Nuclear video matinee: Africa looks to nuclear power

The World Bank reports that fewer than 10 percent of African households have access to the electrical grid.  Some countries such as Kenya and Nigeria are looking to add nuclear energy to their grids, Egypt has plans to implement nuclear energy and South Africa wants to expand its share.  This video from Voice of America News discusses some recent developments in nuclear energy in Africa and pros and cons.

As South African nuclear physicist Kelvin Kemm notes in the video, “They need to double  electricity consumption immediately, and then double it again, and again and again for their people.”

For recent details on developments regarding Kenya see Kenya’s studied approach to a nuclear future at ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Thanks to VOA News on YouTube for sharing this video.  For text see Africa looks to nuclear power to light up continent

Image converted using ifftoany

Pioneering STURGIS will go to shipbreakers

by Will Davis

Nuclear barge STURGIS; photo from US Army Corps of Engineers.

Nuclear barge STURGIS; photo from US Army Corps of Engineers

Last week, we were reminded of a mostly forgotten but ambitious effort spanning the late 1950′s and 1960′s by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the U.S. Army—to develop a versatile range of small nuclear power plants—when it was announced that CB&I had been awarded a contract to decommission the former Army nuclear power plant barge STURGIS.  While many have recently touted the Russian Akademik Lomonosov as the “first floating nuclear power plant,” the expected completion date for that plant in 2016 will put it almost exactly a half century later than the successful STURGIS.

The first glimpse of the concept for this floating power station came in the late 1950′s as the Army and the AEC worked to develop a wide range of small power plants (the Army’s range of nuclear plants was given an upper bound of 40 MWe) for stationary, portable or mobile applications.

The earliest concept for what became the STURGIS is seen in an illustration from the book "Army Nuclear Power Program," published by the Engineer School, Fort Belvoir, 1958.  Under "Possible Future Projects" is "Barge-mounted Plants," described thus:  "Another type of mobile plant which has been considered, would be mounted on a barge as shown in Figure 7 or on a mobile pier.  Such plants could be built to furnish large blocks of electric power for remote installations and for emergency use both overseas and in the United States."

The earliest concept for what became the STURGIS in an illustration from the book “Army Nuclear Power Program,” published by the Engineer School, Fort Belvoir, 1958. Under “Possible Future Projects” is “Barge-mounted Plants,” described thus: “Another type of mobile plant which has been considered, would be mounted on a barge as shown in Figure 7 or on a mobile pier. Such plants could be built to furnish large blocks of electric power for remote installations and for emergency use both overseas and in the United States.” (Will Davis collection)

Eventually it was decided to convert an existing ship.  The Martin Company, a subsidiary of the Martin-Marietta Corporation, was selected to build the 10 MWe pressurized water reactor plant for this project.  Martin had already been awarded the contracts for the small PWR plants used at Sundance Air Force Station, Wyoming (1.0 MWe and 2.0 MWt space heating) and at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica (1.5 MWe.)

Although STURGIS is often said to have been converted from a Liberty Ship (which originally was supposed to have been the SS Walter F. Perry, but ended up being the SS Charles)—in fact it was over one-third new; a brand new, and wider, midsection was inserted between the bow and stern of the Second World War vessel.

Erhard Koehler, an acknowledged expert on the nuclear powered merchant ship N.S. Savannah, and familiar with the STURGIS, elaborates on the construction of the new configuration.  “The midbody, which contains the nuclear plant, turbogenerators, control room, and superstructure were all newly built.  So although the STURGIS is often said to have been ‘converted from a Liberty Ship,’ that really isn’t quite true.  It may have been a necessary administrative fiction at the time.”  The new section also contained heavy concrete radiation shielding and collision protection for the power plant.

The powerplant was small, but conventional; it contained a 45 MWt pressurized water reactor which itself had a two-region core, and interestingly (for nuclear engineers, anyway) had boron poison added to its fuel cladding.  The core was designed to run one year before a fuel shuffle / reload (in which the 16 inner elements would be removed, the 16 outer elements moved to the inner positions, and 16 new elements added in the outer positions).  The plant had a single loop and a vertical steam generator, with two reactor coolant pumps.

The complicated construction process for the ship was begun in 1963 when the Cugle was pulled from the Maritime Administration’s reserve fleet; it ended with testing of the completed plant at the Army’s station at Fort Belvoir, Virginia (where its original SM-1 nuclear plant was constructed and where a large amount of training was also performed.)

STURGIS testing at Fort Belvoir.  US Army Corps of Engineers.

STURGIS testing at Fort Belvoir. US Army Corps of Engineers.

The STURGIS tested at Fort Belvoir for approximately one year, after which it was moved to the area of the Panama Canal, where it was more or less semi-permanently stationed at Gatun Lake for the purpose of delivering reliable, around the clock power to this vital resource.  Eventually the Panama Canal Company installed extra (non-nuclear) generating assets, rendering the STURGIS’ services unnecessary; in addition, the Army was getting out of nuclear power.  The plant was shut down for the last time in 1976, and the ship eventually made its way to the James River Reserve Fleet.  Koehler notes that after about 15 years, the languishing STURGIS was joined by the N.S. Savannah, which was tied to it.  STURGIS was occasionally moved to drydock as required for maintenance and upkeep—according to Koehler, most recently in late 2007 – early 2008.

“There are a couple interesting ties between STURGIS and SAVANNAH, not the least being the 12 years that they were literally tied to one another in the reserve fleet,” says Koehler, who also relates a little known and more serious relation the two have.  “When B&W (the reactor vendor for the SAVANNAH) declined to bid for the STURGIS contract, one of their lead engineers from the NSS project, Zelvin Levine, left B&W and went to the Martin Company.  Martin won the contract, and Zel was a senior project manager for the conversion.”  It’s interesting to note that when Oak Ridge National Laboratory was performing supportive analytical study of the nuclear characteristics of the core for the STURGIS’ power plant (officially designated as the MH-1A plant) its characteristics were similar enough to those of the reactor on SAVANNAH that much of the work was carried over.  However, it’s important to point out here that the two aren’t identical.

Erhard also notes that the N.S. Savannah Association, Inc. recently received from Zel Levine some papers “that include several preliminary and final  volumes from the STURGIS Safeguards Report,” which means that some of the ship’s documentation at least will survive.

STURGIS photographed on April 9, 2014 by Erhard Koehler.

STURGIS photographed on April 9, 2014 by Erhard Koehler.

Will any of the vessel itself survive?  Probably not much.  Koehler tells ANS, “The two steaming Liberty Ship museums (Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco and John W. Brown in Baltimore) have been given opportunities from the Army to salvage useful equipment from STURGIS during the project.  The Army Corps has a number of curatorial artifacts already removed and preserved.  They are in the process of consulting under the National Historic Preservation Act to determine any further mitigation actions that will be taken prior to the dismantlement.  However, at the moment it doesn’t appear that any other features of the ship are slated for preservation.  As an example, two nearly identical control rooms are already preserved; one at Fort Belvoir, so the STURGIS console may not be removed.”

STURGIS photographed by Erhard Koehler on April 10, 2014.

STURGIS photographed by Erhard Koehler on April 10, 2014.

