Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Matt Wald on the News Media and Nuclear Energy

Matt Wald
Last week, NEI's Matt Wald gave a short talk to the NEI Lawyers Committee on why the media covers nuclear energy the way it does. After spending 33 years working for the New York Times, it's clear he knows of what he speaks. Here's a short excerpt:
Most reporters and editors can’t tell the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour and many of them don’t know why they’d want to tell the difference. That makes it unlikely they’re going to give a clear picture to their readers or viewers. Add onto that some fuzzy thinking among the general public, that includes ideas like, “electricity is a human right and therefore ought to be free,” and you’ve got a recipe for mis-communications.

Nuclear comes out badly not because it’s nuclear, but because of several overarching attitudes in newsrooms. One is that editors like disagreements, he said/she said. It’s an easy way to structure a news story. But the editors and reporters have rather limited ability to independently evaluate the arguments. Why do we have this persistent societal meme that vaccines cause autism?

Because news media got it started and to some extent, keep it alive. The idea that proximity to power lines causes cancer. If it can’t be disproved, it’s a good story. Journalists dislike expertise. They discount it. Maybe it’s the evolving nature of human knowledge. This year, we’ve changed our minds and high cholesterol doesn’t come from your diet. Some fats are good for you. DDT was a modern marvel of the mid-20th century because it nearly wiped out malaria. It also nearly wiped out bald eagles.

We were running out of landfill space. We were running out of oil. We aren’t any more.

Journalists also dislike the government, and pillars of the establishment. That started in Vietnam and it’s still true. Journalists sometimes think of themselves as speaking truth to power, or maybe to the power company. The operating theory is sometimes that if somebody sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, he must be wrong.

And, of course, some people don’t like power companies. We have a bias against big business, and reactors are always big business.

There’s another problem. Editors and reporters are biased against risk, without being able to compare risks. The risks of measles epidemics. The risks of generating the same electricity with other technologies. The risks that banning genetically modified crops adds to world hunger. These risks aren’t probabilities; they’re certainties.

Applied to the nuclear context, this worldview keeps alive the idea that the spent fuel pools of boiling water reactors are kept in tree houses, in tin shacks.

These ideas aren’t confined to newsrooms. They are common among TV viewers, newspaper readers, internet browsers, guests waiting in the green rooms, and people who obsess over situations we haven’t yet resolved, like nuclear waste. There’s an aversion, a vague sense of dis-ease. For some people, Nuclear is the N word. Not understanding has its downside. Familiarity may breed contempt, or so the clich√© goes, but black boxes breed fear.
The full text of the speech, "Nuclear Power: Redeeming Energy's Prodigal Son," can be found on our website.

Monday, June 29, 2015

How a Bias for Action Led to an Innovative Alternative to External Filtered Vents

Maria Korsnick
The following is a guest post by Maria Korsnick, NEI’s Chief Operating Officer.

During the five years that I was chief nuclear officer at Constellation Energy, my first priority was to ensure that our plants operated safely and reliably in order to protect public health and safety. On a day-to-day basis, I wanted to make sure that our operating crews and emergency personnel had multiple tools available to combat any situation that might arise. And when we identified gaps, we made sure to address them promptly. It’s this bias for action -- together with the oversight of a strong independent regulator, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission  -- that has helped the American nuclear energy industry become the safest and most reliable in the world.

Following the tragic accident at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan on March 11, 2011, the U.S. nuclear industry followed that same bias for action to ensure that our plants would continue to protect the public should a similar set of events occur here. This led to many innovative concepts, such as the diverse and flexible coping strategy (FLEX), to ensure that the fuel in the reactor and spent fuel pools would remain cool and safe and the containment integrity protected if a nuclear plant lost access to offsite power and loss of emergency diesel generators. FLEX also requires that portable emergency equipment be located at every site, and industry further established two national response centers stocked with multiple sets of backup generators, hoses, lighting and pumps in Memphis and Phoenix that could be transported anywhere in the U.S. within 24 hours. Altogether, these enhancements represent a $4 billion investment by industry in making our plants even safer than before.

