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Archive for the ‘Debate of the Week’ Category


Friday, November 19th, 2010

Start with this video on YouTube:


In the 1990s the Department of Energy conducted a test on what would happen if someone tried to crash an airplane into a nuclear containment structure. You can see the results.
Then came 9/11 and a round of new concerns, not all of them well informed or rational.  They made the unsubstantiated and irresponsible allegation that if the 9/11 hijackers had aimed their jet at Indian Point instead of the World Trade Center, millions might have been killed.
What about the test with the F-4 Phantom?  Well, that didn’t count. “A jumbo jet is much larger,” they argued. “They weren’t even invented when the first containments were built. The impact would be much greater.”
But all this is spectacularly ignorant of physics. The amount of kinetic energy generated by a jet plane is given by the formula E = ½ mv2, where m is the mass and v is the velocity. A jumbo jet could weight ten times as much as the F-4 and still not make a bigger impact. That’s because the velocity is the more important factor. The F-4 Phantom was doing 500 mph. A jumbo jet trying to hit a target the size of a reactor couldn’t possibly do much more than 120 mph. (That’s the speed it’s doing when an experienced pilot brings it in on the runway.)  Besides, a jet liner is basically an aluminum beer can whose structural integrity is linked to the air pressure inside. As one physicist puts it, a jet liner crashing into a containment all would be like an empty beer can crushed against John Belushi’s head.
Why does all this matter?  Because right now the Westinghouse AP1000 – the choice of nearly half the proposed reactors in the U.S. – is in a protracted design approval review because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is trying to figure out how to protect it from airplane attacks.  Now, with site clearance moving along at the U.S. flagship for the Nuclear Renaissance – the Vogtle plant in Georgia with its two new planned reactors — the pace of the AP1000 review is more important than ever.  All this while the Chinese are more than halfway to completing the world’s first AP1000 and have three more underway.
Does it make any sense to try to build a shield to protect a containment structure?  Or have we already solved the problem already?


Friday, October 22nd, 2010

“Disruptive technology” was a phrase that kept coming up at Infocast’s Small Modular Reactors Conference in Washington, DC this week.

The term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, in which he showed that even the innovators of new technology can hurt themselves by introducing it if they are already well established in the old technology. Therefore, new technologies are usually developed by newcomers in the field.
The description would seem to fit the U.S. Nuclear Renaissance at this moment. The proposals for small reactors are coming mostly from upstart companies such as NuScale, Hyperion, Advanced Reactor Concepts, Radix, TerraPower and a reincarnated Babcock & Wilcox, which has dropped out of the full-scale field. Meanwhile, the established companies – AREVA, Westinghouse, General Electric and General Atomics – are “keeping up with the Jones” at best.
But there is a new element to the equation – the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The limiting factor in any reactor development, old or new, in this country, at least, will be getting licensed by the NRC. The Commission’s time – which is subject to Congressional appropriations and dedicated to safety issues first – can be finite even at its pass-through rate to users of $260 hour.  And any effort spent on SMRs could logically be subtracted from time spent reviewing larger reactors. Thus, when Hyperion sat down with NRC officials earlier this month, the company was only adding to the Commission’s overload.

There won’t be any Apples or Netscapes upsetting the established order in the nuclear industry. Ultimately, along with securing customers, everything will depend on successfully navigating uncertain NRC regulatory regime waters over a five-year period at a minimum. In this department, established technologies will have an advantage, since, even more than major corporations, bureaucracies have trouble adjusting to innovation.
“I believe if the nuclear industry is going to succeed, we have to succeed as a whole,” said Gary Barbour, senior advisor for regulatory affairs at NuScale Power at the conference. In winning public acceptance, this is obviously true. But is there also a sibling rivalry?  Are big and small reactors partners or rivals?  Are small reactors and large reactors an either/or proposition for the industry or can the industry and the NRC multi-task?  Are small reactors an untimely distraction at a time when the Renaissance should be focused on consummating a spate of new large reactor deployments over this decade?