Eventually, later this year, the STURGIS will make its way to Galveston, Texas, where the decommissioning of the power plant section will take place.  The ship’s power plant will be dismantled and disposed of in the same manner as commercial nuclear plants, with waste being shipped to approved disposal sites (which have not yet been determined).  Once this section has been removed the rest of the ship will be scrapped at Brownsville, Texas.  The Army Corps of Engineers estimates presently that the entire process “should take less than four years,” according to its announcement.  (There will be a public meeting in Galveston this summer to “provide more details and answer questions.”)  With the dismantling of the STURGIS, another vestige of a once-promising but now ever-vanishing program disappears, although as we’ve seen with the recent frenzy over the Russian floating plant, the concept is as sound today as it was a half century ago.

For more information:

Final Environmental Assessment – Decommissioning and Dismantling of STURGIS and MH-1A

Decommissioning and Dismantling of STURGIS – US Army Corps of Engineers.  This page has links to videos of the construction and testing of STURGIS.

Will Davis posted on the STURGIS on March 31 at Atomic Power Review.

World Nuclear News posted on the STURGIS on April 14.

CB&I Press Release on Contract Award for STURGIS decommissioning.

A view abeam of the STURGIS.  Photo by Erhard Koehler, April 9, 2014.

A view abeam of the STURGIS. Photo by Erhard Koehler, April 9, 2014.

WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is the communications director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian and as a member of the board of directors. He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is secretary of the board of directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

ANS Annual Meeting: Special Session on Past and Present Critical Experiments

The ANS Nuclear Criticality Safety Division (NCSD) is sponsoring a special session at the upcoming American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting in Reno, Nev., June 15–19. The session is titled “Critical and Subcritical Experiments” and will commence the morning of Wednesday, June 18. This session will contribute to the long history and hundreds of technical papers related to critical-mass experiments that first began at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in the 1940s.

The NCSD-sponsored session is organized by Jesson Hutchinson, a LANL nuclear engineer who works on critical and subcritical experiments focusing on correlated neutron data measurements. In addition, the session will be appropriately chaired by Richard Malenfant, a LANL-retired world-renowned pioneer of large-scale critical-assembly measurements and operations.

There are six scheduled session presentations:

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LANL’s Godiva IV pulsed nuclear reactor—used for producing bursts of neutrons and gamma rays

Margaret Marshall (Idaho National Laboratory) “Benchmark Results for βeff in a HEU Metal System using ORSphere”

Rene Sanchez (LANL) “Prompt Neutron Decay Constants in a HEU-Copper Reflected System”

Kimberly Clark (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) “Characterization of the NPOD3 Detectors in MCNP5 and MCNP6”

Jesson Hutchinson (LANL) “Joint LANL/CEA Measurements on Godiva IV”

Jesson Hutchinson (LANL) “Investigation of keff versus Fraction of Critical Mass”

To conclude the session, Richard Malenfant will present a paper titled “Historical Critical Experiments”—a summary and highlights of the rich history of large-scale critical experiments.

The ANS Annual Meeting will feature technical presentations on topics based on submissions from its vast 11,000-person membership of engineers, scientists, administrators, and educators representing more than 1,600 corporations, educational institutions, and government agencies.

We look forward to seeing you at the Annual Meeting and at this special NCSD session in June. For registration, hotel and resort information, preliminary meeting program, and more, see here.




Richard Malenfant joined the Critical Experiments Laboratory, Applied Nuclear Physics Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1956 after graduation from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Engineering Physics. He was called to Officer Pilot Training in the Air Force in 1957 but spent his tour of duty as a Nuclear Research Officer in the Propulsion Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He was associated with theoretical and experimental aspects of nuclear propulsion programs (aircraft, ramjets, and rockets) until he took a position with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in January, 1961.  Much of his time at Los Alamos was spent at the critical experiments laboratory where he worked with all fissionable materials in all forms including solid, liquid, and gaseous assemblies. As part of his work in radiation analysis he developed the QAD point kernel shielding program and the G3 3-dimensional single scattering program. Both programs are still in use throughout the world. 

His experimental work included the construction and operation at critical of a true replica of Little Boy to evaluate the dose received by the survivors at Hiroshima and to determine the Quality Factor (RBE) of neutrons relative to gamma-rays. He also worked on the design, construction, and operation of Sheba, a 4.5% enriched uranyl fluoride solution reactor for the evaluation of the response of criticality accident alarm systems. 

Following retirement from the laboratory, he continued to consult with the Department of Energy, to work at Los Alamos through Sumner Associates, and to serve as a member of the Sandia National Laboratories Nuclear Facility Safety Committee and the Los Alamos Critical experiments Safety Committee. 

He holds an MS in physics and math from Ohio State University, an MBA from the University of New Mexico, and is an instrument-rated commercial single and multi-engine pilot and flight instructor. Although he retired in November, 1996, he continues to pursue his interests in nuclear criticality safety and the history of nuclear accidents and nuclear experiments.

Nuclear Energy Blogger Carnival 204

ferris wheel 202x201It’s time for the 204th Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers and Authors – and this week, it’s hosted right here at the ANS Nuclear Cafe.  The best pro-nuclear authors and bloggers have lined up to submit their choices for this week’s compilation.


NEI Nuclear Notes – submitted by Eric McErlain

Why DOE Should Back SMR Development

Energy Northwest VP Dale Atkinson on why his company is pursuing SMR’s

NEI’s Ted Jones lists the top 5 reasons to support reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank – something critical for the US nuclear industry

FirstEnergy’s Tony Alexander doesn’t like what’s happening to the grid

Popular Mechanics just published an expose on Joe Mangano.  Are reporters listening?

NEI’s Tara Young watched the first episode of Showtime’s documentary series on climate change, but didn’t hear anything about energy solutions.


Yes Vermont Yankee – Meredith Angwin

Predicting the 60 Minutes Fukushima Story: Guest post by James Greenidge

This guest post was written as a comment on another blog, shortly before the 60 Minutes ”third anniversary of Fukushima” television segment was broadcast.  In the post, Greenidge predicts that desolate towns and earthquake-induced natural gas fires will be featured on 60 Minutes.  Comparative background radiation levels will not be featured. Was he correct?


AREVA North America Next Energy Blog

Nuclear Components Riding the Bull for Seismic Testing

As part of the response to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s post-Fukushima requirements, companies that operate nuclear energy facilities are re-evaluating the earthquake potential at their sites using the latest data and methodologies.  Surviving the up to 20 g bull ride atop AREVA’s 7-ton shake table is one way to test safety-related components, and help U.S. nuclear power facilities remain a safe, reliable and bountiful clean energy source of electricity to power America’s industry, hospitals and homes.

AREVA Inc’s Rencheck:  Nuclear Energy Crucial to New England

With our need for energy growing, not just during cold weather snaps, we need a reliable, diverse energy mix that prioritizes low-carbon energy sources to improve public health and reduce emissions.  Nuclear energy currently accounts for approximately 20 percent of U.S. electricity and 63.3 percent of emissions-free electricity.  Increased energy grid stability and reliability are some of the more well-known benefits of nuclear energy, but its positive contributions to public health are too often overlooked.


Atomic Insights – Rod Adams

TMI Operators Took Actions They Were Trained to Take

This is a guest article by Michael Derivan who was the Davis Besse shift supervisor on September 24, 1977 when the plant experienced an event that was almost identical to the event that resulted in the TMI core melt accident. For the first 20 minutes, the Davis Besse plant and operator responses were almost identical to those at TMI. Then Derivan had an ah-ha moment and turned his event into an historic footnote instead of a multi-billion dollar accident.

