Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Butch Otter and Idaho Nuclear Tourism

Idaho Governor Butch Otter recently said some warming things about nuclear energy.
Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said collaboration with the private sector is crucial to improving education in the state, and nuclear energy and advanced nuclear manufacturing will connect the state government, universities and the private sector.
This makes sense. Despite not having any commercial nuclear facilities, the presence of the Idaho National Labs and the state’s history with the atom makes it a natural to encourage development.
Otter said that nuclear power now accounts for about 20 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. And over the next 25 years, that demand will increase by 37 percent.
Experts estimate that 360 new nuclear power plants will have to be built to meet the growing need, and Otter wants Idaho to take the lead.
No governor is going to say no to new business, of course, and Idaho is well-positioned to tout its affinity for nuclear manufacturing. Regardless, it’s good to see Otter welcoming nuclear expansion in his state.
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One of Gov. Otter’s comments struck us:
“We've got a great past in history. The very first city in the world was Arco, Idaho, which was lit by nuclear energy, the atom,” said Otter. [Let’s assume the reporter did not catch Otter’s statement completely.]
The first nuclear reactor to produce electricity commercially was Pennsylvania’s Shippingport in 1957. The first one to generate electricity for domestic use was the Borax III reactor in Arco (current population: 995). It went online in 1955 and represented the first attempt to join nuclear energy to the grid, powering local homes and businesses. It was a test, of course, and not meant to be ongoing, but Arco’s brush with nuclear history has defined it ever since.
What does that mean? Well, for starters, should you happen to be in town July 16, you can attend Arco’s Atomic Days, which sounds to me like an old-fashioned county fair. I remember those growing up in Georgia, though with a heavier focus on 4-F activities.

I can’t say that Atomic Days has much of a nuclear pickup aside from its name. Here’s the list of activities for Saturday July 18:
Fun Run
Softball Tournament
Horse Shoe Tournament
Volleyball Tournament
Atomic Days Parade and Ping Pong Ball Drop
To be fair, The Atomic Days rodeo comes through on Friday. That should be fun.
Atomic Days by itself might not lend itself to true nuclear tourism. This does, though (from visitor roderick19 at Trip Advisor):
Located near Arco, Idaho, EBR-I Atomic Museum, a National Historic Landmark, recounts the history of the world's first electricity generating nuclear power plant and a successor project, EBR-II.
An orientation video relies on interviews with EBR-I engineers and workers to place EBR-I in historic context. Exhibits describe how the facility was commissioned, built and operated and how EBR-I contributed to further developments related to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
An exhibit in the EBR-II section provides a control panel for hands-on experience in running a nuclear power facility. Another exhibit discusses the geology of southern Idaho and attempts to explain why a nuclear reaction was build over a major aquifer in a volcanic region.
Use the available brochure to take the self-guided tour, or sign up for a guide-led tour. Highly recommended. Free. Open Memorial Day through Labor Day. If time allows, a quick trip through nearby Atomic City might be interesting. This once bustling town is now almost a ghost town, but it shows traces of its past ties to the nuclear power industry.
EBR is the Experimental Breeder Reactor, the predecessor to Borax III. It famously lit four light bulbs in 1951, the first generation of electricity by nuclear power.
If you want to visit the nearby Idaho National Labs, you have to arrange things with them. They only hold tours for groups, so get up an atomic club and plan for a mid-July trip. That way, you can take in the rodeo, the EBR-I Atomic Museum and the labs. Arco might be dining out on its (admittedly significant) brush with nuclear history, but it’s a pretty hardy meal.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

EPA’s Clean Power Plan Needs Nuclear Energy On The Menu

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI.

It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t bear repeating, but it does: If you’re worried about climate change, one early, easy remedy is to preserve nuclear power plants that are already running. If you are facing limits on carbon emissions, don’t shut down perfectly serviceable merchant nuclear plants, just because cheap natural gas has left them, for now, a few bucks out of the money in the competitive electricity markets.

Last Thursday the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, a group made up of officials from 42 states and the District of Columbia, plus 116 metropolitan areas, released its 465-page “Menu of Options” for complying with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (Section 111 (d) of the Clean Air Act).

We could quibble with some details, like describing nuclear technology as “mature.” It is highly developed, but it has evolved markedly in the last 20 years, and that will continue. Don’t discount the idea of new designs and fresh reactor concepts that will change the energy world in the 2020s or 2030s.

We could also argue with the report’s characterization of nuclear power as not renewable; when circumstances favor it, the world will build plants that make more fuel than they consume, and can go back to pull energy resources out of spent fuel.

But the menu makes two very clear points. First, drawing on a finding of the EPA, it concludes, “preserving the availability of existing units that might otherwise be retired is a cost-effective way to reduce GHG emissions.” (In fact, taking a reactor out of the mix now is a bit like trying to pilot a ship through a storm, deciding that it will be necessary to bail, and instead of pumping water out of the bilge, pumping it in.)
Nuclear energy. Down in the weeds, but in a sweet spot.
And second, “zero emissions” are never precisely zero, but they get pretty close. The study lists a cradle-to-grave, “lifecycle” estimate of emissions, including construction, fabrication, fuel processing, etc, for twelve technologies, based in hundreds of separate studies. The handbook gives an upper and lower bound. Nuclear is, to use the technical term, down in the weeds, lower than biopower and photovoltaics, in the ballpark with geothermal, and a smidgen above wind. Combined cycle natural gas, which rules the market for the time being – as long as carbon emissions are completely free, and emissions of other air pollutants are not counted in dollar terms – are about ten times higher; coal, depending on the technology, is twelve to fifteen times higher.

