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Archive for July, 2010


Friday, July 30th, 2010

There’s good news and bad news from Florida’s Progress Energy.

The bad news is that the gap in the wall of the concrete containment structure at its Crystal River reactor will take at least another two months to repair. The good news is that the separation occurred during stress created by cutting a hole in the containment and NOT because of deterioration during normal operations.

The issue surfaced at Crystal River last September when Progress decided to upgrade the plant from 838 MW to 850 MW by installing two larger turbines. This required cutting 25-by-27-foot hole in the steel-and-concrete containment structure, since the turbines were too big to fit through the existing equipment hatch. When the cutting began, however, however, a two-inch separation was found in the 42-inch-thick wall. The reactor has been shut down ever since and is not expected to restart until late September.

The initial concern was that the separation had already occurred during normal operations as a result of shrinkage or settlement, chemical or environmental stress, or some other unknown cause. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission feared the same thing might be occurring at other reactors. After an extensive investigation, however, Progress and the NRC have determined that the separation occurred because of unique stresses created during the Crystal River operation. Other utilities have cut through their containment structures 26 times without encountering separation problems.

The year-long outage has cost Progress $25 million in repairs and forced it to pay another $95 million for replacement power. Demand has been 5 percent higher than previous years during the shutdown period. Located 50 miles north of Tampa, Crystal River provides 20 percent of Progress’s output. The utility said it would try to recover some of its costs from insurance and contractors in order to minimize the impact on ratepayers.


Friday, July 30th, 2010

EDF, the French national utility company, is expected to announce today that its Flammanville reactor, already behind schedule and over budget, will cost an addition 1 billion Euros and be delayed another two years.

In its semi-annual financial statement, due out today, EDF is expected to escalate anticipated costs to 5.0 billion Euros. The 1,630-megawatt reactor – Areva’s vaunted EPR design – was originally scheduled to cost 3.3 billion Euros and be finished by this year. Cost estimates were raised to 4.0 billion Euros in 2008 because of rising material costs and full operation postponed until 2012. It is now scheduled for 2014.

Areva has had similar difficulties in Finland with its Olkiluoto reactor, an identical design. The project is taking six years to build instead of the original three and costs have nearly doubled from the original 3.0 billion Euros to 5.7 billion.  Areva is suing its customer, the Finnish utility TVO, for allegedly causing 1 billion Euros in cost overruns.

Read more at Nuclear Power Daily


Friday, July 30th, 2010

Bucking what seemed to be a revived interest in nuclear engineering, the number of B.S. degrees awarded in 2009 declined 13 percent while master’s degrees fell 10 percent. The figures come from a report issued by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education
Despite the decline in degrees, enrollment in nuclear programs around the country rose 15 percent, reaching the highest point since the 1980s. Richard Toohey, who helps manage the Oak Ridge Institute, said he expected the awarding of degrees to increase again next year as students and schools gear up for the coming Nuclear Renaissance.

Read more at Atomic City Underground


Friday, July 30th, 2010

You don’t have to be involved in nuclear very long before you start hearing about thorium. It’s the other naturally occurring radioactive element that exists in large supplies and can produce nuclear fission.

The story is that Eugene Wigner, Alvin Weinberg and other pioneers of the Manhattan Project era believed thorium offered a much better way to tapping nuclear energy.  We went the uranium route instead because uranium was the more practical option for the immediate task of building a bomb.

Nevertheless, thorium is three-to-four times as abundant as uranium.  It doesn’t require isotope separation – a huge cost saving.  When bombarded by neutrons, thorium doesn’t fission but converts to uranium-233 — which does.  With U-233, the production of transuranics is orders of magnitude lower.  This obviates any proliferation issues. (U-233 can be used to make a conventional weapon but is consumed all along within the reactor.). Depending on the reactor, the spent fuel can be much easier to handle.  India has large supplies and is developing a thorium-based nuclear cycle.