A key lesson from Fukushima was that BWRs with Mark I & II containments (similar to those at Fukushima) must ensure that the reactor containment would maintain its integrity and protect the public even if the nuclear fuel was damaged and the power was out. The NRC issued an order to the industry that these plants install a reliable containment vent system to reduce pressure and remove heat from containment when the power is out even if the nuclear fuel was damaged.

While this order clearly improved safety, we believed we could obtain additional safety benefit if we could ensure water could be added to the reactor to cool the damaged core and also prevent containment failure.

Working with my counterparts in the industry and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), we remedied this problem by including water addition under these conditions. This was included in the industry’s guidance for implementing the vent order and endorsed by NRC.

Interestingly, the same water to cool the core will also act as a filter in containment. As industry and NRC research show, because the external filters are just tanks filled with water, the water in containment can be just as effective as an external filter. Taken together, it’s a solution that is innovative, elegant and cost-effective, one that ought to be a model for nuclear safety around the world going forward.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Climate Central: Nuclear Yes? Nuclear No? So Confusing!

Climate Central notices that nuclear energy technology is not standing still. The writer, Bobby McGill, makes it clear that nuclear “isn’t likely to grow much in the United States” and that the “the EIA [Energy Information Agency] has forecast flat nuclear power (through 2040).*” So that’s that –or is it?

The $60 million the Department of Energy is dedicating to nuclear research will go to more than 40 different projects at universities across the U.S. focusing on nuclear energy modeling, nuclear security and safety and new reactor concepts and fuels.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, speaking Monday at the Energy Information Administration’s annual energy conference in Washington, said he is bullish on nuclear power as a clean energy source. However, the high costs of developing nuclear energy have to come down, he said.

Fair enough, I guess. Other accounts of Moniz’s keynote suggest he talked mostly about the U.S.Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the need to release barrels from it judicially. But if he made a few vagrant comments about nuclear, too, that’s good.

But what about these DOE projects?

MIT atmospheric scientist and nuclear power supporter Kerry Emanuel said the Department of Energy’s research grants seem small, but the climate will benefit if they aid in developing a new nuclear power program with new-generation reactors that could burn toxic waste from obsolete nuclear plants as fuel.

“What this country needs is a renaissance of fission-based power,” Emanuel said. “I really hope that we start paying attention to the climate problem and we get on board with nuclear as one of a suite of technical solutions that will help us deal with the risk.”

One definitely is left to think that nuclear energy is just short of sinking into the mire, though McGill does allow Emanuel to get a little closer to the actual state of play. It is sort of fun to imagine the nuclear doubtful looking at the current situation and thinking, Well, nuclear is dead – isn’t it? – climate change – might be something to have a potent emission free energy source – but nuclear? –maybe?

We’ll take the maybe if that’s what it is. It may be halfway to no, but it’s also halfway to yes, and that’s the direction in which “maybe” is trending. DOE certainly thinks so.


How much does DOE think so? Here are comments made by Moniz in April before handing out DOE scholarships for students going into nuclear engineering:

“The awards announced today will directly help support the future of the nuclear energy research workforce, as we continue to grow the U.S. clean energy economy,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “By helping promote cutting-edge nuclear science and engineering, the Department is helping to advance American leadership in the safe, secure and efficient use of nuclear energy here and around the world.

Doesn’t seem very conflicted, does he?


We’ll look more closely at the technologies DOE is engaged with in a future post. Climate Central does not get too much into it, boggled as it is that anyone is doing anything about nuclear energy.


*EIA does a forecast every year to survey the energy scene as it stands currently and projects that forward. It changes every year to reflect policy and industry changes, so looking at one year’s forecast and saying, “Well, that’s it, that’s the future” is beyond what EIA intends and, when used as an argument for or against something as it is by Climate Central against nuclear, is not really – fully – a fair rendering of the report. It’s less Nostradamus than it is a Polaroid.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

NIMBY = Nuclear Energy in My Backyard

Ann Bisconti
The following is a guest post by Ann S. Bisconti, PhD, President, Bisconti Research, Inc.