The handbook also compares “levelized costs,” (see below) that is, costs that take into account fuel, construction expense, and the lifetime of the asset. These, too, are expressed in a range. For the central estimate, new nuclear is, in fact, pricey, but not nearly as expensive as the two forms of solar – photovoltaic cells, or thermal systems, which use the sun’s heat to boil water.
Priced more competitively than you might think.
Energy from wind can be slightly cheaper, but you don’t get to pick when the wind blows.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Google and Facebook’s Nuclear-driven Data Centers

A Greenpeace initiative that’s actually kind of interesting is its drive to get large scale data centers – such as those run by Google, Facebook and Apple – to use more renewable energy to run them. They call it Clicking Clean.

Greenpeace operates in an area where the practical -  which, after all, is what electricity is – intersects with the idealistic, if one defines idealism fairly narrowly, i.e., as what Greenpeace favors.

That’s where data centers come in. There’s a cluster of them in North Carolina, which, in part, has to do with the state’s efforts to foster high-tech development. I’ve had a couple of friends migrate to the Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham) to pursue their careers, so it’s having an impact on the east coast at least. But it likely also has something to do with plentiful electricity

But here’s the problem for Greenpeace.

Greenpeace says Duke’s Green Source Rider, proposed in 2013 at the urging of Google and Facebook as a way to sell green energy to customers willing to pay the additional cost, once seemed like a breakthrough.

However, the authors argue, “the design and price structure ... imposed by Duke have been such a barrier that thus far no companies have agreed to purchase renewable energy under the program.”

Duke intends to increase its renewable energy output to 4 percent from 2 percent in the next few years.

And that brings us to this:

He accuses Greenpeace of cherry-picking its statistics. He says the report emphasizes that Duke has just 2 percent of renewable energy in its system now and plans to have just 4 percent by 2029. But Wheeless says the report ignores Duke’s sizable hydro power capacity and the power produced by zero-carbon nuclear plants.

The “he” there is Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless. Nuclear and hydro together make up about 37 percent of electricity production in the state (nuclear alone is 32 percent), about the same as coal.

Greenpeace is not so much cherry-picking as paying attention to what interests them – and that’s not nuclear energy. The extent to which Facebook, Google, Duke or North Carolina care about this is up to them. But as far as we’re concerned, Google and Facebook made intelligent choices in putting some of their data centers in North Carolina (and Virginia, too, for that matter ) – where a lot of the baseload energy is not only clean but plentiful enough to manage my searches or see what my crazy uncle is up to. If I were in North Carolina, I’d consider my clicks plenty clean as is.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What Matters to Jeb Bush, Yucca Mountain and Media Matters

casaenergyIT’s way too early in the cycle to talk about the presidential candidates’ energy policy formulations – heck, we may not have the majority of them announced as candidates yet. Consider, then, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, one of those candidates who has not yet announced.

The Associated Press and Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush spoke out against the proposal to bury nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain, without mentioning Bush's ties to a nuclear industry group that actively supports the project.

Really, a nuclear energy group? Which one?

What the AP and Review-Journal left out, however, is that Bush is currently listed as a member of a nuclear industry group called the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy), which has long advocated for Yucca Mountain -- and continues to do so. As recently as February 24, CASEnergy published a blog post declaring Yucca Mountain a "scientifically safe and sound option" for storing nuclear waste permanently, and "a critical component" of the nation's shift to nuclear energy.

Well, CASEnergy didn’t declare that – the NRC did and CASEnergy is reporting it (approvingly, but still.) 

To be fair, Media Matters is right that CASEnergy supports Yucca Mountain:

The key elements of a U.S. used fuel management policy include flexible interim storage approaches, the licensing and construction of an underground repository at Yucca Mountain, and facilities for recycling used nuclear fuel to take advantage of the maximum energy from the fuel in a manner that includes effective safeguards against nuclear proliferation.

But here’s the thing: CASEnergy has no loyalty oath asking its members to support nuclear energy in all of – or even any of - the specific issues the group advocates. To be fair, Media Matters is not characterizing CASEnergy as having a politically ideological mission – but it is suggesting that it wants a certain purity from its members. Which it doesn’t – at all.

In this regard, a comment from CASEnergy Co-Chair Christine Todd Whitman at the Nuclear Energy Assembly struck me:

I would like a national energy policy that says we want clean, green, reliable, affordable energy and leave it at that. And let the marketplace figure out the best ways to meet those goals.

Now, obviously, Whitman advocates for nuclear energy – read her comments in the post below this one – but that doesn’t sound like a person with a purity test, does it?

So if Gov. Bush does not support Yucca Mountain, fine. He’s still a member of CASEnergy in good standing.

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One further niggle with the Media Matters report:

Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston first detailed Bush's ties to the pro-Yucca industry group in March, in a blog post in which he wrote that Bush "was once part of a front group for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main lobbying entity behind siting a repository at Yucca Mountain."

Front group?  NEI created CASEnergy to provide a vehicle for individuals to advocate for nuclear energy – NEI itself is geared toward corporate membership. You could say Media Matters stumbled into a mire with this one. Gov. Bush says he doesn’t support Yucca Mountain and CASEnergy has no brief on anything Gov. Bush says or does regarding nuclear energy. But Media Matters thinks it ought to.

Why? What does that say about Media Matters?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The QER, Nuclear Energy and Energy Infrastructure

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI.

The Energy Department has posted the first installment of its Quadrennial Energy Review. Quite sensibly, the department cast a critical eye on the sorry state of energy infrastructure: overstressed gas lines that leak, sometimes catastrophically, and can’t meet the demand during cold spells; bottlenecks in the rail and canal systems that move coal and oil; and electric generating stations that starve for fuel when the coal pile freezes.