In this lengthy, carefully explained piece, Derivan tells why his plant and his crew responded to a loss of feed water event in the same way that the TMI plant and crew responded 18 months later. He wonders why the lessons learned from his event were not shared with the TMI operators sometime during interval before their accident and why the subsequent investigations did not reveal the true root cause.


ANS Nuclear Cafe

Kenya’s Studied Approach to a Nuclear Future

Will Davis takes a look at the program being developed by the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board, its history and its effort to have its core of nuclear engineers and experts educated overseas to seed the program in future years.

Small Modular Reactors – U.S. Capabilities and the Global Market

Rod Adams recently attended the Nuclear Energy Insider SMR conference, and at ANS Nuclear Cafe he reports on the events of the second day of that conference which focused on information for those interested in developing a market for such plants outside the U.S.

A Pyrrhic Victory In Vermont for Nuclear Power?

Howard Shaffer continues the long-standing ANS Nuclear Cafe coverage on events surrounding the Vermont Yankee plant with this piece which describes the recent Vermont Public Service Board’s issuance of a Certificate of Public Good for the plant.  Important facts for nuclear advocates – as well as great motivation – can be found in this article.


The Hiroshima Syndrome – Les Corrice

Arnie Gundersen’s Fukushima hot particle myth

Arnie Gundersen is making a concerted effort to have the world think that hot particles also come from nuke plants, especially Fukushima Daiichi. His latest “evidence” comes from a professional civil engineer in Massachusetts who has been trying for three years to use this contrived hot particle notion as a basis for getting a PhD…without success. Further, Gundersen makes one of the most convoluted conspiracy theory claims to yet come out of the Fukushima realm of distorted journalism.


Next Big Future – Brian Wang

Here are details on the General Atomics (GA) Energy Multiplier Module
(EM²) reactor.

GA is innovating new materials, getting the efficiency way up,
simplifying the design and getting the cost into the competitive

GA is developing a Brayton cycle to convert heat to electricity at 53%
versus 28 to 34 percent for regular steam turbines. In a four-module
plant (1.06GW), one point of efficiency is worth a billion dollars in
revenue over the life of the plant. 53% efficiency means $19 billion
dollars more than a 34% efficient plant.

GA’s design is a 265-megawatt (electric) sized reactor, with a fuel
cycle lifetime of 30-plus years.

General Fusion

Possibly later this year, General Fusion will begin work on a
full-size prototype reactor. At the center will be a sphere, three
meters in diameter, inside which molten lead swirls at high speed
creating a vacuum, or vortex, in the middle. Arrayed around it will be
200 to 300 pistons, each the size of a cannon. Firing in perfect
harmony, they will create an acoustic wave that collapses the vortex
at the very moment a plasma injector shoots hydrogen isotopes, the
nuclear fuel, into it. If General Fusion has its physics right, the
heat and pressure will ignite a fusion reaction that spins off
countless neutrons which will heat the lead even more. Pumped through
a heat exchanger, that hot lead will help generate steam just like a
conventional thermal power plant.

HTR-PM High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor

The pouring of concrete for the basemat of the first HTR-PM unit – a
demonstration high-temperature gas-cooled reactor – at Shidaowan in
China’s Shandong province was recently completed. Another 19 of the
small modular reactors could follow.

HTR-PM are modular reactors that will be mainly factory mass-produced.
The first one is taking 5 years to make. The reactor module will head
towards about two years to build when they are making them by the

The demonstration plant’s twin HTR-PM units will drive a single 210
MWe turbine. It is expected to begin operating around 2017. Eighteen
further units are proposed for the Shidaowan site, near Rongcheng in
Weihai city.


Nuke Power Talk – Gail Marcus

External Hazards at Nuclear Power Plants: A New Study

Gail Marcus describes a recent IAEA study on the risks of external events at nuclear power plants.  She summarizes the major findings of the report, and notes that, in many cases, corrective actions have already been taken to address some of the plant vulnerabilities.


That’s it for this week’s entries.  Thank you to all of our authors and to those who selected pieces for submission!


Nuclear Video Matinee: NuScale and TerraPower at CERAWeek

ICOSA Media caught up with NuScale chief executive officer Chris Colbert and TerraPower CEO John Gilleland at the recent CERAWeek energy conference in Houston, Tex. The two leaders of these innovative nuclear energy companies discuss the how’s and why’s of their small and beautiful reactor designs—the NuScale Small Modular reactor and the TerraPower Traveling Wave reactor.

NuScale and TerraPower are no strangers to ANS Nuclear Cafe—for more details see Bill Gates: “I Love Nuclear”, Bill Gates on Nuclear Energy and TerraPower, and SMRs Get Further Push with Western Initiative for Nuclear.

Thanks to ICOSA Media on YouTube for sharing this video.

nuscale barge


A Pyrrhic Victory in Vermont for Nuclear Power?

“Another victory like this will ruin us”

—Greek King Pyrrhus after defeating Roman armies in 279 and 280 BCE

By Howard Shaffer

viewfromVermontFriday, March 28, 2014—Hanover, New Hampshire. While Rod Adams, Meredith Angwin, Bob Hargraves, and I attended Dartmouth College’s Three Mile Island 35th Anniversary Symposium: The Past, Present, and Future of Nuclear Energy—the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) issued a long-awaited decision on a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) for Entergy Corporation’s Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. (Rod has a great report on the Dartmouth TMI symposium—the comment string is especially enlightening.)

As expected, the PSB (grudgingly) ruled in favor of Entergy.

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R. Adams, G. Angwin, M. Angwin, M. Shaffer, H. Shaffer

A tortured history

Vermont Yankee originally sought a CPG to operate for 20 additional years beyond its original 40-year approval. The plant had received a 20-year license renewal from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012. However, the state of Vermont under its current governor Peter Shumlin (first elected in 2010) wanted the plant closed.

After the Vermont Senate voted to block the PSB from issuing the certificate, Entergy sued in federal court, claiming the state preempted the NRC’s exclusive federal authority over radiological safety. The District Court and Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Entergy.

Both sides were mulling over appealing to the US Supreme Court, and were awaiting a decision from the PSB on the 2- year certificate. Then, on August 27, two weeks after the circuit court decision, Entergy announced that it planned to shut down and decommission the plant at the end of 2014, primarily due to low natural gas prices. Entergy then modified its application for the CPG to run only until the end of 2014. The plant was operating under the expired 40-year CPG, which had been extended because the renewal process was still in progress.

Entergy and the state then negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the plant’s final operation, decommissioning, and site restoration. The MOU provided for the state “switching sides” before the PSB and supporting the application for a CPG through the end on 2014. Entergy agreed to provide several different payments to the state, and agreed to begin decommissioning as soon as the trust fund becomes sufficient. Both sides dropped most pending lawsuits, and agreed to continue negotiations on a few other matters in good faith. This MOU is part of the CPG.

The Certificate of Public Good

The PSB’s order, as it must, includes: background, legal framework, findings and discussion, and general good of the state. It explains the PSB’s reasoning and addresses the issues raised by all parties. The order seeks to be “bullet proof” since the PSB’s orders may be appealed to the state supreme court (for example, since this order, the court reversed the PSB concerning a solar plant).

