Friday, October 30, 2015

A World Without Nuclear Energy? How About No Energy?

kronos_posterEarlier this year, we discussed the idea of a United States without nuclear energy. It’s a scary thought.

But also small potatoes: let’s talk big, let’s talk about a world without any energy. Occasionally, folks who take the Whole Earth Catalog a bit too seriously posit  an energy-free world, but that’s because they do their energyless thing with energy all around them. For most people, the prospect is terrifying, an invitation to anarchy, shortened lives – horror.

Sapping the world’s energy has been used many times in movies and TV programs. The show Revolution (2012-2014) used it as its inciting event and the series then tried to unravel the mystery of what happened to the electricity – think Lost with megawatts. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951/2008)(both Rennie and Reeves editions) shows the humanoid alien peacenik easily able to shut down all energy sources. And lest we forget, nuclear energy has a small role too in this context. The most recent Godzilla (2014) showed giant insectoid creatures crushing on a Japanese facility to munch on something - energy? radiation? – whatever.

kronosOne of the first movies to describe this theme is Kronos (1956). It was made during a period when radiation-soaked giant bugs and people were all the rage, but with a difference. Kronos is a big, smooth cube-like structure that chugs along the landscape on hydraulic legs absorbing any energy it runs across – or that runs across it, including a hydrogen bomb.

It’s ideas are unusually provocative. Kronos is removing the basis for modern civilization, a genuinely frightening prospect. Since there is no way to do this outside the realm of fiction, it is striking that the movie imagines an abstract monster – a featureless cube – to do the dirty work. How do you fight something inscrutable that is doing something inscrutable? Kronos makes the concept of energy throb with, well, energy – it’s something worth fighting to the death to keep because life depends on it.

2001_monolithThe aliens in Kronos teeter on the edge of knowable and unknowable. This is another great idea, if incompletely realized. Filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky would expand upon it considerably in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972), where the aliens’ motivations are never understood by the humans in the stories or even fully by the audiences experiencing the movies. In Kronos, the aliens can possess humans and speak English, but are never seen in native form – good for the low budget (no silly makeup) and also for heightening their unknowable quality.

solaris_oceanThe idea of something highly intelligent yet so “other” that it cannot be understood pushes on man’s conception of himself as master of his universe in tingly ways. We think we can harness energy, but we’re pikers compared to Kronos. Like the Solaris ocean or the 2001 monolith, Kronos does what it does without any thought for the pea-like humans engaging with it.

KronosActorsIs Kronos a good film? The dramatics are strictly of its era and the acting has intensity but with a decided b-movie edge – that it, emotion is conveyed bluntly and without much nuance. Most of the actors had played their share of aliens or the alien-plagued, so they knew the terrain and did not venture beyond it.

So, no – probably (the original) The Day the Earth Stood Still would get the nod as an all-around better 50s movie with striking sci-fi ideas. But Kronos at the least should occupy a special place in the hearts of the energy conscious. It takes what one considers precious and renders it fragile and finite. It then exploits its fragility to generate horror and distress. What more could you want?

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Here’s a quote from Revolution that sums things up nicely:

We lived in an electric world. We relied on it for everything. And then the power went out. Everything stopped working. We weren't prepared. Fear and confusion led to panic. The lucky ones made it out of the cities. The government collapsed. Militias took over, controlling the food supply and stockpiling weapons. We still don't know why the power went out, but we're hopeful that someone will come and light the way.

Happy Halloween. Hope civilization doesn’t collapse on you over the weekend. In the meantime, you could do worse than a Kronos costume.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Spiting Your Nuclear Nose in the Bay State

Here are two views on the closing of Massachusetts’ Pilgrim Generating Station:

News that it will close by 2019 has state officials scrambling to fill an expected gap in energy production while meeting ambitious goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are prodding federal regulators to shutter the plant even before 2019. Groups such as Environment Massachusetts view the plant’s pending closure as an opportunity to expand the use of solar and wind power in the state. They rallied at the Statehouse last week, urging state officials to act.

What first struck me about this is that both groups are fretting about the same thing – reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the state – but one seems a bit more attached to, shall we call it, reality.

Writer Christian Wade doesn’t miss this, either, via the area’s Congressional representative, Seth Moulton (D-Mass.):

Moulton,said he finds it “ironic” that environmental groups and elected officials are pushing to close the Pilgrim plant, which produces about 80 percent of the state’s clean energy.

Let’s say the nuclear facility’s 890 megawatts are replaced at least partly by wind and solar, as Environment Massachusetts wants. It will still need a steady dispatchable energy source to spell the intermittency of the renewables. Let’s further assume that that would be natural gas – which is carbon dioxide emitting.

So Moulton sees the problem. How about Bay State Gov. Charlie Baker?

“The closure of Pilgrim will be a significant loss of carbon-free electricity generation and will offset progress Massachusetts has made in achieving the 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, making it more challenging to hit these targets,” he said in a statement.

He has an alternative plan to the one I suggested above that is more emission friendly.