But the sections of the plan that have been published so far do not give any credit to generation technologies that do not add strain to the fuel shipment infrastructure. To the department’s credit, officials there say that they are working to “unbundle” the attributes of various electricity generation systems, and to assign appropriate values to each attribute, including transportation requirements.

Nuclear power plants, in addition to making clean, reliable electricity at a stable price, also reduce stress on the nation’s transportation infrastructure. That is because they operate on a highly concentrated fuel that is required in only small volumes, and is delivered over existing highways by ordinary trucks. They hold 12 to 24 months of fuel in the reactor core, available whether or not the wind is blowing, or the sun shining, whether or not fuel arrives just in time through a pipeline, and whether or not the coal pile is frozen.

Despite these attributes, the electric system is drifting away from use of that technology, into generating plants that suffer from fuel interruptions and that put heavy strains on public infrastructure outside the plant fence.

As the Energy Information Administration pointed out in February, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant produced nearly 5 million megawatt-hours a year until its closure last December. EIA said that the likely substitutes were natural gas, coal or oil. Using EIA formulas, that would require 50.5 billion cubic feet of gas, or 26.25 million tons of coal or 57.5 million barrels of oil – or, more realistically, some combination of these, dominated by natural gas.

These are very large increments in a system that is already stressed.

According to the EIA, the six-state New England region has an import capacity of 3.9 billion cubic feet a day – assuming no bottlenecks within New England, and no constraints from New Brunswick, Quebec or New York, which is not the case. And during the last polar vortex, constraints on the gas infrastructure pushed prices in Boston above $70 per MMbtu, and electricity prices above $500 per MWh.

26.25 million tons of coal to replace Vermont Yankee every year.
Moving 26.25 million tons of coal into New England would require more than 200,000 car loads.

The Pilgrim nuclear power plant, of approximately the same design and vintage as Vermont Yankee but about 14 percent larger, is suffering through the same problems that doomed Vermont Yankee: a relatively small, single-unit plant with higher-than-average generating costs, competing in a market with electricity prices depressed by the generally low price of natural gas. Yet Pilgrim gets no credit for reducing the strain on the region’s overstressed gas pipeline network.

These problems are directly connected: one reason gas is cheap is because of under-investment in the pipeline network. The network is simply not set up for the level of reliability required by a strong electric system.

Five reactors in Illinois are not economic under the current market structure. They have a total capacity eight times larger than Vermont Yankee. Loss of any of those reactors would reduce the region’s ability to deal with weather-induced stress, or to export fossil fuel to the East.

Yet none of those plants gets any credit either for having years of fuel pre-staged on site.

The QER proposes spending up to $3.5 billion in Federal grants to help replace old pipelines, and up to $2.5 billion for energy transport systems. That doesn’t count private sector costs. Such government subsidies only serve to encourage more use of resources that tend to drive out nuclear plants, which are cleaner and do not require such help in bringing in fuel.

If heavy reliance on fossil energy requires more spending on fuel infrastructure, the rational approach would be to reflect the expense in the wholesale price of electricity from natural gas or coal. Failing that, if the government determines that such subsidies are, in fact, in the national interest, some countervailing step would be appropriate, to sustain electricity sources that relieve the stress on existing infrastructure. In competitive markets, this could take the form of reliability payments, putting a cash value on the money-saving attributes of nuclear power, which reduce the need to spend on new pipes and compressor stations, new rail capacity, new bridges, and new ports or waterway improvements.

UPDATE: The Committee has announced that Sec. Moniz's testimony has been postponed until June 2 at 10:00 a.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: On Thursday morning, Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz is set to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee concerning the findings of the QER.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Business Rallies for Carolina Jobs & Ex-Im Bank

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

For several months now, we've been shining a spotlight on the dispute in Washington over the reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank. But this week, the focus of this battle is moving outside the Beltway far away from Washington-based Tea Party groups to where real jobs are at stake - in this case on Wednesday morning in Charlotte where businesses from across the Carolinas are going to rally to support the bank and the work it does promoting exports in the region.

The event will take place at the Westin Charlotte Hotel beginning at 8:30 a.m. and will include businesses from all over the Carolinas. Already confirmed to be in attendance and participating are companies like Duke Energy, Holtec, CB&I, Fluor, Curtiss-Wright, GE Aviation and Boeing. We also expect a number of smaller nuclear energy suppliers - companies who would be forced to start laying off employees immediately without the help of the bank - to be in attendance to tell their stories.

The commercial nuclear energy industry is vitally important to the Carolinas. A study by Clemson University found that 29,000 jobs are generated by the nuclear industry in the two states. These jobs account for $4.2 billion in direct and indirect pay along with $1 billion in state and local taxes in the Carolinas. Without the Ex-Im Bank, a significant portion of that economic activity would be immediately jeopardized.

With North Carolina’s high commercial stake in global markets, a failure to renew Ex-Im Bank would be devastating to businesses and families in the state. For fiscal 2014, the bank approved transactions for hundreds of North Carolina exporters, supporting thousands of jobs. Contrary to the claims of Ex-Im Bank’s opponents, four out of every five transactions that Ex-Im Bank supports are for small or medium-sized exporters.

We'll be following the events in Charlotte on Wednesday morning via our Twitter feed. In the meantime, please take a look back in our archives at some of the previous articles we've written in support of Ex-Im Bank and the jobs that come with it.
Also, be sure to refer back to NEI.org and our landing page on Ex-Im Bank reauthorization.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

NEA: A Discussion on Climate Change

NEA-logo_blue_small2The Nuclear Energy Assembly wrapped up this morning with a panel on nuclear energy and its worth as a low carbon dioxide emitting energy source.

Low in this case means zero. That’s been true from the opening of Shippingport in the 50s and remains true. But it has taken on new significance in recent years.