While it might be a potentially appealing package for the U.S. — and was actually pursued to some extent in the 1990s — there are significant hurdles.  The U.S. is obviously fully committed to the uranium fuel-cycle — as is the balance of the world — for the Renaissance.  We are heavily invested in the status quo, both to meet U.S. demands and to compete internationally.

Can or should a thorium fuel cycle play a side-by-side role in Renaisssance Rev 1.0?  Is there a plausible business case for the massive investment necessary?  Or do public acceptance and first-of-a-kind licensing issues make it impractical?  Are there other more appealing Generation IV options?  In short, what’s the best way to proceed — if any — with the Thorium option?


Thursday, July 29th, 2010

There has been speculation for some time that renewable energy has all the components inherent in the subprime mortgage fiasco -– an economically shaky idea inflated way beyond its potential by federal interventions until the whole thing collapses.

If you want to see this crisis in its embryonic stage, take a look at the battle now shaping up between state and municipal governments and Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac over financing rooftop solar installations. In early July, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – newly conscientious about the possibility of mortgage defaults – ruled that it would not accept a new system pioneered in northern California where municipal governments pay the high cost of solar installations – usually around $35,000 – and then allow homeowners to pay back the loans over ten or twenty years on their property tax assessments.

The program, called PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) has the backing of the Obama Administration and was earmarked for some stimulus money.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac objected, however, noting that the loan would have priority over any mortgage and would thereby endanger the integrity of any mortgages the two government-run corporations might insure.

The Federal Housing Finance Administration (FHFA), set up to supervise the two corporations after the subprime meltdown, agrees. Together the three government agencies insure about half the mortgages in the country. 

California officials and solar enthusiasts are vowing to fight the ruling.  California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is running for governor, has vowed a lawsuit.  Senator Barbara Boxer is promising legislation.  The federal agencies have vowed to defend their decision.  Meanwhile, nuclear supporters can take solace that financing of new construction is nothing unique to nuclear but applies to all forms of energy generation.

Read more at the San Diego Union-Tribune


Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Construction of new wind farms has fallen off 70 percent this year after falling another 50 percent the previous year, according to the American Wind Energy Association.  Stimulus money hasn’t helped.

The slump is an indication of how precarious the windmill expansion really is – and how much it depends on federal subsidies, tax incentives and renewable mandates rather than any true economic advantage.

AWEA CEO Denise Bode blames the uncertainty about whether Congress is going to pass a national renewable mandate.  But there are already almost 30 state mandates in place and that doesn’t seem to be helping much either.

The underlying reason, of course, is that windmills struggle to produce useful electricity.  At best they only operate about 30 percent of the time.  The best locations are on mountaintops, which of course meet strong resistance for marring scenery.  Output is completely unpredictable and much of it occurs during periods of low demand.

Enthusiasts are now talking about building huge battery complexes to store its power, but that could involve building whole city blocks of battery complexes that would likely cost more than the windmills themselves.  And the windmills cost about $1 million per megawatt.

Wind’s best chance now seems to be in pairing with the natural gas industry. General Electric and other manufacturers of gas turbines are already marketing their product as “the perfect companion of wind,” since they can be started and stopped instantaneously. The gas, solar and wind industries have already formed a strong alliance in trying push a renewable energy standard through Congress.

But peaking turbines consume gas at more than twice the rate of combined cycle generating operations, which use both the flue gases and steam to drive turbines.  As Robert Bryce points out in Power Hungry, it would be more efficient just to put up combined-cycle turbines and forget about the windmills.

The Tulsa World brings the latest, via Bloomberg


Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

While the Calvert Cliffs and South Texas nuclear projects await a federal decision on loan guarantees, the Department of Energy has moved ahead with the nation’s largest “clean coal” project in southern Illinois. The Tenaska project in Taylorville was granted a $417-million federal tax break yesterday to supplement a $2.58 billion loan guarantee awarded last year.