He has touted his administration’s proposals to tap Canadian hydropower and expand the use of renewables.

Which is certainly responsible, but also more expensive and will not count toward the state’s emission reduction goals under the Clean Power Plan (which only counts in-state generated power). So, um, yay for Canada?

And will it happen? Let’s let Environment Massachusetts State Director Ben Hellerstein weigh in (on legislation now in the state house):

Governor Baker’s solar bill would slash the state’s most important solar program and make it harder for many to access clean energy — including low-income families, renters, and homeowners who can’t install solar panels on their roofs. And proposals to spend billions of dollars on new or expanded gas pipelines would keep Massachusetts hooked on fossil fuels for decades to come.

We’ve no brief on this at all, but we can say that energy policy, like every other kind of policy, is a tangle of competing interests. Keeping Pilgrim in place means keeping 890 megawatts of clean energy in place – that is our brief. Replacing it, if one wants to do that - and Gov. Baker and Environment Massachusetts certainly do - can easily be deflected by other concerns.

The Gloucester Times, which originated this story, serves the Pilgrim area, so the paper’s willingness to address the considerable downside of losing the nuclear facility is very refreshing. That’s what Wade heard from almost all his sources, so there you are. You could say this, in its small way, is nuclear energy in the age of climate change. The concerns of Greenpeace types fade a bit in the face of an issue many accept as existential in nature. They can seem more than a little out of touch.

“Taking Pilgrim offline is the equivalent to putting 40,000 more cars on the road,” said Judd Gregg, a former New Hampshire senator and co-chairman of the Washington D.C.-based Nuclear Matters.

“If you’re concerned about global warming,” he said, “closing down plants before the end of their useful life is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Granted, Gregg is more openly committed to nuclear energy, but he comes from the region, a state with nuclear power (Seabrook) and no major axe to grind.

Cutting your nose off indeed. You might expect NEI to say that, but it seems an unusually universal view in Massachusetts and environs. As it should be – because  it is.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ensuring Seismic Safety at America's Nuclear Power Plants

Timothy Rausch
The following is a guest post by Timothy Rausch, Talen Energy’s Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer

Companies that operate America’s nuclear energy facilities today have made significant progress in their evaluations of seismic safety as part of a series of actions the industry is taking to implement lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima accident.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012 required energy companies to reevaluate potential seismic hazards for each of America’s 99 reactors.

Nuclear energy facilities were designed and built with extra safety margin, in part to be able to withstand an earthquake even beyond the strongest ever at each site. Nonetheless, over the past decades, the industry has re-evaluated the seismic safety of its facilities. Each time new seismic information became available, plant operators have confirmed, and in many cases, enhanced the facility’s seismic protection.  The nuclear industry is in the midst of a comprehensive review based on the most recent reevaluations – several plants have completed these reviews and many more will be complete within the next year.

Most recently, the NRC in 2010 concluded that nuclear power plants have significant safety margin to protect against earthquakes, including those with greater ground motion than the earthquakes used to develop the original reactor designs.

The nuclear energy industry, working with the NRC, U.S. Department of Energy and other organizations, developed a new model to characterize the potential for strong earthquakes. The industry applied this model to develop new earthquake hazard estimates for each nuclear plant site. These estimates will be part of a more comprehensive evaluation to ensure nuclear plants continue to be protected against the strongest earthquakes predicted for that site.

The North Anna Power Station near Mineral, Va. 
There have been only a few cases where powerful temblors exceeded the design parameters for reactors worldwide, and in those cases the plants shut down safely. The North Anna nuclear power plant in central Virginia is the most recent example. A 5.8 earthquake with an epicenter 11 miles from the facility caused destruction at some local schools and damaged national monuments 80 miles away in Washington, D.C. Yet, there was no damage to North Anna’s safety systems and only minimal chipping and cracking of concrete outside the vital safety areas. That’s due in part to huge shock absorbers and supports that are installed to protect safety systems during forceful quakes.

In the past several years, the industry has developed new assessment processes and an updated ground motion database to undertake the NRC-required update of seismic protection. Using the new ground motion data, the analysis for most U.S. reactors shows a reduced risk to safety from earthquakes, compared to assessments in 1994 and 2008. 

A few have a higher risk, but well within a range that will protect the plant and residents near the facility. For those plants, the owners will undertake more sophisticated analyses to determine what additional safety measures should be taken, if any.  The NRC recently issued a letter providing its final determination of those plants that are expected to perform either seismic probabilistic risk assessment or seismic margin analysis of seismic events.  

These sophisticated analyses will provide the best understanding possible of plant risk and will ultimately be used to determine whether any safety enhancements could be made to further improve the plant’s seismic safety.  These assessments, involving experts from a variety of fields, take several years to complete and are well underway.  They are expected to be submitted to the NRC for review between 2017 and 2019. Once the assessments are complete, the NRC will decide if plants require any upgrades to equipment, systems and structures.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Why Reforming the Reactor Oversight Process is the Right Thing to Do

Jim Slider
Fifteen years ago, the NRC and industry cooperated on reforming the way in which NRC decided where to focus its attention across the U.S. fleet of power reactors.  Among the guiding principles of the reform was to make NRC decisions on operating reactor oversight more transparent and predictable, and ensure that additional NRC resources were applied where they would have the greatest benefit to safety.  Combining performance indicators and inspection results, the Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) is widely regarded as far superior to the largely subjective and non-public method it replaced. 

