NRC Releases Yucca Post Closure Safety Evaluation Report (finally)

by Jim Hopf

hopf1Last month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finally released Volume 3 of the Safety Evaluation Report (SER) for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. This volume covers the post-closure evaluation of the repository, and includes all of the analyses that show that the repository will meet the stringent waste material containment requirements over the evaluated one million year period. Other volumes, which cover other areas of repository design (e.g., surface facilities, etc..), have yet to be released.

As expected, the NRC’s technical staff concluded that the repository will meet all of the requirements. Anticipating this positive outcome, Nevada Senator Harry Reid and the Obama administration had frozen the NRC licensing process for years, and blocked the release of SER Volume 3, for purely political reasons. Victorious court challenges by Yucca proponents were required to force the continuation of the licensing process and the eventual release of SER Volume 3.

Yucca’s future

Release of the post-closure repository evaluation does not mean that the repository is through with the licensing process, or that its construction will begin any time soon. The NRC still has to approve and release several other SER volumes, covering various other aspects of the repository design (although no real, scientifically controversial issues in those areas are expected). Even after the release of all volumes, a lengthy public hearing process will ensue, and multiple legal challenges are expected.

Another issue is the fact that, although the NRC has stated that the repository would be safe, the Obama administration remains opposed to the repository, and the Department of Energy is no longer a willing applicant. Funding for continuing the process is also in question. Sen. Reid had been successful in blocking such funding, although now that he is no longer Senate Majority Leader, his continued ability to do so is in question. Given the difficulties with funding and lack of cooperation by the DOE, many think that continued progress will be slow and difficult.

For the above reasons, I’ve heard people deeply involved with the project still say that they doubt they will be the repository built “within their lifetime.” Others believe that, despite the NRC’s determination of safety, Yucca will never be built because its ~$100 billion price tag is too high, and other potential repositories (e.g., salt domes) would be far less expensive.

Ruling’s significance

As I’ve often argued, however, even if the Yucca project were not to proceed, this NRC ruling is extremely significant, because it formally and conclusively demonstrates that we have a viable technical solution to the nuclear waste problem. It may not be the best solution, or even the one we end up choosing, but it is *a* solution. A viable, acceptable, technical solution.

A significant amount of the public’s lack of support for nuclear power stems from the fact that many of them continue to believe that there is no technical solution to the nuclear waste problem (and that it is the only waste stream for which there is no acceptable disposal solution). Nuclear opponents have taken advantage of this mindset, and have relentlessly repeated the message that “we have no idea what to do with the waste.” It has been one of their most effective arguments.

The fact is that whatever fuel cycle and waste management path we choose, the overall public health and environmental risks will be very small, and the overall costs will not significantly affect nuclear power’s overall cost. The most significant impact that nuclear waste management has had on nuclear power is the reduction in public support due to the continued lack of resolution concerning disposal. This in turn has indirectly led to increased cost (through excessive regulation) and a reduced number of nuclear projects.

hopf2Given this, even if we do decide to take a different path (than Yucca), we cannot afford to let the public continue to think that there is “no solution” for another several decades. If we abandon Yucca, and “go back to the drawing board,” there is a good chance that it will reinforce the public’s (false) notion that there is no scientific/technical solution to the problem. Their reaction will be “Look, they’ve given up!” And yet, many in the industry itself are advocating that we basically do just that. In my view, if we do that, we need to send a very clear message that we have an acceptable, viable solution (Yucca), but that we’re voluntarily pursuing an even better solution.

In any event, it is clear that the public needs to be made aware of the NRC’s decision. It needs to be made very clear that a viable, technically adequate solution to the nuclear waste problem has been found, period. This should remove much if not most of the public opposition stemming from continued lack of resolution of the nuclear waste “problem.” That would allow us to spend more time, if necessary, developing “better” solutions.

Reactions to the NRC report

Unfortunately, the NRC’s release of SER Volume 3 has not received significant media coverage (outside the industry press). The presence of many other events and issues that are going on, including the election, have contributed to it. The only article by a major paper published soon the after NRC’s release of the SER volume was this article by the New York Times. After some delay, a couple more articles or editorials (such as this one by the Boston Globe) made reference to the NRC ruling, in support of continuing the licensing process.

After the election, there have been many more articles talking about improved prospects for Yucca Mountain, but they are all in the context of the Democrats losing the senate, and Harry Reid losing his position as Senate Majority Leader, and therefore some of his ability to block the project. The NRC’s release of SER Volume 3 and its judgment that the repository meets all the stringent technical requirements is not mentioned.

This is unfortunate in a couple of ways. Not only do all these articles not inform the public about the NRC’s technical determination, but it characterizes the situation strictly in terms of politics. That is, Yucca will go forward not due to technical merit, but because project supporters now may have the political power to push it through. The stories do not give the public any (increased) sense that the issue has been technically solved.

Call to action

Given all the above, it’s clear that nuclear supporters have their work cut out for them with respect to public communication on this issue. It appears that the news media is not going to help us get the word out, so we are going to have to do it ourselves. My observations are also that, as expected, nuclear opponents are completely ignoring the NRC’s ruling and are continuing to repeat the mantra that “there is no solution” to the nuclear waste problem.

I would encourage American Nuclear Society members to do anything they can to get the word out to the general public about the NRC’s very important determination that the Yucca repository would meet all the (very stringent) technical requirements. Give public talks. Write a letter to your local paper. Let’s try to get people on TV somehow. Would it be too much of a stretch to ask if the industry should run ads…..?

The message should be simple. The nuclear waste problem has been technically solved, period. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We have shown that at least one site, Yucca, has met all the technical requirements. Problems and delays with getting repositories sited are purely political. We may decide to pursue what we believe are better options, but we know that we have an adequate technical solution.