The state and Entergy, by their agreement, ended all litigation and will close out all other open dockets before the PSB. Obviously, they would like to avoid any more litigation on Vermont Yankee. There are a few unresolved issues between the state and company, but they should be resolvable by good-faith negotiation, as agreed. However, this does not prevent any of the other parties in the proceeding, particularly the anti-nuclear interveners, from suing. The final three pages of the 98-page order list the distribution: 14 parties, 8 law firms, and 37 lawyers! The PSB perhaps hopes that there will be no more lawsuits.

A lesson to be learned for any nuclear plant

One of the factors the PSB considers in all its CPGs is whether or not the applicant can be a “Fair Partner” to the state and its citizens. Section IV B discusses the PSB’s evaluation of Entergy. On page 41 it states, “If Entergy were continuing to pursue a 20 year license extension, the experiences of the last 12 years might well have led the Board to deny a CPG.”

The complete discussion is on pages 31-43, and finishes with the PSB discussing why Entergy is not likely to renege on its commitments in the short time during which most of them must be met. The fact that this discussion had to take place at all is sad, and in hindsight points out mistakes that other plants in similar situations must avoid—that is, when active anti-nuclear groups that are admitted as parties are seeking every chance to trip up and discredit the plant.

Major items listed:

1) Beginning construction of two structures without PSB permission. There was an application in for the items, but approval had not yet been granted.

2) Operating without a valid CPG. Operation after the expiration date of the original CPG continued, even though the PSB said that it could not under the original and subsequent CPGs. Entergy had asked if it could operate while its application for a 20-year extension continued, and the PSB said no.

But it operated, and the PSB and state took no action to force a shutdown. The catch appears to be a state law that apparently applies to all kinds of state licensing actions. This law states that if licensing renewal actions are still in progress when the current expiration date passes, the activity may continue. This seems perfectly reasonable, since without it, the bureaucracy could just “pocket veto” anything, just by postponing or taking no action.

If the state had tried to force a shutdown, then Entergy would have probably sued and asked the court to stay the state’s action. Demonstrating its annoyance over this, the PSB stated that approval of this CPG wiped out Entergy’s liability for operating without a valid permit, but if Entergy doesn’t meet a commitment in the new CPG, the PSB could revoke it, removing the wipe-out of liability, and then impose penalties.

3) A past tritium leak was a huge issue. The state senate set up a public oversight panel, and had a comprehensive reliability assessment performed. One of the members was Arnie Gundersen (of Fairewinds Associates in Vermont), a known anti-nuclear activist who has been spreading Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt in Japan after the Fukushima accident.

The plant told the assessors that it had no “buried piping,” by that meaning piping directly buried in soil carrying fluids regulated for radioactivity. The plant failed to make clear an important distinction between “below ground” and “buried”—everyone else took “buried” to mean “underground,” i.e. below the surface. When piping that was below ground level, but in a concrete tunnel, leaked and the liquid got out through a crack in the tunnel and was detected by monitoring wells, the public, press, legislative and PSB reaction was volcanic.  The opponents all said, “You lied. You told us there is no underground piping.”

A year-long investigation by Vermont’s attorney general found no intentional wrong-doing. However, the plant never recovered from this. The lesson is that you can’t hide behivvnd blaming the press and public for misunderstanding technical terms. Instead, the obligation is to explain technical situations in simple terms the public and press can understand, even if it takes more than one word.

The entire order is repetitious, but at least the section on Fair Partner is recommended for management and those committed to engaging the public.

Of value to the industry

The federal courts found that the state legislature attempted to preempt NRC authority over radiological safety. Radiation safety was not referred to in a resolution the senate had passed blocking the PSB from releasing a CPG—it was revealed in the legislative record, which was brought into evidence. The precedent was reaffirmed that it is legislative intent that can matter when stated actions are unclear or disguised. It seems surprising that this would need reaffirmation, since we often hear of the US Supreme Court examining congressional intent.

The NRC will hold firm to its regulations, but it will not attempt to explain its philosophy to the public in contentious public meetings. Every NRC finding states that there is “reasonable assurance” that the public will be safe. Yet opponents are demanding perfect safety, and the NRC won’t tell them this is what it is doing.

The “pro bono” supporters of Vermont Yankee were able to organize rallies, attend hearings, and participate in all the political activities involved in grass-roots advocacy that takes place on either, or any, side of contentious issues. Plant management can support these activities. Regulated utilities formerly were limited in the amount of advertising and self-promotion they could charge to customers. How much they can do out of stockholders’ funds may be open. For merchant nuclear plants it would seem that they are no more limited than the natural gas industry.

The anti-nuclear movement is international, well-funded, and permanent. Nuclear plants need to have a permanent support network of volunteers. The activity level will vary depending on each situation—“All politics are local.” This support network should be thought of as insurance, which needs to be in place at all times and maintained. When a political firestorm arises, it’s too late to get organized. Insurance is a lot cheaper than picking up the pieces in court afterward.

A Pyrrhic Victory? No!

The victory of just a two-year CPG has cost a lot. Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee have been forced out of business by low natural gas prices in a market where wind and solar power are given preferential treatment. It will cost many of the loyal employees of the plant a lot in the short term, and cost the local community, region, and state of Vermont a lot in the long run.

The loss of Vermont Yankee seems to have awakened industry leaders to a real threat to the life of nuclear power in the commercial electric power market.

The pro bono advocates of nuclear power have been re-energized to fight harder.

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Howard Shaffer has been an ANS member for 35 years.  He has contributed to ASME and ANS Standards committees, ANS committees, national meeting staffs, his local section, and was the 2001 ANS Congressional Fellow. He is a former member of the ANS Public Information Committee, consults in nuclear public outreach, and is coordinator of the Vermont Grassroots Project.  Shaffer holds a BSEE from Duke University and an MSNE from MIT. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Small Modular Reactors—US Capabilities and the Global Market

By Rod Adams

On March 31–April 1, Nuclear Energy Insider held its 4th Annual Small Modular Reactor (SMR) conference in Charlotte, NC (following on the 2nd ANS SMR Conference in November 2013—for notes and report from that embedded topical meeting, see here).

You can find a report of the first day of talks, presentations, and hallway conversations at SMRs—Why Not Now? Then When? That first day was focused almost exclusively on the US domestic market—the second day included some talks about US capabilities, but it was mainly focused on information useful to people interested in developing non-US markets.

Before I describe the specifics, I want to take the opportunity to compliment Nuclear Energy Insider for its well-organized meeting. Siobhan O’Meara did an admirable job putting together an informative agenda with capable speakers and keeping the event on schedule.

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Westinghouse SMR

Robin Rickman, director of the SMR Project Office for Westinghouse Electric Company, provided a brief update on his company’s SMR effort and the status of its development. He then focused much of his talk on describing the mutual challenges faced by the SMR industry and the incredible array of commercial opportunities that he sees developing if the industry successfully addresses the challenges together.In early February, Danny Roderick, chief executive officer of Westinghouse, announced that his company was shifting engineering and licensing resources away from SMR development toward providing enhanced support for efforts to refine and complete the eight AP1000 construction projects in progress around the world.

Rickman explained this decision and its overall impact on SMR development. He told us that Westinghouse remains committed to the SMR industry and to resolving the mutual challenges that currently inhibit SMR development. His project office has retained a core group of licensing experts and design engineers and is fully supporting all industry efforts. The SMR design is at a stage of completion that enables the company to continue to engage with both customers and regulators based on a mature conceptual design.