Over its 15 year life, the ROP has evolved.  As NRC and industry learned from experience, adjustments were made in various features of the ROP to ensure the program continued to meet its objectives and adhere to its guiding principles.  Two years ago, at the Commissioners' direction, the staff undertook an independent review of the ROP that solicited feedback from stakeholders within and outside the NRC.  For the past year, the NRC has been considering the recommendations from that review plus others from a separate internal review.  One aspect of the ROP that internal and external stakeholders both mentioned was a concern about the Action Matrix.

The Action Matrix is a key feature of the ROP. The title "Action Matrix" refers to a decision-making guide published in the NRC's ROP instruction document.  The "matrix" is a table of criteria that determine where a plant falls in the scale of NRC responses.  The "action" refers to sets of planned responses NRC will take unless unique circumstances suggest a different response is more appropriate.

At the highest level of performance (Column 1 of the Action Matrix), the NRC grades all inputs to the Action Matrix (performance indicators and inspection findings) as Green.  At this level, a nuclear plant is assigned the NRC's lowest level of inspection, the so-called Baseline Inspection Program.  All operating nuclear plants are subject to the Baseline Inspection Program.

Just below that level of performance (Column 2 of the Action Matrix), a lapse in a single performance indicator or one inspection finding is judged to be of slightly greater significance (labeled "White").  This White input to the Action Matrix triggers an additional inspection focused just on that particular change in performance.

To be put into the third tier (Column 3 of the Action Matrix), a plant must experience a lapse in two performance indicators or two inspection findings that are judged to be of White significance. A plant could also be placed in Column 3 because of a single lapse judged to be of even greater ("Yellow") risk significance.  When a plant is put into Column 3, the NRC will mount a large inspection effort to understand how well the owner has investigated the problems evident in the White or Yellow inputs, corrected them, and shown positive results from the corrective actions taken.

Finally, below that level of performance (Column 4), if the lapse in performance that put the plant into Column 3 persists more than about a year or spreads to other areas, the plant is considered to have multiple or repetitive "degraded cornerstones".  A major recovery program will be launched by the owner and an intensive independent inspection by the NRC will probe the design and results of the recovery program.

In late August, the NRC staff proposed to raise the threshold for entry into Column 3 from a lapse in two indicators or inspection findings to three.  The NRC's proposal includes a thorough analysis of past performance of plants put into Column 3 that shows the use of three lapses rather than two is a better indicator of what was originally intended to put plants into this level of added oversight.  In addition, the proposal airs several arguments against the proposal raised by members of the staff who oppose the change.  As presented in the staff proposal document, the arguments against it are qualitative, and offered without substantiation or objective evidence.  This is not to say the arguments lack merit; merely that we do not know what the empirical basis for the objections might be.

The NRC's distinguished Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) recently offered their opinion on the staff's proposal.  The role of the ACRS is to provide independent, expert advice to the Commission on a wide range of technical issues.  Their October 16 letter to NRC Chairman Stephen G. Burns summarizes information on the proposal they gleaned from staff briefings held in September and early October.  Their letter further explains the technical basis for the change in Column 3 proposed by the staff and offers their support for the change.

The industry supports the staff proposal.  This recalibration of the threshold for entry into Column 3 is in keeping with the sense of the ROP founders 15 years ago about the level of performance issues that should trigger the additional inspection effort identified with that column.  Our own analysis suggests that resetting the threshold for Column 3 will have no adverse effect on safety or on the timeliness of NRC response to changes in plant performance.  In light of the supportive ACRS letter and other considerations, we remain optimistic that the Commission will soon endorse the staff's proposal.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Refueling Outages: Delivering Fresh Fuel and Electricity Reliability

John Keeley
Outage management at nuclear power plants over the years has evolved into a sophisticated and meticulously chronicled endeavor, carried out over the course of about 30 days. This month I am being afforded an insider's view of Palo Verde unit 2's outage, and the planning and coordination associated with more than 10,000 jobs being carried out this month within the unit is nothing short of staggering.

The work performed during refueling outages is a cornerstone for reliable operations throughout the following operating cycle. The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station is perhaps the best-practiced site in outage work across the U.S. nuclear fleet, and for an obvious reason: by virtue of having three units, with staggered outage schedules, they carry off two refueling outages each and every year. Outage management at Palo Verde, to this observer's eyes, is as close to an exact science as is possible in this industry.

Nuclear plants enter refueling outages in spring and fall, to refuel but also to carry out numerous maintenance tasks small, medium and enormous in scope to ensure reliable electricity for consumers when it's needed most -- in the heat of summer and chill of winter. It's worth noting that in the extreme heat of the Arizona desert leading up to this outage, from June 15 to September 15, all three Palo Verde units operated at 100 percent capacity. If you've ever summered in Arizona, you know why that level of reliability is so important.