The panel was called A Discussion on Climate Change. Panelists included  Philip Sharp, President of Resources for the Future, Christine Todd Whitman, Co-chairman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and President of the Whitman Strategy Group, Armond Cohen, Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force and Dan Reicher, Executive Director of Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University.

This is an excellent group, ranging over the topic from their varied perspectives. We’ll provide a few highlights from each speaker, but the exchanges between them are very enlightening as well. You can view the 40 minute session here – if you need something to convince your friends, especially your greenest friends, that there’s a strong argument for nuclear energy, this is it.

These are my transcriptions. I’ve cleaned them up a little bit, but these folks are all polished speakers, so not much.

Sharp (who acted as moderator):

Sometimes you hear people say, well, after Fukushima, it’s all over, Americans don’t support nuclear power. I believe this is absolutely wrong. I believe there is no evidence that Fukushima reactivated the anti-nuclear movement in this country. …

All of these [climate change policy] studies come to the conclusion that we’re going to need over decades a portfolio of policies and we’re going to need a wide portfolio of low carbon fuels if we’re going to have a large impacts this. All of them include nuclear as a fuel that needs to be part of this…

Whitman, who was also the first Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the George W. Bush Administration:

I would like a national energy policy that says we want clean, green, reliable, affordable energy and leave it at that. And let the marketplace figure out the best ways to meet those goals.

We find more and more that people are saying yes, nuclear is too important. It punches way above its weight in what it provides in clean air, in what it provides with reliability and so they become more comfortable with the idea of expanding nuclear, living with nuclear …

Reicher:

In terms of technology, we need to put the pedal to the metal on every zero-carbon energy we have – and fast – if we’re going to address the climate crisis in the time frame most scientists have said.

I’m a major advocate of renewables and have been involved in their development and deployment in the business world and I am confident they will provide an increasing  and significant share of the world’s power supply over the next few decades, but I don’t think quickly enough to address the climate crisis.

Another zero-carbon technology, carbon capture and sequestration, is getting more real by the day. … The good news is that a diverse array of U.S. companies are moving forward with large scale CCS projects and industrial facilities…

So what about nuclear power? … In the case of existing U.S. reactors, climate math demands we carefully consider the fate of our 100 current reactors. … In the case of new U.S. reactors under construction, much rides on bringing them on line at a reasonable price in a reasonable time frame.

[Reicher does not think a carbon tax or cap-and-trade have much of a chance in Congress, but he does think that EPA’s pending rule on electricity generator emissions will survive court challenges and be implemented productively.]

Cohen:

The math of climate is absolutely brutal and I think this is what led folks like myself and other folks in the environmental movement increasingly to be having a conversation about nuclear’s role in a climate solution…

You’ve got to go to zero [carbon emissions] basically over 25 years while you’re increasing demand by two to three times. That’s a big circle to square. … We need to move faster and I would argue we need to move radically faster.

One thing we’ve seen from nuclear is that under the right conditions it can decarbonize power grids very rapidly because it comes in big chunks. France decarbonized its grid in 20 years, or at least decarbonized it by 75 percent, which is the number we’re looking for globally [to contain climate change.]

This just scratches the surface of their comments. There’s much more – a lot more to think about – and well worth your time.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Crane Highlights Energy Diversity, Markets & Trade in Nuclear Industry Keynote

Chris Crane
Christopher Crane is president and CEO of Exelon Corporation, and chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute. This morning he spoke at NEA 2015 where he offered remarks to the state of the nuclear industry and its future. Below is a summary of his remarks. Click here for the full text.

Chris Crane made it clear from the outset of his address before more than 850 industry leaders this morning that the U.S. nuclear industry is at the top of its game. The latest WANO performance indicators clearly show the industry not only operated at-or-near record-setting levels in 2014, but has been doing so for a decade or more.

But Crane didn’t shy away from pointing out that there is a lack of recognition of “the importance of a diverse electricity supply” that poses serious ramifications for the nation.
Energy diversity is taken for granted and—if current trends continue—that diversity is seriously at risk.

Coal-fired generating capacity is declining. The U.S. has about 300,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity. About 60,000 megawatts will shut down by 2020 because of tighter environmental requirements, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to reduce carbon emissions could lead to the retirement of another 40,000 to 45,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity.

Since 1995, approximately 75 percent of all new electric generating capacity has been natural gas. Gas is clearly part of our nation’s strength in energy resources, but overreliance on gas could expose consumers of natural gas and electricity to price volatility and loss of reliability.

Renewables will play an increasingly large role but, as intermittent sources, they cannot displace the need for base-load generating capacity, absent dramatic advances in energy storage.
To prove his point, Crane cited a study done by IHS Energy, The Value of U.S. Power Supply Diversity released in July 2014 that compared the cost of generating electricity with the current generating mix against a less diverse system. The study’s conclusions are sobering.
IHS Energy examined the impact of energy diversity—or the lack of it—in a study sponsored by NEI, the Edison Electric Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. IHS compared the cost of generating electricity with the current generating mix and with a less diverse system.

In the lower-diversity case, the cost of generating electricity was $93 billion higher per year. Retail electricity prices were 25 percent higher. And the typical household’s annual disposable income was around $2,100 less. The effects would be similar to an economic downturn, according to IHS.

We need to intensify our efforts to increase awareness of the value of fuel and technology diversity in our electricity supply—and what is at risk if the U.S. stays on its current path.
To avoid the above scenario, another key priority for the nuclear industry is to create a level playing field so nuclear energy’s attributes are clearly recognized and valued. What are those attributes? Nuclear power plants achieved a record-high capacity factor of nearly 92 percent in 2014, as they have done since 2002 while operating in all kinds of weather conditions. And the linchpin to that performance is a direct consequence of the emphasis on safety.