The company, however, does not want to get ahead of potential customers and invest hundreds of millions of dollars into completing a design certification if there are no committed customers. Rickman didn’t say it, but Westinghouse has a corporate memory from the AP600 project of completing the process of getting a design certification in January 1999 without ever building a single unit. It’s not an experience that they have any desire to repeat.

Westinghouse determined that its resources could be best invested in making sure that the AP1000 is successful and enables others to succeed in attracting financing and additional interest in nuclear energy.

For SMRs, Westinghouse has a business model that indicates a need for a minimum order book of 30–50 units before it would make financial sense to invest in the detailed design and the modular manufacturing infrastructure required to build a competitive product. Rickman emphasized that all of the plant modules must be assembled in a factory and delivered to the site ready to be joined together in order to achieve the capital cost and delivery schedule needed to make SMRs competitive.

That model requires a substantial investment in the factories that will produce the components and the various modules that make up the completed plant. He told us that the state of Missouri is already investing in creating such an infrastructure with the support of all of its major universities, every electricity supplier, a large contingent of qualified manufacturing enterprises, both political parties, and the governor’s office.

He told the audience that Missouri’s efforts are not limited to supporting a single reactor vendor; it is building an infrastructure that will be able to support all of the proposed light water reactor designs including NuScale, mPower, and Holtec.

Rickman included a heartfelt plea for everyone to recognize the importance of creating a new clean energy alternative in a world where billions of people do not have access to light at the flip of a switch or clean water by opening a simple tap.

In what was a surprise to most attendees, the FBI had a table in the expo hall and gave a talk about its interest in the safety and security of nuclear materials. I will reveal my own skepticism about the notion that nuclear power plants are especially vulnerable or attractive targets for people with nefarious intent. It is hard to imagine anyone making off with nuclear fuel assemblies or being able to do anything especially dangerous with them in the highly unlikely event that they did manage to figure out how to get them out of a facility.

Bryan Hernadez, a refreshingly young engineer, gave an excellent presentation about the super heavy forging capabilities available in the United States at Lehigh Heavy Forge in Bethlehem, Pa. That facility is a legacy of what formerly was the Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s massive integrated steel mill. It has the capacity to forge essentially every component that would be required to produce any of the proposed light water SMR designs.

The presentation included a number of photos that must have warmed the heart of anyone in the audience who likes learning about massive equipment designed to produce high quality goods with tight tolerances that weigh several hundred tons.

In a presentation that would have pleased several of my former bosses, Dr. Ben Amaba, a worldwide sales executive from IBM, talked about the importance of approaching complex designs with a system engineering approach and modern information tools capable of managing interrelated requirements. That is especially important in a highly regulated environment with a globally integrated supply chain.

Jonathan Hinze, senior vice president of Ux Consulting, provided an overview of both national and international markets and described those places that his company believes have the most pressing interest in machines with the characteristics being designed into SMRs.

He reminded the audience that US suppliers are not the only players in the market and that they are not even the current market leaders. He noted the fact that Russia is installing two KLT-40 power plants (light water reactors derived from established icebreaker power plants) onto a barge and that those reactors should be operating in a couple of years. He pointed to the Chinese HTR-PM, which is a power plant with two helium–cooled pebble bed reactors producing 250 MW of thermal power producing steam and feeding a common 210-MWe steam turbine power plant. He also mentioned that Argentina had recently announced that it had broken ground on a 25-MWe CAREM light water reactor.

Douglass Miller, acting director of New Major Facilities Division of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, described his organization’s performance-based approach to nuclear plant licensing. He noted that the commission does not have a design certification process and that each project needs to develop its safety case individually to present to the regulator. It appears that the process is not as prescribed or as time-consuming as the existing process in the United States.

Tony Irwin, technical director for SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd, told us that Australia is moving ever closer to accepting the idea that nuclear energy could play a role in its energy supply system. Currently, the only reactor operating in Australia is a research and isotope production reactor built by INVAP of Argentina. He described the large power requirements for mining operations in places not served by the grid and the fact that his country has widely distributed settlements that are not well-integrated in a large power grid. He believes that SMRs are well suited to meeting Australia’s needs.

Unfortunately, I had to get on the road to avoid traffic and get home at a reasonable hour, so I missed the last two presentations of the day. I probably should have stayed to hear about the cost benefits of advanced, non-light water reactors and about Sweden’s efforts to develop a 3-MWe lead–cooled fast reactor for deployment to Canadian arctic communities.

As I was finalizing this post, I noted that Marv Fertel has just published a guest post at NEI Nuclear Notes titled Why DOE Should Back SMR Development. I recommend that anyone interested in SMRs go and read Fertel’s thoughts on the important role that SMRs can play in meeting future energy needs.

SMR on trailer courtesy NuScale Power

SMR on trailer – courtesy NuScale Power




Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

Kenya’s Studied Approach to a Nuclear Future

by Will Davis

There has been an increasing amount of press lately about the growing number of nations on the African continent interested in exploring the benefits of nuclear energy. South Africa has led the way in this realm, having had operational nuclear power for many years. Kenya plans to follow next.

Kenya-Nuclear-Electricity-BoardInterest in nuclear energy in Kenya began to take formal shape in 2010 with the formation of the Nuclear Electricity Project Committee (NEPC) whose purpose was to fast-track the development of nuclear power in Kenya.  NEPC also launched a modern and well-thought-out public information campaign using the internet and social media. In 2012, NEPC became the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board (KNEB), which is a statutory body taking the next steps in developing not only nuclear energy but also an independent regulatory body. The excellent communications of the previous NEPC have been expanded and improved by KNEB, so that the public is educated about the benefits and technical demands of nuclear energy. In the establishment of its program, Kenya is proceeding in accord with the general International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines on the development of nuclear energy.

In pursuit of its goal, Kenya has sent a number of highly qualified students to study nuclear engineering at Korea Electric Power Company’s KEPCO International Nuclear Graduate School (KINGS), located in the Kori nuclear power complex in South Korea. Kenya has recognized the challenge of training people in its own country, which has yet to establish a nuclear regulator or industry, and has sent students to a number of places around the globe as a key element of the establishment of a nuclear industry.

Why nuclear for Kenya?

Data at the KNEB site tells us that not only Kenya’s but Africa’s overall power demand is increasing, and expected to continue to do so. Kenya, for example, expects that its sweeping, nation-wide power modernization program will enable rapid growth to a level of perhaps just under 17,000 MWe by 2031. To meet the growing demand, Kenya hopes to have its first 1000-MWe nuclear unit online around 2022, with additional units in 2026, 2029, and finally in 2031. KNEB’s site also illuminates a greater benefit: ”It is further noted,” the site observes, “that the introduction of nuclear electricity into the grid is justified by the growing demand for huge power within the Eastern Africa Power Pool (EAPP) whose objective is to create a common market for power in the East African region.”

And as to why the nation is pushing so aggressively with nuclear—well, let’s just check the KNEB’s website, because its writing is eloquent:

SKoreaNuclear“Nuclear energy is the best way to produce safe, clean, reliable base load (at a constant supply) energy. Both nuclear and other renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal plants could play a major role, as the reduction of carbon emissions becomes a higher priority.