For extra credit, we could point out that, if anything, the nuclear waste “problem” is the most solved waste problem, from a technical perspective. It is the only waste stream for which detailed proof that it will remain contained for as long as it remains hazardous has been required. For most, if not all, other waste streams, we have nowhere near that level proof or assurance. That nuclear waste is unique in terms of posing a long-term hazard is a myth. It is the standards and requirements that are unique, not the hazard or longevity.

Many wastes (including those from nuclear’s fossil competitors) are simply dumped/emitted directly into the environment. Those that are buried are vastly larger in volume, generally have a harder to contain physical/chemical form, and are disposed of with infinitely less care and expense. For those reasons, many if not most of mankind’s other waste streams pose a far greater hazard, now and over the very long term (thousands of years into the future). It is more truthful to say that it is other waste streams that have no viable technical (or economic) solution.

The fact is that despite repeated suggestions to the complete contrary, nuclear waste is the most impeccably and conscientiously managed waste stream. It is generated in tiny volumes and has always been safely and completely stored. It has never hurt anyone or had any measurable public health impact. Its disposal is held to the most stringent standards of any waste stream in history, and now it’s been shown (with Yucca) that those impeccable requirements can be met. Frankly, waste stream issues should be one of the main arguments in favor of nuclear. How can we get that message out?

_____________________________________________________

jimHopfJim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

The Details of the Clean Power Plan (So You Want to See the Numbers)

by Nicholas Thompson

Two weeks ago I wrote an article on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan at Nuclear Undone. I highly recommend you read that overview first. This is meant to be a follow-up to that article, for people who want more background on the rule and how it effects nuclear.

First, a brief overview: the Clean Power Plan aims to reduce emissions rates (not necessarily emissions) by setting goals for states in terms of lbs of CO2/MWh. According to the US Energy Information Agency (US EIA), in 2012 New York State’s electricity sector had a carbon emissions rate of 578 lbs/MWh. For scale, the average U.S. coal plant emits ~2250 lbs of CO2/MWh, and the average natural gas plant emits ~1100 lbs of CO2/MWh. New York’s carbon emissions rate is much lower than a state like Wyoming (2106 lbs/MWh) because while Wyoming is heavily reliant on coal (87.5 percent of net electricity generation was from coal), New York has a mix of natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, coal, and other renewables.

In the Clean Power Plan, state goals are set by calculating the total emissions of the electricity sector for that state, and dividing the electricity production of all fossil fuels, wind, and solar, but only 5.8 percent of nuclear (hydro is excluded completely). What this does is artificially increase the calculated initial emissions rate for the state, so that in setting state goals, states with a significant amount of nuclear have easier goals. Let’s use New York, Illinois, and Wyoming as examples to show this. Table 1 shows the various mixes of energy production for each state, in percentages.

Table 1: Electricity Generation by Source, 2012 EIA Data

Electricity Source [%]

New York

Illinois

Wyoming

Coal

3.35

40.91

87.54

Hydroelectric

18.16

0.06

1.80

Natural Gas

43.80

5.66

1.03

Nuclear

30.03

48.79

0.00

Wind and Solar

2.24

3.93

8.81

Other

2.42

0.65

0.81

I picked these three states because they each represent a different energy mix; New York with a mixture of sources (and it’s my home state), Illinois being nuclear and coal heavy, and Wyoming being dominated by coal. Table 2 shows the 2012 emissions rates for each of these states.

Table 2: Calculated Emissions Rates

Emissions Rate [lbs CO2/MWh]

New York

Illinois

Wyoming

Actual 2012 Emissions Rate

578

1051

2106

Calculated 2012 Emissions Rate

978

1894

2115

Calculated 2030 Goal Emissions Rate

549

1271

1714

Goal with 100% Nuclear Accounted For

402

761

1714

As expected, the states that rely the most on coal have the highest current emissions rates. However, also shown in Table 2 is the “Calculated 2012 Emissions Rate”, based on the EPA’s formula that only takes 5.8 percent of nuclear into account and doesn’t take into account hydroelectric. Illinois and New York show much larger “calculated” emissions rates, because it’s essentially only counting coal, natural gas, renewables, and a sliver of nuclear (Wyoming doesn’t change much because it doesn’t have any nuclear and barely any hydroelectric). So in setting emissions goals, it is the “calculated” emissions rate that the EPA uses as a baseline. Table 2 also shows the 2030 emissions goals based on this formula, and for New York there is barely a difference between the actual 2012 emissions rate and the 2030 calculated goal. Illinois is even a stranger situation, where the actual emissions rate in 2012 is lower than the calculated 2030 goal. Wyoming on the other hand will have to find a way to reduce emissions.

You might also wonder where the 5.8 percent for nuclear came from in the first place. According to the Clean Power Plan, this was the percentage of nuclear plants that are “under construction or at risk.” The goal of protecting economically-at-risk plants is a good one (although under the current formula it barely values nuclear at all), but the “under construction” is curious. It’s strange, because what this means is that in states where nuclear plants are under construction, the rule assumes that those plants are already operating and won’t take their additional contribution into account at all when it comes to compliance with the rule.

But back to the main point, if nuclear is accounted for at 100 percent of its generation (the last row in Table 2), then the emissions goals become more stringent, and states that shut down nuclear plants would have a hard time hitting emissions goals. Don’t take my word for it; when a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney was asked about only including 5.8 percent of nuclear generation, he responded by saying “I observe that most of those nuclear plants were built a long time ago…Including them all would imply that states need to make sure all of them continue to operate. Compliance in states that had to close them down would be more difficult.” The reason I bring up the NRDC is because of its involvement in writing the rule, as documented in the New York Times.