After a decade of public opinion surveys that consistently find broad and deep support for nuclear energy among nuclear power plant neighbors, is it time to re-think NIMBY? The conventional wisdom goes that “not-in-my-backyard,” is a barrier to nuclear energy. That may be true in some locations, but it is absolutely clear that a NIMBY attitude toward nuclear energy does not apply to most people who live close to America’s nuclear power plants.

Six biennial surveys of U.S. nuclear power plant neighbors that we have conducted for the Nuclear Energy Institute since 2005 confirm that residents close to the facilities are far more favorable to nuclear energy than the general public, and they are very supportive of the local plant. The latest nuclear power plant neighbor survey, just released, was conducted May 26 through June 13. A random sample of 1,080 respondents was drawn from residents of the 60 sites in the U.S. where nuclear power plants are located, an equal number per site. They were interviewed by landline and cellphone. Households where someone works at a nuclear power plant were excluded.

Favorable Attitudes to Nuclear Energy

Familiarity makes a difference: 83 percent of plant neighbors favor the use of nuclear energy, compared with 68 percent of the general public surveyed this February. Nearly twice as many plant neighbors strongly favor nuclear energy (50 percent) compared with the general public (27 percent).

Plant neighbors see nuclear energy‘s attributes in a favorable light. Majorities associate nuclear energy “a lot” with reliable electricity (72 percent), efficiency (65 percent), job creation (60 percent), clean air (59 percent), energy security (57 percent), and affordable electricity (54 percent).

An overwhelming majority (89 percent) reported that they have a favorable impression of the nuclear power plant closest to where they live and the way it has operated recently. That breaks down as 57 percent very favorable, 32 percent somewhat favorable, 6 percent somewhat unfavorable, 4 percent very unfavorable, and 1 percent unsure. These impressions have changed little over the decade.

Not only do most nuclear power plant neighbors favor their nearby plant, 69 percent would find it acceptable to add a new reactor at the site of the nearest nuclear power plant, assuming more electricity were needed. That acceptability is lower in the Northeast (58 percent) than in the South (70 percent), Midwest (73 percent) and West (79 percent).

Neighbors expressed confidence in the company that operates the nearby plant. They gave the company and plant high marks for safety and environmental protection. They also recognized the plant’s contribution to the economy and jobs, as well as the company’s community involvement.

Real world experience corroborates the surveys. Conventional wisdom once held that, due to public opposition, no company would be able to seek renewal of U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses to operate its nuclear power plants beyond 40 years. Already 75 nuclear power plants have received license renewals, and 18 more have applications under review. Local opposition to license renewal has been minimal, if any. Even more difficult, people said, would be to gain the support needed to build new plants. Five new reactors are under construction in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina with solid public support.

Nuclear Energy’s Reverse NIMBY Advantage Because of Scale

Nuclear energy has a reverse NIMBY advantage compared to some other sources of electricity. That advantage is due to scale. One reactor provides enough electricity for 690,000 homes and businesses. To make a large contribution to the nation’s electricity, the support of only a small number of communities that actually want a nuclear power plant is required. Those communities are already there, among the 60 communities across the country with existing plants. Other communities may seek nuclear energy facilities as well.

In contrast, most other energy sources require many locations to match the generation of one reactor. That means many diverse approvals and likely battles with communities that, for example, do not want wind turbines in their backyard.

An assessment of NIMBY and its impact on the future development of energy sources can be more nuanced by asking these questions: How many supportive locations are needed? And are the locations already there?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On the Papal Encyclical & Nuclear Energy

J.T. Rodriguez
The following is a guest post by J.T. Rodriguez, a communications intern at NEI.

In his recent encyclical about care for "our common home," the earth, Pope Francis had a lot to say. I was curious to see what he had to say. I had no idea if he had said anything on nuclear energy, but as it turns out, he has.

While there were many mentions about renewable energy resources in Laudato Si’, he does also say things about nuclear energy technology.

“These comments are not surprising from the first Pope to have studied chemistry, and who worked as a chemist prior to entering the seminary,” wrote Forbes contributor James Conca.

“It must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power,” wrote Pope Francis.

It is an interesting comment and not as self-evident as it first appears. Pope Francis says elsewhere that these technologies and other of men’s discoveries and creations can lead to bad ends if badly handled. As Spider-Man said, "With great power comes great responsibility," and the Pope makes it plain that emerging technologies can be used for good or evil.