The term "refueling outage" is a bit of a misnomer. The actual refueling takes between four and six days, but the bulk of outage work involves rigorous inspections and component maintenance. Significant outage work has to be performed while a reactor unit is offline, and it's during this time that workers will perform major maintenance and refurbishment on a unit's turbine, steam generators, pumps, motors, valves, and cooling towers. Systems and component inspections of extraordinary depth and detail also take place.

Occasionally outage inspections will uncover a component that needs to be replaced but isn't easily located or readily available. In past outages, under exceptional circumstances, site personnel have actually boarded airplanes, flown great distances to retrieve a coveted component, and actually purchased a seat for the part on the plane ride back to Phoenix in order to get it in place in time to meet the outage schedule. Overnighting parts sometimes isn't fast enough. In one outage instance, Palo Verde even had a bearing boxed up and boarded onto a privately chartered jet to get it on site in adherence with the outage work schedule. The cost of not returning the unit back into operations on time far exceeds even the cost of a chartered jet.

Palo Verde has a Central Command for every outage -- its Outage Control Center. Leaders from engineering, operations, maintenance, radiation protection, chemistry, worker safety, supply chain, and outage oversight among other work groups man and monitor information portals chronicling work flow virtually minute by minute, around the clock. There's a media cabinet housing 11 hard drives that feed high resolution visuals to a bank of television screens that run the entire length of one of the center's walls. Staffers at NASA's Mission Control would feel very much at home here.

I've attended multiple outage update meetings every day during the past two weeks, and the dominating dialogue within them involves worker safety and safe job execution. The success of 2R19 -- the designation for Palo Verde unit 2's autumn 2015 outage -- will be determined by its safety metrics.  

There are more than 800 augment outage workers in addition to normal staff now on site at Palo Verde, and the plant will spend upwards of a million dollars a day in maintenance and improvements for the duration of the outage. The site makes so sizable an investment in resources because its mission is so central to a quality way of life in the American Southwest. Palo Verde has become an industry leader in carrying out outages safely and efficiently, and the residents out here in the desert are able to stay cool because of it.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the Summer of 2014, NEI published a content package on reliability and the nuclear energy industry. That package covered the value of always-on power and took a close look at just how plants like Palo Verde prepare for peak demand during the Summer and Winter months.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Getting Smarter About Plant Maintenance at Palo Verde

Bob Bement
The following is a guest post by Bob Bement, Senior Vice President of Site Operations at Palo Verde.

Palo Verde has taken the lead for a number of industry initiatives, including the implementation of the Diverse and Flexible Coping Strategies (FLEX), which improves a licensee’s defenses against some of the most extreme external events that a plant could face. Continuing in our lead efforts, we will be among the first plants to adopt Technical Specifications Task Force Traveler 505-A, Risk-informed Completion Times. Implementation of this initiative will allow us to use plant-specific safety analyses to manage equipment outages supporting safe and efficient generation of electricity for a substantial portion of the population in the Southwestern U.S.

From the onset of operation of commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S., technical specifications were developed for plants to govern key operational constraints. These constraints include the amount of time that equipment may be taken out of service for maintenance while keeping the plant producing electricity. While these technical specifications were developed based on robust qualitative insights of plant operations and safety systems, more recent and more detailed quantitative evaluations have revealed that some of this equipment could be out of service longer without compromising plant safety.

Engineers Doug Hansen, left and Edward Peterson perform phased array
ultrasonic testing on plant piping.
These quantitative safety assessments have demonstrated that, in some cases, technical specification allowed out-of-service times can be extended to provide plant personnel additional time to perform important maintenance activities, if needed. Using quantitative insights to manage equipment outage time also affords the plant a way to better plan, schedule and execute emergent work necessary to return a critical piece of equipment to service without having to maneuver the plant unnecessarily, thereby improving operational risk.

This voluntary initiative is being undertaken by over half the nuclear operating fleet, and will result in operational safety benefits and efficiency improvements. Palo Verde looks forward to being one of the first to implement this initiative in the near future.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

NFPA 805 and Improving Fire Safety at Nuclear Power Plants

An incipient fire detection system at Harris.
The following is a guest post by Tom Basso, Director of Engineering Programs, and Elliott Flick, Senior Director of Engineering Operations, at Exelon.

Over the course of several decades, the nuclear industry and NRC have worked together to continuously improve fire safety at the nation’s nuclear reactors. By constantly examining relevant operating experience, we have been able to take on plant upgrades and make improvements to plant programs to reduce the probability and consequences of potential fire events. One major effort in this area has involved National Fire Protection Association Standard 805, "Performance-Based Standard for Fire Protection for Light-Water Reactor Electric Generating Plants” (NFPA 805).