Only accounting for 5.8 percent of nuclear also means that states with large amounts of nuclear don’t have to do much to hit emissions targets; in fact certain states, Illinois being one of them, could close all of their nuclear facilities and replace them with natural gas plants, and their emissions rate would be less than the 2030 goal. This would of course lead to higher emissions in the real world, but it would be perfectly fine according to this rule.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t include hydroelectric in the calculation, it’s because:

  1. I wanted to just highlight the importance of fully taking nuclear generation into account, and…
  2. The EPA makes a pretty good point as to why it didn’t include hydroelectric in setting state goals.

The point the EPA makes (on page 200 of the Clean Power Plan) is that states are unlikely to build significantly more hydroelectric in the next 15 years, so including hydroelectric would drastically change the goals for states that have large amounts of hydroelectric versus those that don’t. The EPA does offer a caveat, however: “The exclusion of pre-existing hydropower generation from the baseline of this target-setting framework does not prevent states from considering incremental hydropower generation from existing facilities (or later-built facilities) as an option for compliance with state goals.”

This brings me to my final point. The Clean Power Plan does not clearly say what the formula for computing compliance will be. The formula for setting goals only includes 5.8 percent of nuclear and no hydro, but the quote above implies that additional hydro could be used to reduce the state’s emissions rate. So this could go one of a few ways:

  1. The EPA uses the same formula as it did for setting state targets (this would exclude all new hydroelectric, which goes against the quote above).
  2. The EPA calculates compliance emissions rates in a sane and logical way that includes all generation (in which their original goals don’t make much sense, since some states would already be in compliance).
  3. The EPA calculates compliance emissions rates with a new, yet-to-be determined formula that may or may not include the low carbon generation from nuclear facilities.

This is why this issue is so important. As the Clean Power Plan is written, targets are made extremely easy for states with nuclear plants, such that in some states they can be shut down with little to no consequence, even though actual emissions will be much higher. It also does not lay out how compliance will be calculated, but based on the comments about hydroelectric, hints at a different way of calculating compliance (which may or may not include nuclear). Either way, nuclear’s importance as a source of low carbon energy is not accounted for. This is in stark contrast to wind and solar, in which 100 percent of existing wind and solar is credited in target setting.

So if you care about the environment and want the Clean Power Plan to actual achieve real-world emissions reductions, and not just “calculated” emissions reductions where actual emissions stay the same or go up, nuclear must be included.

All the major environmental groups are submitting comments. Will you make your voice heard? Don’t be discouraged by the number of comments already submitted. Based on a quick search, only roughly 21,000 of the comments about the plan are unique. This means that each and every unique comment will be important, and even a few hundred comments will be a significant portion of those received.

Comments to the EPA Clean Power Plan are due by December 1, and if you are an American Nuclear Society member, make sure to identify that in your comment:

http://www.ans.org/epa

Also a major thanks goes out to Remy DeVoe, Justin Knowles, and Dr. Steve Skutnik for actually crunching the numbers and helping to get this issue the attention it needs. And if there are any students who would like to get involved with policy work, and actually meet with the EPA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Energy, apply for the Nuclear Engineering Student Delegation!

_______________________________________________________

Nicholas ThompsonNicholas Thompson is a Ph.D. student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying nuclear engineering and science. His current research is on using a lead slowing-down spectrometer to measure various nuclear data at the Gaerttner Linear Accelerator Center.

Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival 235

ferris wheel 202x201The 235th Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival has been posted at The Hiroshima Syndrome.

Click here to see Carnival 235.

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, Neutron Bytes, AREVA Next Energy Blog, EntrepreNuke, Thorium MSR 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.

Thorium shines brightly at ANS Winter Meeting

by Will Davis

I have generally been quite a skeptic about thorium as a source of nuclear fuel. Although I know that thorium was tried in the fuel at two very early commercial power reactors in the United States (Elk River, and Indian Point-1), the idea did not take off. The proposals to use thorium in fluid fuel reactors were far less successful, with none moving beyond the prototype stage. Even given the low success rate, it still remains that the use of thorium is promising.

Thorium itself isn’t fissile, because it can’t itself be split to produce energy.  However, if it is bombarded by neutrons then after a decay process it produces a fissionable isotope of uranium.  So, it is called “fertile” rather than “fissile,”  and it is fairly abundant.  There are many millions of metric tons of it around, and it’s not being used for much.

So today, at the ANS 2014 Winter Meeting, I attended the “Thorium Resources, Recovery, Fuels and Fuel Cycles” session in order to see for myself what the cutting-edge thinking might be on using this apparently abundant, but now-all-but-abandoned, nuclear fuel.  The efforts and papers put forth were brilliant, and my view has changed.

The leadoff paper, Thorium Recovery from Rare Earth Element Deposits in the US (Bradley Van Gosen, Steven Krahn, Timothy Ault) first showed us that thorium is very abundant right here in the United States. There are in fact several operations underway right now that can supply it, and that is because thorium is found in the same place where rare earth elements are found.  Thorium is tossed aside as a radioactive nuisance.   According to the paper’s authors, since the material is already being pulled from the ground, and if and when a thorium fuel cycle for nuclear reactors develops, then it can piggyback on the existing rare earth mining operations.  That is a concept that could significantly reduce the capital cost of the fuel cycle.  Furthermore, if the thorium is recovered from mine tailings already dumped, it can help toward what would normally be considered remediation of a mining site.  In other words, what was once perceived as hazardous waste cleanup, would still be viewed as hazardous, but also as a fuel source.

