Category Archives: Department of Energy

Seven Decades Past, A New Dawn

by Will Davis

Shortly before midnight on September 26, 1944, a sustained chain reaction was begun for the first time in a nuclear reactor whose purpose was not merely to prove that fission could be achieved or sustained. The brand new reactor at Hanford Engineer Works, Washington state, had only been complete for about a month; its first uranium fuel had begun loading only on September 13. Incredibly, this facility, of a nature that had never been attempted before (as man had only been aware of fission, itself, for less than a decade) was built in the incredible time span of 11 months; ground had been broken to build the reactor building in October 1943.

 

Construction begins on the Hanford 105B building -- the "B Reactor," first ever built.  The contractor was E.I. duPont de Nemours, usually just known as "DuPont."

Construction begins on the Hanford 105B building — the “B Reactor,” first ever built. The contractor was E.I. duPont de Nemours, usually just known as “DuPont.”

 

Hanford B reactor construction is well underway in this view; the plant's various designated spaces are now beginning to take shape.

Hanford B reactor construction is well underway in this view; the plant’s various designated spaces are now beginning to take shape.

 

With building construction nearly complete, workers have begun constructing the giant graphite moderator.  Thousands of bricks, eventually totalling 2200 tons, will be installed to slow neutrons to the energies required to interact with uranium fuel.

With building construction nearly complete, workers have begun constructing the giant graphite moderator. Thousands of bricks, eventually totalling 2200 tons, will be installed to slow neutrons to the energies required to interact with uranium fuel.

 

The completed 105B Building, otherwise known as B Reactor, the world's first full scale non-experimental nuclear reactor.

The completed 105B Building, otherwise known as B Reactor, the world’s first full scale non-experimental nuclear reactor.

The purpose of this reactor was fairly simple; it used a large number of uranium fuel elements that, under bombardment by neutrons from the chain reaction, produced plutonium. This plutonium could be extracted from the fuel through a chemical separation process, also performed at the vast Hanford site, and then concentrated to make atomic weapons. That was, in fact the purpose of this facility—under the purview of the Manhattan Project. The reactor developed a great deal of heat during this process (the original design as built was rated at about 240 megawatts thermal or MWt, but the reactor was substantially upgraded over the years to develop 10 times this) and it was of course natural to expect that this heat could be harnessed for power. At Hanford, the waste heat was simply dumped to the river, but the first nuclear electric generating stations in England and in France were of essentially this type—reactors whose primary purpose was to produce weapons material, but whose waste heat was harnessed to produce useful energy.

Cutaway of Hanford B Reactor building showing purpose of internal spaces and location of reactor.

Cutaway of Hanford B Reactor building, showing purpose of internal spaces and location of reactor.

Of course, the reactor did not exist in a vacuum; not only were many various support facilities required (including a steam plant and pump house to provide 35,000 gallons of cooling water per minute for the reactor), but there were other reactors of identical type under construction very soon, spread around the giant reservation along the Columbia River.

Hanford B Reactor site, showing various structures around the reactor building which is just right of center.

Hanford B Reactor site, showing various structures around the reactor building which is just right of center.

Today, B Reactor remains unique at the site. While a number of other reactors were built, operated, and eventually shut down (as was B on February 12, 1968, for the last time) over the intervening years, these have been “cocooned” or placed in storage. B Reactor on the other hand is preserved (although long since defueled and cleaned up) and is open for tours; the site has received numerous landmark awards (including from the American Nuclear Society) and is recognized today for the place it played in history in many ways.

It’s quite clear that when the sun rose on September 27, 1944, it did so on a world that had changed—a world that could never turn back. While the immediate result of this project was nuclear weapons, nuclear energy had already been considered (since 1939, in fact, by the US Navy) and both might be thought of as having been born the night before. As the world today pulls back from nuclear weaponry, it finds itself advancing in energy demand, with nuclear playing a role now even into developing countries in Africa as well as established and prosperous countries in the Middle East. The immensity of the achievements of September 1944 cannot be underestimated.

Hanford B Reactor

For More Information:

B Reactor – Dep’t. of Energy / Hanford Site

B reactor is located in the 100 Area at Hanford Site.

DOE Hanford has its own YouTube channel, with dozens of videos showing work and remediation all over the site; some feature B reactor.

Sources for this article:

The Atomic Energy Deskbook.  John F. Hogerton;  Reinhold Publishing Company, New York, 1963.

Manhattan Project – B Reactor.  Brochure, US Dep’t of Energy, 2009.

History of 100B Area.  WHC-EP-0273  Westinghouse Hanford Company for US Dept. of Energy, October 1989.

Hanford’s Historic B Reactor.  HNF-40918-VA Rev 0.  Fluor Corporation for US Dept. of Energy, March 2009.

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.  Davis is temporarily managing all social media for the American Nuclear Society.

Vogtle Loan Guarantee Finally Approved

By Jim Hopf

DC PerspectivesIn February, the U.S. Department of Energy finally announced the approval of a federal loan guarantee for the Vogtle-3 and -4 reactor project under construction near Waynesboro, Ga. The approval came after four years of negotiations between the government and the utilities involved in the Vogtle project.

Credit subsidy fee

It appears that the Vogtle project will not have to pay a credit subsidy fee for the loan. (The fee is an upfront cash payment made to the government to compensate it for the risk of guaranteeing a loan).

It should be noted that all renewable energy projects receiving similar federal loan guarantees are exempted from paying any credit subsidy fee, regardless of project risk. The appropriate fee for each project is estimated by the government, but the fee is then paid for through government appropriations.

The initial intent of the government was to treat nuclear differently, and to make the nuclear utilities, as opposed to the government, pay the credit subsidy fee. In the case of the Vogtle project, the government did not appropriate money to pay for the fee. Instead, it made a determination that the financial risks were not significant, and that therefore the appropriate fee is negligible.

Reasons for removing fee

The situation with the nuclear loan guarantees reminds me of a personal experience I had with a car salesman trying to sell me an insurance program. The insurance would cover any charges I could face when returning the car at the end of the lease (to cover vehicle damage, etc.). The initial offer started at ~$25/month added to the lease payment. As I continued to express lack of interest, the price offered for the insurance dropped dramatically. At one point, the salesman exclaimed, “I can’t give this thing away!” Finally, after he offered the protection for less than $1/month, I agreed to it, more out of sympathy for him than seeing merit in the program.

Similarly, the DOE initially asked for a significant credit subsidy fee, but the Vogtle project utilities repeatedly refused to accept the government’s offer. The primary reason for the utilities’ refusal was that they would have been able to secure private financing, with no government help, under better terms. Contrary to many people’s expectations, the nuclear projects had no trouble finding willing, private sources of financing.

In fact, the other new nuclear plant project proceeding in the United States—the Summer project in South Carolina—informed the federal government a long time ago that it would not pursue a government loan guarantee. The reasons it gave were that it was having no trouble finding private financing with equal or better terms, and that applying for the government loan guarantee was not worth the effort.

Even with the Vogtle project, the federal loan guarantee provides very little benefit, and will not significantly reduce overall project costs. The chairman of Southern Company (the primary utility involved in the Vogtle project) estimates a benefit of ~$200 million out of a total project cost of $15.5 billion.

Political considerations

Part of me almost regrets the fact that they finally came to an agreement, and I almost would rather have seen the Vogtle project proceed entirely with private financing. That outcome would have helped nuclear advocates’ arguments overall.

The fact that Vogtle is proceeding under a federal loan guarantee allows nuclear opponents to continue to argue (however speciously) that the projects needed loan guarantees to proceed. They will simply not mention how the Vogtle project was proceeding even without the loan guarantee, or how the Summer project is not relying on a loan guarantee at all.

The fact that the loan guarantee was granted with no credit subsidy fee helps the antis’ arguments even more, as they can characterize it as an unnecessary subsidy to a mature industry. Yes, they will assiduously ignore the fact that renewable energy projects routinely get loan guarantees with no credit subsidy fee. (Renewable energy projects also often get their production tax credit subsidies in the form of a large upfront, lump sum payment that covers a large fraction of their initial capital cost, a far more beneficial arrangement that no nuclear project could ever dream of.)

As for the federal government (i.e., the Obama administration), the reason why it finally agreed to waive any credit subsidy fee (in my opinion) is that it desperately wanted to chalk up at least one “win.” That is, it wanted to demonstrate that it does support nuclear, and it didn’t want to admit that the nuclear loan guarantee program was a total failure.

If no loan guarantees were granted, however, both the projects would have proceeded anyway, and there would have been no significant financial impact. That would have allowed nuclear advocates to argue that nuclear projects (in regulated markets, at least) did not need such loans, and that there were no associated subsidies. It would have largely eliminated the attacks the projects are receiving from the right side of the political spectrum, from groups like the Tea Party and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

A step further

It’s clear that nuclear projects in regulated (rate base) markets, like those prevalent in the southeast United States, do not need loan guarantees. They are not even significantly benefited by them. However, it also seems clear that in unregulated electricity markets, any new nuclear plant project would need a loan guarantee, as the financial risks are much higher.

The government offered loan guarantees to plants in unregulated markets, but the credit subsidy fees demanded by the feds were so high that it resulted in the cancellation of projects.

What the government should do is treat nuclear projects the same way it treats renewable energy projects, and not apply any credit subsidy fees. Would that be a subsidy? Yes. Sources of clean energy, such as new nuclear, should receive subsidies, given the fact that government policies continue to apply no financial disincentive to emit CO2 or other pollutants. If renewable energy projects receive such subsidies, non-polluting nuclear projects should receive them as well.

The argument that all non-emitting energy sources should be treated equally is an emerging theme that needs to be communicated to policymakers by the American Nuclear Society and the nuclear industry in general. This message is becoming even more important in the context of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new CO2 emissions reduction policies, allowing states to choose how to reduce emissions. Many states may be open to policies that treat nuclear and renewable sources equally. The industry needs to make the case to policymakers in those states.

vogtle june 2014 400x240

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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.

Return to the 1970s

By Will Davis

LetsGoBookIn the 1960s, visions for nuclear power were hopeful and plentiful; nuclear plants of all sorts imaginable* were under consideration and under construction in areas both urban and remote, while future plans portrayed an enormous nuclear plant build-out with a complete fuel cycle that included fuel recycling and breeder reactors.

By the 1980s, dozens and dozens of nuclear plants had been cancelled and many others deferred; only light water cooled and moderated reactors were under construction or even considered; the fuel cycle was irreparably broken and stuck at “once-through,” and breeders were dead.

What happened? Well, the short answer is this: “The 1970s happened.” You know, the ’70s—the decade of purported social decay, purported imminent ecological collapse, purported continuous and irreversible fuel and energy shortage; a decade marked by conservationism (the idea that we should do less with less) having taken over the pulpit from environmentalism (the idea that we should do as much as possible to try to not harm the environment) and a decade marked by deep suspicion of anything even remotely suspected of being corporate.

The damage to nuclear energy’s future wasn’t entirely the fault of the US government, although it played a major role. The first events of the decade concerning nuclear surrounded the breakup of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was split into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). The decade later also saw the breakup of the very powerful Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. These moves, driven by the desire among some that the federal government has no stake in promoting nuclear energy, effectively killed off any ability of the government to drive goals or make real accomplishments in the field (the downsizing of the small modular reactor dream recently is all the proof one needs of this; compare it to the long list of nuclear plant types actually built as listed in the footnotes). The only body remaining with any real power, the NRC, served only to license and oversee nuclear plants and has no promotional mandate.**

The real mandate was made quite clear in March 1977 when the ERDA set up the Solar Energy Research Institute to develop solar energy (an arena in which NASA was also working—astronaut Dr. Harrison Schmitt was for a time in charge of the program). Thus, the government quickly eviscerated any attempt to keep federal money and direction behind nuclear energy, and made at least some effort to move it instead into solar. At roughly the same time, research into coal power, on the federal dime, was also continuing—a NASA program to study coal gasification and co-generation comes to mind from then.