Yet in spite of these accomplishments, nuclear generation, especially in competitive electricity markets, finds itself in a position of stepping into the batters’ box with two strikes before a pitch is thrown. As Crane sees it:
Market reform is essential so that nuclear energy’s attributes are properly valued and compensated. There are limited signs of progress—but much more remains to be done, and the time for action is now. We can ill afford the premature shutdown of more nuclear plants simply because of the economic strain resulting from poorly designed markets.

Regardless of the market structure, policymakers should consider transforming renewable portfolio standards into clean energy portfolio standards so that all carbon-free energy sources are treated equally.
Crane discussed the need for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to prioritize its regulatory structure based on safety to allow nuclear plant operators to focus on “the most important work.” He also made a strong case for Congressional support for international trade in commercial nuclear technologies.
With 69 nuclear reactors under construction around the world and 183 new nuclear plant projects in development stage, commercial opportunities for U.S. vendors and suppliers increasingly are in international markets. Strategic national objectives are also in play. U.S. participation in the world market strengthens our ability to influence safety and nonproliferation policy and practices, and we can export our operational expertise.

NEI encourages the U.S. government to pursue a comprehensive nuclear energy trade policy recognizing that nuclear energy is a strategic asset in U.S. foreign policy. Key attributes of this policy include reform of U.S. export controls, enhanced export financing, facilitation of bilateral trade agreements with key trading partners, and development of workable international nuclear liability regimes.
The U.S. nuclear industry can point with pride at its accomplishments and has “an extraordinary value proposition” as Crane indicates throughout his address. Only an industry-wide effort and eternal vigilance will carry that message forward.

Editor's Note: For all of the latest from NEA 2015, please follow @NEI on Twitter as well as the #NEA2015 hash tag.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Building a Light Bridge to Nuclear Value

Lightbridge logoAn op-ed in The Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago roused attention because it dinged the American nuclear energy industry as being oppressively overregulated – especially compared to Russia and China. I noted then that a focus on safety regulation risked obscuring the larger problem of the energy marketplace. To quote myself “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.”

Well, they write letters:

The main problem for nuclear isn’t the NRC, but politics and the way markets are structured. Regulated market structures in South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee have led to the construction of billions of dollars of reactors under way now in each of those states. Deregulated market structures in Vermont and other states where reactors have been closed give no credit to the desirable benefits of safe commercial nuclear power, such as round-the-clock electricity generation (try that with wind or solar), full power during extreme weather, virtually zero air pollution and CO2 emissions and stable electricity prices.

Lightbridge President and CEO Seth Grae responds to the article the old-fashioned way, through a letter to the editor, and he gets the economic issue just so. If one wondered why “overregulated” nuclear energy gets a fuller hearing in the south, this is a strong explanation. I’m not sure the market issues are directly related to emissions – I don’t think they are – but Grae is right that markets that do not recognize them are doing themselves a disservice. If it were properly recognized, it would matter less if the marketplace is regulated or unregulated (in this context, referring to the markets, not safety; it can be a little confusing) – nuclear energy’s value as an emission-free energy source would go a long way to reforming the market on its own account. (The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is looking into new rules that account for diversity and reliability of energy sources – qualities that also enhance nuclear energy’s value proposition.)

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Lightbridge is “a leading provider of nuclear energy consulting services to commercial and governmental entities worldwide, and is developing next generation nuclear fuel technology that will significantly reduce nuclear waste and proliferation,” according to its self-description.

That fuel technology sounds interesting and even has a thorium connection (for all you fans of the element), though it appears it will be an all-uranium assembly.

Lightbridge’s all metal fuel (AMF) assembly is comprised entirely of metallic fuel rods and is capable of providing up to 17% increase in power output in existing PWRs and up to a 30% power uprate in new build PWRs operating on 18-month fuel cycles.

How it does this is a bit – okay, way – over my head, at least on first read-through, but you can start exploring it here. Lightbridge provides a lot of information about this technology.

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Seth Grae contributed a post to the blog almost a year ago about the Ex-Im Bank  - and it’s still relevant today! Read it here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

What Nuclear Plenitude Means Economically


Nuclear energy plants are financial boons in all kinds of ways – both directly, in terms of the people they hire and their contribution to the tax base; and indirectly, through their support of the supply chain and all the businesses that benefit from having a nuclear energy plant in their midst. That’s obvious enough and true of almost any large physical plant.
There’s another economic consideration, too, that one nuclear reactor can produce a lot of new electricity. Sometimes, a new reactor will take the place of an older electricity generator – a coal plant here, a gas works there – but sometimes, more is just more.
With the construction of base-load nuclear plants at the Summer Nuclear Station, South Carolina will have ample electric capacity to attract more companies like Bridgestone and BMW while also protecting the environment. This combination will put South Carolina in the driver’s seat for an expanding economy in the years ahead.
Op-ed writer Mel Bruckner points out in The State newspaper that nuclear energy supplies over 96 percent of South Carolina’s emission-free electricity (about 50 percent of the state’s total electricity).
Bruckner leaves this point behind as soon as he makes it, but it’s an important one, well-recognized and leveraged by state government to attract business. Here’s a member of the South Carolina’s House delegation making the same point in 2012, soon before construction got underway on two new reactors at SCANA’s Summer facility:
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) recognized the project’s economic implications. “Investing in nuclear energy will allow South Carolina’s power grid to expand and attract new business ventures in the state,” he said. “More nuclear power in the state means that businesses can grow and focus on putting South Carolinians back to work.”
This point can get a little tucked away. It probably doesn’t matter much to BMW or Bridgestone where the volts are coming from as long as their factories start up every day. A few entities – those running large data farms, for example – want to run their operations on renewable energy sources because it better fits their (perhaps somewhat uninformed) corporate profiles. Yet they happily locate some of their outlets in places with a lot of nuclear energy-produced electricity such as Georgia and the Carolinas. On the one hand, hrrumph, on the other hand, fine: it keeps the economic wheel spinning – new jobs, a  better tax base, and direct and indirect support of businesses.