The presentation detailed a number of mining operations, both underway and planned in the US, from which thorium could be obtained if required.  However, it noted that major hurdles face this particular prospect.  For example, the present thorium market is small, and there is zero market for fuel; no government subsidies exist either.  No present facility exists to separate the thorium from the mine tailings; if one did, it would need complicated permitting to stockpile concentrated radioactive material.

These observations made the next presentation all the more important.  “Environmental Impact of Thorium Recovery from Titanium Mining in North America” was delivered next, out of order due to a schedule problem (authored by Timothy Ault, Steven Krahn, Allen Croff, Raymond Wimer).  It pointed out that there is an enormous demand for titanium worldwide, far higher than for rare earths (primarily in white paints) and that where you find titanium, you also find thorium.  In fact, there are dozens of possible titanium (and thorium) mining sites in the US Piedmont Region, beyond the ten or so already operating there.  While the process to separate the thorium from the basic ore would require very large amounts of not only water, but chemicals too, it requires no new materials or processes to be developed that aren’t already in existence. Further, the cost of the process could be driven down if other rare earths essentially sloughed off from this process were sold as commodities.  Thus, the production of thorium from already existing titanium mining is far more attractive than simply finding other ores in the ground and starting a mine from scratch or even remediating rare earth mine tailings.  This essentially moves that first step of the thorium fuel process from the “where, and how” phase to the “here, and here’s how” phase.

In fairness the paper’s authors did detail that the thorium fuel process done this way does have a relatively high radiation dose rate — primarily at the first step where the original ore, called Monazite, is broken down to extract the thorium.  This is because of radioactive Radium-228, which then follows the rare earths through the process.  However, titanium mines here and in Canada already have some processing facilities nearby (although not for nuclear fuel) and have very sufficient transportation infrastructure.  After hearing these arguments, I myself became convinced that thorium might not be that hard to come by after all as a fuel source, and we know how to deal with radioactive materials quite well enough.  One person at the session did speak up and point out that the more or less mainstream thorium messaging constantly points out that it’s about four times more plentiful than uranium, but that this messaging ignores the fact that thorium is also distributed exceedingly sparsely around the world in small concentrations over large areas.  This makes economic recovery of thorium as a fuel a problem, unless you piggyback the process on something already existing, such as mining titanium.

The next paper is at the ANS Winter Meeting session is what really convinced me that this material could actually be used in commercial nuclear fuel, in my lifetime.  Saleem Drera of Thor Energy (a small company of 20 people) delivered a paper on his company’s efforts to develop commercial nuclear fuel, already well underway, which uses thorium and which can be burned in, and licensed in, present light water reactors.

Thor Energy is already testing fuel pellets of a number of designs in the Halden Research Reactor in Norway. The company’s theory is that the introduction of thorium should be “evolutionary, not revolutionary” and should start with the present design of reactors (both boiling water reactors and pressurized water reactors) that will be the mainstay of commercial nuclear power worldwide for at least the rest of the 21st century. To that end, it’s already testing fuel pellets made in its own small lab setup in the Halden Research Reactor in Norway, with excellent results. The company feels that its fuel design could actually allow any reactor in which it is used to receive a power uprate. That is an important point for a utility trying out a new fuel, since the profit margin will be higher. The company’s second run of test fuel pins will be put in the same reactor in 2015. A good deal of the presentation was given to the actual process for manufacturing the fuel, but what is important is that right now we have fuel pins that will work in conventional existing reactors under test.

The final paper presented at the meeting was written by Gonghoon Bae and Ser Gi Hong of Kyung Hee University, South Korea. It was an exceedingly technical review of a new, small, light water reactor core design that can burn what we call TRU or transuranic materials. These are the worst of the materials in spent nuclear fuels, and there have been many attempts over the years to develop reactors that can burn them up. This South Korean group has developed a small (308 MW thermal) reactor, a light water-cooled moderated reactor. It uses a special, graphite-stainless steel neutron reflector and specially developed fuel, including thorium, that can actually burn up a very high percentage of TRU material. The reactor is planned to operate on a four and a half year fuel cycle, and can burn up 25 percent of the transuranics inserted into the core and/or generated in it during operation; part of the fuel includes reprocessed TRU material.

South Korea, however, is now reaching a choke point when it comes to storing spent nuclear fuel. Currently it is working on building a small, light water-cooled and moderated and partly thorium-fueled reactor that can burn up the waste.

I walked out of that session convinced that I need to keep an eye on all of these development tracks. I was enthralled by the enthusiasm of those in the room presenting, and the competence of the questions from the audience. Not only was this one of the best technical sessions I’ve seen at any ANS meeting, it left me changed; I can see a way out for thorium now.

________________________________

SavannahWillinControlRoomWill Davis is the Communications Director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian, newsletter editor and member of the board of directors. Davis has recently been engaged by the Global America Business Institute as a consultant. 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, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

 

 

Root cause of Vogtle and VC Summer delays

This column was initially published in the October 16, 2014, issue of Fuel Cycle Week and is republished here with permission.

by Rod Adams

Within a few months of receiving its combined operating license in February 2012 the Vogtle-3 & -4 nuclear power plant project became the subject of reports that it was significantly behind schedule and over budget.

Radio station WABE, Atlanta’s NPR affiliate station, is closely tracking the project and its publicly released reports. WABE has compiled its story segments into a useful print and audio chronology. There are similar stories about the closely aligned Summer-2 & -3 project.

On September 24, I had the opportunity to tour the Vogtle site and learn first-hand how the project is faring. The wrong people are getting blamed. The resulting misperceptions about the projects have the potential to contribute to another lengthy hiatus in nuclear power plant construction in the United States.

The most important thing I learned during my Vogtle visit was that the construction project is moving as rapidly as predicted, that the people on site and in supporting roles are doing a good job, that the workforce hiring challenges are within the predicted boundaries, and that the regulators overseeing the project are performing as expected.