The project still has to be approved by the Illinois State Legislature, which is scheduled to vote in November. It also faces lawsuits form several opposition groups. Taylorville would be the largest demonstration of Integrated Coal Gasification Combined-Cycle (ICGG), an advanced technology that seeks to produce 600 megawatts of electricity using some of the advances in the natural gas industry.  Coal would be gasified and then run through the combined-cycle process, where both the flue gases and the steam from boiling water are used to spin turbines. The energy conversion rate is around 60 percent, as opposed to 30 percent in steam-only thermal plants. During the process, about 50 percent of the carbon content of coal would be captured.

Tenaska was originally conceived to conform to a law requiring that 5 percent of state’s energy come from “clean coal.”  Illinois has abundant coal supplies. Nevertheless, the project has been opposed by a wide range of interests, including consumer groups, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and Commonwealth Edison, all of which complain it will raise electrical rates.

From a nuclear point of view, it would be nice to see the project advance – if only to prove that it is still possible to build something in this country, but also to provide an objective bake-off between a clean coal demonstration versus deployment of clean nuclear power.

Read more at Saint Louis Today


Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

The House gave its blessing to a clean Fiscal Year 2010 supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq and Afghanistan war funding yesterday evening sending the measure to the President by a 308-114 vote.

In doing so, the House relented to the Senate, which last week stripped the lower chamber’s supplemental spending add-ons — which included $9 billion in nuclear loan guarantees.  

The Congressional action forces the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) hand on two pending loan guarantee commitment decisions — Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs 3 and South Texas 3&4.  Without additional developments, the DOE appears to be short of funding to do both in the current fiscal year given that the initial loan guarantee allocation — Southern Company’s Vogtle 3&4 project — consumed $8.4 billion of an initial authorization of $18.5 billion.

House and Senate appropriators have advanced $25 million and $10 million, respectively, in additional loan guarantee authority for Fiscal Year 2011, which could arrive just after the start of the new fiscal year in October or slide into calendar year 2011 with a continuing resolution.
Most loan guarantee observers see the Calvert Cliffs project with the edge given vocal support from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and active building and construction trade union support.  President Obama announced the initial Vogtle loan guarantee at a local
union hall in Maryland.

Read more at The Politico


Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Yucca Mountain isn’t the only waste storage project that continues to bounce around between federal courts and federal agencies.  Yesterday a federal judge in Utah once again opened the door to the Private Fuel Storage’s (PFS) Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation project, which has been pinballing between federal and state jurisdictional decisions for more than a decade.

In addition to re-fueling the PFS initiative, according to industry sources, the case could have implications for pending Yucca Mountain litigation, which is based in large part on the U.S. Department of Energy over-stepping its authority in its decision to terminate the program.
Judge David M. Ebel ruled that the U.S. Department of Interior had been “arbitrary and capricious” when it intervened to block the project in 2006 after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had issued a license – the first license of any kind of facility the NRC had issued since the 1970s. Interior officials had intervened in the process at the request of Senator Orrin Hatch, Governor Gary Herbert and the rest of the Utah political establishment, all of which are stridently opposed to the project.

The Utah plan was originally struck between the Goshute Tribe’s board of trustees and Private Fuel Storage LLC, a consortium of nuclear companies that decided to take the initiative while waiting for the Department of Energy to open the long-delayed Yucca Mountain repository. The Skull Valley site would store spent fuel rods in lead casks in a remote 100-acre section of the 177-square-mile reservation that straddles the Utah-Nevada border. A rail connection is to be built between the site and Interstate Route 80. The site is designed to store 44,000 tons of spent fuel before it can be forwarded to Yucca Mountain.

Although the Department of Interior had already approved an environmental impact statement, two Interior officials, James E. Cason and Chad Calvert, intervened in the case, ruling that the EIS was not adequate and that the tribal elders had not acted as “prudent trustees” in approving the contract.