The Carter administration is the entity upon which we can reflect today as being most intimately involved with serious changes during this pivotal decade. It was during these years that the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy was broken up; the administration was also responsible for plans that led to issuance of ERDA  document ERDA 77-1, “A National Plan for Energy Research, Development and Demonstration,” from early 1977. It is not putting the matter too seriously to say that this policy brief outlines plans and considerations that can, in hindsight, only be considered foolish and disastrous. Let’s outline a few of the decisions, considerations, and plans found in this directive:

ERDA77-1• The first priority was conservation—not energy production. This focus, made all too clear by the book’s overemphasis on not doing more with less, but rather doing less with less, was intended to “.. reduce the annual rate of growth of demand to less than 2 percent.” This was a deliberate effort to drive down growth of generating capacity—a move completely unnecessary if nuclear energy were pushed, since it does not use any of the supposedly dwindling fuel sources.

• “Industries and utilities using oil and natural gas should convert to coal and other abundant fuels.” This is the second major goal of the program; its ridiculousness today is obvious on many fronts.

• Another telling quote: “This National Energy Plan is necessary because, despite positive efforts by federal and state governments, industry, and the American public to conserve energy and increase domestic energy supplies, the Nation is, more than ever, reliant on the least plentiful domestic energy resources, petroleum and natural gas.” The untruth of this statement rings hard on the ears today in a world full of oil, natural gas, and shale deposits. But it was the “truth” of the time—or so we were told.

Nuclear Power and the ERDA plan

The ERDA plan wasn’t entirely unrealistic in terms of its approach to nuclear energy—I say this because there were some sensible ideas, including the  streamlining of regulatory requirements—and this was BEFORE Three Mile Island.

The plans for uranium fueled light water reactors were, on the surface, sensible. For example, an expansion of nuclear fuel resources and utilization was planned that was to see greater extraction of uranium from ore, more efficient use of uranium, a better analysis of available and future supply of ore, and even a look at other fuels such as thorium (which was put into the Shippingport pressurized water reactor during the Carter administration.) The plan also sought to increase nuclear plant capacity factors and “decrease plant construction time and costs through standardization of designs.” None of these ideas, however, was new or unique to this administration—it was simply promoting things in this part of the vision for the path forward that had already been printed long before.

The plan’s major changes to the overall nuclear fuel cycle centered on fears of weapons proliferation—the fear that someone, somehow would obtain fissile material from the US nuclear fuel cycle and create a nuclear weapon with it. This fear made the Carter administration try to kill the fast breeder reactor program, and halted plutonium fuel reprocessing. To wit:

“The United States is currently reorienting its advanced nuclear reactor research and development program due to concern with proliferation dangers associated with the plutonium fuel cycle. The President (Carter) has proposed to defer efforts to commercialize the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR). He has proposed that the systems design for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Demonstration (CRBR) plant be completed, but construction and operation be cancelled. However, the Fast Flux Test reactor under construction at Hanford will be completed and become operable by 1980.

Alternative reactor systems, including breeders and advanced converters, will be investigated with emphasis on nonproliferation and safety factors. Spectral shift and tandem cycle techniques are being considered as methods to improve the performance of converter reactors. Co-processing of spent fuel from converter reactors is being examined as a possible method for increasing fuel supply to converter reactors or breeder reactors while reducing proliferation dangers. A variety of thorium breeders as well as converter reactors are under consideration as alternatives to the LMFBR. The fuel cycle alternative studies will be completed within about two years.”

Other than the light water breeder experiment at Shippingport, not much ever came of these somewhat grand and fairly positive sounding plans. Instead, the push for conservation (which takes up much of the book), the push for renewables (much more of the book), and fossil fuel (also a large part of the book) continued unabated.

powerplant-mdFrankly, viewed today, this policy document is quite depressing. Fear overtakes all—fear of pollution, fear of fuel shortage (except coal!), fear of nuclear weapons (which somehow must always be mentioned whenever nuclear energy is mentioned in this policy document***), fear of ecological collapse and societal ruin. This was a policy meant to smash the energy business—not reinvigorate it. It was a policy whose only realistic outcome could be either intended or unintended support for that which already held the high ground: Coal.

Lessons for today

Today, we find a vaguely similar set of circumstances. We’re faced with a seemingly unified voice telling us that the science is settled on global warming, and that we need to convert to non-greenhouse gas emitting generation sources. Note that in the 1970s, we were taught in grade school that there would be another (pollution-induced) Ice Age**** and we were told the science was settled then too—but what was the result? A policy that focused at least initially on coal power generation. The inherent contradiction is now plain today; will we see  a similar process take place again? Will we face the best predictions for climate available from science—with a push to do exactly what it is we know intuitively will hurt the worst?

Or instead—with clear and undeniable proof that through a morass of diplomacy and policy and elected representation and intervention and activism and education and misdirection and lobbying—we did exactly the wrong thing last time, will we soberly face the truth and guarantee ourselves that we’ll have the clarity of vision to see through to the proper end this time? Will we all come to understand that nuclear energy, no matter the fuel source, is the way out of all of these problems (and a solution to many others, including provision of reliable and stable base load power, relatively fixed fuel costs, 60 to 80 year plant life, grid stabilization, and more)? The problems we face are mostly political, not technical. Can we push through to do something that more or less everyone can agree we should do, even if our reasons for doing so aren’t the same?

We may be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Only time will tell. Let’s hope that 30 years from now I don’t have to write another story about where we are then, and how we screwed it up BOTH times in the past.

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Notes:

*Nuclear plants actually built in the United States under AEC programs or privately for commercial power generation included the following: Direct cycle boiling water; indirect cycle boiling water (with external fossil fired superheater); dual cycle boiling water;  boiling water with integral nuclear superheater; pressurized water;  pressurized water with external fossil fired superheater; high temperature gas cooled; sodium cooled fast breeder; sodium cooled (non breeder); organic cooled and moderated; pressure tube type PWR.

Reactor vendors for these types of plants in the early days included (not in order): Westinghouse, General Electric, Allis-Chalmers, Combustion Engineering, Atomics International (Division of North American Aviation Inc.), General Nuclear Engineering Corporation (later bought by Combustion Engineering), Babcock & Wilcox, General Atomic (Division of General Dynamics Corporation,) ACF Industries–Nuclear Products/ERCO Division (later bought by Allis-Chalmers).

This was a time when things got done, and not just things of one basic design concept from only a couple of companies.

**The recent ex-chairman of the NRC did, however, attempt publicly to decree that the NRC acts as an “appellate court” of sorts, a mandate clearly not in its charter, when in the midst of the Yucca Mountain waste repository debate.

***In the budgetary portion, the first line of the section on nuclear energy reads thus: “The appropriate role of nuclear power and the concerns associated with proliferation of nuclear weapons has been a major consideration for the Administration.”

****The author came home from school one day after such a lesson in grade school and waited until evening to ask his father if the family would have to move, since he had already learned that Ohio was covered by ice during the first ice age. The response was a solid, “No, and don’t worry about it—it will never happen.”

• Suggested Reading:

Nuclear Power and its Environmental Effects. This ANS book is a must for anyone interested in a readable, realistic assessment of how nuclear energy impacts the environment. Its value is proven by the fact that it has been in publication for decades. Consideration of nuclear energy as a part of today’s fuel generating mix relies on accessible information on its impacts; this book provides this information in one handy reference. We cannot have an intelligent national dialogue on energy unless this source (nuclear) is well understood.

• Book Covers:

“Let’s Go to an Atomic Energy Town.” Kirk Polking; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1968.  Library of Congress Catalog No. 68-15075.  One of Putnam’s “Let’s Go” series of children’s books.

“A National Plan for Energy Research, Development and Demonstration.” US Energy Research and Development Administration publication number ERDA77-1, June, 1977. U.S. Gov’t Printing Office Stock No. 060-000-00067-1.

Both books in author’s library.

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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.

A reason for holiday cheer–Significant court victories on nuclear waste

By Jim Hopf

DC PerspectivesA United States appellate court recently handed down two long-awaited rulings with respect to Yucca Mountain. As most observers expected, both decisions were decidedly in nuclear’s favor.

Yucca licensing effort

The court essentially has ruled that the administration’s termination of the Yucca licensing process is illegal, as it is in violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). On August 13 of this year, the court directed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume the licensing process, but allowed a comment period to determine how best to proceed.

Yucca_Mountain_2 180x144In a more recent (November 18) ruling, the court has given more specific instructions (summarized in this NRC order). It has ordered the NRC to complete the Safety Evaluation Report (SER) for the repository, and to place all licensing documents that support the Yucca application into its official records system, where they can be accessed by the public. The court also requested that the Department of Energy complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that is required for repository approval.

The administration, as well as the NRC, has tried to argue that even if required by the NWPA, the NRC cannot complete (or continue) the licensing process since Congress has not appropriated the money to do the work. However, it appears that this will not get in the way of the NRC complying with these recent court orders. Documents show that the NRC has $11 million in “unobligated carryover funding” that was originally appropriated in 2011. The NRC staff estimates that $8.3 million will be required to complete the SER.

tour group yucca  mountainA completed SER, with a positive conclusion, would represent a scientific determination by the NRC’s technical staff that the repository would meet all the (strict) technical requirements. Although the full licensing process would still involve steps for legal challenges and other stakeholder input, a final, published SER would essentially settle the scientific/technical question as to whether or not Yucca is a viable solution to the nuclear waste problem.

Nuclear waste fee

The court also handed down a ruling that indefinitely suspends the 0.1 cent/kW-hr fee that the federal government has been collecting from nuclear utilities to support the nuclear waste program. The fund has been collecting ~$750 million per year from nuclear utilities, and has accumulated almost $30 billion, despite the ~$12 billion that has been spent already on the Yucca project. The court order would zero out the fee indefinitely (probably until a new repository project was started, at a new selected site).

The Yucca project has been terminated, or is at least on indefinite hold, and no other repository site is being pursued or characterized. Thus, it is not at all clear what significant (and justifiable) expenses the program would face in the near- to mid-future. Given that any repository operations date has been moved far into the future, any expenses related to shipping and handling fuel have also been moved into the distant future. Thus, the court concluded that there is no reason why additional contributions to the fund are needed and justified.

In an attempt to justify the continuation of the fee, the DOE produced an extraordinarily wide estimated range for the total eventual cost of the repository program; essentially arguing that it had no idea what it would cost. The court sharply disagreed with the DOE’s cost estimates, calling its fee assessment “fundamentally flawed”, “legally inadequate”, and “absolutely useless.” The court, in fact, ridiculed the DOE’s fee assessment (and the absurdly large cost estimate range), saying that it “reminds us of the lawyer’s song in the musical “Chicago”—”Give them the old razzle dazzle.” That is, the court suggested that the DOE was being deliberately dishonest and evasive.

Significant victories

I believe that both decisions will significantly benefit nuclear, for the following reasons:

Impact of SER publication

I’ve always believed that having the NRC publish a SER, which determines that Yucca Mountain is a scientifically and technically sound solution for permanent nuclear waste disposal, would be of significant value to nuclear power, even if the project does not end up going forward.

The fact is that nuclear waste can be stored at plant sites, very safely and at very low cost, due to its miniscule volume. My view is that the biggest negative impact of failure to resolve the nuclear waste problem is that it leaves the public with a false impression that nuclear waste is a unique, intractable problem with no acceptable technical solution. In terms of long-term health/environmental risks, the real truth is that nuclear’s waste problem is more technically solved than that of many, if not most, other industrial waste streams, including those of fossil fuels. The false notion of intractability is a source of significant public opposition to nuclear power. That opposition, in turn, leads to the use of fossil fuels in lieu of nuclear, which results in public health risks and environmental impacts that are orders of magnitude larger than any that will ever be caused by nuclear waste, no matter where or how it’s disposed of.

A SER, with a positive conclusion, published by the NRC’s objective technical staff, could go a long way toward ameliorating those (mostly unfounded) concerns on the part of much of the public. Even if Yucca does not go forward, it can be argued that while Yucca was a technically sound (adequate) solution to the problem, we are choosing to pursue other options that are even better and/or have a greater degree of state and local public support. The point would be that it is not the case that we have no acceptable options (i.e., that we are “doomed” in some respect). We will be able to say that we know the waste will be buried in a way that does not result in significant long-term impacts or risks, given that we know we have at least one technically sound option.