This standard provides one approach to implementing fire protection at nuclear reactors, and while adoption of the standard is voluntary, roughly a third of the nuclear power plants in the U.S., including several Exelon plants, are in the process of implementing this standard. The standard provides the same level of protection against fire events as does the traditional fire protection program outlined in the NRC’s regulations. NFPA 805 additionally allows licensees to use Probabilistic Risk Assessments (PRAs) to identify the most beneficial actions and plant modifications to enhancing plant safety based on in-depth safety analysis of the plant.

The licensees transitioning to NFPA 805 have conducted substantial analysis of their plants, and have used this analysis to assist in developing improvements to fire safety. These improvements include physical plant modifications, as well as changes to plant programs to more completely integrate the findings of plant safety analyses.

For example, the Harris Nuclear Plant installed specialized systems that are capable of detecting precursors to fires in areas of the plant where preventing a fire provides a substantial improvement to plant safety. These systems, known as incipient fire detection systems, have been able to detect potential fire events so early on that plant personnel can take action to prevent damage to safety equipment.

The safety enhancements are not limited to additional plant equipment; the monitoring programs that NFPA 805 calls for support plants using the data received from these monitoring programs to identify better practices for fire-related surveillances and plant procedures. This continuous feedback in the performance-based program supported by NFPA 805 helps plants improve safety on a daily basis.

All plants will benefit from these improvements, as the lessons learned from these programs help us improve operations and enhance fire safety across the nuclear fleet. The insights from our safety analyses are helping us all continuously improve fire safety throughout the fleet.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Joining the Nuclear Workforce at Palo Verde

NEI's John Keeley
In January 2014 NEI made a remarkable investment in my professional development, shipping me out to Arizona for a month so that I could take Plant Systems Training offered by the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Plant Systems, an intensive four-week overview of operations at a pressurized water reactor facility, and a training unique to Palo Verde, is required training for virtually every employee at the site, but its utility and applicability is recognized widely across the industry. I remember studying very hard, passing all of my exams, and at the end of four weeks hugging a lot of new friends I'd made in the class and on the site.

At the end of 2014 I told my boss that I didn't want to allow my learnings to atrophy back at my desk in Washington, and suggested to him that I work an outage in 2015. What better place to be embedded in an outage workforce than among my classmates back out at Palo Verde?

The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, located about 55 miles west of downtown Phoenix, has been the largest power producer of any kind in the United States since 1992. Its three units are capable of generating more than 4,000 megawatts of electricity.

Because of its desert location, Palo Verde is the only nuclear plant in the United States that does not sit on a large body of water. Instead, it uses treated effluent from several area municipalities to meet its cooling water needs, recycling approximately 20 billion gallons of waste water each year.

Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station
Over the course of the next two weeks I'll be sending back to D.C. accounts of my outage experience. I'll be acquiring and sharing still and video imagery, blogging here, and tweeting from NEI's media team handle using the #PaloVerdePower hash tag. My aim is to bring a bit of an insider's view to the remarkable work that takes place over the course of about 30 days during an outage. That work is paramount to ensuring the safe and reliably electricity generated from America's 99 commercial nuclear power reactors.

Yesterday I completed two hours of Initial Qualifications Training just to gain access to the non-protected areas of Palo Verde. That online training is an exhaustive tour of the nuclear industry's safety culture.  

I'll spend the first week of my outage duty embedded with a Refueling and Maintenance Services team. I'm especially excited to be reunited with one of my Plants Systems classmates, Master Craftsman Erik Rose. Inside and outside of my Plants System classroom Erik was very much a tutor to me; beginning this week he'll be my outage supervisor.

I'll attend a radiation workers safety briefing, gaining an understanding of the dose field inside containment. I'll observe the operation of a polar crane, which performs the heaviest lifts on a nuclear plant site. I'll assist a Turbine Support group before the end of my first week. I'll participate in turnover meetings and follow a given's day's accomplishments relative to the outage schedule forecast. And I'm most excited to observe a core offload and fuel move, from the refueling bridge in Unit 2. Not a whole lot of people ever get to do that.



It's going to be a fabulous exercise of my recent training, but I'm just as excited to spend a couple of weeks alongside the men and women whose dedication to their crafts and commitment to safety make the U.S. commercial nuclear fleet the standard bearers for reliable and safe electricity generation.

"Net Zero Energy" Isn't All It Seems

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

The hot new idea in energy and real estate is the “zero net energy building.” It usually means a building with enough solar panels on the roof so that over the course of a year, it produces as much energy as it consumes.

And that means the building poses no burden on the grid, right?

Well, no. In fact, the grid’s work may get harder when a zero net energy building is connected . And it means that in real life, the building still has a carbon footprint.

That’s not a fatal flaw for “zero” buildings or for solar on the roof. In fact, many aspects of a zero net energy building are unambiguously good and ought to be incorporated into a lot of structures – good insulation, high efficiency lighting and other devices, and placement of the building to make optimum use of the sun, for example.

And there’s a certain attractiveness to coming out even in the energy equation, like the squirrel who spends the fall gathering all the acorns he will consume through the winter.

The power flow between a utility and a house with solar panels.