Judge Edel called both rulings “arbitrary and capricious,” saying that Interior officials had simply substituted their own judgment for those of the proper authorities. The decision by no means assures that the facility will ever be built. A rump faction of the Goshute is opposing the agreement, as is every environmentalist and political official in the state. Careless newspaper reporting continues to burden the project as well. In its story yesterday, The Salt Lake Tribune describes spent fuel rods as “a form of high-level nuclear waste that remains lethally radioactive forever."

Read more at the Salt Lake Tribune


Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

When the New York Times’ Bob Herbert wrote his column last week saying “We’re Not Ready for Nuclear,” he called upon David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, as his principle witness. Lochbaum has long been one of the nation’s foremost critics of nuclear power.

A nuclear engineer trained at the University of Tennessee, Lochbaum worked for ten different reactors, from Brown’s Ferry to Connecticut Yankee, before leaving the industry in 1996 and joining UCS. He says it was his concerns about safety that drove his conversion.

Since then, Lochbaum has become a fountainhead of anti-nuclear information, including his 2006 study, “Walking a Nuclear Tightrope,” cited by Herbert. Yet some of Lochbaum’s opinions may surprise you. He appears to concede that "most" reactors are being run to his satisfaction — and extends some plaudits to the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO).  He says that the pace of decision-making at the Nuclear Regulator Commission actually inhibits efforts to make American reactors safer. He also argues that Japan, Korea and China are doing well at building reactors because they’re “not afflicted by the NRC.”

There were more than a few surprises when we caught up with him for an interview at his home in Tennessee last week.

NTH: You began your career in nuclear right about the time of Three Mile Island.

LOCHBAUM: Don’t blame me, I was still in college.

NTH: Well, once and for all, is the Union of Concerned Scientists for or against nuclear power?

LOCHBAUM: We’re safety advocates. If I see a safety problem, I want to see it fixed. We were at the table in the restarting Millstone back in 1999 and we opposed it because we felt that, although the plant had made a lot of improvements, the oversight problem hadn’t been solved. It was the same with the D.C. Cook plant in Michigan, which was restarting after a multiyear outage. The NRC hadn’t fixed its oversight problems.

NTH: So you wouldn’t characterize yourself as anti-nuclear.

LOCHBAUM: I’m anti-nuclear disaster, not anti-nuclear power.

NTH: Are there any reactors anywhere being run to your satisfaction?

LOCHBAUM: Most of them are. Still, there are people who don’t get the message or don’t have the wherewithal to heed that message. We did a study ranking the plants on a safety scorecard we had developed and the safest plant in the country turned out to be the lowest-cost plant, the Surry plant in Virginia, run by Dominion. We found they were achieving very good economics and safety by very aggressively looking for problems and fixing them right the first time. We also found that the plants that the bottom of the list on safety also did poorly in terms of economics.

NTH: Are we doing better than we were in 1979 when Three Mile Island occurred?

LOCHBAUM: I think so. We learned a lot from that accident and would have learned a lot even if it hadn’t occurred. There’s a lot more information-sharing now. With the formation of INPO, everybody is in the same boat.

NTH: So overall, are we meeting the standards well enough so that we could go forward in building more reactors?

LOCHBAUM: I think that would be the stupidest thing mankind has ever done. In those years since Three Mile Island we’ve had 47 instances where a plant shut down for more than one year for safety reasons.  Billions of ratepayer’s dollars have been wasted. I think we have to stop that hemorrhaging before we can move forward.

NTH: So the reason for not building new plants is those 47 plants that have shut down for over a year?

Each of those outages was taking us down a road closer to nuclear disaster.

NTH: You’re referring to the “Walking a Nuclear Tightrope” paper you put out in 2006. I remember reading that and noting that of the 47 shutdowns, only one had occurred since 1997 – although that was not made clear in the report and only emerged in a bar chart The New York Times developed.

LOCHBAUM: That’s not quite true. The D.C. Cook plant was shut down for over a year. It started up sometime the spring of last year. And Crystal River in Florida has been shut down since last September. The last thing I saw said that it won’t be starting up until late September, which would be another yearlong outage.