The advantage of a published SER will only be significant if scientists and the nuclear industry and its supporters highlight the SER’s conclusions and strongly make the above case to the public. The publishing of the SER, as well as its scientific significance with respect to the real risks of nuclear waste disposal, will not be noticed by the public unless we make an effort to raise public awareness. A clear message must be sent that the nuclear waste problem has been solved, from a scientific and technical perspective.

Impact of waste fee elimination

As for the waste fee, it’s clear that further contributions are not justified. Not only is there no repository project to spend money on right now, but since any project, and any significant expenditures, have been pushed far down the road, long-term interest on the funds already accrued would likely be sufficient to cover any future expenses. At a minimum, it’s clear that the fee should be suspended until a new site is selected and significant (and justified) program expenditures resume.

One almost has to wonder if the government was deliberately dragging its feet on moving forward with a repository, making the fee essentially a nuclear power tax that the government could use to spend on other things—or, at least, use the trust fund to make the deficit/debt appear smaller. With the fee suspended, and with courts requiring the government to compensate utilities for on-site storage costs, the government may finally have a financial incentive to actually resolve the problem.

The immediate effect of the suspension is to reduce nuclear plant operating costs by 0.1 cents/kW-hr (i.e., $1 per MWh). Given the financial pressures that many older, smaller existing nuclear plants currently (and hopefully temporarily) face, every little bit helps. The fee elimination could well reduce the probability of seeing any more plant closures over the next few years. That, in turn, would significantly benefit both public health and environment, and reduce CO2 emissions.

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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.

US Secretary of Energy Moniz at ANS Opening Plenary

Moniz on Nuclear

By Will Davis

Moniz

Moniz

One of the many distinguished keynote speakers at Monday morning’s ANS 2013 Winter Meeting Opening Plenary Session was the Honorable Ernest J. Moniz, Secretary of Energy of the United States.  Secretary Moniz has often mentioned nuclear as part of an “all of the above” approach to energy, but on Monday we were treated to more extended remarks.

During his presentation, Secretary Moniz detailed the DOE’s three-pronged approach to advancing nuclear energy.  The first is the DOE’s $8B loan guarantee extended for construction of two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle in Georgia.  Moniz elaborated that the cost and schedule are being closely monitored, not just from within DOE but in many sectors, and expressed the opinion that if cost and schedule remain relatively within expectations and if positive returns are seen, there is no reason not to expect further investments… that is, additional utilities constructing large commercial nuclear plants in the ~1000 MWe class.

The second thrust for nuclear in the Department of Energy is the continued expenditure on Research and Development.  Moniz described the Small Modular Reactor (SMR) concept as an extremely interesting development and went so far as to say it could be a possible “game changer” in the outlook for nuclear energy.  He mentioned the $452M committed over 6 years by DOE for the development and construction of SMR plants in the United States (award of a second round of funding, more limited in coverage, has yet to be made).

The third DOE focus is an effort to resolve issues relating to spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste.  Moniz warned that the nation must act to prevent a potential $20B liability to the US Government if spent fuel lawsuits by utilities, for monies paid into the fund, continue to be decided in favor of the utilities.  Worse, the unresolved spent fuel situation “…limits any options we have for fuel leasing constructs to small countries wishing to build nuclear reactors – preventing us from helping to limit proliferation risk by returning spent fuel here.”  He noted that the amount of spent nuclear fuel returned from such agreements back to the United States would be quite small up through the mid-century point, but that we’re blocked on any development whatsoever by having no finality in the spent fuel situation – a position that both prevents us from selling nuclear fuel under complete contract, and prevents us from affecting proliferation risk.  Moniz indicated he does in fact expect action by Congress ‘shortly.’

Moniz also remarked with some pride that the final shipment of downblended uranium from the Megatons to Megawatts program will arrive on US shores soon, and lauded the program for its production of reactor fuel ‘for roughly 10 percent of US electric power generation’ while eliminating a great amount of weapons-grade material from the world.  Moniz also noted the complete removal of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from 12 nations now, with the latest being Hungary.

During the Q&A session at the end of the Opening Plenary, Secretary Moniz made further remarks on how DOE is working to contribute to nuclear energy’s future.  He said that the DOE program is designed to drive down the cost of generating methods (in this case referring to SMR’s as well as other competing methods) so that they can all compete in the marketplace.  He highlighted the “All of the Above” approach to fuel mix and again reiterated that President Obama’s intention is that nuclear energy have a place at the table.

Moniz’s remarks once again show that DOE and the Federal Government are committed to nuclear – perhaps to a lesser extent than many here at the ANS Winter Meeting would prefer, but committed nonetheless.

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WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is 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.  He’s also an avid typewriter collector in his spare time.

Congress Hears Testimony on Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013

Breaking the used nuclear fuel logjam?

By Paul Bowersox

On Tuesday, July 30, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a full committee hearing to consider Senate Bill 1240—the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013. Following suit, the House of Representatives on Wednesday hosted U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz at an oversight hearing of the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Senate bill is a bipartisan effort led by committee chair Ron Wyden (D., Oregon), committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), and top Senate energy appropriators Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) and Lamar Alexander (R, Tenn.). The bill attempts to chart a new course for U.S. used nuclear fuel storage by, largely, implementing the recommendations of President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The legislation would establish a new, independent agency for managing the used fuel, establish consent-based interim storage facilities, allow states and localities to apply for permanently storing used fuel, and make numerous other changes to the U.S. Nuclear Waste Policy Act (see Jim Hopf’s summation of key points of the Blue Ribbon Commission here).

View the hearing at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources website (fast-forward to 18:20 to begin). View the hearing at the House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy website.

But what about Yucca Mountain?

The American Nuclear Society supports the formation of a new, independent agency to manage the nation’s used fuel, as well as establishing centralized, interim used fuel transportation and storage facilities, and continued research and development on advanced nuclear fuel cycles, including fuel recycling.

The Yucca Mountain repository, however, remains a point of contention, even two years after licensing studies at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were halted by President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.). The position of ANS remains that the NRC should conclude this licensing process for the repository.

The position of most House Republicans, similarly, is that the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada is the nation’s sole permanent repository—as was made into law in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982—at least, if NRC reviews were to be completed. The “problem” of nuclear waste storage is already solved, in this view—only political roadblocks, not technical nor environmental issues, keep used nuclear fuel onsite at U.S. nuclear energy facilities.

The Senate Bill 1240 halts transfers of “non-priority” nuclear waste after 10 years unless Congress provides funding for a permanent repository program, and no new interim sites are allowed after 10 years unless a permanent storage site has been selected.

Pursuing these parallel tracks for intermediate and permanent storage might prove acceptable in an eventual vote in both houses of Congress, in some months. Yucca Mountain is not mentioned in Senate Bill 1240, except as background—but it is also not expressly precluded as a possible eventual site for a permanent geologic repository.

Hot off the press:

House Republicans to Energy Secretary:  Don’t Scrap Yucca by Alex Brown at National Journal

Nuclear Energy Institute’s Fertel Tells Congress to Act Now on Used Nuclear Fuel Legislation

We’re Paying Twice to Manage Nation’s Nuclear Waste by William H. Miller in St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Economic Conditions Primary Challenge For Nuclear, Not The Unsolved Waste Puzzle by John Johnson at Nuclear Energy Insider

senate energy committee 355x201

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bowersoxPaul Bowersox manages social media at the American Nuclear Society

 

 

 

Update and Perspective on Small Modular Reactor Development

By Jim Hopf

The US Department of Energy has a $452 million program to share development and licensing costs for selected small modular reactor (SMR) designs. The DOE’s goal is to have an operating SMR by ~2022. Last November, the DOE awarded the first grant to the B&W mPowerTM reactor. In more recent news, the DOE has decided to issue a follow-on solicitation to enter a similar cost-sharing agreement with one or more other SMR vendors (and their SMR designs). The status of development and licensing for several SMR designs are summarized below.

mPower (B&W)

B&W mPower SMR

The mPower reactor is a 180-MW pressurized water reactor. B&W was awarded the first cost-sharing agreement under the DOE’s SMR development program in November 2012. B&W has teamed up with Bechtel and the Tennessee Valley Authority to design, license, and build a set of 2-6 mPower modules at TVA’s Clinch River site. B&W plans to submit its design certification application (DCA) to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of this year.

NuScale

The NuScale reactor is an even smaller, 45-MW PWR reactor module. NuScale Power will apply for the follow-on (second round) DOE program cost-sharing award that was just announced. It has partnered with Fluor to develop and build the SMR, and is considering building its first SMR modules at the DOE Savannah River Site (SRS). It expects to submit its DCA to the NRC some time in 2015.

Holtec

Holtec International, which is developing a 160-MW (light water) SMR, may also apply for the second DOE grant, and is also interested in constructing its SMR at the SRS site.

Westinghouse

Westinghouse is developing a 225-MW PWR that shares many design features of its larger AP1000 plant. It is partnering with Burns & McDonnell, Electric Boat, and the Ameren utility to design, license, and build its first SMR plant at Ameren’s existing Callaway plant site in Missouri. It is expected to also apply for the second round of cost-sharing grants under the DOE’s SMR program. Westinghouse is expected to submit its DCA to the NRC in 2014.

Non-LWR SMRs

The most advanced non-light water SMR project is the Gen4 Energy’s lead-bismuth-cooled 25-MW reactor module (formerly Hyperion). Given the DOE’s focus on near-term SMR deployment, however, and the NRC’s indication that licensing a non-LWR will take a much longer amount of time, it is unclear whether non-light water SMRs have much prospect for winning a cost-sharing award under the DOE’s current SMR development program. Gen4 Energy withdrew its application for the initial round of DOE grants and it is not clear if it will apply for the second round.

Key desirable SMR features

My personal view is that SMRs should (ideally) have the following three features, entirely or to the extent possible:

  • The entire nuclear steam supply system (NSSS) can be factory built and rail-shipped to site.
  • The reactor can go indefinitely without offsite power or forced (pumped) cooling.
  • No on-site construction subject to NQA-1 requirements.

In a recent ANS post, I discussed issues such as the basemat rebar (and other) problems at Vogtle, as an example of the problems that are likely to occur when there are a large number of construction activities that are subject to NQA-1 and NRC oversight being performed on site, often by local suppliers or craft labor that do not have extensive experience with nuclear-related construction. Processes are much more controlled in a factory setting, where one is simply making a large number of copies of the exact same product (reactor design). Also, the factory would have dedicated staff that is highly experienced in making copies of that one product, and is very experienced with the applicable nuclear-grade fabrication and quality assurance requirements (e.g., NQA-1). The result is much higher levels of quality and consistency, with much less in the way of cost overruns or schedule delays.

For these reasons, it is imperative to have as much of the safety/nuclear-related construction as possible be done at the factory, and to minimize assembly and construction activities at the plant site. Thus, it is very preferable to have the entire NSSS (reactor and steam supply system, e.g., steam generators) sealed inside a container that can be shipped by rail to the plant site, without any at-site assembly required. Ideally, all components necessary for safety would be inside the “box” that arrives on the rail car, resulting in only non-nuclear grade construction activities at the site.

In that recent ANS post, I suggested that due to spiraling nuclear plant construction costs, a bottoms-up review is in order, in which all regulations and requirements are put on the table and objectively evaluated (using detailed probabilistic risk analyses, etc.) in terms of how much “bang for the buck” we’re getting in terms of overall safety. I made the suggestion (provocative to many, I’m sure) that NQA-1, i.e., a unique and extremely strict set of fabrication/QA requirements that only applies to the nuclear industry, most likely does not produce much safety benefit relative to its associated cost. I suggested that more typical QA standards and procedures that are used in most other large construction projects (bridges, dams, etc.) be used instead.

Well, with SMRs a “compromise” may be possible. Based on recent experience with Areva’s EPR (at Olkiluoko) and now at Vogtle, I had come to doubt that it was possible or practical to comply with those NRC and NQA-1 requirements, with on-site plant construction anyway. It seemed to be too difficult to comply with such strict requirements under field conditions, especially given the use of local labor and suppliers that do not have extensive experience with those requirements. The factory assembly line setting, however, is one setting where I can imagine it being practical to comply with strict NRC/NQA-1 requirements (with highly experienced staff, a controlled process, and NRC inspectors permanently present at the factory site).