There is a tone of caution: oversight, responsibility and accountability are necessary to the successful implementation of technologies like nuclear energy. Caution mixed with a little doubt: Pope Francis worries that “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”

The Pope and U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.
The American industry has shown the kind of responsibility mentioned here. If we allow that the Pope has subjective measures in mind, still, there are some objective measures that we can use to show this.

“In the U.S., commercial nuclear plants have been operating since the late 1960s. If you add up the plants’ years in operation, they average about 30 years each, totaling about 3,000 reactor years of operating experience. There have been no fatalities to any member of the public due to the operation of a commercial nuclear power plant in the U.S. Our risk in human terms is vanishingly low,” wrote Gary Was recently at Green Building Blogs.

Regulation also plays a large part in ensuring safety – you could call it a backstop to the industry’s own efforts. In fact, safety is taken so seriously in the U.S. that it is considered “an absolute way of life,” said Randy Edington, Executive Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer at Palo Verde. The safety culture and regulatory regime of the American industry is considered the gold standard around the world.

Clearly, Pope Francis’ priorities have nothing directly to do with the energy business. But it is interesting to see him take note of renewable energy sources and to not dismiss nuclear energy as a non-starter. The encyclical is extremely well considered and worth attention by anyone interested in the subject. The Pope has the ability to shape attitudes broadly, so one must consider the encyclical an exceptionally compelling document, whatever one may feel about its details.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Coincidentally, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan cited that same quote from Spider-Man in a decision issued yesterday. Small world.

Friday, June 19, 2015

How Ex-Im Bank Levels the Playing Field With Russia

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

Last week, the Export-Import Bank of the United States released its annual Competitiveness Report to the U.S. Congress. The report highlighted “the ballooning of export finance around the world, particularly of the opaque, non-OECD-compliant variety.” This growth of export finance on “terms more lenient than the [OECD] Arrangement, with rates below what EXIM can offer and minimal risk-related fees,” threatens to undermine U.S. competitiveness, the report warned. Perhaps no sector illustrates the threat posed by non-OECD export finance as starkly as nuclear energy.

We have explained why Ex-Im Bank is essential for U.S. suppliers to be competitive in international nuclear energy markets. When the foreign competition is bound by OECD limits, Ex-Im Bank provides a somewhat level playing field for U.S. suppliers. When the foreign competition is unchecked by OECD rules, Ex-Im Bank cannot level playing field but keeps U.S. suppliers in the game.

As a result of U.S. leadership, the OECD has adopted uniform lending and transparency rules to prevent a global financing race to the bottom. In the nuclear sector, it has agreed to further restraints in a Nuclear Sector Understanding (NSU). Among other limits, the NSU sets minimum interests rates and maximum repayment terms; requires the repayment of principal and the payment of interest in equal installments at least twice annually; and prohibits the capitalization of interest. Nuclear energy supplier countries subject to OECD rules include Australia, Canada, members of the European Union, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland.

Russia is not a member of the OECD and is not bound by the NSU. Russia has a made a strategic priority of capturing a larger share of the global nuclear energy market. With 13 reactors under construction around the world and many more under contract, it is progressing toward a target of 70 percent growth in nuclear energy exports by 2020. Russian nuclear energy exports have been promoted with Russian equity, Russian submarines and fear. But the consistent, decisive factor in the growth of Russia’s nuclear energy market share has been aggressive Russian financing. Finance for Russian nuclear exports comes from the Russian treasury rather than from a national export credit agency like Ex-Im Bank. While details of Russian finance are shrouded in secrecy, it has been known to feature interest rates well below OECD limits, capitalization of interest against OECD rules and generous repayment terms.