But it’s only energy, and the building doesn’t run on just energy. It runs on a combination of energy and power. The graph above shows the power part. The purple area, above the line, shows how much power the house is demanding from the grid. The green area, below the line, shows how much power it is sending to the grid, which is electricity from the solar panels, minus household use at that instant. The grid, formerly a supplier, is now a supplier and a customer, and if the flows from the customer to the utility are large enough, the grid must be re-configured to accept them.

While the house may come out even in energy terms, it still imposes a power burden on the utility company.

Energy and power are both aspects of electricity, and the terms are frequently used interchangeably, but they should not be. Energy is typically measured in kilowatt-hours, which is a quantity. Power, also called “capacity” in the electric power industry - measured in kilowatts, is an instantaneous measurement, like speed.

Consider a really simple electric system: an island fed by a single power plant that runs on oil, delivered by tanker once a year. The energy requirement determines how big the oil tanker has to be. The power requirement determines how big the generator must be to keep all the lights, microwaves, TVs and air conditioners running and the moment of peak demand.

Rooftop solar would reduce the amount of oil needed. But it doesn’t do nearly as much for the grid’s power (or capacity) requirements, because the panel’s peak electricity production isn’t simultaneous with the period of high demand. Some systems see peak demand on winter nights; for those that peak in summer, demand around sunset is very high, because people are arriving home, and turning on their lights, air conditioners and appliances. But the sun is too low in the sky to produce much current in the panels. And some systems see a peak on cold winter mornings, when, again, the sun is too low to be helpful.

The graph above, prepared by Ben York, an engineer at the Electric Power Research Institute, a non-profit utility consortium, shows how the grid sees a house with a solar panel on the roof. For most houses, the power moves in only one direction, in. For this house, the grid is both supplying power and accepting power back again, depending on whether the solar panel output exceeds the house’s power demand.

As the graph shows, for most hours of the day, demand exceeds the panel’s output, so the utility still has to supply power. Now that the house is a producer, the grid has to be set up to accept power. This isn’t a problem if only a few houses have solar panels, but if many do, it will require some investments in the distribution system, which was designed for one-way traffic in electricity, but is now handling flows in both directions.

Friday, October 09, 2015

NEI Welcomes Ex-Im Bank Discharge Petition; Calls for Vote ASAP

A few minutes ago, a discharge petition to bring a vote on the re-authorization of the Ex-Im Bank received its 218th signature. NEI issued the following tweets praising the action, and is now urging the House of Representatives to vote on the bill re-authorizing the Bank as soon as possible.


For more on the Ex-Im Bank, please visit our website.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Making Safe Nuclear Plants Even Safer at Southern Nuclear

Danny Bost
The following is a guest blog post by Danny Bost, Executive Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer for Southern Nuclear.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s pretty safe to say that you’re a proponent of safe, clean, reliable and affordable energy. As the Chief Nuclear Officer for Southern Nuclear, it’s my job to ensure that our six operating units deliver exactly that to our customers across the Southeast.

I think we do that pretty well, but as a learning culture, we’re always looking for performance improvements. That’s why we are excited about the opportunity for Plant Vogtle to pilot the application of NRC Rule 10CFR50.69 “Risk-informed Categorization and Treatment of Structures, Systems and Components (SSCs) in Nuclear Power Plants,” a voluntary rule published in 2004.

Since probabilistic risk assessments were first undertaken in the 1980s, plants have continued to use those studies to identify key potential safety improvements. As these improvements have been made and the results of the studies used to inform plant operations, the safety and reliability of the fleet has improved substantially.

A lot of the previous information is known to many. I will add to the conversation by sharing what Southern Nuclear has learned in incorporating risk insights, specifically in implementing 50.69.

Southern Nuclear’s adoption of 50.69 is the most far-reaching risk-informed application approved to date. Recategorization has allowed us to apply alternate treatments and targeted testing (versus one-size-fits-all requirements) to improve safety and reduce the burden of SSCs that have low risk-significance.

For example, using the 10CFR50.69 rule, the Vogtle containment spray pumps, which are safety-related, have been assessed to be low safety significant. Applying the EPRI-developed guidance, the pumps’ full-flow test frequency was changed from 18 to 54 months and the tests were removed from the scope of Vogtle’s V1R19 outage, which is underway right now. The tests were replaced with an alternative that is estimated to save $200,000 per outage per unit and will improve safety by simplifying the outage schedule and infrastructure development—specifically, by eliminating the need for temporary piping and scaffolding and reallocating resources to more important tasks.

By focusing on more risk-significant activities, we’re able to reduce overall outage critical path time and improve personnel and nuclear safety. These savings will continue to accrue for two-thirds of all Vogtle 1 and 2 refueling outages.

While the outage savings are impressive, SNC also has the potential for $1M in cost savings when replacing safety‐related valve assemblies with valves procured as industrial grade in select applications.

The 50.69 program can be applied to other programs such as work hour rule, snubbers or any other NRC rule that has risk‐informed language. For example, Plant Vogtle will take a graded approach to the treatment of equipment in programs including equipment qualification, maintenance rule, local leak rate testing, in-service testing and inspection and procurement—with the goal of aligning the requirements of each program with the safety significance of the equipment. With these changes we expect to save several thousand man hours per year for both units.