Thus, with SMRs, almost all important-to-safety fabrication is performed at the factory site, and it could still be held to NQA-1 standards. Onsite activities at the nuclear plant that are subject to NQA-1 requirements can be greatly reduced or perhaps (as part of a “compromise”) eliminated. In my view, not having onsite construction activities be subject to (nuclear-unique) NQA-1 requirements, and instead letting the local construction entities use more typical QA requirements that they are familiar with, would greatly reduce costs and the risks of schedule delays, rework, and cost overruns. On the other hand, having NQA-1 standards apply at the reactor module factory would deliver virtually all of NQA-1’s safety benefit, without significantly increasing costs.

Finally, it would be highly desirable for the plant to have the attribute of always remaining sufficiently cool to avoid meltdown for an indefinite period without any outside power or active cooling (pumps, etc.). Post-Fukushima, such a feature may greatly increase political and public support for the reactor design. Also, such a feature would greatly reduce the plausible conditions under which meltdown and release could possibly occur. This, in turn, could greatly reduce the number of components or systems that must be classified as “safety related”, which would result in significant cost reductions (as well as reductions in actual accident/release probability).

Features of SMR candidates

The main SMR candidates that meet the goals listed above are as follows, based on their publicly presented information:

The mPower and NuScale vendors state that their entire NSSS will be fabricated at the factory and shipped (whole) to the plant site. Westinghouse is less clear, referring to “rail shippable scale” (which could refer to the entire NSSS, or a small number of NSSS component modules, which would require a limited amount of on-site assembly).

Hauling the NuScale reactor

NuScale very clearly states that its SMR is entirely passively cooled, and can go indefinitely without outside power and active (pumped) cooling. B&W (mPower) is less clear on this point, stating that no AC power is required for design basis safety functions, that they have three-day batteries to support DC-powered accident mitigation, and that the station can go up to 14 days (under loss of power conditions) without outside intervention. Gen4 Energy also states that its (lead-bismuth) reactor can go 14 days without power. I could not find a statement from Westinghouse concerning how long its SMR can go without any external power. Westinghouse does make reference to the operator having to add water (to a large tank) after seven days.

As expected, none of the SMR vendors discuss fabrication QA requirements for at-plant-site construction and components, or how many such components would be classified as safety related. Some have, however, performed some PRA analyses and do discuss the very low probability of core damage and significant release for their reactors. B&W (mPower) and NuScale state that their core damage frequencies (CDFs) are 10-8 and 10-7 per reactor year, respectively. By comparison, currently operating plants generally have CDFs of ~10-4 per reactor year and more recent large plants (e.g., AP1000) have CDFs under 10-6.

Cost and safety tradeoffs

Due to their smaller size and lower power densities, SMRs offer inherent safety advantages, largely because smaller reactors are easier to keep cool. As shown above, their chances of core damage are far lower than those of large reactors. In addition to a lower probability of core damage, their much smaller fuel inventory greatly reduces the maximum possible release. In fact, since these reactors probably can’t get nearly as hot, even in a core damage scenario, I’m guessing that their maximum core inventory release fractions (e.g., for cesium) under even worst-case meltdown conditions are also significantly smaller than those that apply for larger reactors. Thus, the maximum possible release is probably even less than the ratio of reactor powers (MW) would imply.

In order to get these advantages (along with the advantages of assembly line construction), they have to give up on economy of scale and power density, which will tend to increase costs. Some SMR vendors claim that groups of their modules will produce less expensive power than large reactors (e.g., the AP1000), but this remains to be seen. It is also unclear whether these modular reactors will be less expensive than fossil fuels (particularly gas). As I’ve often stated, these reactors cannot provide any health, environmental, or global warming benefits if they are not deployed. Thus, some actions may need to be taken to reduce costs.

This leads me to ask what SMRs will “get in return” for what they are giving up in terms of scale, power density, and increased fundamental safety. We may have to ask if there are any measures that could be taken that would reduce costs but result in a release probability that is closer to that of, say, the AP1000, as opposed to being orders of magnitude lower. In these evaluations, the much lower potential release from these reactors should also be fully considered. I believe that thorough evaluations of all potential cost-saving measures, supported by detailed PRA evaluations, should be performed.

One idea I discussed earlier is to use ordinary construction QA requirements for all on-site construction activities (i.e., for everything outside the NSSS that arrives by rail car). Given the much lower likelihood of core damage/release, the much smaller potential releases, and the fact that components outside the NSSS have a relatively small impact on overall safety (especially for these reactors), such an approach would be justified. In evaluating such an approach, we need to make reasonable determinations of both the probability and possible nature of failures of non-nuclear-qualified components. For example, the NuScale reactors lay in a large pool of water inside a concrete-walled underground pit. We have to ask ourselves: Is there any way the concrete could fail that would result in the water disappearing (especially given that the pool is underground)?

Other issues are operator and security staffing levels. The simplicity and inherently better safety of these designs should reduce the number of required operators and staff (and some SMR vendors are claiming just that). Security costs could be greatly reduced (in my view) if SMRs are placed on existing sites where large reactors already exist. Little extra security should be required, since the site is already protected.

Also, as discussed in my earlier post, licensing review should be fairly limited if one is placing a certified SMR design on a site that already has reactors. Almost like spent fuel dry storage casks, a simple review of the existing site evaluations, to verify that external parameters such as maximum ground accelerations and other environmental factors are bounded by the SMR’s generic safety evaluations, should be sufficient. An evaluation of some bounding number of reactor modules would then be done to address any impacts of the reactors on the site (e.g., a site boundary dose evaluation). After that is done, modules could be added without further licensing activity.

The NRC’s general philosophies, however, as well as some of its recent actions, leads me to believe that any kind of compromise may be too much to expect. In response to Fukushima, the NRC is increasing nuclear regulations even further. While we all agree that some specific improvements can and should be made as a result of lessons learned from Fukushima, there has been absolutely no discussion at all about whether any requirements should be pared back. This, despite the fact that Fukushima showed that the consequences of a severe (almost worst-case) meltdown are FAR smaller than what we had thought (and far smaller than the assumed accident consequences that many if not most of those requirements were based upon). For this reason, I’m inclined to believe that the NRC will take all the benefits of SMRs (i.e., the great reduction in release probability due to fundamental features) and give absolutely nothing back. That, despite the fact that some economic sacrifices (on economy of scale) had to be made in order to get those fundamental increases in safety.

If SMRs are to be viable, and provide safety, health, environmental, and global warming benefits, the NRC is going to have to make some compromises. If they do, SMRs may be able to provide an option that is not only economically competitive (allowing it to displace harmful fossil fuels), but is also far safer than current US nuclear plants, and as safe or safer than new large plants such as the AP1000.

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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.

On federal investment in Small Modular Reactor technology

Taxpayers for Common Sense on February 27 issued a press release targeting the Department of Energy for “wasting more than half a billion dollars” on its small modular reactor (SMR) development cost-sharing program. Leaving aside the historically essential role of government investment in developing, advancing, and bringing to market innovative energy technologies—and the fact that early government investments in nuclear energy technology now pay back enormous dividends to all Americans in billions of dollars’ worth of affordable and emission-free electricity generation every year—many of the advantages of advanced SMR energy technologies were overlooked or misconstrued in the group’s press release and policy brief.

The press has virtually ignored the announcement, possibly because an advanced technology development cost-sharing program of $452 million, spread over five years, may not make for a big target in a multi-trillion-dollar annual federal budget. But it does present an opportunity to quickly point out a few important facts about SMR technology.

As a general statement, at this juncture in world history, it is almost impossible to overstate the critical importance of developing clean, versatile, energy-dense, and low-carbon-emission energy technologies for our future. SMRs show great promise to help achieve this vitally important goal.

B&W mPower SMR

In contrast to large nuclear reactors, which have enormous components that are shipped to and assembled at the site where they will operate, SMRs will be assembled in a factory, somewhat like a modular home. SMRs will use manufacturing capability currently entirely available in the United States. Construction time for SMRs will be greatly reduced compared to current larger-scale reactors. Upfront capital costs and debt loads sometimes prevent deployment of larger nuclear reactors, and the reduced cost and speedier construction time of individual SMR units will help lower this barrier to emission-free energy. SMRs will also offer great versatility for industrial applications. For example, SMRs are ideal for producing fresh water by desalination in many growing regions of the world. SMR designs offer advanced safety and proliferation-resistance features as well.

These factors will allow low-carbon energy technology in new locations and markets, and locations where alternative forms of energy are not available or attractive (e.g., natural gas price and availability vary widely in the United States and especially abroad). SMR technology also promises to build on U.S. global leadership in nuclear technology to allow new U.S. manufacturing exports to markets abroad.

SMR technologies will require significant review and approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before they can be built. The American Nuclear Society has taken a leadership role in addressing licensing issues for SMRs, and will continue to do so.

ANS recommends the U.S. government continue to expedite research on issues that must be addressed prior to commercial deployment of SMRs; identify and resolve SMR licensing issues; encourage the development and deployment of multiple SMR designs; and participate in programs that demonstrate the feasibility of multiple SMR designs and approaches to reduce the time to market. Note that much of the funding in the DOE’s SMR program is actually for helping to establish reliable licensing and inspection of the technology.

Finally, a quick historical observation is in order (thanks to Rod Adams’ excellent coverage of the Taxpayers for Common Sense SMR press conference). In historical context, government investments in natural gas and oil hydraulic fracturing research, as early as the 1970s and continuing in subsequent decades, share similarities to federal investment in SMR technology today. The oil and gas industry was already “mature” in the 1970s, yet federal research investment in new technology in the field now brings a very good return for taxpayers in terms of more abundant, cleaner, and less expensive natural gas energy (although certainly not clean by nuclear standards, it must be noted).

For more complete information, see American Nuclear Society Position Statement Small Modular Reactors and press release ANS supports the development of advanced energy technologies.

Babcock & Wilcox Refutes Mischaracterization of SMR Program

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How Can Nuclear Construction Costs Be Reduced?

by Jim Hopf

This month’s post discusses my ideas on an issue I’ve been thinking about for awhile.  Although we have four new reactors under construction in the United States (at Vogtle and Summer), the nuclear “renaissance” has so far not been nearly as strong as many had hoped. This begs the question as to what is holding nuclear back.

Impediments to nuclear growth

Some have suggested the need for even safer reactors, despite the fact that overall nuclear is already among the safest, if not the safest of all energy sources.  The fact that any direct health consequences of Fukushima, which was essentially a worst-case nuclear accident, have been essentially non-existent further suggests that insufficient safety is not the primary area needing improvement (or factor limiting nuclear’s growth).

Others believe that the nuclear waste issue is the main reason holding nuclear back, and that “solving” it (by closing the fuel cycle and through other advances in fuel cycle technology) would “unleash” nuclear to grow and solve our energy problems.  The truth, however, is that indefinite on-site storage of all of a plant’s waste (in the pool and in dry casks), versus having the Department of Energy take it away after a few decades, increases the cost of nuclear power by only ~0.1 cents/kW-hr.  Waste management activities will never be a significant fraction of nuclear power’s total cost, regardless of what waste policy is adopted, or what fuel cycle we develop.  I had thought that the perceived lack of a waste solution would significantly reduce support for nuclear, but it appears that, at least where almost all new US nuclear projects are proposed (in the Southeast), there is an ample degree of public/political support for new reactors.

No, it’s pretty clear that the primary factor holding nuclear back is economics, particularly the high upfront capital cost of new reactors.  The current low price of natural gas, coupled with a weak economy (and associated lack of power demand growth), and the lack of taxes or limits on CO2 emissions does not help, but it is also true that the costs of reactor construction have increased substantially over the past ~8 years (and increases in labor or raw materials costs do not come close to explaining this).  In addition to escalating initial cost estimates, many if not most current reactor projects have been experiencing fabrication issues and cost overruns.

How can we reduce costs?

Based on the above, it seems clear that nuclear research and development should focus primarily on ways to reduce nuclear plant construction costs, and less on fuel cycle or even safer reactor technology.  Even the safest conceivable reactors and fuel cycle will do nothing to help overall public health and safety and reduce environmental impacts if nuclear is not deployed – due to high capital cost – while fossil fuels (which are vastly worse than current reactor technology in terms of public health and safety) are used instead.  Ideally, this is something the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would keep in mind as well.