Friday, October 1st, 2010

When the Senate and House reconvene after the November election either for their lame-duck session or the new Congress in January, it’s likely that a national renewable portfolio standard will be again surface. The Senate Energy bill, already out of committee, mandates that 15 percent of our national electricity should come from “renewable resources” – i.e., sun, wind, geothermal and biomass – by 2020.
It all seems so simple. Just pass a law and we’ll be on our way to a world run on “energy from sun, wind and soil,” as President Obama put it in his Inaugural Address. But of course it won’t work. The 29 existing state mandates are notable for their lack of compliance and have produced rising electrical rates.
More important, a national renewable standard will inhibit U.S. nuclear energy development. Billions of dollars will be sunk into wind farms and solar collectors while new reactors remain on the drawing board. A few sensible voices – including the Washington Post editorial page – are pushing for a “carbon-free” standard, but, an amendment appears uphill without a shift in the balance of the Senate and House.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the illusion of a renewable standard remains enormously popular with the public, scoring as high as 70 percent approval in some polls. So, how do you sober up the public with respect to the allure of a renewable electricity?  And how do you reposition the end game to focus on  clean energy standard, based on carbon-free energy?  Can a clean energy standard that includes nuclear energy, garner support in the new Congress as part of the President’s new energy climate legislation in “chunks” strategy?


Friday, September 24th, 2010

On February 22, 2010,  just 21 days after the U.S. Department of Energy formally announced it would suspend the Yucca Mountain national nuclear spent fuel and high-level waste repository project in Nevada, the first of a bevy of lawsuits seeking to overturn the action was announced by three state of Washington businessmen.

Just nine days later, on March 3, the Department filed a license withdrawal request with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (ASLB).  A month later, on April 6, the NRC’s Atomic Safety Licensing Board – in the face of mounting legal challenges and interventions relevant to the DOE action– announced it was freezing consideration of the matter to await guidance on the matter from U.S. Court of Appeals proceedings.  Less than 17 days later, on April 23 – without waiting for their newest colleague, Commissioner George Apostolakis, who was scheduled to be sworn in just hours later – the Commission vacated the ASLB decision and ordered the Board to render a decision on the DOE withdrawal request in 39 days or less (June 1).

Twenty-eight days after the June 1 deadline, the ASLB issued a unanimous decision rejecting DOE’s license withdrawal request.  Less than 24 hours later, in an unusual action, the Commission set immediate ground rules for an appeal of the decision requesting briefs from interested parties by July 9,  just nine days later.  On July 15, just six days after parties to the proceeding filed a motion seeking the disqualification of three commissioners based on their Senate confirmation hearing testimony earlier in the year, freshman Commissioner Apostolakis recused himself citing other considerations.
In a process that has been defined by days and hours for the most part, it is now 86 days and counting since the ASLB’s June 29th ruling and the initiation of the Commission’s review of the lower panel’s decision.  The full Commission has now exceeded the 39 days they initially provided to the ASLB to sift through considerably more complicated issues.  Meanwhile the U.S. Court of Appeals , which was scheduled to begin oral arguments on September 23 on the mountain of legal contentions now filed in the matter, has put a hold on the proceedings awaiting a Commission determination.  In just six days, the Yucca Mountain project will be in purgatory with the expiration of the fiscal year, a likely continuing resolution and given a DOE edict that it will terminate all remaining employees in the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management on September 30.

The Commission’s delay with regard to an ASLB verdict has lead to much conjecture in Capitol Hill, legal and nuclear policy circles.  Does the NRC Chairman – a former disciple of chief Yucca Mountain antagonist Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — lack the Commission votes to override the ASLB?  Was he waiting to get a consensus on an updated waste confidence rule, which was consummated on September 15?  Or for conspiracy theorists is he seeking to help his old boss’s up-hill re-election campaign by deferring a possible affirmation of the decision to reject the DOE license withdrawal until after the November 2 election or until Congress leave towns town for its elections recess?  Or for the more charitably-inclined was Jaczko just concentrating on his keynote speech on September 22 to the 54th International Atomic Energy Agency Conference on the  scintillating topic of “The Essential Role of the Safety Regulator?”

During the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD,  Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus purportedly fiddled while Rome burned.  One authoritative source claims there wasn’t a fiddle to fiddle at the time – although perhaps he was playing a lyre.  Other revisionists suspect that the story was invented by Nero detractors who took power shortly thereafter.

Years later, Clairol’s hair color advertisements famously touted the tag line – “Only her hairdresser knows for sure.”  So perhaps while only Chairman Jaczko knows for sure, what’s your view?  Thus far, in the Nuclear Townhall poll on the subject, 63 % believe the NRC is delaying the decision until after the election; 14% feel the Commission should take as much time as they need ; 9 % say they are deadlocked.  A 2-2 vote by the eligible Commissioners would effectively rebuff a reversal of the ASLB decision.