I’m not sure we could call nuclear energy the best at engendering economic development, whatever best may mean. But it is good at it and in a time of economic revival, extremely valuable. It’s great that Bruckner picked up this theme in a state with two new reactors pending. It does not seem a key bullet point in a typical discussion of nuclear benefits; but in the ways that matter most to people, it’s the key that turns the economic lock.

Friday, May 08, 2015

How Germany Turned Its Energy Policy Into Folly

In an article about the counterintuitive nature of closing nuclear facilities, this bit stuck out:

Nuclear plants would likely be replaced by natural gas or (shudder) coal plants, which would drive up carbon dioxide emissions. It’s happening in Germany, where the government decided to abandon nuclear power after the March 2011 catastrophe at Fukushima. In Vermont, where a 600-megawatt plant closed in December, carbon-free nuclear power is being replaced largely by fossil-powered electricity from the grid.

Germany, ah, Deutschland. We had a good run. At its height, nuclear energy supplied about 20 percent of the country’s electricity – in the same range as in the United States - but as the article indicates, the accident in Japan flipped Prime Minister Angela Merkel from support to opposition for nuclear energy and she decided to close the remaining plants by 2022. At the same time, Germany would change over to all, or nearly all, renewable energy. Germany tends to be an all-or-nothing kind of place and this is both all and nothing.

We had a delightful run of German-bashing over this, but that gets old mighty fast. After all, every country has a right to determine its energy portfolio and if we give Australia a pass for its anti-nuclear zeal, why not Germany?

Granted, its conversion left its electricity sector in considerable turmoil – not an issue for Australia, which has never built a nuclear plant – and the transition has to deal with the amount of space renewable energy farms take up – lots – and people less than thrilled to see the land gobbled up. Plus, ratepayers began to pay considerably more for electricity – and that’s with a bunch of nuclear reactors still operating. Well, in for a penny in for a pound, right?

We’ve let Germany be – it’s their decision, let them soak in it. Still, curiosity has to count for something, so we did a small survey of articles about the transition and found this:

The bill for shutting down Germany's nuclear power plants and building a safe disposal site for nuclear waste could rise to 70 billion euros ($75 billion), the head of a government commission told daily Frankfurter Rundschau in an interview.

The costs for the nuclear exit could rise to up to 70 billion euros over the next decades, meaning that the 36 billion euros ($38 billion) in provisions set aside by the four nuclear operators were not sufficient, he added.

That might be because they didn’t expect to close all their plants at once.

But surely, there’s some good news:

“Global emissions are rising despite all UN climate conferences. Germany, which is often touted as a role model, is a case in point. Currently, there are eight coal plants under construction or in development in Germany. Electricity generation from lignite is at its highest level since German reunification.”

Oh dear. So what to do?

The country is due to shut down its nuclear power plants by 2022 in favor of fossil fuels and renewable energy, but customers are flocking to a new provider's offer of "100 percent nuclear power".

The above two bits are about a company called Maxenergy, which is importing nuclear energy-derived electricity from Switzerland. I guess that means it can keep doing it past 2022.

I ran into some stories friendlier to renewable energy, too, so its not just blow-after-blow, but to call the German situation a folly is to take its consequences too lightly. France wants to take down the percentage of nuclear energy, too, in the name of diversity, and since more than 80 percent of France’s electricity comes from the atom, that makes some sense.

Germany’s notion of diversity is to merge emission-producing base load energy – some of it harshly emitting – with immature renewable technology. Still, let’s wish them well. Even if you reap the whirlwind, the whirlwind passes – and the windmills slow to a halt. Oops - that didn’t come out quite right.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Why Should You Attend the 2015 Nuclear Energy Assembly?

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Matt joined us in April after 38 years at The New York Times.

Anybody who is anybody, was anybody or will be anybody in the nuclear world is likely to turn up at the Nuclear Energy Assembly. Engineers, executives, policy makers, vendors and experts from home and abroad will give presentations or listen to them, or engage in a lot of off-the-floor side conversations about what is going on in the industry, and how it fits into the larger energy world. Many of the speakers come from outside the industry.



And there will be the annual informal competition where industry veterans try to stump each other with acronyms.

Reactors are coming (Watts Bar 2, Vogtle and Summer) and going (Vermont Yankee, San Onofre and Kewaunee) and there is likely to be something interesting to be heard about all of them. The future – small modular reactors, fast reactors, and new technologies for existing reactors – will also be present. Uranium mining, enrichment, fuel fabrication, refueling strategies, reprocessing concepts, waste management and disposal - the whole nuclear life cycle – will all be on the table.

Editor's Note: For all of the latest from the 2015 Nuclear Energy Assemby, please follow @NEI on Twitter as well as the #NEA2015 hash tag.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Do Environmental Sciences Programs Have a Bias Against Nuclear Energy?

What's on your reading list?
Over the course of the history of this blog, I've often written posts slugged, "Another Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy." In recent years, I've gotten out of the habit, given that when you see prominent names like James Hansen, Stuart Brand and Bill Gates all speak on behalf of the technology, that headline ought not to be a surprise any longer.

But given some reading I did earlier today, perhaps that shouldn't be the case. If the findings of a new study are accurate, academia is doing its level best to make sure the environmental professionals of tomorrow are exposed only to a narrow point of view that excludes nuclear energy from the global solutions toolbox.

