to have strong regulations, a maniacal culture of maintenance and safety, well-educated workers that would be adept at heading off problems before they become serious, and a true concern for people and society.

Why, yes, we would need that, wouldn’t we? Why don’t we?

The prevailing economic thought does not handle risks to society as it should. The main culprit is this idea that the "purpose of business is to make money." What should scare everyone upon hearing that is what the adage omits. There is nothing there about risk or hurting other people and society.

Nuclear energy has operated in the United States since the mid-50s and the number of people it has harmed is zero. There have been industrial accidents at nuclear plants, but even those are very few and are industrial not nuclear, the kinds of mishaps that could happen at a wind farm (well, more like a coal plant).

None of this is dumb luck. It comes from “a maniacal culture of maintenance and safety, well-educated workers [who are] adept at heading off problems before they become serious, and a true concern for people and society.”

Sometimes, what seems idealistic can be deeply cynical. The nuclear energy industry may be, to a large extent, a commercial operation – albeit one with exceptional federal, state and local government entwinement. Pretending that safety and a “true concern for people and society” is incompatible with a capitalist enterprise is popular in some quarters but does not stand up to the least scrutiny. Everything is subject to criticism, but not all criticism hits the target. Some criticism gets nowhere near the target.

Friday, April 03, 2015

CNN Botches Uranium Enrichment Numbers

CNN logoEarlier today, the CNN network crawler put out incorrect information about Iran’s uranium enrichment.

The crawler stated that 3.67% is "roughly halfway to weapons grade." That is off by several magnitudes. The cited figure is actually well within the range of reactor grade, magnitudes away from weapons grade. Weapons grade uranium is enriched to at least 85%-90% U235, the fissile element.

Quoting the Smithsonian, "U-235, however, is fissile; it can start a nuclear reaction and sustain it. The 0.7% in naturally occurring uranium is not enough to make a bomb or even a nuclear reactor for a power plant. A power plant requires uranium with 3-4% U-235 (this is known as low-enriched or reactor-grade uranium).

Most importantly, a nuclear bomb needs uranium with a whopping 90% U-235 (highly enriched uranium)."

Here are our tweets reacting to this major error:








Indeed, facts matter.

UPDATE: NEI's Tom Kauffman just reached out with this additional comment:

It is physically impossible for a U.S. commercial reactor to explode like a nuclear weapon. The concentration of uranium-235 within the reactor fuel (3% to 5%) is far too low to be explosive and all U.S. commercial reactors are self-limiting. During power operations, when the temperature within the reactor reaches a predetermined level, the fission process is naturally suppressed so the power level cannot spike under any circumstances. And, by design, no one could intentionally or unintentionally alter a commercial nuclear reactor, its controls or its fuel to make it explode like a nuclear weapon.

A good reminder.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

An Obvious Nuclear Role in U.N. Climate Change Goals

UN LogoNot specifically about nuclear energy – or is it?

The White House on Tuesday introduced President Obama’s blueprint for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by nearly a third over the next decade.

Mr. Obama’s plan, part of a formal written submission to the United Nations ahead of efforts to forge a global climate change accord in Paris in December, detailed the United States’ part of an ambitious joint pledge made by Mr. Obama and President Xi Jinping of China in November.

And how to cut greenhouse gases?

Mr. Obama’s new blueprint brings together several domestic initiatives that were already in the works, including freezing construction of new coal-fired power plants, increasing the fuel economy of vehicles and plugging methane leaks from oil and gas production. It is meant to describe how the United States will lead by example and meet its pledge for cutting emissions.

These are all fine, but this is the bit where nuclear energy enters the picture:

At the heart of the plan are ambitious but politically contentious Environmental Protection Agency regulations meant to drastically cut planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s cars and coal-fired power plants.

And how do you do that without nuclear energy? You don’t because you can’t.

Obviously, all of this is highly contentious and none of it is settled policy. What the executive branch wants to do is not necessarily what the legislative or judicial branches will accept. It wouldn’t even be fair to say that the nuclear industry is fully comfortable with it – most energy companies are not nuclear pure plays and many have holdings that would be sorely impacted.

But looking at this just as a plan on its own – and endorsed by the President – then yes, this plan must find a major role for nuclear energy if it is to have any chance of success. Even swimming the waves of compromise that are likely to form in the months ahead, nuclear energy will be necessary to fulfill this policy goal. It’s as obvious as obvious gets.

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The rise of nuclear energy as a potential energy source has really taken off around the world – these stories don’t reference the U.N. plan, but it may well be lurking as a motivation. The other day, we looked at some moves being made in Africa – specifically, Nigeria, Kenya and Morocco – and this week, well, consider:

Argentina, Bolivia sign agreement to develop nuclear energy – Argentina has a nuclear reactor, Bolivia does not.
To Meet Growing Demand, Jordan Turns to Nuclear Energy – This would be a first reactor. Russia is involved here.

This falls a bit outside our brief, but this is a thing that’s happening. Suggests a certain – momentum, doesn’t it?