Friday, September 10th, 2010

Last week the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission directed the NRC staff to produce a plan on how to integrate the use of risk insights into the review of small modular reactor applications. The commissioners set a deadline of six months.
The move is seen by some as a potentially promising harbinger that the NRC is beginning to feel a ramped-up sense of urgency with regard to commercial nuclear technology license reviews. NRC Monday-morning quarterbacks maintain that the commission has taken a laissez-faire approach to new technology licensing — operating under the assumptions that NRC licensing is the world’s “gold standard” and America is still at the forefront of the world in nuclear technology and safety.
Yet this paradigm may be rapidly evolving. Last March Secretary of Energy Steven Chu suggested American companies might be able to find a technology niche in the world market by championing small modular reactors (SMRs). In the short time since, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia have all announced plans to pursue their own SMR designs and several are already in active development. Meanwhile, initial commercial deployment in the United States is not currently envisioned until 2020 at the earliest – in large part because of anticipated licensing schedules and ques.
So the question arises – should the NRC embrace more time limits and/or date certain targets in its licensing application procedures?  Britain, in beginning its nuclear revival, has given its Health and Safety Executive – the equivalent of the NRC – schedule parameters to complete license reviews on reactor proposals.
Could or should the U.S. do the same?  Will schedule definitization compromise safety or the “gold standard.”  Or should the U.S. stay the course with the current open-ended process, where reviews are ball-parked at five years and little is likely to get deployed on the U.S. Renaissance front in this coming decade?


Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Last Friday’s NTH Debate of the Week, “Can the U.S. be the World’s Nuclear Policeman?” caught the attention of Warren Olney, host of National Public Radio’s popular “To the Point” debate show, who was putting together a session on the State Department’s recent efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Vietnam.

So yesterday afternoon, NTH editor-at-large William Tucker appeared on the show along with Jay Solomon, the Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story, Joseph Cirincione, of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington non-proliferation group, Henry Sokolski, director of the Non-Proliferation Center in Washington and former Deputy for Nonproliferation in the Bush Administration Defense Department, and Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy.

Tucker stunned the Beltway oriented group by telling them “we’re in last place when it comes to developing nuclear technology” around the world and that we are jeopardizing whatever moral authority we had in directing nuclear technology around the world by failing to develop it ourselves. Needless to say, the representatives of the non-profit world were in denial with respect to this premise, which they labeled “premature fatalism.”  They also argued that “commercial interests” and the “powerful nuclear industry” is trying to spread nuclear technology around the world without any consideration of the proliferation aspects. Tucker responded that commercialization of nuclear power globally is largely being carried forth by France, Japan, Korea, Russia and China.

To hear the debate, click on this link and go to the podcast. Then move the cursor from the brief “Fed to H . . “ segment to “Nuclear Non-Proliferation and America’s Deal with Vietnam.”  The debate lasts about 35 minutes.

Listen to the broadcast here


Friday, August 6th, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Vietnam recently trying to negotiate an agreement that might salvage a small part of that country’s nuclear effort for American technology –- after Hanoi signed an agreement with Russia last February to develop its first reactor.  In Washington, the non-proliferation crowd is not happy. Writing on National Review Online, Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, complained the U.S. is being treated as a “nuclear chump:” 

Last year, the Obama administration said that it had set the nonproliferation gold standard when it finalized a nuclear-cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) . . .. However, no sooner did the administration announce the agreement than the French, Russians, and South Koreans rushed into the Middle East to seal nuclear agreements devoid of these key U.S. nonproliferation requirements.”

Somewhere in this argument is buried a Cold War nostalgia.  Currently we are telling South Korea it cannot reprocess its spent fuel if it wants to renew a 40-year-old nuclear agreement that expires in 2014. The Koreans say we are looking at them “through an old lens.” They get 40 percent of their electricity from nuclear power. We only get 20 percent.  In Jordan, the U.S. is telling the Jordanians they cannot enrich their own ample uranium supplies but must buy fuel on the world market.

There are 54 new reactors under construction around the world, only a handful in the U.S.  America no longer dominates the world in developing nuclear power.  Is there any sense in keeping up appearances that we can dictate to other countries how to use the technology?


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?


Friday, July 23rd, 2010

The possibilities for any kind of carbon economics within the context of a Senate energy bill now seem over.  The terminology of “cap-and-trade” has become so poisonous that Harry Reid won’t even pronounce the words anymore. As the Senate moves on to a more limited energy bill, however, some nuclear supporters are left wondering if the Nuclear Renaissance may end up in limbo until the subject is revisited – if ever. With the balance of Congressional power expected to change in the mid-term election, it seems unlikely that the issue will resurface anytime soon.