What is really needed, however, is to have all the experts sit down and perform a thorough, objective evaluation to figure out what is driving nuclear construction costs, and what needs to change to reduce those costs.  In this analysis, everything needs to be on the table—all regulations, policies, and practices. Nothing can be viewed as sacred or unchangeable (i.e., “that’s just the way things are in the nuclear business”).  We need to fundamentally reexamine all of our current policies and requirements, to determine which ones produce the most bang for the buck in terms of public health and safety benefit.

Not only should nuclear requirements be compared to each other (for benefit vs. cost), but nuclear requirements should be objectively compared to the requirements placed on other energy sources and industries.  One mindset that simply must disappear is that of “nuclear exceptionalism”, which views nuclear’s potential impacts/accidents to be uniquely unacceptable (i.e., that radio-isotope pollution is a uniquely unacceptable form of pollution), and that therefore, unlike other industries, no expense should be spared to remove even the tiniest chance of release.  By extension, we should ask why non-nuclear power plants are so much cheaper to build.  Is it that nuclear plants are more complex, or have more safety features, or is it the unique quality assurance requirements that only apply to nuclear?

My personal view is that the main factor leading to high plant construction costs is not the design of the reactors, or various safety features that they employ, but the uniquely strict QA requirements that apply (only) for the fabrication of safety-related nuclear plant components (i.e., “nuclear grade” components). Conversely, I believe that in terms of safety, fundamental reactor design, employed safety features, intelligent operation/training, and maintenance are much more significant (effective) than the application of extremely stringent fabrication quality control requirements.  This is a personal opinion that I welcome comments on—the purpose of this article being to start a discussion.

The costs of nuclear’s unique QA requirements

Having supplier qualifications and requirements for component fabrication that far exceed those applied to any other industry can lead to dramatically higher costs, for multiple reasons.  In addition to the increased costs of compliance, the number of qualified suppliers is much smaller, which in turn results in supply bottlenecks, not enough fabrication capacity to meet demand, and (essentially) a bidding war for components.  This seems to be a far more plausible explanation for the observed increase in reactor construction cost (vs. that initially estimated) than any shortages of labor or raw material.  Conversely, if the nuclear industry could use a more typical set of industrial quality requirements (e.g., ISO-9000), the number of suppliers would increase dramatically, there would be ample supply and significant competition, and costs for nuclear components could drop substantially.

It seems clear that problems complying with fabrication QA requirements, as opposed to reactor design features, are primarily responsible for reactor project cost overruns, since the reactor design was fully understood at the time of the initial cost estimate.  Also, meeting “nuclear grade” fabrication requirements is the reason most often cited in the numerous articles discussing cost overruns at nuclear projects.

At Vogtle, they are having significant problems, and cost overruns, due to the construction of something as simple as the concrete pad that the reactor will sit on.  This comment from an article on the Vogtle difficulties is typical:  The fabricator was “not accustomed to the requirements to document every step in the fabrication process. Correcting the mistakes took eight months for one of its modules….”  In addition to problems such as this, the Vogtle project is literally spending billions of dollars on quality control programs.

Similar problems are occurring for the nuclear projects in Finland and France, QA/fabrication issues being the primary reason for cost overruns.  And yet, those same reactor designs, with all the same safety features, are being built at a fraction of the cost in China.  Why the difference?  I believe that lower labor costs are only part of it.

I’ve also, anecdotally, heard many stories about how the nuclear-grade version of a component often costs several times that of the commercial/industrial-grade version of the same thing.  This is not due to any material difference in the component; just the QA paperwork cost and the (severe) lack of nuclear-qualified suppliers.  I have significant doubts as to whether the safety benefits are worth the additional cost.

Potential negative impacts on safety?

Due to onerous QA requirements, as well as the nuclear industry practice of taking a great deal of time in analyzing everything (“analysis paralysis”), there can be significant reluctance to make changes, including adding safety features or improvements.  In addition to making it more difficult to change, or even fix things, these practices also act to stifle innovation and technological progress in our industry.  The NRC “review barrier” to new, innovative, safer reactor designs is but one example.

Consider the following example: the NRC is debating whether or not to require filters on reactor vents that would remove most of the cesium from any vented air stream that may be necessary to control containment interior pressure in the case of a severe accident.  (Failure to vent was a major factor in the Fukushima event, resulting in a much larger release.)  In my opinion, such a design feature seems to be extremely worthwhile, since it greatly reduces potential cesium releases, and the long-term consequences of severe nuclear accidents pretty much scale (specifically) with the amount of cesium released.  The filters would cost ~$16 million per reactor.

Meanwhile, the Vogtle project was significantly delayed (several months) due to minor, inconsequential variations (from the specified design) in the rebar within the concrete pad that the reactor will sit on. Eventually, the NRC agreed that the alternate configuration was fine, but it took an inordinate amount of time (and money) to reach that conclusion. Under current practices and procedures, addressing any changes or deviations from an approved design is extremely difficult and time-consuming. Did this base pad rebar issue cost the Vogtle project more than $16 million? I’m pretty sure it’s much more than that.

So the question is, which is better bang for the buck in terms of safety: installing cesium filters on containment vents for $16 million, or spending a much larger sum to address (or correct) a small/inconsequential change to the rebar configuration in the plant foundation?  To me the answer is obvious.  Would dramatically reducing the cesium release in the event of a severe accident result in a significant reduction in nuclear’s overall risk?  Absolutely!  A small change in the configuration of the rebar in the (passive) concrete pad that the reactor sits on?  I cannot, for the life of me, imagine how that would have any significant impact on the likelihood or severity of a significant accident/release.

Despite this, whereas the cesium filters may end up not being required, the fact that Vogtle had to do what it did to resolve a minor deviation from licensed design (any deviation from licensed design), is not even questioned.  It’s just “the way things are in our industry”.

There have been some allegations made that the nuclear industry is not doing enough in terms of flood protection or component maintenance at some sites. Improvements in these areas may very well result in measurable reductions in risk, but, in my opinion, excessive (and unique to nuclear) QA requirements make any such responses or improvements so difficult and expensive that the industry is sometimes reluctant to implement them.  That’s both in terms of component fabrication QA requirements and the amount of analysis and review that is required for any actions or changes.  The end result could actually be a net increase in overall risk.

In my view, risks from component fabrication defects are not a significant fraction of overall nuclear risk.  No serious accident has ever resulted from a fabrication defect.  Instead, the rare instances that have occurred resulted from poor reactor design, operator error, or from things the industry just hadn’t thought of.  Fukushima is probably an excellent example of the latter.  They simply didn’t anticipate (or view as credible) a tsunami of that height.  Seawall fabrication defects were not the issue.

In other words, let’s put cesium filters on reactor vents, but pay, say, ~$4 million for them, instead of $16 million, by foregoing the impeccable fabrication and paperwork requirements required for “nuclear grade”, “safety related” components.  Let’s apply the QA requirements/standards that generally apply for other industries, or perhaps even use “commercial grade” filters.  It would surely be better than doing nothing.

Lazy thinking?

I’ve been in the industry long enough to know how most will respond to the above (rash) proposal.  Industry thinking tends to be that if full, nuclear-grade QA requirements are not applied to a component, it’s the same as it simply not being there.  Probability of function is 0%, regardless of the fact that such a failure type (or mode) is completely impossible.

Given the huge costs of nuclear-grade QA requirements, the industry has not put nearly enough time and effort into evaluating the probability of failure of non-nuclear grade/qualified components, and what the nature of any failures would be.  Such evaluations should be followed by detailed probabalistic risk assessment (PRA) analyses to determine what the effect on accident/release frequency (and severity) would be of having various components not be nuclear-grade.  These effects, on risk, should then be objectively compared to other options for reducing risk, such as fundamentally safer reactor designs, or the employment of various safety features (e.g., vent filters).

Such an effort has not been made, however (the NRC’s new “risk-informed” philosophy is a far cry from what I’m talking about).  It’s easy to follow up any analysis or evaluation with the statement: “and it shall be a perfectly constructed component, with zero defects”, without any regard for how much it will cost to make such a guarantee.  That way, one doesn’t need to do the hard task of evaluating the likelihood and consequences of (realistic) component failure.  Also easy is the notion that zero changes or deviations from the approved design are allowed, and that any change at all (no matter how small) requires re-performing and re-reviewing all the associated licensing analyses/evaluations.  How about exercising a little engineering judgment?

One has to ask how other industries handle fabrication defects or deviations. It seems clear it’s not the way the nuclear industry does, given their lower construction costs, shorter schedules, and fewer cost overruns.  It’s not like construction projects such as bridges, tall buildings, oil refineries, chemical plants, or non-nuclear power plants, etc., are not “important to safety”.  In many cases, their potential consequences (of component failure, etc.) are actually just as great.  Yet under nuclear QA logic, all these structures are repeatedly vanishing, crumbling into dust, or simply not performing their design functions, given that they were not built to nuclear-grade standards.  The real truth, of course, is that all these structures have been performing just fine, with acceptable levels of safety.

This is all just an example of the “nuclear exceptionalism” discussed earlier, where nuclear risks (or potential consequences) are treated as being infinitely greater than that of any other endeavor, while the facts clearly show otherwise.  For this reason, uniquely strict QA requirements, unlike those used in any other industry, may be hard to justify.

Recommendations

My personal view is that the low risk of significant release primarily comes from fundamental reactor design, safety features, and operational practices (e.g., operator training).  The onerous, uniquely strict component fabrication QA requirements and procedures that are applied only to the nuclear industry provide relatively little risk reduction relative to how much they are costing.

Thus, my primary recommendation is that while the NRC should definitely thoroughly review new reactor designs, once a reactor design is certified, normal industrial QA requirements should apply to reactor (and reactor component) construction.  That is, the same fabrication/construction requirements and practices that apply to non-nuclear power plants.  This would not only greatly reduce costs directly, but it would result in an enormous increase in the number of suppliers that can participate in nuclear plant construction, which would further greatly reduce costs.

At a minimum, the detailed component failure evaluation I described earlier should be performed, and specific relaxations to fabrication QA requirements should be evaluated and possibly traded for other, more cost-effective measures to reduce risk.  One example of a cost-effective measure, in my view, is the rapid emergency response capability that the industry is now developing.  One lesson learned from Fukushima is that flexibility, and the ability to respond (quickly), is imperative since one can never really predict the sort of events and disasters that potentially may happen in the future.  Another example would be that if one developed a smaller, lower power density reactor that was fundamentally safer (perhaps even unable to meltdown, due to basic size and geometry) but was somewhat more expensive, the QA requirements on at least some components should be relaxed, since the consequences of component failure would be far lower.

One thing seems clear to me.  Given how things are going with current (large) reactor projects, in the developed world anyway, the industry does not appear to be on a success path.  It was given a second chance to show that it could build new reactors at a reasonable cost, and on time and on budget, and it appears to be failing (although things don’t appear to be too bad yet at Vogtle and Summer).  Barring a large increase in natural gas prices AND the enactment of hard, declining limits on CO2 emissions (that would force a phaseout of coal), it appears that few new nuclear plants will be built in the future in the developed world.  Something has to change; something that will significantly reduce plant construction costs.

Small modular reactors, built in an assembly-line-like fashion, may offer a way forward; a development that I will discuss in a later post.  As for large reactors, the ideas presented in this article are my best attempt to figure out what could be done to change an otherwise fairly bleak picture.  I again remind everyone (and the NRC) that the environmental and public health benefits of nuclear (which are huge) will not be realized if nuclear is not deployed and fossil fuels are used instead.  We need to make a concerted effort to do what’s necessary to reduce nuclear plant construction costs, not only in the area of technology development and deployment, but in the areas of regulations and QA requirements as well.

I hope to start an active discussion on this topic, and hear other people’s ideas on what could be done to reduce nuclear plant construction costs.

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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.

