Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Third Way Summit and Advanced Nuclear Reactors

Say “nuclear reactor” and what leaps to mind is a giant machine, powerful enough to run an entire city, with thousands of moving parts.

But UPower Technologies has a different concept: a nuclear power plant that is mostly built in a factory, and arrives on site in two standard shipping containers. After set-up, it runs a cluster of buildings or a village. The reactor is more like a nuclear battery, with no moving parts.

UPower is one of several new reactor concepts that will be the topic of discussion in the next few days. Third Way, a centrist think tank, holds an Advanced Nuclear Summit and Showcase on Wednesday. Third Way recently issued a report on the future of nuclear power, in partnership with three Department of Energy laboratories: Idaho, Argonne and Oak Ridge. In November, the White House held a summit on nuclear energy.

Behind the events is the conviction that with technological progress, nuclear power, like microchips or composite materials or a lot of other evolving technologies, can turn up in new applications, in new places.

Take UPower. Today, almost all reactors sit on the power grid, where they contribute to a system with many different sources, but off the grid, the big source of energy is diesel generators.

These have a variety of drawbacks. Often the fuel has to be hauled long distances, so getting diesel fuel requires burning diesel fuel. Sometimes the fuel comes over routes that are open only seasonally. A reactor like UPower’s could run for ten years without refueling. Like a diesel generator, UPower’s reactor has an output is in the range of megawatts. (For reference, a gasoline-powered generator you buy at a hardware store is usually in the kilowatt range, and a house with a central air conditioner will draw several kilowatts; a megawatt is about as much power as it takes to run a Super Walmart. A typical reactor today is in the range of 1,000 megawatts.)

Diesel is by far the most expensive fuel, and can be the most polluting. And often, people who rely on a diesel generator are paying five or ten times as much, per kilowatt-hour, as customers on a major grid. So the economics of a tiny reactor might not work on a major grid, but would be very attractive in places that are off grid. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity and another 2.7 billion rely on “traditional biomass,” everything from wood to dung, burned indoors in poorly-ventilated spaces.

Upower is not alone in this idea; Toshiba’s 4S design (Super Safe, Small and Simple) has already attracted interest in Alaska and elsewhere. But Toshiba, Upower and others face obstacles in coming to market, one of which is the high cost of licensing a new reactor design. City officials of Galena, Alaska, wanted a Toshiba reactor as an alternative to shipping in diesel fuel in the brief window when barges can get to the town, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told them that the town and the company would have to pay the NRC’s costs for licensing the plant. But around the world, such reactors have tremendous environmental promise, for cleaning up indoor air, reducing deforestation caused by burning wood, and reducing air pollution from dirty diesels.

By Third Way’s accounting, 48 companies, with more than $1.6 billion in private capital, are pursuing advanced reactor technologies.

The new Lightbridge fuel design
Some are fission, some are fusion. One, Lightbridge, is not pursuing a new reactor, but rather, a new fuel form that can go into existing reactors. Existing fuel uses uranium in ceramic pellets, stacked in long metal tubes called fuel rods. Lightbridge uses uranium embedded in metal, shaped like a liquorish stick. The design as 35 percent more surface area, so it gives off its heat more easily. The Lightbridge fuel is intended to run at less than 700 degrees F, and give off about 10 percent more heat than a conventional fuel rod, which heats to over 2,000 degrees. That creates the opportunity to get more electricity out of current reactors, with fuel that is even less likely to overheat.

All these technologies face years of development work, but Lightbridge recently won permission to try out its fuel in a test reactor in Norway.

Also marching ahead is NuScale, which has a design for clusters of small reactors, installed in a sealed capsule in a large pool of water. The cores are so small, relative to their surface area and the cooling ability of the pools, that fuel damage becomes impossible. NuScale went the opposite route from Lightbridge; its design uses a type of fuel that has been used for decades, except half the size. The strategy reduces the number of new technologies that must be approved.
Aerial view of the NuScale Plant.
And there is also government help. On January 15, the Energy Department announced that it would provide funds to x-energy and a group that includes TerraPower and Southern Company to develop new reactor designs. X-energy is working on a high-temperature “pebble bed” design, and the TerraPower/Southern group is planning a molten chloride fast reactor. Pebble beds produce a higher-temperature steam with many uses, and fast reactors make better use of fuel, and their used fuel contains fewer long-lived materials.

There is more to come. Watch this space.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What Joe Romm Gets Wrong About James Hansen & Nuclear Energy

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.

Joseph J. Romm, a former assistant secretary of energy for efficiency and renewables, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has recently gone after James Hansen, the climatologist who issued the clarion call warning about global warming way back in 1988. Romm says that Hansen puts too much emphasis on nuclear power as a tool to reduce the carbon-loading of our atmosphere.