Over at The Conversation, Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communications at Northeastern University, tells the story of Jacqueline Ho, an environmental studies graduate who recently conducted a study into how major colleges and university teach environmental issues.

What did she find? Apparently the reading materials in environmental sciences courses present only one side of the debate, and fail to challenge students to develop critical thinking skills they'll need to solve environmental management problems.
Yet only after taking an upper-level political science course on renewable energy and completing a summer fellowship with the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, was Ho introduced to alternative ways of thinking about climate change as a social problem and the possible solutions.

“I came to see the transition to a clean-energy economy as an issue requiring technological innovation and deployment, in addition to simply being caused by insufficient climate awareness or the inefficient pricing of fossil-based energy,” she writes in a new co-authored study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

“Nuclear power, an energy solution I seldom encountered in my classes except in the context of the negative health impacts of uranium mining, became a default alternative energy option in my mind,” she writes.

Today, several core concepts and insights from her introductory courses continue to guide her work as a researcher at Resources for the Future, an environmental economics think tank. “Yet, in many ways, I would have appreciated being exposed to a greater diversity of perspectives and solutions earlier in my education so that I could have learned to wrestle with these controversial perspectives alongside my environmentally minded peers,” she writes.
It's good to see that Miss Ho was able to come into contact with the team at the Breakthrough Institute, an eminently reasonable group based out of Oakland that recently authored its own "Ecomodernist Manifesto." From my own perspective, Ms. Ho's experience gibes closely with what I was told by a graduate of a local Masters' degree program who took a course in environmental sustainability. In that course, like in Ms. Ho's experience, nuclear energy was mentioned with a sneer, if at all.

But what about the rest of Ms. Ho's counterparts at other institutions? What sort of education are they getting through introductory courses in environmental science at some of the nation's top institutions?
Of the 22 syllabi assessed, less than half explicitly mentioned the importance of critical thinking or exposing students to competing perspectives. Only 10 made any reference to the fact that even among those advocating for action to address a problem like climate change, there are competing narratives about the major societal challenges, the possible technological solutions, and the political strategies needed.
Ms. Ho found that the vast majority of readings assigned in these courses are authored by a group of public intellectuals that Nesbit calls "environmental activists." Bill McKibben, David Suzuki and George Monbiot are all on the list.

Of course, when you teach environmental science solely through the lens of environmental activism, it's safe to conclude that what you'll really produce is another generation of environmental activists. That would be unfortunate. Our world needs professionals comfortable integrating the disciplines of science, engineering, law and policy to craft real-world solutions to thorny environmental challenges, not just compelling narratives.

UPDATE: Ms. Ho reached out to us regarding our blog post, and passed along the following:
[W]e want to be careful about the way we present our findings: we mention in our article that the research is suggestive rather than conclusive given our small sample size ...
Fair enough. Though given the reaction I've gotten from of our readers, not too many folks were surprised by the findings.

One last note: the study was co-authored by Eric Kennedy. Props to both him and Ms. Ho for doing some important work. If I was the parent of a high school student planning on studying environmental science in college, Ms. Ho and Mr. Kennedy's study would give me pause, especially if I was financing that college education.

Editor's Note: Eric McErlain is NEI's director of digital strategy. He's currently pursuing a Masters' degree in Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. Photo courtesy of Mary Mactavish via a Creative Commons License.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Investigating Terrestrial Energy's Molten Salt Reactor Design

Matt Wald
Today, we welcome Matt Wald to NEI Nuclear Notes. Matt, who is senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI, joined us in April after 38 years at the New York Times.

Around the world, most nuclear power reactors work by splitting uranium to make heat, and using water to carry the heat away so it can be used to make electricity. The uranium is a solid, sometimes in metal form and sometimes ceramic with a metal support system. The design works well, but it dates from the 1950s, and some engineers are re-thinking the whole package.

Enter Terrestrial Energy, of Mississauga, Ontario. Its engineers say that water works fine, but they point out that at reactor temperatures, the water has to be kept under very high pressure to keep it from boiling away. That means heavy, expensive pipes and vessels, and a lot of safety systems designed to kick in if a pipe breaks. A reactor builder could avoid most of that by replacing the water with salt, melted into a liquid, to move the heat. Salt can carry far more heat per unit volume than water, at atmospheric pressure.

And why use solid fuel, which could melt if it gets overheated? Terrestrial Energy starts with uranium in liquid form, mixed into the molten salt. That makes it easy to add a bit more fuel from time to time, and thus to control the system partly by managing the amount of material in the reactor that can be split to sustain the nuclear chain reaction.

Terrestrial calls the result an Integral Molten Salt Reactor. Building on pioneering work done by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Terrestrial Energy’s design is for a plant that shuts for refueling just once in seven years. Like all uranium-based reactors, the IMSR produces plutonium as it runs. But the fuel is in the reactor for so long that much of the plutonium is consumed as the reactor runs, aiding energy production and making the design unattractive for anyone who wanted fuel for a bomb. Burning off more of the plutonium also makes the wastes easier to handle.

And while water is essential to most reactors, the water molecules have a tendency to trap neutrons, the sub-atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction. Build a reactor with fewer materials that absorb neutrons, and it takes far less uranium fuel to produce a given amount of energy.

Most current reactors are very large, because if the machine is full of parts and structures designed to handle high pressures, there are economies of scale to building them big. But that is far less true for equipment that runs at atmospheric pressures, so Terrestrial’s reactor is intended to be built in a factory, which is good for cost and quality control, and shipped by truck. Small has a variety of advantages, including ease of financing. “There’s less sticker shock,’’ said David LeBlanc, the company’s chief technical officer.