Changing from a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all mindset to a risk-informed mindset requires a paradigm shift, not only for us but for the industry as a whole and for our regulator.

But it doesn’t need to be complicated. And Southern Nuclear is providing lessons learned that will streamline future applications. I think this can lead to renewed interest overall in risk-informed methodology.
(From left) Plant Vogtle Risk-Informed Engineering Lead Adam Coker, Supply Chain Superintendent Tom Tidwell, Operations Support Manager Steve Waldrup and Work Management Director Jesse Thomas have been instrumental in implementing the risk-informed categorization process at Vogtle. 
When we apply this science-and-performance-based process, our industry will have more resources to concentrate on risk-significant equipment, which will shorten outage durations, improve nuclear safety, simplify work, relieve unnecessary burden and reduce plant O&M and capital costs.

Additionally, use of this rule will create the proper regulatory and business environment to develop innovative solutions that will result in performance improvements.

The good news is that several utilities have joined SNC in seeking out applications using risk insights.

With this improvement in the way we integrate risk insights, the industry has the potential to make nuclear power even safer, cleaner, more reliable and more affordable. That’s why I’m calling on our industry to join Southern Nuclear in its transition to a risk-informed design, maintenance and operational framework.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

On Chatham House and Nuclear Cyber Security

The following is a guest post by Bill Gross, Manager, Security Integration and Coordination at Nuclear Energy Institute.

On October 6, 2015 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an unclassified version of a report assessing cyber security for the Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste sector. The report was developed with input from the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the DHS Industrial Control Systems Computer Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT), the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and others.

The report affirms that the nuclear plant cyber security program, “combined with the industry’s exacting standards and culture of back-up safety systems, will make it extremely difficult for an external adversary to cause a radioactive release.”

It is a breath of fresh air to see such conclusions from an independent cyber security assessment.

The recognition is well earned. The power plants and the NRC have been aggressive at addressing the cyber threat. A concerted industry-wide effort began shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, establishing a cyber security task force that is still active today. The industry voluntarily adopted a cyber security program in 2006 and implemented the program in 2008. In 2007 the NRC amended their Design Basis Threat requirements to include a cyber attack as an explicit adversary attribute, and followed this with mandatory cyber security programmatic requirements in 2009. The key findings of the DHS report affirm the good work the sector has, and continues to achieve.

But the industry's journey has included several learning opportunities. On May 5, 2015, Chatham House (a recognized highly-influential London-based think tank) issued a report entitled, “Cyber Security at Civil Nuclear Facilities; Understanding the Risks.” The Chatham House report takes a look at status of cyber security for nuclear facilities around the world. The report summarizes several historical digital-related events at U.S. Nuclear Plants. While these events, from 2003, 2006, and 2008, had no safety impact, they informed industry efforts to address the risks associated with increasing reliance on digital technologies in the plants.

Some of the enhancements we have put into place include implementing cyber security training applicable to all plant personnel, including visiting contractors and support personnel. The plants have established multi-disciplinary cyber security assessment teams that include individuals representing a wide range of expertise, including IT, cyber security, instrumentation and control, nuclear security, operations and engineering. The digital components within the facility that must be protected against cyber attacks have been identified. The plants have implemented robust controls over the use of portable media (e.g., thumb drives) and portable devices (e.g., laptops) and apply those controls to both plant personnel and visiting contractors. The plants have implemented “data diodes” that allow the plants to extract performance data from the plant while precluding a cyber attack from outside the plant. Digital assets most necessary for ensuring safety and security have been assessed, and necessary cyber security controls have been implemented. Insider mitigation programs have been enhanced.

We’ve learned from those early lessons, and our sector continues to learn – including relying on up-to-date intelligence. As noted in the DHS report:
DHS coordinates a monthly unclassified threat briefing via teleconference for the Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste Sector. The Sector also receives quarterly classified threat briefings. The monthly and quarterly briefings address both cyber and physical threats to the Sector.
On the one hand, the Chatham House report provides recommendations that are sound, and are generally consistent with the lessons learned in U.S. plants’ decade-plus history of enhancing its cyber posture. It is my personal opinion that the recommendations starting with Chapter 7, “Meeting the Challenges: the Way Forward” are prudent for any utility establishing a cyber security program.