For people worried about climate (including me) it's distressing to see the attack, because the two men agree on the fundamental point, that we need a vigorous global campaign to prevent an awful destabilization of the climate. It's a shame to see supporters of that idea falling out with each other when their key point is not yet a universally-held view.

But Romm has never liked nuclear power, and perhaps we should feel complimented that he acknowledges any productive role for the technology. He is praising us with faint damn.

Romm and others suffer from a “silver bullet syndrome.” They argue that nuclear plants take years to build, and that recently we've been adding them at a slow rate, so nuclear won't solve the problem; therefore it's time to move on to technologies that are growing faster, like solar panels and wind turbines, they argue.

There are two problems with the argument: it's wrong and it's counterproductive.

It's wrong because the scale is so different. Everybody feels warm and fuzzy about seeing a solar panel on a rooftop, but according to the Energy Department's most recent statistics, which run through the end of September 2015, nuclear power is roughly 29 times larger than solar in this country, at 606,709 million kwh for the first nine months of last year, vs. 20,982 for solar.

Nuclear is about 4.5 times bigger than wind, which generated 134,578 million kwh over the period (data from table 7.2a of the Monthly Energy Review.)

Solar and wind both have plenty of room to grow, but not unlimited room. Each tends to produce energy in a concentrated period (noon for solar and night for wind) and when they start flooding their markets, the price of energy will drop at those times, reducing the logic of building more. This is one reason that electric systems need a variety of generation types, to supply on the schedule that consumers need, which differs from the timetable of natural forces.

And while solar and especially wind are good at providing energy, they don’t provide consistent power – that is, the ability to do work when the work needs doing. That’s why a “net zero energy” building still needs something else to back it up.

We don't want a system that is all solar or all wind – or all nuclear, for that matter – any more than we want every vehicle on the road to be an 18-wheeler, or every calorie on our dinner plate to be from tofu.

And until all the fossil emissions have ceased, we'll need every zero-carbon source we can find. Arguing over precisely how much of the solution will come from nuclear vs. other sources is simply not sensible. Also, the designs in the lab today will help meet the mid-century goal on which scientists and policy-makers are now focused, but we will need to keep building zero-carbon sources for many decades beyond that, to meet growing global demand.

And Romm is correct that to take a big slice out of carbon emissions, especially as world demand for electricity rises, is going to require an unprecedented expansion of nuclear power. If we do it with wind and solar, or geothermal or wave energy or and any other carbon-free source that we can lay our hands on, those, too, will require heroic levels of increase. Any successful strategy that takes a big bite out of emissions is going to have to show unprecedented growth rates.

Romm is also correct that we aren't building a lot of new reactors in this country right now, despite concern about global warming. That's mostly because the price of natural gas, a competitor to uranium, has collapsed. Using natural gas to replace coal guarantees a modest reduction in carbon emissions. But it also guarantees that the reduction will be only modest, because per kilowatt-hour, burning natural gas emits roughly three times as much carbon dioxide as our 2050 goal allows. Wind and sun are heavily subsidized, with dollars (through wind's production tax credit and solar's investment tax credit) and through a non-dollar promotion called a renewable energy portfolio. Nuclear is a micro-carbon source, like wind and solar, but does not benefit from those state-imposed quotas.

Taming climate change, the central focus of Romm's and Hansen's work, is going to require a lot of hard work on a lot of different fronts. It would be foolish not to push hard on all of them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The 2016 State of the Union and Nuclear Energy Policy

Alex Flint
The following is a guest post by Alex Flint, NEI’s Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs. For a Q&A with him on the nuclear energy industry’s legislative priorities for 2016, click here.

Tonight, President Barack Obama will deliver his eighth State of the Union address. For the first time, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) will sit behind him to his right, thinking “I could do that.” Of course, behind him to his left, Vice President Joseph Biden will be thinking the same thing but with the sorrowful knowledge that his time has passed. Finally, in front of him, at least a dozen U.S. Senators, some of whom are currently running for President, will also be thinking, “I could do that.”

The pomp and circumstance is always a bit fun. I always look around to determine which member of the cabinet doesn’t attend — it’s a nasty little Cold War flashback, but at least someone is thinking about these things.

Also, some of the Supreme Court justices seem less enthusiastic than they used to be about sitting through the entire speech. It’ll be interesting to see if they all show up.

Meanwhile, the president will use his considerable oratory skill to take some credit for his accomplishments over eight years. I’m sure enactment of the Affordable Care Act will take center stage along with some unexpected accomplishments like the restoration of relations with Cuba.