2012 ~ The year that was in nuclear energy

Plus a few pointers to what’s in store for 2013

By Dan Yurman

Former NRC Chairman Gregory Jackzo

On a global scale the nuclear industry had its share of pluses and minuses in 2012. Japan’s Fukushima crisis continues to dominate any list of the top ten nuclear energy issues for the year. (See more below on Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima.)

In the United States, while the first new nuclear reactor licenses in three decades were issued to four reactors, the regulatory agency that approved them had a management meltdown that resulted in the noisy departure of Gregory Jazcko, its presidentially appointed chairman. His erratic tenure at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cast doubt on its effectiveness and tarnished its reputation as one of the best places to work in the federal government.

Iran continues its uranium enrichment efforts

The year also started with another bang, and not the good kind, as new attacks on nuclear scientists in Iran brought death by car bombs. In July, western powers enacted new sanctions on Iran over its uranium enrichment program. Since 2011, economic sanctions have reduced Iran’s oil exports by 40 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In late November, the U.S. Senate approved a measure expanding the economic sanctions that have reduced Iran’s export earnings from oil production. Despite the renewed effort to convince Iran to stop its uranium enrichment effort, the country is pressing ahead with it. Talks between Iran and the United States and western European nations have not made any progress.

Nukes on Mars

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is a scientific and engineering triumph.

Peaceful uses of the atom were highlighted by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, which executed a flawless landing on the red planet in August with a nuclear heartbeat to power its science mission. Data sent to Earth from its travels across the red planet will help determine whether or not Mars ever had conditions that would support life.

SMRs are us

The U.S. government dangled an opportunity for funding of innovative small modular reactors, e.g., with electrical power ratings of less than 300 MW. Despite vigorous competition, only one vendor, B&W, was successful in grabbing a brass ring worth up to $452 million over five years.

The firm immediately demonstrated the economic value of the government cost-sharing partnership by placing an order for long lead time components. Lehigh Heavy Forge and B&W plan to jointly participate in the fabrication and qualification of large forgings for nuclear reactor components that are intended to be used in the manufacture of B&W mPower SMRs.

Lehigh Forge at work

The Department of Energy said that it might offer a second round funding challenge, but given the federal government’s overall dire financial condition, the agency may have problems even meeting its commitments in the first round.

As of December 1, negotiations between the White House and Congress over the so-called “fiscal cliff” were deadlocked. Congress created this mess, so one would expect that they could fix it.

The Congressional Budget Office has warned that if Congress doesn’t avert the fiscal cliff, the economy might slip into recession next year and boost the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, compared with 7.9 percent now. Even record low natural gas prices and a boom in oil production won’t make much of a difference if there is no agreement by January 1, 2013.

Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima

Japan’s major challenges are unprecedented for a democratically elected government. It must decontaminate and decommission the Fukushima site, home to six nuclear reactors, four of which suffered catastrophic internal and external damage from a giant tsunami and record shattering earthquake. The technical challenges of cleanup are daunting and the price tag, already in the range of tens of billions of dollars, keeps rising with a completion date now at least several decades in the future.

Map of radiation releases from Fukushima reported in April 2011

  • Japan is mobilizing a new nuclear regulatory agency that has the responsibility to say whether the rest of Japan’s nuclear fleet can be restarted safely. While the government appointed highly regarded technical specialists to lead the effort, about 400 staff came over from the old Nuclear Industry Safety Agency that was found to be deficient as a deeply compromised oversight body. The new agency will struggle to prove itself an independent and effective regulator of nuclear safety.
  •  Japan has restarted two reactors and approved continued construction work at several more that are partially complete. Local politics will weigh heavily on the outlook for each power station with the “pro” forces emphasizing jobs and tax base and the anti-nuclear factions encouraged by widespread public distrust of the government and of the nation’s nuclear utilities.
  • Despite calls for a phase out of all nuclear reactors in Japan, the country will continue to generate electric power from them for at least the next 30–40 years.
  • Like the United States, Japan has no deep geologic site for spent fuel. Unlike the United States, Japan has been attempting to build and operate a spent fuel reprocessing facility. Plagued by technical missteps and rising costs, Japan may consider offers from the United Kingdom and France to reprocess its spent fuel and with such a program relieve itself of the plutonium in it.

U.S. nuclear renaissance stops at six

The pretty picture of a favorable future for the nuclear fuel cycle in 2007 turned to hard reality in 2012.

In 2007, the combined value of more than two dozen license applications for new nuclear reactors weighed in with an estimated value of over $120 billion. By 2012, just six reactors were under construction. Few will follow soon in their footsteps due to record low prices of natural gas and the hard effects of one of the nation’s deepest and longest economic recessions.

The NRC approved licenses for two new reactors at Southern’s Vogtle site in Georgia and two more at Scana’s V.C. Summer Station in South Carolina. Both utilities chose the Westinghouse AP1000 design and will benefit from lessons learned by the vendor that is building four of them in China. In late November, Southern’s contractors, which are building the plants, said that both of the reactors would enter revenue service a year late. For its part, Southern said that it hasn’t agreed to a new schedule.

The Tennessee Valley Authority recalibrated its efforts to complete Watts Bar II, adding a three-year delay and over $2 billion in cost escalation. TVA’s board told the utility’s executives that construction work to complete Unit 1 at the Bellefonte site cannot begin until fuel is loaded in Watts Bar.

The huge increase in the supply of natural gas, resulting in record low prices for it in the United States, led Exelon Chairman John Rowe to state that it would be “inconceivable” for a nuclear utility in a deregulated state to build new reactors.

Four reactors in dire straights

In January, Southern California Edison (SCE) safety shut down two 1100-MW reactors at its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) due to excessive wear found in the nearly new steam generators at both reactors.

SCE submitted a restart plan to the NRC for Unit 2 in November. The review, according to the agency, could take months. SCE removed the fuel from Unit 3 last August, a signal that the restart of that reactor will be farther in the future owing to the greater extent of the damage to the tubes its steam generator.

The NRC said that a key cause of the damage to the tubes was a faulty computer program used by Mitsubishi, the steam generator vendor, in its design of the units. The rate of steam, pressure, and water content were key factors along with the design and placement of brackets to hold the tubes in place.

Flood waters surround Ft. Calhoun NPP June 2011

Elsewhere, in Nebraska the flood stricken Ft. Calhoun reactor owned and operated by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), postponed its restart to sometime in 2013.

It shut down in April 2011 for a scheduled fuel outage. Rising flood waters along the Missouri River in June damaged in the plant site though the reactor and switch yard remained dry.

The Ft. Calhoun plant must fulfill a long list of safety requirements before the NRC will let it power back up. To speed things along, OPPD hired Exelon to operate the plant. In February 2012, OPPD cancelled plans for a power uprate, also citing the multiple safety issues facing the plant.

In Florida, the newly merged Duke and Progress Energy firm wrestled with a big decision about what to do with the shutdown Crystal River reactor. Repairing the damaged containment structure could cost half again as much as an entirely new reactor. With license renewal coming up in 2016, Florida’s Public Counsel thinks that Duke will decommission the unit and replace it with a combined cycle natural gas plant. Separately, Duke Chairman Jim Rogers said that he will resign at the end of 2013.

China restarts nuclear construction

After a long reconsideration (following the Fukushima crisis) of its aggressive plans to build new nuclear reactors, China’s top level government officials agreed to allow new construction starts, but only with Gen III+ designs.

China has about two dozen Gen II reactors under construction. It will be 40–60 years before the older technology is off the grid. China also reduced its outlook for completed reactors from an estimate of 80 GWe by 2020 to about 55–60 GWe. Plans for a massive $26-billion nuclear energy IPO (initial public offering) still have not made it to the Shanghai Stock Exchange.  No reason has been made public about the delay.

India advances at Kudanlulam

India loaded fuel at Kudankulam where two Russian built 1000-MW VVER reactors are ready for revenue service. The Indian government overcame widespread political protests in its southern state of Tamil Nadu. India’s Prime Minister Singh blamed the protests on international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

One of the key factors that helped the government overcome the political opposition is that Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited told the provincial government that it could allocate half of all the electricity generated by the plants to local rate payers. Officials in Tamil Nadu will decide who gets power. India suffered two massive electrical blackouts in 2012, the second of which stranded over 600 million people without electricity for up to a week.

Also, India said that it would proceed with construction of two 1600-MW Areva EPRs at Jaitapur on its west coast south of Mumbai and launched efforts for construction of up to 20 GWe of domestic reactors.

India’s draconian supplier liability law continues to be an effective firewall in keeping American firms out of its nuclear market.

UK has new builder at Horizon

The United Kingdom suffered a setback in its nuclear new build as two German utilities backed out of the construction of up to 6 Gwe of new reactors at two sites. Japan’s Hitachi successfully bid to take over the project. A plan for a Chinese state-owned firm to bid on the Horizon project in collaboration with Areva never materialized.

Also in the UK, General Electric pursued an encouraging dialog with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to build two of its 300-MW PRISM fast reactors to burn off surplus plutonium stocks at Sellafield. The PRISM design benefits from the technical legacy of the Integral Fast Reactor developed at Argonne West in Idaho.

You can’t make this stuff up

In July, three anti-war activitists breached multiple high-tech security barriers at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Y-12 highly enriched uranium facility in Tennessee. The elderly trio, two men on the dark side of 55 and a woman in her 80s, were equipped with ordinary wire cutters and flashlights.

Y-12 Signs state the obvious

The intruders roamed the site undetected for several hours in the darkness of the early morning and spray painted political slogans on the side of one of the buildings. They were looking for new artistic venues when a lone security guard finally stopped their travels through the plant.

The government said that the unprecedented security breach was no laughing matter, firing the guards on duty at the time and the contractor they worked for. Several civil servants “retired.” The activists, if convicted, face serious jail time.

None of the HEU stored at the site was compromised, but subsequent investigations by the Department of Energy found a lack of security awareness, broken equipment, and an unsettling version of the “it can’t happen here” attitude by the guards that initially mistook the intruders for construction workers.

The protest effort brought publicity to the activists’ cause far beyond their wildest dreams and produced the predictable uproar in Congress. The DOE’s civilian fig leaf covering the nation’s nuclear weapons program was once again in tatters.

So long Chu

Given the incident at Y-12, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who came to government from the quiet life of scientific inquiry, must have asked himself once again why he ever accepted the job in Washington in the first place.

DOE Energy Secretary Steven Chu

Chu is expected to leave Washington. That he’s lasted this long is something of a miracle since the Obama White House tried to give him the heave ho this time last year after the Solyndra loan guarantee debacle, in which charges of political influence peddling by White House aides colored a half a billion dollar default on a DOE loan by a California solar energy company.

The predictable upswing in rumors of who might be appointed to replace him oozed into energy trade press and political saloons of the nation’s capital.

Leading candidates are former members of Congress, former governors, or just  about anyone with the experience and political know how to take on the job of running one of the federal government’s biggest cabinet agencies. It’s a short list of people who really can do the job and a long list of wannabes. With shale gas and oil production on the rise, having a background in fossil fuels will likely help prospective candidates.

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Dan Yurman published the nuclear energy blog Idaho Samizdat from 2007–2012.

ANS Nuclear Cafe Matinee: DUFF Space Nuclear Reactor Prototype

A joint Department of Energy and NASA team has demonstrated a simple, robust fission reactor prototype [note: see Comments for more accurate and complete description] intended for development for future space exploration missions. The DUFF (Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions) experiment represents the first demonstration in the United State—since 1965—of a space nuclear reactor system to produce electricity.

The uranium–powered reactor is the first use of a “heat pipe” to cool a small  nuclear reactor (measuring one foot!) and power a Stirling engine. The following short video from Los Alamos National Laboratory explains the hows and whys:

See this article from Los Alamos on the details of the DUFF experiment recently successfully conducted.  Also, see this CNN article for an excellent description.

Many future space missions will only be feasible with the use of reliable and safe nuclear energy, and this proof-of-concept is a steppingstone toward that future.

 

Uranium 233 is a valuable resource, no matter what Robert Alvarez believes

by Rod Adams

Robert Alvarez has issued another misleading report about energy dense fuel materials, titled Managing the Uranium-233 Stockpile of the United States.