As is demonstrated by the progress being made on the second units at each site, lessons-learned programs are robust and effective.

I also saw a growing inventory of large components that was being stored in an expanding number of temporary structures designed to protect the components from the Georgia red clay and frequently inclement weather.

The second most important thing I learned was that the cost increase and ultimate schedule delay could and should have been predicted on the day that amendment 19 of the AP1000 design certification document was approved in December 2011.

The schedulers could have restarted a clock that should have been put on pause when the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission changed the rules two-and-a-half years earlier with the Aircraft Impact Assessment rule.

Regulatory delays cost time and money

The 36-page Federal Register notice issued in July 2009 acknowledged that the Aircraft Impact Assessment rule was not necessary to provide “adequate protection” and it acknowledged that applying the rule to a project that was already under construction would impose an undue financial burden:

“In making these additions, the NRC is making it clear that the requirements are not meant to apply to current or future operating license applications for which construction permits were issued before the effective date of this final rule. This is because existing construction permits are likely to involve designs which are essentially complete and may involve sites where construction has already taken place. Applying the final rule to operating license applications for which there are existing construction permits could result in an unwarranted financial burden to change a design for a plant that is partially constructed. Such a financial burden is not justifiable in light of the fact that the NRC considers the events to which the aircraft impact rule is directed to be beyond-design-basis events and compliance with the rule is not needed for adequate protection to public health and safety or common defense and security.

What that concession did not admit was the enormous financial and schedule impact of applying the rule to two existing projects for which designs were already certified, firm EPC (engineering, procurement, and construction) contracts were already signed, certified cost and schedule estimates were already submitted to state-level rate regulators, and long lead-time components were already being manufactured.

Instead of moving forward as planned, the Vogtle-3 & -4 and Summer-2 & -3 projects were halted while the engineers began the unpredictable process of designing a compliant shield building using modern, but not-yet-tested construction techniques.

From the moment the redesign effort started, all of the meticulously created schedules and cost estimates became obsolete. As they would say in my previous profession, they were OBE (overcome by events.)

Of course, neither the vendors, Westinghouse and Chicago Bridge & Iron (neé Shaw), nor the utility customers, Southern and SCANA, stopped moving or spending money; there was too much at stake already.

Even though all parties knew that they could not finalize the requirements for the plant’s foundations until the shield building redesign was invented, tested, completed, and approved by the regulator, they could not halt site preparation or component manufacturing.

They could not stop the accumulation of ongoing interest payments on borrowed money. They could not stop construction of the training facilities or the hiring and prequalification training for future operators.

Why not correct the record?

I’ve spent much of the time since my visit trying to understand why no involved party has made a noticeable public effort to correct the record and explain that the delays were outside their control.

The answer I have discovered is completely unsatisfying. I asked some hard questions. Here is an example of the verbal and written replies:

“The issues raised in your questions are subjects of disputes that are currently in litigation. It is not appropriate to comment outside of the litigation process. The parties’ respective pleadings in the litigation set forth their positions.”

Apparently, the vendor team and the owners group would rather litigate and point fingers at each other rather than to tell a truthful story that identifies the real culprit.

Several industry experts have suggested that nuclear plant licensees are extremely reluctant to blame the regulators that still control their destiny.

It is beyond the scope of this commentary to open up the question of whether or not the Aircraft Impact Assessment rule was a reasonable response to the irrational fear induced by the events of 9/11.

It is not even my intention to question the reasonableness of applying the rule that is not required for adequate protection to projects that were already underway.

The mission of this commentary is to explain that the root cause of the schedule delays and cost increases for both the Vogtle-3 & -4 and Summer-2 & -3 projects was a national-level decision to force a substantial redesign after major project decisions had been made.

As long as the regulations do not change again, there now exist several designs that meet the new requirements. Customers that order those designs now should be able to avoid the impact of a midstream design change.

It would be in the best interests of the industry and the projects that are currently underway to make it clear that the Vogtle and Summer projects were the subject of a one-time decision.

They should not be seen as indications that the nuclear industry is incapable of achieving predictable cost and schedule performance.

____________________________

Adams1Rod 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.

 

ANS Winter Meeting 2014 Opening Plenary – Great New Concept; Hints on Yucca

Jessica Lovering Speaks at ANS 2014 Winter Meeting

Jessica Lovering speaks at ANS 2014 Winter Meeting

Breakout sessions with three acknowledged experts in the areas of nuclear policy, nuclear plant operations, and nuclear regulation were the highlight of an innovative and engaging Opening Plenary at this year’s ANS Winter Meeting

Describe – Discuss – Direct

The three panelists were introduced by meeting General Chair Ed Halpin, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, whose idea it was to change the usual format to a new one. Under the new format, each panelist first gave a short description of his or her position and then ultimately was off to his or her own break-out session. Jessica Lovering of the Breakthrough Institute led off with a discussion on communicating nuclear energy either in light of climate change or in the absence of any discussion of it. Bob Willard, chief executive officer of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, then discussed opportunities that his organization sees for U.S. nuclear plants. Finally, William Ostendorff, commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, described the U.S. nuclear plant landscape from a regulatory perspective.

Bob Willard speaks during President's Special Session today

Bob Willard speaks during the ANS President’s Special Session

After a short Q&A session with all three panelists on the stage, each panelist was dispatched to a corner of the large Disneyland Resort Hotel ballroom hosting the event for personal interaction, and the attendees were encouraged by Halpin to select whichever group interested them more for engagement. The three were swamped and still had more questions to answer when they returned to the stage for a final summary.