The scaled-back Kerry-Lieberman compromise — which limited cap-and-trade to utilities — rewarded nuclear’s carbon-free electricity and made it more competitive with coal and natural gas. In a letter to Energy Daily this week, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers noted that as the EPA begins to crack down on coal plants -­ 70 percent of which are more than 30 years old – one-third of this aging fleet will probably be replaced with natural gas or nuclear.  “Without a carbon price,” said Rogers, “it is very difficult to justify nuclear power.” 

And as a Wall Street Journal editorial warned this week, while cap-and-trade fades, chances grow that Republicans and Democrats could settle their differences instead by adopting a national renewable energy standard that might exclude nuclear.  The potential result might be billions invested in gigantic solar and wind farms that will require constant backup from natural gas – with nuclear left out in the cold.

Or, if the first wave of early movers proceed on time and on-schedule — with the first unit at Vogtle looming on the horizon in 2016 — and public and Wall Street confidence blooms while new initiatives like small reactors blossom, does the Renaissance need a leg-up from a carbon tax?

Is Jim Rogers wrong? Can the Renaissance proceed without a carbon regime?  Or is a utilities-only Kerry-Lieberman style plan pivotal to the Renaissance?


Friday, July 9th, 2010

Next week, if all goes as anticipated, Senate Majority Lead Harry Reid (D-NV) will take the first steps towards bringing an energy bill to the Senate floor with the hope that he can hammer something through before the August recess.

This could be a turning point for the Nuclear Renaissance. There are several possible outcomes that could be disadvantageous for nuclear. The worst would be if Congress decides to abandon a carbon-based approach altogether and settle for a “compromise” of a huge “renewable portfolio standard.”  Such a mandate would lead to much misallocated investment while giving no advantage to nuclear’s zero-carbon electricity.

There are several pieces of legislation already on the menu that could form the basis of the Majority Leader’s effort:

¤  Kerry-Lieberman

The bill has a very strong nuclear title, including expanded loan guarantees and a charge to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to speed its licensing. It contains no renewable portfolio but is premised on a cap-and-trade system that applies first to utilities and later to industry.

¤ Senate Energy

Largely crafted by New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, more than a year ago, the bill is “energy only,” mostly a package of incentives for wind, solar and electric cars. It was voted out of Bingaman’s Energy Committee but never made it to the floor. Getting Republican support might mean adding Kerry-Lieberman’s nuclear title plus a concession to swing Republicans.

¤ “Utilities Only”

A tripartite commission has advanced the American Power Act, which would apply cap-and-trade only to utilities.  It would avoid imposing cap-and-trade on the entire economy and concentrate most of its effects on old coal plants. This probably minimizes impacts on the price of electricity, since old coal plants are not the marginal provider. However, pivotal Republicans such as Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Indiana Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana are rejecting any form of cap-and-trade.

¤ Lugar Bill

Senator Lugar has introduced his own bill, the Practical Energy and Climate Plan Act, which is “more carrots than sticks.”  The plan would add $36 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors and add more money for energy conservation.  Oil drilling and biofuels would also get a boost, but there is no provision for taxing or capping carbon.  The stick, says Lugar, would be the threat of EPA regulation of carbon emissions.  The bill has won the support of Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, which is significant in the Graham was a co-author of Kerry-Lieberman before withdrawing his support just as the bill was introduced.

¤ Waxman-Markey

One widely rumored option is that Democrats could adopt some mild form of energy legislation and count on having cap-and-trade revived in the Senate-House Conference Committee. Final passage could be postponed until after the November election. Cap-and-trade could not muster 60 votes in the Senate but might survive through the same parliamentary maneuver that led to the passage of health care reform. If the Democrats lose badly in November, however, political pressures against it would be very strong.

¤ EPA Regulations

Lurking in the background is the possibility that if nothing passes the Senate, the Obama Administration may fall back on having the Environmental Protection Agency impose a command-and-control carbon regime on the entire economy. Nobody seems to want this but both sides could blame each other if it becomes the end point. Many supporters of nuclear are talking about substituting a “carbon-free standard” for the “renewable standard” so that nuclear could be included. It makes sense and support for nuclear is rising, but it may be a little late in the game for such a change.

Threading the needle with something that secures nuclear’s benefits while not creating runaway incentives for other forms of energy is going to be extremely difficult. What’s your proposal for a winning strategy?