So far the work is preliminary, and the company is still months from having a design it can submit to Canadian regulators for approval. But Terrestrial, which recently joined the Nuclear Energy Institute, is another demonstration that as with so many other technologies, from aviation to medicine to computing, innovative thinking is going strong and for nuclear energy, more good things lay ahead.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Nuclear Imperative in Taiwan, Tennessee, and Nevada

washington_postAt the Washington Post, editorial board writer Stephen Stromberg surveys the energy scene in Taiwan:

Taiwan imports about 98 percent of its energy supplies, mostly the fossil fuels that keep its fluorescent streetscapes flashing and its many factories humming.

The Taiwanese are against virtually every form of carbon dioxide-free energy for various reasons. A fourth reactor on the islands faced such massive protest it has never been turned on. But Stromberg is having none of it, coming to the point of his piece:

Because climate change is a global problem, the choices of Germany and Japan — both of which have shut down perfectly serviceable reactors in recent years — and Taiwan as well affect the rest of us. Their greenhouse-gas emissions mix into the atmosphere just like everyone else’s. And the big danger is that these nations will encourage the international stigmatization against nuclear power, when tough-mindedness, not self-indulgence, is necessary. The global norm should be to expect governments to regulate nuclear facilities carefully and appropriately, not to shun them.

Would that it were so easy. It’s hard to think of a representative government that doesn’t relent to the popular view, however misguided or short sighted. But Stromberg makes an interesting point: to what extent does the rest of the world have a say in decisions that involve them, in this case existentially, but happen within other borders? Maybe a case for the United Nations?

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If I tell you the next op-ed comes from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, could you guess what it’s about?

If Nevada becomes a willing partner with the federal government to host a permanent repository, the state would benefit from the return of thousands of high-paying jobs and infrastructure projects necessary to move the shipments of spent fuel and defense materials to the mountain without intersecting population centers. Some financial benefits and the opportunity to negotiate benefit agreements are already law. Nevada would also benefit from other advantages associated with host communities, such as increased local and state tax revenue and an emphasis on high-quality educational programs.

This is Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who led a Congressional delegation out to Yucca Mountain for a tour last week. As Shimkus is is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce environment and economy subcommittee, he has some pull in this area.

Probably his most important point:

As the debate moves forward, it’s clear that science can no longer be used to justify opposition to the project.

His op-ed is well worth a read.

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And finally, former EPS Administrator and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman visited Watts Bar in Tennessee.

"To think what we are putting into the atmosphere and the way we are changing the land isn't having an impact and exacerbating the natural trend toward global warming to a point where nature can't absorb it, I think, is naive," Whitman said. "You have 97 percent of scientists saying that the climate is changing and better than 50 percent of the American people saying they also believe the climate is changing based upon what they see around them with the floods, droughts and storms. I think they would like to see some action."

Hmm. Any ideas on what that action might be?

Despite the $4.2 billion pricetag to complete Watts Bar Unit 2 over the past eight years, the reactor  "is a good investment and I hope we will see more of these type plants to at least keep nuclear power at its current share (about 19 percent of electricity generation) for the future," Whitman said.

"It's a huge and vital part of our clean energy future."

Watts Bar 2 is likely to be the first new nuclear reactor to go online in the U.S. since, well, Watts Bar 1 back in 1996.

Friday, May 01, 2015

How the House is Revving Up Nuclear Momentum


In talking about the budget for the Department of Energy and particularly its Office of Nuclear Energy, we often zero in, logically enough, on the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate. These are the committees that will ultimately determine what the budget will be.
While appropriations committees determine what money is given to various programs, authorizing committees decide the general policies and programs that Appropriators can fund. In talking about the budget for the Department of Energy and particularly the Office of Nuclear Energy, the general policies and programs are decided in the House by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
And what this committee decides show how things might go over the next year and beyond. The Science Committee members have consistently expressed a lot of interest in next-generation nuclear technology – and on a bipartisan basis.
That brings us to this amendment from Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.):
Developing an advanced reactor innovation testbed where national laboratories, universities, and industry can address advanced reactor design challenges to enable construction and operation of privately funded reactor prototypes to resolve technical uncertainty for United States-based designs for future domestic and international markets.
This bolsters the testbed approach and amends the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to incorporate it. The committee accepted this amendment; we’ll see what the full House does with it later.
I looked for more evidence that the committee sees this as a key direction – and found it, in spades. In December, the committee hosted NuScale and Transatomic to discuss nuclear energy topics and Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) expressed his view of the nuclear landscape.
Nuclear power is a proven source of emission-free electricity that has been generated safely in the United States for over half a century. However, our ability to move from R&D to market deployment has been hampered by government red tape and partisan politics. We are just now seeing the first reactors under construction in more than 30 years. This hiatus has diminished our supply chain and ability to build new reactors. In fact, the United States no longer has the capability to manufacture large reactor pressure vessels.
In another hearing (on nuclear fusion), Smith is even more direct:
Depriving the U.S. ITER program [an experimental fusion reactor hosted in France] of the funds it needs to accomplish its goals is not good policy. To maintain our competitive advantage, we must continue to support fundamental basic research that encourages the creation and design of next generation technologies.
Which is answered in part by Lipinski’s amendment.
Energy Subcommittee Chairman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) echoed Smith’s comments:
Nuclear energy was born in the United States. We have the best scientists and engineers in the world. Yet, we are not seeing the pace of commercial technology advancement that we would expect. At the same time, other countries including China are surging ahead.
One doesn’t have to agree with all of this to see how the committee is interested in the forward momentum of nuclear energy, fission and fusion. Industry is ready – it seems the government is eager to follow suit.