The problem is that no ‘renewable’ source has been demonstrated to have the capacity to provide the ‘base-load’ amounts of power needed to replace large fossil fuel plants. Wind power, for example, may be an excellent choice for sparsely populated rural economies, particularly if they lack modern electrical infrastructure; on the other hand, it seems unlikely that wind power will be able to support the electricity needs of tomorrow’s mega-cities.”

Kenya has decided on a stable power supply—one that also boosts local economies, encourages (and indeed demands) a rigorous educational establishment, and that can drive economies and ensure stability.

First, train—then, build

Recently, ANS Nuclear Cafe had the chance to ask Joe Mwangi, technical officer for the KNEB and presently a student at KINGS, some questions about a recent announcement of graduation ceremonies from KINGS that included some Kenyan students, as well as about other aspects of the program that provide some insight.

ANS Nuclear Cafe: Can you tell us about the recent graduations from KINGS?

Mwangi: Since KINGS is a new school, the recent graduation was a first-of-its-kind event that happened at the school, after the first group of students were trained for two years, and there were six graduates from Kenya. KINGS admission requires that applicants are working in energy-related fields in their respective countries, and hence the Kenyans came from Kengen (utility), Kenya Power (distribution), Radiation Protection Board (radioactive waste regulator)two graduates from each company. The Kenyan group members have undergraduate qualification in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and physics.

ANS Nuclear Cafe: What has the experience at KINGS been like for you so far?

Mwangi: My personal experience at KINGS has been great, starting from my first yearcurrently I’m in year two. I have gained knowledge on system engineering, nuclear power plant (NPP) systems, NPP technology, fundamentals in NPP engineering, and deployment. As such, this will give me a variety of options during my second year in selecting projects and management courses that will give me a hands-on experience in the field of nuclear power.

ANS Nuclear Cafe: What is KNEB’s long-term commitment to using KINGS in the future?

Mwangi: KNEB’s commitment with KINGS is to train about 100 nuclear engineers, since they comprise about 5 percent of the work force in a nuclear plant, and also in the setting up of an expert work force in the regulator (a bill is being drafted to set up one). There are plans to offer technical training in other fields to diversify the work force.

ANS Nuclear Cafe: Does attendance at KINGS also include hands-on experience at the adjacent nuclear power station?

Mwangi: KINGS has established nuclear power plant (APR1400) simulators in which students get training, but in terms of hands-on experience at the local NPPs, they’re given tours to understand various projects that are undertaken in construction and planning of such NPPs. Also visits to radioactive waste management facilities are undertaken, together with national energy generating facilities other than nuclear.

ANS Nuclear Cafe: What convinced KNEB to use KINGS as an educational institution to help launch Kenya’s nuclear energy program?

Mwangi: Kenya and the Republic of Korea have had a long-term relationship and hence this was a way of commitment by both states in strengthening their partnership. There are also various international member states with whom MoUs (memoranda of understanding) are being considered as a way of diversifying avenues in collaborating on Kenya’s nuclear power program.

What’s next?

KNEB has established review teams to study other nations’ nuclear regulators, and is proceeding with complete cooperation from the IAEA. Its goal is to develop both robust legislation covering the operation and regulation of nuclear energy, and (as we’ve seen) to begin to bring home the newest, best nuclear trained talent in the world to give birth to its nuclear energy future. As the program develops, ANS Nuclear Cafe will keep abreast of developments and report on them occasionally and when important developments occur.

THANKS to the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board, and to Joe Mwangi in particular for making this article possible.


For more information:

Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board website

IAEA E-learning for establishment of new nuclear power programs


WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is the communications director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian and as a member of the board of directors. He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is secretary of the board of directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.



Nuclear Energy Blogger Carnival 203

ferris wheel 202x201The 203rd Nuclear Energy Blogger Carnival has been posted at Thorium MSR.  You can click here to see this latest installment in a long running tradition among the top English language pro-nuclear bloggers and authors.

Each week, a new edition of the Carnival is hosted at one of the top English-language nuclear blogs. This rotating feature of nuclear “posts of the week” represents the dedication of those who are working toward a future of energy abundance, improved health, and broadened security through nuclear science and technology.

Past editions of the carnival have been hosted at Yes Vermont Yankee, Atomic Power Review, ANS Nuclear Cafe, NEI Nuclear Notes, Next Big Future, Atomic Insights, Hiroshima Syndrome, Things Worse Than Nuclear Power, EntrepreNuke, and Deregulate the Atom.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support.  If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brain Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation.

Nuclear Matinee: Vogtle Nuclear Construction Update

Near Augusta, Georgia, the first new commercial nuclear power reactors built in the United States in 30 years continue to take shape. This latest video update features the recent heavy lift of the massive 5-story CA20 module, which will house the spent fuel pool, fuel transfer canal, and other essential components for Unit 3. The video also features a visit by US Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz, day-to-day problem-solving operations at the site’s operations control center (especially during recent unusually cold weather), and the immeasurable beneficial economic and other impacts on the region’s economy and school systems. Fuel loading and connection to the grid is scheduled for Unit 3 in 2017, and Unit 4 in 2018.

Thanks to Georgia Power YouTube for sharing this construction update.

ca20 lift night

Teacher Workshop at ANS Annual Meeting in Reno—Saturday, June 14

The American Nuclear Society’s Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information will sponsor a full-day teacher workshop on Saturday, June 14, at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nevada. The workshop—Detecting Radiation in Our Radioactive World—is for science educators, including biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, physical science, life science, environmental, general science, and elementary teachers. The workshop will be held the day before the beginning of the ANS Annual Meeting in Reno.

“For this workshop we’re excited to partner with the Joint Institute of Nuclear Astrophysics,” said Tracy Coyle, ANS Outreach manager. “JINA will demonstrate their Marble Nuclei Project, and teachers will take home a marble nuclei along with a free Geiger counter. We have also received a generous donation of home radon kits from Landauer, Inc. to give away to our attendees.”

ANS members who would like to volunteer at the workshop, and/or observe the workshop to learn how to replicate teacher workshops in their local area, should contact Coyle.

This workshop will prepare attendees to teach the basics about radiation, how we detect radiation, and the uses of nuclear science and technology in society. Teachers who complete the workshop will receive a wealth of materials—background information, hands-on activities, and supplementary resources. Career opportunities in nuclear science and technology will be highlighted during the sessions.

chart of nuclides 200x266

Scheduled presenters include:

  • Dr. Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar, assistant professor of Nuclear Engineering, Idaho State University, and research scientist at Idaho National Laboratory
  • Dr. Eric P. Loewen, Past President of the American Nuclear Society and chief engineer, General Electric, Wilmington, NC
  • Dr. Micha Kilburn, JINA Outreach coordinator, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN

Other educators and nuclear specialists may also make presentations.

geiger photo 340x242

Please visit the ANS website for much more information, including mail-in and online registration forms. The workshop will be limited in size to optimize interaction with presenters. Registration is on a first-come first-served basis.

cloud chamber 268x201

Detecting alpha and beta particles with cloud chamber

There is a $95 nonrefundable early bird registration fee for teachers to reserve a place at the workshop, which includes continental breakfast, lunch, and workshop materials. Hurry, registration fee becomes $149 after April 18. The registration deadline is Monday, May 26.

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Funding for this workshop is provided in part by individual and organizational contributions to the ANS Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information.