In the final summaries all three panelists made it clear that nuclear professionals need to get out and communicate about the benefits of nuclear technology now more than ever. There is a definite knowledge gap for the public, and it is to us that the public will look for honest, straightforward information about nuclear technologies generally and nuclear energy specifically.

Yucca Mountain

Ostendorff

Ostendorff

During his remarks Commissioner Ostendorff made a number of observations about the NRC generally and Yucca Mountain specifically that are of interest to ANS members and the public. Some are condensed below:

  • The final volumes of the Safety Evaluation Report (SER) for the Yucca Mountain repository should be out by January 2015, and for these Ostendorff said that there are “no show stoppers.” There are, however, some 300 contentions to Yucca that may take years to adjudicate.
  • The NRC is not responsible to guarantee a spent fuel repository; that is the job of the U.S. Department of Energy and the Congress, which latter guides momentum of the project by allocating funds.  Ostendorff noted that the new Continued Storage rule (replacing the Waste Confidence rule) does not require long-term geologic disposal of spent nuclear fuel.
  • There is absolutely no need to expedite transfer of spent nuclear fuel from spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants in the United States to dry cask storage.
  • The NRC is not by either design or mandate a politically motivated entity; its job is to regulate and not to dictate policy.

There were, of course, many other interesting and significant things that occurred during the Opening Plenary. These were just a few of the highlights.

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(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe. Davis is reporting from the ANS 2014 Winter Meeting this week, here and on twitter – @ans_org.)

Prompt Action Needed by ANS Members on EPA Clean Power Rule

BradyRaap2010_1b

ANS President Dr. Michaele Brady Raap

American Nuclear Society President Michaele Brady Raap has released a letter calling ANS members to action—and by “action,” she means making comments to the Environmental Protection Agency on its Clean Power Rule. According to Brady Raap, “the rule as it is currently structured would almost entirely discount the clean energy contributions of our current nuclear energy facilities and effectively penalize states that have new plants under construction.”

The stated purpose of the EPA plan is to cut carbon emissions from electric generating plants in the United States. While the plan allows each state to come up with its own specific proposals for cutting these emissions, the plan’s guidance as given by the EPA would allow states to actually replace closed nuclear plants with only a fraction of non-emitting sources. Other deficiencies in the EPA directive are enumerated in her letter to American Nuclear Society’s members.

ANS has set up a page on its website covering the EPA Clean Power Rule issues, which can be found by clicking here. Brady Raap’s letter to ANS members on action that can be taken to make ANS’s voice heard is found here.

For more information:

ANS Nuclear Cafe posted an article on the EPA Clean Power Rule in August 2014, entitled “Unintended Anti-Nuclear Consequences Lurking in EPA Clean Power Plan.” Click here to read it.

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival 233

ferris wheel 202x201The 233rd Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival has been posted at Next Big Future.

Click here to access Carnival 233.

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, AREVA Next Energy Blog, EntrepreNuke, Thorium MSR 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.

Two Pieces of Good News for Nuclear

Hinkley Point C

Hinkley Point C – conceptual view. ©EDF

by Jim Hopf

In the midst of many challenging trends for the nuclear industry, two bits of good news happened recently. The US Department of Energy announced up to $12.6 billion of additional load guarantee authority for nuclear projects, and the European Commission voted to allow Britain’s Hinkley Point C project (to construct two AREVA EPRs) to proceed.

DOE loans

On September 30, the DOE announced a draft solicitation of up to $12.6 billion in loan guarantees “to support construction of innovative nuclear energy and front-end nuclear projects in the United States that reduce, avoid, or sequester greenhouse gas emissions.”While any such project may apply, the DOE said that the focus would be on four key areas, including:

  • Advanced nuclear reactors
  • Small modular reactors (SMRs)
  • Upgrades and uprates at existing reactors
  • Front end (fuel) projects

The loan guarantees are authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and therefore do not require congressional authorization or appropriations. Thus, the DOE has discretion in approving the loans.

Best use of loans?

The Breakthrough Institute believes that the last two areas listed above may be of particular importance, as they may result in quicker CO2 emissions reductions (through uprates and helping to keep existing plants open).

I’m not sure that I agree with this. As for front end (fuel) projects, the price of fuel is not exactly a significant factor in overall nuclear costs.It would seem to me that uprates are something that plants should not have trouble in securing private financing (given that one utility got private financing to build two new reactors). And I’m not sure how the struggles of existing plants (where ongoing operational costs are apparently too high) would relate to the ability to borrow money, at a slightly lower interest rate.

It’s probably crazy talk, but my favorite idea for the use of a loan guarantee is not to fund nuclear build projects, but to directly fund supply chain development, as China did with solar panels. (Unlike www.ans.orgthe United States, they subsidized panel factories, as opposed to the purchase of panels, resulting in U.S. customers buying Chinese panels with U.S. government money.) Specifically, my dream would be to see loans for construction of an SMR assembly line (probably a light water reactor, like mPower or NuScale). With that seed money, the assembly line could result in module costs low enough so that plant project subsidies would not be needed.

Even better would be for the government to “prime the pump” by agreeing to buy the first module, and put it in inventory. Then it would be sold to a utility customer.When that module is sold, the government would buy another one, etc. The idea is to keep the assembly line running, and ensure, for the customers, that the “construction time” for the reactor (nuclear island) is effectively zero.Just buy it, put it in place, and connect it to the balance of plant.

I keep hearing that construction time is a big source of overall cost for nuclear projects. How does 0 years sound?The government would commit to ensuring that at least one (or a few) modules are in inventory at any given time. It may be possible to get a virtuous cycle going.