The Ex-Im Bank is vital for U.S. nuclear suppliers to compete against foreign suppliers operating under OECD restraints. Against non-OECD suppliers like Russia, the Ex-Im Bank keeps U.S. suppliers in the game. Despite inferior financing, a U.S. supplier with backing from the Ex-Im Bank meets the tender requirements of ECA support and reaches the negotiating table to discuss superior U.S. technology, operational know-how, training and industrial partnership. Without Ex-Im Bank, the U.S. nuclear supplier is out of the game – against OECD and non-OECD competition alike.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Third Way, Climate Change and New Nuclear Technology

logo_previewThe Third Way, a moderate policy shop based out of Washington, has issued an interesting report that looks at new nuclear technologies. Let’s define “new” somewhat loosely in this case, as some take up older ideas and move them forward. Others are indeed innovations in nuclear plant technology. From Reuters:

Advanced nuclear power plants, which will employ techniques such as using fuels other than uranium and coolants other than water, have attracted private investments from more than 40 companies from Florida to Washington state, the Third Way think tank says in the first report specifying the number of firms and total money invested in the technologies.

Third Way makes the case that all this activity – with investment to date exceeding $1.3 billion – is happening because the connection between nuclear energy and climate change is becoming clearer over time and spurring forward-looking investors to take a serious look
(sometimes, a second look) at nuclear energy.

To stem climate change, the world needs 40% of electricity to come from zero-emissions sources, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). While we can and must grow renewable energy generation, it alone will leave us far short of meeting that demand, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have said. This is why the IPCC in November issued an urgent call for more non-emitting power, including the construction of more than 400 nuclear plants in the next 20 years. That would represent a near doubling of the 435 plants operating globally today.

Whatever one may feel about the indicators regarding climate change, the drive to move forward on combatting it is not lessening. Even if the U.S. Congress is proceeding very gingerly, environmentalists don’t wrinkle their noses at nuclear energy anymore as though they’ve encountered a dead skunk and and an impressive number of energy poohbahs have become quite enamored of the atom.

In other words, The Third Way is onto something. Even if you view the whole subject from a quizzical distance, clearly something is up with nuclear energy. This is a fairly short read, so head over there for the whole thing. I suspect that this study will stand as a new baseline for discussing new nuclear energy in the context of climate change. It’s a good survey of technologies that will begin coming to the fore and it makes a good argument for nuclear’s value as an carbon dioxide emission mitigator. Putting it all together is the trick and that’s what The Third Way has done here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

NRC's Project AIM 2020

Last week, the NRC commissioners responded to staff recommendations for improving the agency's agility, effectiveness and efficiency.  In a June 8, 2015 Staff Requirements Memo (SRM)*, the commissioners approved most of the staff's recommendations received in a report called Project AIM 2020.**  The recommendations approved last week included: (a) developing a strategic workforce plan; (b) reducing the time it takes to shift employees between areas as workloads change; (c) evaluating the Centers of Excellence concept; (d) evaluating the merger of the operating reactors office with the new reactors office; (e) developing a common prioritization process that integrates all work activities across the agency; (f) re-baselining the agency's work; (g) improving the transparency and timeliness of NRC's fee-setting process; (h) streamlining other processes where feasible.

Project AIM 2020 is the agency's attempt to re-balance agency resources bulked up in anticipation of a renaissance of new-plant applications in the early 2000s that has fallen short of expectations (see graph below). 
We applaud this first step in identifying what can be done to reassess the NRC's needs and redeploy its resources in a manner that best serves its mission of protecting the public health, safety and the environment.  In the main, we are very pleased the commissioners have now given their direction and support to the Project AIM recommendations.  We note, however, that the SRM [page 1] directs the Executive Director of Operations to develop an overall plan for implementation of the approved recommendations.  It is essential for the Commission to ensure this "plan for a plan" is completed in a timely and prudent way.

Much work lies ahead to fulfill the approved recommendations.  As stakeholders in NRC's effectiveness, efficiency and credibility, we will follow this work with great interest and lend our support to aligning NRC's capabilities and capacity with its true needs.  Our above-noted trepidation notwithstanding, we celebrate issuance of the SRM as the "end of the beginning" of Project AIM 2020.

*SRM-SECY-15-0015, Staff Requirements Memo SECY-15-0015 – Project AIM 2020 Report and Recommendations. ADAMS Accession Number ML15159A234.  **Project AIM 2020 Report and Recommendations, SECY-15-0015, January 30, 2015, ADAMS Accession Number ML15023A558.