President Obama at 2014 State of the Union
I’ll be quite surprised if his administration’s effort to address climate change doesn’t receive second billing right after healthcare reform. When the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA had the authority under the existing Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gasses, it set the stage for what was to come. I credit two people; Carol Browner and John Podesta, successive assistants to the President and formidable Washington power players, with recognizing the opportunity and knowing which levers of government to pull to affect major changes in our energy economy.

Carol Browner
Under Browner’s leadership, the administration engaged in a major effort to pass climate change legislation. When that failed, it was the quieter but skillful leadership of Podesta that led the administration to address the issue without legislation. To my way of thinking, it was Podesta, realizing the Congress was hopelessly divided on the issue, who determined that the president’s agenda could be advanced without Congress through rulemaking and international obligations. The result was the EPA Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement which will result in even further changes in the U.S. energy sector.

I say “even further changes” because a dramatic transformation of the electricity sector is already underway. Energy Information Administration data shows massive shifts in the way we generate electricity. The use of coal is down 20 percent, natural gas generation is up 27 percent, nuclear is pretty steady but down 2 percent, and wind is up 200 percent (yet still produces only a small fraction of U.S. electricity).

John Podesta
I do think the President has to be cautious about taking credit for all this change. True, his Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement lock in these changes and compel more, but that is mostly prospective. To date, the revolution in U.S. natural gas production is by far the biggest energy game-changer in recent decades. Frankly, the increased natural gas generation of electricity pushed a lot of coal-fired power plants out of the market and kept electricity prices low so that the President could impose strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions without raising consumer prices and creating a political backlash. Imagine that; one of President Obama’s most significant accomplishments made possible by the U.S. oil and gas industry. It sounds amazing, but I think Podesta saw it coming and, being the consummate Washington insider, knew it gave the president room to advance his climate agenda.

In this context, something needs to be said about the President’s support for nuclear energy. My overarching impression is that really smart administration officials including Browner, Podesta, and even the president himself, know nuclear energy must have a large role (and I would say the largest role) in providing low-carbon electricity. That is why the administration has been somewhat supportive of five new nuclear plants being built during the President’s term in office. They know they need the clean electric generation.

Yet nuclear energy doesn’t fit the political model they’ve constructed in which regulations reduce coal generation, the government encourages renewables, and natural gas expands to fill the gap. So, for the time being, nuclear energy is the under-appreciated workhorse – except perhaps at EPA.

Most likely, when the president discusses his climate accomplishments, the congressional response will be partisan, telling us that broad energy and climate legislation remains years away. That means the ball remains in the White House’s court. Podesta is now chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and I wonder what his role will be on a potential Hillary Clinton White House. (I’d say something about potential GOP insiders, but that field is just too crowded to sort through right now).

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Nuclear Year 2015

Watts Bar 2
Welcome, luminant friends, to 2016, and let it be a sweet 16 of potential and possibility, accomplishment and achievement. 2016 has context, namely 2015, to suggest its contours, so let’s take a look back at some of the year’s highlights both within and without the nuclear sphere to see if we can at least divine the outline of the year to come. The past is not prologue, it is all the earlier chapters in an ongoing story.

The value of nuclear energy to United States energy policy became clearer than ever in 2015, but the struggle to have that value properly recognized became one of the key issues of the year and will continue into and well beyond 2016. As you’ll see, determining that value is not nuclear science; the shorthand equation is that every nuclear energy facility represents an emission-free economic powerhouse.

But its value has been neglected to the point that facilities are allowed to shutter as economically unviable. An any time, but especially in 2015, following the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change, that’s shortsighted. Keep this in mind as we move along because almost everything relates to the value of nuclear energy – enhancing it, but most definitely not damaging it.

So, 2015. These events impacted the nuclear energy industry but had wider application. If you read about them in the news, nuclear energy might not even have been mentioned in the stories. But it was there, sometimes in an important role.

Reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank – NEI was a central player in a coalition of manufacturing and trade interests that overcame significant political differences on Capital Hill to reauthorization this important  institution that enables U.S. trade around the world. Whatever the political squabbles that engulfed the Ex-Im Bank, it has proven an essential tool for American companies trading abroad. So essential, in fact, that the Depression-era bank has counterparts in virtually every country with serious trade ambitions. With the continuing boom of nuclear energy development worldwide, the U.S. bank’s importance has only become more manifest. To have it shuttered and revived in the course of a single year was an astounding political feat – triumph snatched from defeat as rarely happens.