European Commission ruling

After years of discussion and debate, the European Commission ruled, by a vote of 16 to 5, to allow Britain to provide financial support that is necessary for the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant project to go forward. The most notable aspect of that financial support is a guaranteed minimum price of ₤92.5 (about U$148) per MW-hr for 35 years. While allowing the project to go forward, the EU did extract some concessions, including a lower level of subsidy and a stricter limit on potential “windfall” profits for EDF (the company that will operate the reactor).

The EU had threatened to disallow the financial support, on grounds that it may violate EU rules against “state aid” that favor one industry over another (or favor domestic industry over those in other member states). The argument is that such state aid “distorts the market.”

A counter argument to the above is the fact that the market does not account for the external (pollution and global warming) costs of fossil fuels. Thus, aid (subsidies) for clean energy sources is not a distortion, but actually correct and existing market distortion. Under similar reasoning, renewable projects have received even larger subsidies, and were simply exempted from the state aid restrictions in question. Thus, the question is whether favoring nuclear over fossil fuels should also be allowed. A related question is whether individual member states should be able to support nuclear, at their own expense, if they choose to.

EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia alluded to the above arguments while explaining the decision. He said that they concluded that “a market failure exists” and that the project would not have gone forward without support (so it’s not just padding the bottom line of a domestic industry). It also seems clear that the EU decided not to interfere with a member state’s ability to set its own energy policies, and to support nuclear if it chose to. Perhaps they thought their case was not strong enough, given the inconsistency with how renewables are treated.

Reactions to the EU ruling

Predictably, several EU countries long opposed to nuclear power protested the decision. Both Austria and Germany are considering legal challenges to the ruling. Ireland is also complaining about not being “adequately consulted” on the project.

One has to wonder how strong their case is, given that renewables receive even larger levels of support, and are simply exempt from the rules in question. The Austrian Chancellor at least clarified where they were really coming from when he stated that “alternative forms of energy are worthy of subsidies, not nuclear energy. “Whether or not that sentiment is true, it’s not clear if it forms a legal basis for challenge. The EU ruling concerned compliance with EU state aid rules, and whether member states have the right to subsidize favored energy sources; not the relative merits of nuclear vs. renewable energy. It appears that the EU has ruled that they do. I can’t see any legal challenge to this ruling that wouldn’t also result in renewables subsidies being struck down.

It is also doubtful that Ireland’s complaint will amount to anything. One also has to wonder why Ireland feels it should be consulted about a modern reactor in Britain, downwind from Ireland and too far away to have any potential (post-meltdown) impact on Ireland in any event.  Meanwhile, Ireland continues to operate old dirty coal plants, whose pollution generally drifts over Britain, without consulting the Brits about it (I’m guessing).

On the other side, the world nuclear industry, as well as several EU member states considering nuclear projects, reacted positively to the ruling. It is expected that this ruling will serve as legal precedent for other nuclear projects in Britain, as well as nuclear projects being considered in other EU countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia.

My view

While I’m pleased with the EU ruling, and believe that all non-polluting sources (i.e., nuclear and renewable) should be treated equally, I’m still surprised and disappointed in the ₤92.5 per MW-hr (i.e., ~15 cents/kW-hr) that is apparently necessary for a new nuclear plant. Frankly, it should cost little more than half that. The dramatic rise in nuclear costs over the last decade remains very hard to explain (in my opinion). This is true for both construction and operating costs (with even existing plants struggling to stay open, despite how we’ve always been told that, once built, they are extremely cheap to operate).

If nuclear was less expensive, many of its issues (political, etc.) would go away. And yet, I don’t see the industry or anyone else making a significant effort to determine what the causes of this dramatic cost escalation are, let alone doing something about them. As I’ve stated before (here and here), the industry, policymakers, and regulators need to get together to make a concerted effort to determine what’s behind these out-of-control costs and then have an open, objective discussion about what to do about it.

And yes, reforming and/or reducing nuclear regulations and requirements (including many that have been around a long time) needs to be on the table. All requirements need to be objectively re-evaluated for cost-effectiveness. Potential negative impacts of (excessive) nuclear requirements on public health and safety, due to the use of fossil fuels in lieu of nuclear, need to be fully considered in any such evaluation.

_________________________________

Hopf

Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival 232

ferris wheel 202x201The 232nd Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival has been posted at The Hiroshima Syndrome.

•Click here to access Carnival 232

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, AREVA Next Energy Blog, EntrepreNuke, Thorium MSR 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 Medicine” – National Nuclear Science Week, Day 5 (October 24)

NSWlogoThe fifth and final day of Nuclear Science Week is all about Nuclear Medicine. Have you ever experienced a procedure at a hospital that employed radiation? Did you know that there are actually many different ways that nuclear technology is employed in medicine—and not just at your local hospitals?

According to the American Nuclear Society’s Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information:

Nuclear medicine and radiology are the whole of medical techniques that involve radiation or radioactivity to diagnose, treat and prevent disease. While radiology have been used for close to a century, “nuclear medicine” began approximately 50 years ago. Today, about one-third of all procedures used in modern hospitals involve radiation or radioactivity. These procedures are among the best and most effective life-saving tools available, they are safe and painless and don’t require anesthesia, and they are helpful to a broad span of medical specialties, from pediatrics to cardiology to psychiatry.

You can learn much more about nuclear medicine at the dedicated CNSTI page on the topic—click here to access it.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has oversight over some, but not all, medical uses of nuclear material and technology. To read about the NRC’s role and to see what it regulates, click here.

The US Food and Drug Administration regulates a portion of the medical field that uses radioactivity; click here to access the FDA’s extensive site portal covering all aspects of what it regulates. You can also find many other useful resources at this link.

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

“Nuclear Safety” – National Nuclear Science Week, Day 4 (October 23)

NSWlogoDay 4 of the annual National Nuclear Science week is all about Nuclear Safety.