According to Alvarez’s report, the United States owns about 3400 pounds of U-233, which is one of two fissile isotopes of uranium. He portrays this resource, which has been in storage since the 1970s, as a hazardous stockpile that somehow puts the world at risk of a rogue group obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. Unfortunately, he is not the only person with this mistaken opinion. The Department of Energy is currently planning to spend nearly half a billion dollars to get rid of the United States’ carefully protected U-233 resources.

Alvarez’s report does not mention the fact that the stockpile contains as much potential energy as 23 million barrels of oil. At current world oil prices, that gives it a comparable energy value of more than $2 billion, even if it is not used for its highest and best purpose, as the seed for an expansive program of thermal spectrum breeder reactors.

Waste not, want not

My Depression Era parents deeply embedded the “waste not, want not” mantra into my brain. As a relatively prosperous adult, I must admit that I do not always spend as much time separating and consolidating materials for recycling as my parents did, but I still respect their teachings that one should not discard items or materials that have future uses. Short-sighted acts of disposal often destroy any potential value because of the difficulty associated with removing contaminants.

I’ve been writing and reading for nearly two decades about the impressive capabilities offered by using a nuclear fission fuel cycle that includes uranium 233 and thorium 232. As anyone who has read Kirk Sorensen’s excellent blog Energy from Thorium or listened to his passionate talks on molten salt reactors knows, U-233 produces about 15 percent more neutrons per thermal fission as U-235 or Pu-239. That difference is significant; it means that a U-233/Th-232 fuel cycle can achieve a conversion ratio greater than 1.0 in a thermal spectrum reactor, resulting in a self-sustaining fuel cycle that might never need any additional fissile material.

Light water breeder reactor

Sometime during the early 1990s, after I had been a nuclear-trained submarine engineering officer for about a dozen years, I learned about the demonstration reactor core that was installed into the Shippingport nuclear power plant. That final core was operated 1977–1982 as a Light Water Breeder Reactor.

That demonstration proved that a well-designed thermal spectrum reactor could use the extra neutrons produced by U-233 to turn thorium into a useful fuel material at a rate faster than the U-233 would be consumed. Unfortunately, one inherent disadvantage of nuclear fuel cycle knowledge development is that it takes a long time. After five years of power production, the light water breeder reactor core was still going strong, with no evidence of the loss of reactivity that accompanies conventional reactor materials as they consume the fissile materials in their low-enriched uranium fuel rods.

Because the project sponsors knew that they might not be able to continue funding the team that would perform the post-operation fuel material analysis, they stopped the experiment. There were no immediately scheduled follow-on cores because any potential customers would have wanted to wait until the final results were known. No large-scale production capacity was ever developed to handle the unique blend of materials involved in the LWBR process.

Analysis

The destructive fuel rod analysis that proved that breeding had occurred was not completed until five years after the experiment had been terminated, which was more than 10 years after the fuel fabrication had been completed. Here is a quote from section IX, Summary and Discussion of Significance from a report titled “Proof of Breeding in the Light Water Breeder Reactor (WAPD-TM-1612),” which was provided to the DOE in September 1987 under contract No. DE-AC11-76PN00014. (I have provided that detail just in case someone thinks it might be worthwhile to file a Freedom of Information Act request.)

The results demonstrate conclusively that LWBR was a breeder. They show that breeding can be achieved in a light-water reactor using 233U as fissile fuel and the naturally occurring, relatively abundant 232Th as fertile material. Thus, the Light Water Breeder Program which the Department of Energy pursued for more than twenty years has demonstrated and proven unequivocally that 233U-232Th breeders can be built, operated in light water reactor plants to produce electrical energy, and breed more fissile fuel than they consume. This means that the plentiful domestic supply of low and moderate cost thorium represents a potential resource for providing about fifty times the amount of energy which could be produced using current light water reactors and the domestic supply of low and moderate cost uranium. This light water breeder system could supply the entire electrical energy need of the United States for centuries.

The primary significance of proving breeding in LWBR is the demonstrated potential for greatly increasing our nation’s electrical energy generation capability for many years to come.

By the time those words were written at the end of the quietly submitted report, the leading proponents of the technology had either died (Rickover) or lost all of their influence on government programs (Radkowsky). Radkowsky, the creative designer of the fuel system, eventually started a company called Thorium Power (which is now operating under the name of Lightbridge) to attempt to commercialize his ideas.

A few years before Rickover and Radkowsky demonstrated the possibilities of using a U-233/Th-232 fuel cycle in conventional reactors, there were a couple of experiments conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that avoided the fuel fabrication and destructive testing issues described above. By dissolving the U-233 and Th-232 into molten salts, those experiments showed that it was possible to design liquid-fueled reactors that might be arranged to enable utilization of the world’s large thorium fuel resource. There is much to be learned about building durable molten salt reactors with closed fuel systems, but the learning process would be made less time consuming if the Department of Energy enabled effective use of the already existing inventory of special material.

Even if one agrees with Alvarez’s stated concern about the need to carefully protect the U-233 from all possibility of being stolen, I cannot imagine any system that is less likely to experience material theft than operating nuclear power reactors. Those devices are surrounded by thick shielding resembling a vault, and they are full of self-protective radioactive isotopes. Sarah Weiner, writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, characterized Alvarez’s well publicized report as “alarmism”, but she also supported the DOE’s plans to make it nearly impossible for the energy laden material to be put to any beneficial use.

Knowing what I know about U-233′s potential benefits, I was saddened by Matt Wald’s recent article titled Uranium Substitute Is No Longer Needed, but Its Disposal May Pose Security Risk. It is disturbing to think that so many people have such a huge misunderstanding of nuclear fission technology that they take action to make U-233 an expensive waste product, instead of more accurately treating it as a potent energy resource that would become more valuable the more it is used.

PS—I cannot resist the temptation to compare the DOE’s planned expenditure of $473 million to destroy the potential value in its U-233 stockpile with the $452 million that has been widely promoted as the government’s contribution to small modular reactor development.

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Adams

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.

The NRC chair and Yucca Mountain

By Jim Hopf

Several important events have recently occurred involving the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, and the interactions between the two.

New NRC chairman

Last month, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko stated that he would resign as soon as his replacement was appointed. His resignation was likely the result of political pressure and questions raised regarding his management of the NRC (which I’ve discussed in an earlier post).

Soon afterward, the Obama administration nominated Allison Macfarlane as a replacement for Jaczko. Macfarlane has a PhD in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. She also served as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

Based on past statements she’s made and publications she’s authored, it is clear that Macfarlane is an opponent of the Yucca Mountain repository. She had referred to it as seismically and volcanically unstable, and said that its selection “broke the covenant with the states that the siting process would be fair and the best site would be selected.” Her views may be reflected in the conclusions of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which recommended the long-term dry storage of used nuclear fuel, and a new “consent-based” repository siting process. Macfarlane is also on record as supporting the idea of moving used fuel into dry storage as soon as possible to reduce fuel pool-related risks.

Nonetheless, it appears that opposition to Macfarlane’s appointment as chairman has been relatively muted. There appears to be a (political) understanding that Macfarlane would be accepted as chairman, as long as Kristine Svinicki is also reappointed to another term as a commissioner (Svinicki’s term expires on June 30). Republican (pro-Yucca) senators have stated that they will not block Macfarlane’s nomination, and their questioning during Senate confirmation hearings was relatively mild. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has also not opposed her nomination. On the flip side, Democratic senators have made it clear that they will, in turn, accept Svinicki’s reappointment.

Based on the above, it appears clear that Macfarlane will soon be appointed as NRC chairman and Svinicki will reappointed for another term as commissioner.

Court decisions on waste program

There have also been important recent court decisions pertaining to the U.S. nuclear waste program.

In a unanimous decision, a federal appeals court has given the US Department of Energy six months to explain/justify continuing to collect a 0.1 cent/kW-hr waste disposal fee from nuclear utilities, given that there is no plan on the table for permanent disposal (with the abandonment of Yucca Mountain). The plaintiffs were seeking a halt or suspension of the fee. In six months, the court will rule on whether the DOE has given sufficient justification for continued collection of the waste fee. The plaintiffs and other observers are confident that the DOE will not be able to come up with a sufficient justification at that time.

Another recent federal appeals court decision threw out the NRC’s waste confidence ruling, which had concluded that waste could be safely stored on (plant) site for as long as 60 years after plant closure, and that a repository would become available when necessary. The court said that the NRC’s evaluation failed to consider the impact if a repository doesn’t become available, and did not adequately assess the risks of long term on-site storage. The chief judge wrote that “the commission’s evaluation of the risks of spent nuclear fuel is deficient,” and that spent fuel “poses a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk.”

Opinion on the impact of this second ruling varied widely. Anti-nuclear groups (including some of the plaintiffs) hailed the decision and hoped that it would eventually block the NRC from granting new reactor licenses or reactor life extensions.

Klein

Others—including former NRC Chairman Dale Klein—believe that the impact will be relatively small, and that it will simply be a matter of the NRC doing additional work, such as allowing more public comment (some of the court decision text appears to support this view as well.) The NRC could also perform site specific (as opposed to generic) evaluations of long-term fuel storage risks. Others in the industry actually view the ruling in a positive light, thinking that it will put pressure on the government to move forward with solutions to the waste problem, such as centralized storage or licensing a repository (e.g., Yucca). NEI disagreed with the ruling, and urged the NRC to quickly address the court’s concerns.

Finally, there is a federal appeals court decision due sometime this summer as to whether the NRC is legally required to finish the Yucca Mountain license application. While the Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires the NRC to evaluate the application, the NRC is arguing that since Congress has not appropriated any more money to the NRC to complete the task, it “cannot” do so. Yucca supporters have pointed to $10 million that the NRC has at its disposal for the task, but the NRC maintains that $10 million is not nearly enough money to finish the task. Meanwhile, the House recently approved an additional $10 million for the NRC to complete the licensing review. The fate of this funding in the Senate is unclear (of course).

In addition to disagreeing with the lack of funding argument in general, Yucca supporters point out that while $10 million may not be enough to get through the legal hearings phase of the process, the NRC could certainly release the safety evaluation reports (SERs), which give the scientific/technical conclusions of NRC staff (which almost everyone believes concluded that Yucca Mountain met the requirements).

Perspective on Macfarlane’s appointment

Macfarlane

As for the NRC chairman position, the selection of Macfarlane was clearly political, as was the selection of her predecessor. It is clear that one of the primary, if not the primary, basis for her selection was her opposition to Yucca Mountain. It’s clear that opposition to Yucca was a requirement (i.e., a litmus test) for being considered for NRC chairman; a testament to the power of Senate Majority Leader Reid. Macfarlane’s background is in geology and public policy, with some experience in nuclear waste issues. She has very little background or experience in the area of nuclear power or nuclear reactor technology. (Then again, neither did her predecessor.)

NEI’s acquiescence to Macfarlane’s selection as chairman is either a sign that they know that they won’t be able to get anything better, or that they are more focused on reactor issues and are willing to let Yucca go by the wayside. (It is true that, frankly, long term on-site storage of used fuel does not represent a significant cost, in the grand scheme of things.)

Jaczko’s conditioning his leaving on the appointment of a successor was politically shrewd, in that it gave the advantage to Reid and Obama. Refusal to accept anti-Yucca nominees by Yucca supporters in Congress would have simply led to Jaczko staying on indefinitely. Thus, the choice was clearly between Jaczko or another Yucca opponent. My only question is, couldn’t NEI, and other industry supporters (in Congress, etc..), have held out for a Yucca opponent who also knows a thing or two about nuclear power/reactors?

Macfarlane may be right that Yucca may not be the very best repository site anywhere in the country, and yes it would be ideal to have both local and state consent for a repository (note that Yucca DOES have local consent). But that’s not the point, at least as far as the Yucca license application is concerned. The question is whether Yucca is good enough to meet the requirements (impeccable requirements that far exceed those applied to any other waste stream). After spending billions on Yucca analysis, the American public deserves to at least know if Yucca would have met the requirements, and if it remains a viable disposal option (if we ever decided to use it).