Nuclear Energy Blogger Carnival 202

ferris wheel 202x201The 202nd Nuclear Energy Blogger Carnival has been posted at Next Big Future.  You can click here to see this latest installment in a long running tradition among the top English language pro-nuclear bloggers and authors.

Each week, a new edition of the Carnival is hosted at one of the top English-language nuclear blogs. This rotating feature of nuclear “posts of the week” represents the dedication of those who are working toward a future of energy abundance, improved health, and broadened security through nuclear science and technology.

Past editions of the carnival have been hosted at Yes Vermont Yankee, Atomic Power Review, ANS Nuclear Cafe, NEI Nuclear Notes, Next Big Future, Atomic Insights, Hiroshima Syndrome, Things Worse Than Nuclear Power, EntrepreNuke, and Deregulate the Atom.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support.  If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brain Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation.

Nuclear Matinee: How It’s Made—Spent Nuclear Fuel Containers

This excerpt from the Discovery Channel’s How It’s Made series documents the making of a spent nuclear fuel container.

It might be a little dry, but if so that’s still OK—it’s for dry cask storage after all.

Thanks to How It’s Made Youtube for sharing this video

spent fuel 306x201

Where Do Nuclear Engineering Students Work After Graduation?

By Lenka Kollar

Earlier this month, the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) published its annual survey on nuclear engineering enrollment and degrees (check out the full report here). The 2013 data shows enrollment and the number of graduates in nuclear engineering programs along with a survey of where students are working after graduation.

There are a total of 32 universities granting nuclear engineering degrees or nuclear engineering options within another major in the United States. In 2013, a total of 655 students graduated with a Bachelor of Science, 362 with a Master of Science, and 147 with a Doctorate in nuclear engineering. Universities graduating more than 50 nuclear engineering students last year, starting with the largest programs, include:

The number of students graduating from nuclear engineering programs continues on a considerable upward trend over the past decade, as shown in the figure below. More recently, total enrollment has dropped 9 percent for undergraduates and 5 percent for graduate students since 2012. The overall trend of increasing graduation rates can likely be attributed to the “nuclear renaissance” in the United States and globally that was gaining momentum around 2008, and thus students attracted to the growth of the nuclear industry at that point would be graduating about now. The slight dip in enrollment rates more recently might be attributable to the accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that occurred in 2011, resulting in a slowing down of the nuclear renaissance worldwide. ORISE expects the number of bachelor’s nuclear engineering graduates to level to about 600 per year over the next couple of years.

nuclear engineering graduates per year 480x326

The ORISE survey also included data on where nuclear engineering graduates find employment after graduation. Unfortunately, the post-graduation plans of a third of the total students are unreported or unknown. Another 7 percent report seeking employment. Taking out the unknown data, we can still get some interesting insight into where nuclear engineering students are going after graduation.

First of all, nearly half of graduating students continue with school to obtain higher degrees or serve in a post-doctorate position. This reflects the intense research and technical nature of the nuclear field. As for graduates who seek employment, the chart below shows where students are going to work with different degrees. The government sector includes local, state, and federal government along with military and government contractors. Industry includes working at a nuclear utility or other nuclear-related industry. Academic employment does not include continued study. And the “other” category includes employment in other industries and foreign (non-U.S.) employment.

nuclear engineering student employment after graduation 480x229

Graduates with a B.S. in nuclear engineering tend to work in industry more so than graduate students, while graduate students have a higher proportion working in government. Many more Ph.D. students work in academia as professors and fewer enter the nuclear industry. When making the case to the federal government to support nuclear engineering education, it is interesting to note that nearly half of all nuclear engineering students work for the government after graduation.


kollar c 124x150Lenka Kollar is the owner & editor of Nuclear Undone, a blog and consulting company focusing on educating the public about nuclear energy and nonproliferation issues. She is an active ANS member, serving on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Technical Group Executive Committee, Student Sections Committee, and Professional Women in ANS Committee. Connect with Lenka on LinkedIN and Twitter.

What Did We Learn From Three Mile Island?

By Rod Adams

Thirty-five years ago this week, a nuclear reactor located on an island in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial core melt.

On some levels, the accident that became known as TMI (Three Mile Island) was a wake-up call and an expensive learning opportunity for both the nuclear industry and the society it was attempting to serve. Some people woke up, some considered the event a nightmare that they would do anything to avoid repeating, and some hard lessons were properly identified and absorbed. Unfortunately, some people learned the wrong lessons and some of the available lessons were never properly interpreted or assimilated.

The melted fuel remained inside the TMI unit 2 pressure vessel, nearly all the volatile and water-soluble fission products remained inside the reactor containment, and there were no public health impacts. The plant was a total loss after just three months of commercial operation, the plant buildings required a clean-up effort that took 14 years, the plant owner went bankrupt, and the utility customers paid dearly for the accident.

The other unit on the same site, TMI-1, continues to operate well today under a different owner.

Although the orders for new nuclear power plants had already stopped several years before the accident, and there were already people writing off the nuclear industry’s chances for a recovery, the TMI accident’s emotional and financial impacts added another obstacle to new plant project development.

In the United States, it took more than 30 years to finally begin building new nuclear power plants. These plants incorporate some of the most important lessons in their design and operational concepts from the beginning of the project development process. During the new plant construction hiatus, the U.S. electricity industry remained as dependent as ever on burning coal and burning natural gas.

Aside: A description of the sequence of events at TMI is beyond the scope of this post. There is a good backgrounder—with a system sketch—about the event on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s web site. Another site with useful information is Inside TMI Three Mile Island Accident: Moment by Moment. End Aside.


The TMI event was the result of a series of human decisions, many of which were made long before the event or in places far from the control room. Of those decisions, there were some that were good, some that were bad, some that were reactions based on little or no information, and many made without taking advantage of readily available information.

One of the best decisions, made long before the event happened, was the industry’s adoption of a defense-in-depth approach to design. From the very beginning of nuclear reactor design, responsible people recognized that bad things could happen, that it was impossible to predict exactly which bad things could happen, and that the public should be protected from excess exposure to radioactive materials through the use of multiple barriers and appropriate reactor siting.

The TMI accident autopsy shows that the basic design of large pressurized water reactors inside sturdy containment buildings was fundamentally sound and adequately safe. As intended by the designers, the defense-in-depth approach and generous engineering margins allowed numerous things to go wrong while still keeping the vast majority of radioactive materials contained away from humans. Here is a quote from the Kemeny Commission report:

We are convinced that if the only problems were equipment problems, this Presidential Commission would never have been created. The equipment was sufficiently good that, except for human failures, the major accident at Three Mile Island would have been a minor incident.

Though it is not well-known, the NRC completed a study called the State of the Art Reactor Consequences Analysis (SOARCA aka NUREG-1935) that indicated that there would be few, if any, public casualties as the result of a credible accident at a U.S. nuclear power plant, even if there were a failure in the containment system.

One of the most regrettable aspects of TMI was that the heavy investment that the United States had made into the infrastructure for manufacturing components and constructing large nuclear power plants—factories, equipment, and people— was mostly lost, even though the large components and basic design did what they were supposed to do.

There were, however, numerous lessons learned about specific design choices, control systems, human machine interfaces, training programs, and information sharing programs.