The use of either fission of atoms, or decay of radioisotopes to benefit man (whether that benefit derives from the production of electricity, the diagnosis of a medical patient, the preservation of food, or many other things) brings along with it a serious responsibility to ensure the safety of not only all involved with the process but those uninvolved as well. To this end, a tremendous amount both of time and money are spent by all organizations designing, operating, or using nuclear technology as well as governmental oversight agencies (often called “regulators,” such as the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)

The American Nuclear Society’s Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information has a great page covering the many, varied aspects of nuclear technology safety. Click here to access this CNSTI page.

Don’t forget—you can visit the Nuclear Science Week official website for much more information, including lesson plans, and other resources.

“Nuclear Energy” – National Nuclear Science Week, Day 3 (October 22)

NSWlogoThe third day of National Nuclear Science Week is focused upon the production of energy by nuclear means—and that means energy that can do work for man. Electric power, steam for heating businesses and homes, and mechanical power for propelling ships are perhaps the best known examples of man’s use of nuclear energy.

The classic image of a modern nuclear power station, represented by Perry Nuclear Plant, Ohio.  Photo in Will Davis collection.

The classic image of a modern nuclear power station, represented by Perry Nuclear Plant, Ohio. Photo in Will Davis collection.

Regardless of model or type, all nuclear reactors produce heat; this is how we get useful work from them. In the case of a nuclear power plant, the heat is used to boil water into steam, which then is used to run very large turbines; these generate power for thousands of businesses, homes, street lights, traffic lights—everything you see that receives electric power. And did we say “large?” A typical turbine generator at a nuclear plant can be 200 feet long; the parts inside the turbine that rotate can have a total mass of around 700 tons, and the machine overall can develop from 900 MW (megawatts) to 1400 MW. That’s well over one million horsepower!

You can read about nuclear energy in an introductory fashion at the American Nuclear Society’s CNSTI page on Reactors, a special part of the Nuclear Science Week publications.

The U.S. government has two primary offices related to nuclear energy. The Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy develops and promotes nuclear power technologies, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the responsibility of oversight of all nuclear facilities in the United States.

••••••••••

For more information on the development of nuclear energy:

The path to developing useful work from splitting the atom (known as “fission”) began with Enrico Fermi’s “atomic pile,” the CP-1, which was the first working nuclear reactor. Click here to read about the effort, and its 70th anniversary.

The first full-scale nuclear reactor of any sort was actually not used for power production, but rather was part of the US Manhattan Project. Still, this complicated and large machine proved out concepts that would be used in power reactors. Click here to read about this reactor, the Hanford B Reactor.

The first nuclear reactor plant intended for the production of useful power alone (propulsion and electricity) was the STR Mark I, which was the prototype or dress rehearsal for the world’s first nuclear powered vessel, USS NAUTILUS.  See some details of the prototype’s construction at this link.

Nuclear energy has been employed to power hundreds of military vessels; it's also been used to propel at least three merchant ships.  The first, NS SAVANNAH, is shown.  Illustration courtesy NS Savannah Association, Inc.

Nuclear energy has been employed to power hundreds of military vessels; it’s also been used to propel at least three merchant ships. The first, NS SAVANNAH, is shown. Illustration courtesy NS Savannah Association, Inc.

General Electric’s Vallecitos boiling water reactor was part of the effort that led to the first measurable commercial sale of nuclear generated electric power in the United States. Click here to read about this project and see a film on it.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms For Peace” program led directly to the development of civilian nuclear power in the United States. ANS Nuclear Cafe described that program in a three part feature, which can be found at the following links: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

“Careers in Nuclear” – National Nuclear Science Week, Day 2 (October 21)

NSWlogoThe second day of National Nuclear Science Week promotes the knowledge of careers in nuclear-related fields.

For most people, the idea of a career in a nuclear-related field might evoke images of the production of electricity by nuclear energy. While that field has a very large number of associated practices, there are many other nuclear-related disciplines. How many times have you passed by, or perhaps even been a patient in, a Nuclear Medicine department of a hospital? Have you ever heard of the use of nuclear technology to evaluate materials? Did you know that nuclear technology can help with the long-term preservation of food items? These are only a few areas of life wherein nuclear technologies are of great benefit to mankind.

The American Nuclear Society’s Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information has a great resource page on nuclear careers; click here to see it. You might be amazed by the number of points of our lives that are touched by nuclear technologies and made better by having been.

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

“Get to Know Nuclear” – National Nuclear Science Week 2014, Day One

NSWlogoMonday, October 20, marks the first official day of National Nuclear Science Week—a week long, annual coordinated educational event that promotes nuclear science and technology.

Five years ago the Smithsonian Affiliated National Museum of Nuclear Science and History founded this nationally recognized, week-long celebration. Nuclear Science Week is a unique outreach opportunity that grants teachers, students, and the general public direct access to nuclear technologies and energy experts. A basic introduction to the concept, as well as details of its execution, can be found here.

Each day of the NNSW focuses on a specific theme, and as an introduction the first day is designated as “Get to Know Nuclear.” You might be surprised how many facets of our lives are touched, and enhanced, by nuclear technologies—and you might be surprised how many people know little or nothing about these nuclear technologies. Fortunately, there are a number of great, easy-to-read official sources you can consult if you’re an educator tasked with presenting such material or even if you’re just personally curious.

The American Nuclear Society’s Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information has set up a special section on National Nuclear Science Week, which can be found here. There is a specially dedicated section for the first day, “Get to Know Nuclear.” ANS also has a variety of educational materials available at this link.

National Nuclear Science Week has its own dedicated stand-alone website, found here, which is presented by the National Museum of Nuclear Science. A schedule of various events throughout the week can be found here.

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe.)