NTH: But at the time of that report, the only shutdown that had occurred over the last eight years was Davis-Besse in 2002. So the most obvious trend was that we had come a long way from the 1970s and 1980s and yearlong shutdowns didn’t occur much anymore. 

Well, we’ve also done some studies that show that the conditions in some of plants like Salem are exactly the same as they were when it was shut down fifteen years ago. So the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is just much less effective than it was in the 1990s. After 1998, the regulators ran away. On June 4th of that year, Senator [Pete] Domenici [of New Mexico] threatened to cut the NRC budget by 40 percent. About 500 NRC employees would have lost their jobs. So the NRC reacted by going underground and, like Sergeant Schultz, saying they see no safety problems. They hear nothing, they know nothing.

NRH: So there hasn’t been any improved performance by the industry that would account for the fewer shutdowns?

Well, INPO and some of the plants have improved performance. In most of the plants we’re doing real well. But the plants that are not getting that message or heeding the message – the population of those plants is not zero. And INPO and the NRC both are unable to do much about it. We need to get right with the104 plants that provide 20 percent of our electricity, get them operating safely and reliably before we build more plants.

NTH: Most reactors seem to be making a lot of money right now. Does that reflect on their safety record?

LOCHBAUM: If those plants were operating safely and reliably, Wall Street wouldn’t require federal loan guarantees for new construction.  Wall Street must think there’s much uncertainty about their performance.

NTH: So you think Wall Street’s reluctance to invest because of the safety record?

LOCHBAUM: The industry has always had difficulty delivering on its promises. We started out building 130 plants and we ended up canceling half of them. So Wall Street wants some assurance that these companies are better managed.

The rest of the world is going ahead with nuclear. The Koreans, Japanese and Chinese are all building reactors. Is it that Korean, Japanese and Chinese engineers are more capable of reducing the inherent risks in nuclear technology?

LOCHBAUM: They’re not afflicted by the NRC. They don’t have to worry about the incompetence of the NRC at their plants.

NTH: Are you saying that the NRC has a NEGATIVE effect on safety?

LOCHBAUM: I think if the NRC were accused of being an effective regulator, it could not be convicted. When I see these recent reports saying the offshore oil industry ought to be following the NRC’s template, well I don’t think I’m in that camp. The NRC is broken, not bent but badly broken.

NTH: So you’re saying the Koreans and Japanese and Chinese are able to proceed better BECAUSE they don’t have the NRC making things worse for them?

LOCHBAUM: I’d say that’s true. When the NRC takes years to make up its mind whether to do or not do something, that kind of regulatory uncertainty and instability makes it hard for companies and vendors to figure out what time it is.

NTH: Well, I’m sure a lot of people in the industry would agree with you.  They might also be surprised to hear this coming from you.  But does this mean it’s possible we’re going to end up importing this technology that we invented?  I don’t think it will be more than five years before the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese get so far ahead of us that they’ll be setting the world standard.

LOCHBAUM: I think we’re there now, aren’t we?  If you look at the reactor vessel head count from recent years, you’ll find that they’re all coming from overseas suppliers. If you look at the new ones that are being talked about, it’s Areva’s EPR and Toshiba’s Westinghouse designs. Those are all foreign companies.

NTH: Well, isn’t this going to have some consequence?  If the world goes ahead without us on nuclear, aren’t we going to suffer some economic deprivation if we can’t get out of this coal trap and move ahead with new technology?

LOCHBAUM: I think we’re behind on information technology already. But we’ve still got things like monster truck rallies and studio wrestling. The world has to come to us for that kind of stuff.

NTH: You sound like you’re being a little cynical. Is it just the NRC that you’re down on, or is it American culture in general?

LOCHBAUM: Well, if any country comes up with a better mousetrap, then they’ll capture the market. I can’t say whether that’s good, bad or indifferent for the United States.

NTH: So for you it’s not a matter of nuclear technology. It’s just the NRC that is the problem?