The Paris Climate Change Agreement  – Nuclear energy has had an on-off relationship with the U.N. Conference of Parties, which has been meeting annually over the last couple of decades to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. With the signing of the Paris agreement, the relationship is definitely on. The agreement is absent of any specific recommendation for how to lower carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. It’s more about what must be done – and that is to lower global temperatures 2 degrees centigrade by 2100. Countries now have a strong additional reason to strengthen or begin a relationship with the atom – think China for the former category, U.A.E. for the latter. This is nuclear value writ large and fully recognized. To call that value existential would be overly melodramatic, but many countries are leveraging or will leverage nuclear energy as though their worlds depend upon it – because they do. This is the world the Paris Agreement could make manifest.

The White House Summit on Nuclear Energy -  This happened right before the Paris conference and signaled the administration’s support for nuclear energy in a timely way. The event recognized the indispensable role that nuclear energy must play in any successful effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electric sector and focused on emerging nuclear technologies that will power future generations. The administration, led by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, along with industry leaders. highlighted these emerging nuclear tech options at the COP21 conference.  Watch the White House summit here.

Now, let’s zero in on items that impacted the American industry a bit more specifically:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Project AIM and reducing the cumulative impact of regulation – A strong regulatory regime supports the safety and security at U.S. nuclear facilities, but  rulemakings that impose significant cost with little or no safety or security benefits simply saps resources that could be better utilized. There were signs of progress at the agency in 2015 that will continue into 2016. The commission directed NRC staff to ensure that regulatory actions are properly prioritized. The NRC’s Project AIM 2020, which has the overall goal of right-sizing an agency that grew significantly in the new century, will contribute to the effort. It will also re-baseline the commission’s regulatory activities and develop a prioritization process covering all agency activities.

Delivering the Nuclear Promise – The industry has launched a multiyear initiative that takes a similar approach as Project AIM to the industry’s own procedures and practices to achieve new levels of efficiency and efficacy without any reduction in safety.  In fact, building efficiency into our facility operations typically enhances safety. The plan reflects the industry’s commitment to safe and reliable operations, a determination to assure future viability through efficiency improvements and a drive for regulatory and market changes that would fully compensate the value of nuclear facilities. This initiative, teaming NEI with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), has elicited industry enthusiasm and will begin in earnest in 2016 and beyond.

Lessons Learned – and applied - from the Fukushima Daiichi accident  The U.S. nuclear energy industry has analyzed the events in Japan and responded by significantly raising the bar on safety at our plants. In fact, measures taken at American reactors since 2011 have set the standard internationally for maintaining safety even in the face of extreme natural events. More than two-thirds of U.S. reactors have implemented the NRC’s post-Fukushima safety requirements well ahead of the 2016 deadline, with a few remaining sites expected to join the majority in the coming year. A tailored, yet comprehensive system of portable safety equipment called FLEX is the cornerstone of the industry’s response to the accident, in tandem with NRC actions. These will protect nuclear facilities and ensure that emergency equipment is close to hand for any response needed during these extreme storms.

Second license renewal – Nothing prevented nuclear energy facilities from proceeding past their initial 40 year license terms and they did; virtually all plants have had their licenses renewed for an additional 20 years. Time, knowing no master, has continued on and now, nothing would seem to prevent a second 20-year license renewal. This is not uncommon for large industrial structures; for essential infrastructure. In 2015, NEI developed a “roadmap” for second license renewal and a white paper (at the link) outlining the process and issues for consideration, such as effective management of long-lived structures and components. Something to look forward to in 2016: Congress established a March deadline for the NRC to submit a plan and timeline for reviewing the initial second license renewal applications.

The pending operation of Watts Bar 2 – Many people ring in the year with a celebration and the nuclear industry is no different. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s nuclear plant passed its last regulatory milestone in 2015 when the NRC issued it an operating license for the reactor. It will bring another 1,150 megawatts of electric generating capacity to the grid to the Tennessee valley and is expected to go online in 2016. That’s something to celebrate.

Recognizing the value of nuclear energy – Almost everything discussed in this post addresses, in concrete terms, the value of nuclear energy plants. But let’s reduce it all to a simple premise: every nuclear energy facility is an emissions-free economic powerhouse. Properly valuing nuclear power involves the issues already discussed, plus more: energy markets, state  clean energy portfolios, the need for reliable, diverse energy sources (demonstrated most dramatically by the polar vortex a couple of years ago) and many other factors.

There has been movement to address the issue. In 2015, The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and a number of regional transmission organizations took significant steps to address flaws in electricity markets that fail to provide the price signals needed to support investment in nuclear power plants. NEI joined four other energy associations to develop principles aimed at establishing more efficient pricing mechanisms in competitive electricity markets. This group urged FERC to work with the regional grid operators to set expectations for the long-term goals of these markets. FERC subsequently began a rulemaking to address electricity price suppression and said it intends to address other issues in future rulemakings.

To repeat, it’s a start. We may expect that much more will follow – in 2016 and beyond.