Emergency core cooling

The Union of Concerned Scientists and Ralph Nader’s Critical Mass Energy Project had been warning about a hypothetical nuclear reactor accident for several years, though it turns out that they were wrong about why the emergency core cooling system did not work as designed.

The core damage at TMI was not caused by a failure of the cooling system to provide adequate water in the case of a worst case condition of a double-ended sheer of a large pipe; it was caused by a slow loss of cooling water that went unnoticed for 2 hours and 20 minutes. The leak, in this case, was a stuck-open relief valve that had initially opened during a loss of feedwater accident.

While the slow leak was in progress, the operators purposely reduced the flow of water from the high pressure injection pumps, preventing them from performing their design task of keeping the primary system full of water when its pressure is low.

It’s worthwhile to understand that the operators did not reduce injection flow by mistake or out of malice. They did what they had been trained to do. Their instructors had carefully taught them to worry about the effects of completely filling the pressurizer with water because that would eliminate its cushioning steam bubble. Their instructors and the regulators that tested them apparently did not emphasize the importance of understanding the relationship between saturation temperature and saturation pressure.

The admonition to avoid “going solid” (filling the pressurizer with water instead of maintaining its normal steam bubble) was a clearly communicated and memorable lesson in both classroom and simulator training sessions. When TMI control room operators saw pressurizer level nearing or exceeding the top of its indicating range, they took action to slow the inflow of water. At the time, they had still not recognized that cooling water was leaving the system via the stuck open relief valve.

The physical system had responded as it had been designed, but the designers had neglected to ensure that their training department fully understood the system response to various conditions that might be expected to occur. It’s possible that the designers did not know that a pressurizer steam space leak could cause pressure to fall and the pressurizer level to rise at the time that they designed the system. There was not yet much operating experience; the large plants being built in the 1960s and 1970s could not be fully tested at scale, and computer models have always had their limitations, especially at a time when processing power was many orders of magnitude lower than it is today.

There was also a generally accepted assumption that safety analysis could be simplified by focusing on the worst case accident.  If the system could be proven to respond safely to the worst case conditions, the assumption was that less challenging conditions would also be handled safely. The focus on worst case scenarios, emphasized by very public emergency core cooling system hearings, took some attention away from analyzing other possible scenarios.

Lessons learned

  • Following the TMI accident, there was a belated push to complete the loss of flow and loss of coolant testing program that the Atomic Energy Commission had initiated in the early 1960s. For a variety of political, financial, and managerial reasons, that program had received low priority and was chronically underfunded and behind schedule.
  • Today’s plant designs undergo far more rigorous testing programs and have better, more completely validated computer models.
  • Far more attention has been focused on the possible impact of events like “small break” loss of cooling accidents.
  • All new operators at pressurized water reactors learn to understand the importance of the relationship between saturation pressure and saturation temperature.

At the time of the accident, there was no defined system of sharing experiences gained during reactor plant operation with all the right people. TMI might have been a minor event if information about a similar event at Davis-Besse, a similar but not identical plant, that happened in September 1977 had made it to the control room staff at TMI-2.

Certain sections of the NRC knew about the Davis-Besse event, engineers at the reactor supplier knew about it, and even the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards was aware of the event, but there was no established process for sharing the information to other operating units.

Lesson learned: After the accident, the industry invested a great deal of effort into a sustained program to share operating experience.

The plant designers also did not do their operators any favors in the design and layout of the control room. Key indicators were haphazardly arranged, there were thousands of different parameters that could cause an alarm if out of their normal range, and there was no prioritization of alarming conditions.

Lesson learned: After the accident, an extensive effort was made to improve the control rooms for existing plants and to devise regulations that increased the attention paid to human factors, man-machine interfaces, and other facets of control room design. All plants now have their own simulators that are designed to mimic the particular plant and are provided with the same operating procedures used in the actual plant. Operators are on a shift routine that puts them in the simulator for a week at a time every four to six weeks.

The initiating failures that started the whole sequence took place in the steam plant, a portion of the power plant that was not subject to as much regulatory or design scrutiny as the portions that were more closely associated with the nuclear reactor and its direct cooling systems.

Lesson still being learned: An increased level of attention is now paid to structures, systems, and components that are not directly related to a reactor, but there is still a confusing, expensive, and potentially vulnerable system that attempts to classify systems and give them an appropriate level of attention.

For at least 10 years prior to March 28, 1979, there had been an increasingly active movement focused on opposing the use of nuclear energy, while at the same time the industry was expanding near many major media markets and was one of the fastest growing employment opportunities, especially for people interested in technical fields. The technology was often in the spotlight, with the opposition claiming grave safety concerns and the industry—rather arrogantly, quite frankly—pointing to what had been a relatively unblemished record.

The industry did not do enough in the way of public outreach or routine advertising to explain the value of their product. They rarely compared the characteristics of nuclear energy against other possible electricity sources—mainly because there are no purely nuclear companies. In addition, the electric utility industry has a long tradition of preferring to be quiet and left alone.

The accident at TMI developed slowly over several days, but it became a major news story by mid-morning on the first day. Not only was it a “man bites dog” unusual event, but it was an event that the nuclear industry, the general public, the government, and the news media had been conditioned to take very seriously. Although nuclear experts from around the United States sprang into action to assist where they could at the plant itself, there was no established group of communications experts who could help reporters understand what was happening.

No reporter on a deadline is motivated or willing to wait for information to be gathered, evaluated, and verified. In the absence of real experts willing to talk, they turned to activists with impressive sounding credentials who were quite willing to speculate and spin tall tales designed to generate public interest and concern.

Lesson not yet learned: Although most decision makers in the nuclear industry understand the importance of planned maintenance systems to keep their equipment in top condition and the importance of a systematic approach to training to keep their employees performing at the top of their game, they have not yet implemented an effective, adequately resourced, planned communications program that helps to ensure that the public and the media understand the importance of a strong nuclear energy sector.

Planned communications efforts have a lot in common with planned maintenance systems. They might appear to be expensive with little immediate return on investment, but repairing a broken public image is almost as challenging and expensive as repairing a major plant component that failed due to a decision to reuse a gasket or postpone an oil change. As the guy in the commercial says, “You can pay me now or pay me later.”

That is probably the most tragic part of the TMI event. Despite being the subject of several expensively researched and documented studies, countless articles, thousands of documented training events, and more than a handful of books, the event could have—and should have—made the established nuclear industry stronger and the electric power generation system around the world cleaner and safer.

So far, however, TMI Unit 2′s destruction remains a sacrifice made partially in vain to the harsh master of human experience.

Note: I have purposely decided to avoid attempting to discuss the performance of the NRC or to judge their implementation of the lessons that were available to be learned. That effort would require a post at least twice as long as this one.

Additional Reading

General Public Utilities (March 28, 1980) Three Mile Island: One Year Later

Gray, Mike, and Rosen, Ira The Warning: Accident at Three Mile Island a Nuclear Omen for the Age of Terror W. W. Norton, 1982

Ford, Daniel Three Mile Island: Thirty Minutes to Meltdown Penguin Books, 1981

Hampton, Wilborn Meltdown: A Race Against Disaster at Three Mile Island A Reporter’s Story Candlewick Press, 2001

Report of the President’s Commission On The Accident At Three Mile Island. The Need for Change: The Legacy of TMI, October 1979

Three Mile Island A Report to the Commissioners and to the Public, January 1980

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Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.