LOCHBAUM: I think if the NRC were more consistently effective regulator, I’d be out of a job. That would be fine, because in the long run we’d have better economic and safety performance. And more important, it would be better for the country because people wouldn’t fear plants if they were built in their backyard. Some of the basic concerns about nuclear power would be lessened if there were an effective nuclear cop on the beat.

NTH: What is it that makes nuclear so different? There’s general agreement with the EPA’s evaluation, for instance, that 24,000 people a year die of coal pollution. You also have a long history of deaths from other aspects of coal. Why aren’t you expressing the same kind of concern about that?

LOCHBAUM: We’re working to block construction of coal-fired plants.

NTH: Are you putting out daily bulletins or arguing that some of these plants should be shut down?


NTH: Well, in terms of the proportions, the number of deaths from nuclear power operations seems pretty slim. What is it about nuclear that attracts so much attention?

LOCHBAUM: I think it’s because two cities were wiped out by nuclear energy. Then there was the accident at Three Mile Island. You don’t see Hollywood making movies about the “Bowling Green Syndrome” or something like that. I’m trying to think of an example of a coal-fired plant.

NTH: So because Hollywood makes movies like “The China Syndrome” but they don’t make movies about coal . . . ?

LOCHBAUM: I don’t know. There may have been one. I also know that if there’s an earthquake anywhere in the world and if it’s within 25 miles of a nuclear plant there’s always a paragraph that says, “The effects were felt at the nuclear plant.”

NTH: Well, that may be true. But I remember a year ago CNN ran a headline on its website saying that a helicopter had made an emergency landing on a beach near the San Onofre reactor in California. Isn’t there a self-reinforcing syndrome here where anything associated with nuclear is assumed to be catastrophic?

NTH: I gave a talk at Brookings a couple of years ago and just before I did, there was a story that two people in Virginia Beach had been attacked by a shark. So I looked up the statistics and I found that since shark attacks were first recorded in 1924 there had been only 422 people killed by sharks. Every year about 500 people drown, in the ocean, in swimming pools, in their bathtubs. Yet if someone drowns it only makes the local news, whereas if someone is attacked by a shark, it makes the national news.

NTH: So are you saying that nuclear issues have more sex appeal, more press appeal?

LOCHBAUM: Yes. It’s similar to shark attacks. People are more scared.  I remember one of the last big airline crashes was down in Florida, a couple of hundred people were killed. And that same weekend the same number of people were killed in traffic accidents. But for better or for worse, the airplane crash gets more attention.

NTH: But when most people cite these figures, they do it for correcting purposes. They say we should be more concerned about coal and less concerned about nuclear. You seem to be saying that this disproportional response is a good reason for being disproportionately responsive.

LOCHBAUM: That’s just the way people are. People are afraid of being attacked by a shark. It’s the same way with nuclear power. It’s not like other forms of power generation. Most people’s first awareness of nuclear energy – their first impression – was the mushroom cloud. I don’t know what people’s first impression of a coal plant is, but it’s kind of difficult to get past that mushroom cloud.

NTH: Yes, that’s probably true. But shouldn’t it be the role of intelligent people to help the public find some relief from these anxieties?  You’re saying the public is fearful and it’s not your fault. That’s’ just the way people are. People think that nuclear power equals a mushroom cloud, that a reactor can blow up, and that it’s your job to help them exercise those fears.

LOCHBAUM: I don’t think so. I think the proper approach is to deal with the risk. If people had confidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission then those fears would be greatly alleviated.

NTH: So when Bob Herbert draws the conclusion that we have to give up nuclear power because of these perceived risks, he’s not misinterpreting you?

LOCHBAUM: His conclusion was not that nuclear power could never, ever play a role in American’s nuclear future. What he said was that we’re not ready. I think I would agree with that. We can become ready. We’re just not ready now. And it’s up to the administration to act upon this and get us ready or get us out of the game.

NTH: Mr. Lochbaum, thanks very much for your time.