All indications are, however, that Macfarlane will continue to do what Jaczko has done, which is to use administrative tricks and the lack of funding excuse to effectively halt the licensing process. She will probably also try to prevent the release of the SERs (which show that the repository passed the NRC staff’s objective, scientific evaluations). Whatever you believe about policy, whether or not Yucca passed the specified technical requirements is a matter of simple fact/truth. How can anyone in good conscience favor the suppression of the truth? I find the actions of Jaczko (along with Reid, possibly Obama, and soon to be Macfarlane) in this specific area to be unconscionable.

Yucca Mountain's north crest

I’ve always believed that the release of the SERs, or having Yucca pass the NRC licensing review, would be of significant value even if a political/policy decision were made to not proceed with the repository. A significant fraction of the public is laboring under the false notion that there is no practical or technical solution to the waste problem (i.e., they don’t understand that it is purely a political problem that has been technically solved). This is a significant source of opposition to nuclear. If we go back to the drawing board (in a quest to find a “consent-based” repository), without getting it on record that Yucca passed the (impeccable) technical requirements and is a technically viable solution, the public will go on believing the false premise that there is not (and may never be) an acceptable technical solution to the waste problem. This will have a negative impact on public support for new reactors going forward.

With Macfarlane at the helm, and any funding for completing the licensing review likely to be blocked by Reid, the only hope for completing the licensing review may be in the courts. Let’s hope that the courts understand that the political will of one man (Reid) does NOT represent the will of Congress. Many votes have already made clear that large bipartisan majorities in both houses support Yucca, and that it is only the power of one man, over both legislation and appropriations, that is causing the current situation. Given that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed into law (making Congress’ intent at that time clear), and that finishing the application still reflects the will of the great majority of legislators, the court should see that finishing the application is the clear “will of Congress”, one senator’s undue influence over the budget and appropriations process notwithstanding.

Perspective on court decision

As for the court decision throwing out the NRC’s waste confidence ruling, all I can say is that I hope the optimists are right (i.e., that it’s just a matter of doing some more work or that the ruling is a means by which the government will be pressured to move a waste solution forward). Personally, the decision makes me a bit nervous. The anti-nukes seem to believe that it will lead to blockage or shutdown of reactors.

Can we be sure that the government (or courts) will not take such a (drastic) step? What will be sufficient to satisfy the court? Will centralized long-term storage facilities be enough, or will we need a repository (or at least tangible progress in that regard)? Or will further analysis into technical issues of very-long-term dry storage be sufficient? Again, this is an area where having a licensed repository would be of value, even if the political/policy decision (at present) is not to pursue it.

I personally take issue with the court’s characterization of stored nuclear fuel as “a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk”. As someone who works in the dry used fuel storage field, I’m confident that the risks of long-term storage are negligible. The issue of whether fuel is stored in pools or in dry storage casks is independent of the issue of how long it takes to establish a repository. The result of a lack of (or delay in) a repository is increased dry fuel storage (not pool storage) especially given that confidence ruling considered the period after the plants are closed/decommissioned (where all fuel is in dry storage). There are few, if any, conceivable mechanisms that would cause a significant release from dry storage casks. Tangible or significant public health impacts are all but inconceivable. Also, inspections of casks, which have been loaded for ~20 years, are not showing significant degradation of the cask materials.

In addition, one must ask the question, “dangerous compared to what”? The (obvious) fact is that the risks associated with long-term dry fuel storage are negligible compared to the public health and environmental risks associated with the fossil fuel plants that would be used in lieu of nuclear plants, if nuclear plants were closed (or not built) over the lack of a waste confidence rule. One would hope that the NRC would mention such issues (risk comparisons that look at the bigger picture) in the revised waste confidence evaluations required by the court. But alas, I wouldn’t hold my breath . . .

I’ve been advocating looking at the bigger picture (i.e., the risks of nuclear compared to the fossil fuel alternatives) for some time now, with respect to a lot of things, such as deciding nuclear regulations and how strict they should be. I’d love to see a cost vs. public health risk benefit analysis for the Vogtle basemat rebar issue. Any remotely reasonable evaluation would conclude: “use as is”. But, of course, no such evaluation will be done (“verbatim compliance!”).

There’s one positive development in this area, however. The American Nuclear Sociery has taken a courageous stand in its Fukushima Committee Report, where it suggests that the federal government quantitatively assess the relative risks/impacts between nuclear and other energy sources. Hopefully, the conclusions of such an evaluation would be considered when making decisions on future requirements for nuclear plants. It may perhaps lead to recognition that if such requirements were to result in nuclear plant closures, public health risks and environmental impacts would increase due to the use of fossil fuels instead.

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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.

No easy road for U.S. nuclear new build

Getting the NRC license is just the first step

By Dan Yurman

Last December, Southern Nuclear had plenty to celebrate on New Year’s Eve. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had just approved the safety certification for the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, setting the stage for a decision on February 9, 2012, to issue reactor licenses to build two of them.

As Southern began mobilizing the full scope of its construction activity at its Vogtle site in Georgia, two issues arose that appeared inevitable based on what we know about the nuclear energy industry in the second decade of the 21st century.

First, the federal government continued to drag its feet on fulfilling its commitment to complete the final term sheet of the $8.3 billion loan guarantee for the project. Second, anti-nuclear groups launched a campaign to stop the construction activity.

Southern’s Vogtle project

Southern’s chief executive officer Thomas Fanning is not a man to put all of his eggs in one basket. In response to reports that the Department of Energy might not approve favorable terms on the credit risk premium for an $8.3 billion loan guarantee, he said that the utility has the ability to go to capital markets without it.

The issue at hand is the cost of the “risk premium,” which is the fee the utility must pay the government in return for the loan guarantee. A fee of between 1-2 percent of the amount covered ($83-166 million) is a lot of money, so every point counts.

In addition to working out a rate to charge the utility, the DOE has to contend with political pressure from Congress over the now ill-fated Solyndra loan that cost the government over half a billion dollars. It puts any new decision for any type of loan guarantee under a microscope.

David Frantz, the acting director of the DOE loan program, told a House Appropriations Committee hearing in March that he expects the agency to close on the loan guarantee. However, Alex Flint, vice president of government affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, told Platts on March 28 that he worries the agency may not meet that commitment. He said that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which shares authority for approval of the loan guarantee with the DOE, “is not an enthusiastic supporter of the program.”

Flint added that the formula used by OMB “is flawed” and will result in a fee that is too high.

Another issue is that the way the collateral for the loan guarantee is calculated creates issues for the multiple equity partners on the Vogtle project. They want to limit their liability to their equity stake in the project. The government is seeking deeper pockets.

Another opening for contentions

An environmental group that wants to stop the construction of the Vogtle site reactors has won a partial victory in U.S. district court. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy won a ruling that will disclose some details of the DOE’s loan guarantee credit subsidy fee information for the $14 billion project.

Federal District Court Chief Judge Royce Lambert also criticized the DOE for denying the original Freedom of Information Act request. He said in his ruling that the DOE had failed to provide adequate justification for withholding the documents.

The Southern Alliance is also one of nine environmental groups that expects to ask the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to halt construction of the Vogtle project while other courts consider previous legal challenges to the NRC’s action to grant the reactors a license. The NRC rejected the groups’ petition challenges to its February 9 decision.

The groups said that the NRC failed to adequately address safety issues that emerged from the Fukushima crisis. The NRC said it had done so and that reactors under construction would be held accountable for future safety orders based on their application to specific designs.

This is a key issue for Southern, which points out that any halt to construction would be costly in terms of schedule delays. Also, the utility worries that design changes mandated by the NRC could drive up construction costs.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who was outvoted by 4-1 on the licenses for the Vogtle reactors, said on March 31 that the review of the licenses for two similar AP1000s planned to be built by Progress Energy in Florida could be delayed if he has his way.

He wants all of the Fukushima safety related changes to U.S. reactors, including new starts, in place before any more licenses are issued by the agency.

The other four commissioners have rejected this position, saying that the agency can issue new safety orders whenever necessary and that there is no need to hold up new licenses.

Progress Energy is also in the midst of a merger with Duke Energy, which could change the project’s schedule or possibly end it depending on economic conditions and other financial and market issues for the new combined firm. The closing date for the merger has been postponed once and may be delayed again if state and federal energy regulatory agencies don’t sign off on it.

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Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy, and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Competition heats up for DOE SMR funding

Westinghouse gets support from Missouri for 225-MW reactor

By Dan Yurman

The race to win $452 million in cost-shared funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for licensing and technical support to bring a small modular reactor (SMR) to market by 2022 got a new entry on April 19. Westinghouse has partnered with Ameren (NYSE:AEE) to submit a proposal based on the reactor vendor’s design of a 225-MW SMR.

The proposal won enthusiastic support from elected officials, including Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, with the promise of high-paying manufacturing jobs to build the components for the reactors in Missouri. Nixon called it a “transformational economic development opportunity.”

A consortium composed of Westinghouse, Ameren, and regional electrical utilities will prepare the proposal to submit to the DOE. The cost-share agreement covers a five-year period and would involve equal spending by the winning team and the government up to $904 million. The government may make two awards splitting the funds among developers.

The Westinghouse SMR is a 225-MW light water reactor design based on the firm’s 1100-MW AP1000, which achieved design certification from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last December. Westinghouse is building four units in China, and in 2012 began construction of four units in the United States—two in Georgia and two more in South Carolina.

Westinghouse SMR conceptual design diagram

If Westinghouse wins the DOE funding, it could submit combined license applications to build and operate, over time, up to five of its SMRs with Ameren in Missouri—eventually providing the equivalent of a single AP1000 reactor.

Kate Jackson, chief technology officer for Westinghouse, said in a statement that the first unit would be built and ready to enter revenue service within 24 months of receiving an NRC license.

Westinghouse SMR summary table of specifications

Change in strategy for Ameren

Until recently, Ameren had been pursuing a legislative strategy of seeking to change a 1976 Missouri law that banned CWIP. The acronym means “construction work in progress” and it defines a rate mechanism that would, if authorized, allow a utility to charge customers for the costs of an early site permit, licensing, and construction of a new reactor as they come in.

Ameren has twice tried and failed to win legislative approval to overturn the 1976 law. In 2012, on the third iteration, Ameren sought cost recovery just for the early site permit (ESP) in hopes that the legislature might be more amenable. That tactic appeared to be working. On March 8, the Missouri House committee on utilities passed a bill supporting the more limited concept. The bill, introduced by Rep. Jeanie Riddle (R-Mokane), provides for up to $45 million to be recovered for an application for an ESP.

Ameren President Warner Baxter told the Kansas City Star on April 20, however, that the firm is suspending its drive for CWIP and instead is focusing on its new partnership with Westinghouse.

Greenhouse gases by the way

Even so, opponents of the effort to bring SMRs to Missouri lined up to sound off. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) told the Kansas City Star that the new KCP&L 850-MW coal-fired power plant cost $2 billion, or $2,350/Kw—about half the estimated price of the Westinghouse SMR at $5,000/Kw.

Ironically, Ellen Vancko, the UCS spokesperson, said that natural gas plants might be cheaper and faster to build. The issue of greenhouse gas emissions wasn’t mentioned in the report of her remarks.

Crowded field for DOE dollars

Competition to the bid by Westinghouse to win the DOE money will most likely come from other developers of SMRs using light water reactor technology.

Babcock & Wilcox is developing a 180-MW unit and has an agreement for cost-shared licensing and development with the Tennessee Valley Authority for two units at the utility’s Clinch River site in Tennessee. B&W already has its own manufacturing supply chain in Ohio and Indiana.

NuScale recently announced it would develop a unit for testing and licensing purposes at the DOE’s Savannah River Site. The DOE is not providing any money for the project, which will operate as a paying tenant at the lab. NuScale is partnering with NuHub, a South Carolina economic development organization to pursue the new build.

Further afield there are several efforts to develop fast reactors as SMRs, including Hyperion, which recently went through a management reorganization and re-branded itself as Gen4 Energy. It is working with a venture capital firm in Denver to commercialize a 25-MW design first developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The DOE says that it will make a decision by September 2012 on how it will award the funds. While the agency has the first of five years of funding in hand, future funding will depend on the decisions in appropriation bills of a deficit-minded Congress. The outcome of the presidential election and possible changes in the House and Senate will all play in the mix to determine whether the DOE will be able to deliver on a five-year funding commitment.

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Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy, and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.