On the other hand, the Chatham House report paints a fairly gloomy picture - even of the U.S. facilities that have well-established programs. For example, the document chastises the US plants for trying to clarify that the focus of the cyber security program is on the protection of assets that have a nexus to ensuring safety and security. The report states:
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbying group which represents the nuclear industry’s interests to the US government, put in a request in August 2014 to reduce the number of systems in nuclear plants that would have to be included.
The report fails to assess the efficacy of the industry position - yet later on recommends precisely what the industry request sought to achieve:
It will be important for nuclear facilities to identify the most crucial parts of the plant from a cyber security perspective (notably, their critical cyber assets) in order to grant those the highest levels of protection. As Source 3 states, ‘It needs to be a graded approach; we can’t afford to do everything for every system.’ Prioritization of the cyber risks is therefore key. [Emphasis theirs]
As another example, the report makes the following unsubstantiated claim:
When countries do issue guidance, the cyber security measures that they recommend may not be rigorous enough. In the United States, the guidance issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is not sufficient to protect against the cyber security threat.
I disagree with this statement. The NRC’s cyber security rules require the plants to defend against a well-trained, dedicated and determined adversary who is willing to kill or be killed in an effort to achieve a radiological release. The NRC spent years developing guidance that provides acceptable methods to defend against that threat. The NRC’s approved guidance is supported by cyber security standards developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and embodies the findings by standards organizations and agencies such as the International Society of Automation (ISA), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), as well as guidance from the DHS.

The claim appears inconsistent with the DHS assessment, which affirms, “Compliance with the strict regulatory requirements of the Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste Sector makes Sector assets difficult targets for physical or cyber attack.”

The U.S. plants are doing the right things for cyber security, and we welcome the opportunity to share recommended practices and lessons learned with nuclear facilities working to establish cyber security programs.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

How Swapping Coal for Renewables Equals Nuclear Energy

xcel-energyElectricity diversity is a defining value for utilities that maintain a reliable, stable supply. This is helpful in foul weather and in other situations, of course, but it’s also allows a utility to respond to new priorities.

That’s what Xcel is doing in Minnesota (via the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin):

Xcel Energy on Friday filed plans with state regulators that would shut down part of the state's largest coal-fired power plant.

Why?

Sherco's two older units would retire in 2023 and 2026 as part of the plan, which also calls for 1,200 megawatts of renewable energy, including a new 50 megawatt solar installation at the site of the Sherco plant in Becker.

Sherco is short for Sherburne County Generating Station. It has three coal units and Xcel intends to build a new natural gas facility there. 

And nuclear energy?

While two of Sherco's three coal units will retire, Xcel plans to keep running its two nuclear plants at Monticello and Prairie Island through 2030.

Obviously, the Clean Power Plan is the motivation behind all of this – I’d add the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which isn’t mentioned, but has impacted a lot of coal facilities - but Xcel is also ensuring that it has sufficient baseload power to cover the intermittency of wind and solar energy.

If a utility has a full deck of energy sources, it has the flexibility to answer to society’s current needs without causing undue stress on the electricity grid. In the current instance, Xcel has explicitly mentioned that it will keep its nuclear plants open. That makes sense, because nuclear energy is CO2 emission free and thus fits Xcel’s goal of reducing its carbon emissions 60 percent by 2030.

We weren’t expecting a case study on the value of energy diversity this soon – and it’s not by a longshot the only value demonstrated in Xcel’s announcement - but there you go. I wonder if Xcel’s announcement will make other utilities think: can building a nuclear facility increase my options while reducing emissions? Short answer: Yes, yes it can.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Nuclear Energy Is a Key Part of the Act

Think energy diversity
Now, there’s nothing wrong with pointing out nuclear energy’s shortcomings, but AA Clearinghouse (a group, not a single person) on Storify really goes the extra mile. It kicks things off by noting that President Richard Nixon wanted 1000 nuclear units by the turn of the century. That shows nothing except that Nixon was an enthusiastic booster. He wasn't the first and certainly wouldn't be the last.  

Otherwise, the article is just a half-baked attack.
The Nuclear Industry claimed that it could solve the Climate Change issue and cost less than other sources of electricity. Yet the price of new reactors went through the ceiling - besides taking 10-15 years to complete. 
Two sentences, almost all wrong. 

Consider:
  1. The nuclear energy industry never said it could solve the climate change issue - maybe some Nixon-like enthusiasm here and there. Nuclear energy is emission free and produces lots of electricity in a relatively compact space. Hydro is constant, emission-free, but a bit inhibited by the reluctance to build new dams. Solar and wind are less constant - they cannot run all the time - but when they do run, they add emission-free electricity to the grid. The phrase to describe this is energy diversity. Nuclear has its value, renewables have their value and so on.
  2. The price of a new reactor is certainly high, the cost of running them very low, and people just keep on building them. There are five in progress in the U.S., 25 in China (some U.S. sourced), and a bunch of countries are angling for their first facility – UAE is only the first. Most of these are or will be built and ready to go in three to five years. 

Multiply those two sentences a few times and that's the article. I suspect the Clearinghouse knows all this and also knows why people keep throwing together nuclear facilities. From another of the group's articles on the site:
The global impacts to human health will continue to grow well into the future with most of the burden falling on the poorest in the world. From the loss of agriculture due to heat, desertification and extreme weather events, the many vectors causing disease are ominous and rapidly growing in size.
 Just so, AA.

The growing number of extreme weather events and the economic fallout from them is well documented. The failure to act could be civilization's worst decision ever.
But civilization is acting. Nuclear energy is a key part of the act. Think energy diversity, AA, and it makes a lot of sense.