Category Archives: Economic benefits of nuclear

Save Vermont Yankee. If not you, who? If not now, when?

By Rod Adams

I told some friends the other day that I often feel like a time traveler from the Age of Reason who sees questionable behavior and is forced by training to ask, “Why?”

Although I have already written a couple of articles on this particular topic, it is time for one more post intended to provoke thoughts and discussions aimed at finding a way to prevent an action that we all know is wrong and shortsighted. I’m writing about the pending closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a 650-MWe nuclear power plant located on the Vermont side of the Vermont/New Hampshire border (also known as the Connecticut River) and only a dozen or so miles from the Massachusetts border.

It is a safe, reliable, zero-emission nuclear power plant with a low, predictable fuel cost and a moderately generous, but predictable payroll. It has recently been extensively refurbished as part of a power uprate program; it has an operating license that is good until 2032 and may be able to be extended; and it has a brand new emergency diesel engine.

It is in a region of the United States where the reliable generating capacity is suddenly so tight that the total auction price for capacity has recently tripled from $1 billion in 2013 to more than $3 billion in the most recent auction.

Aside: It’s probably worth mentioning that if Vermont Yankee had bid into that auction, the prices would have settled at a far lower level. That is the nature of the response in an under damped system that is in a delicate balance; wild swings can result from the imposition of minor disturbances. It is not at all surprising that companies with generating facilities participating in the New England capacity auction did not approach Entergy about purchasing Vermont Yankee. There is no shock in finding out that 100 percent of the companies approached as logical candidates with complimentary assets politely declined to make any bids after a due diligence presentation. End Aside.

Vermont Yankee is also in a region of the country with a growing dependence on natural gas for both electricity and heat, but a pipeline network that was not sized to carry enough gas for both types of customers.

Here is a recent quote from Leo Denault, Entergy Corporation chief executive officer and chairman, about the power situation in New England:

“If we continue to see Northeast power markets drive what should be economical units to retire prematurely and not fairly reward generators for the attributes they provide—including fuel supply diversity and reliability, as well as environmental benefits—what was a volatile outlier this winter… could become a recurring situation.”  Denault also noted the harsh winter’s ability to expose pipeline deficiencies that constrained certain resources during periods of high demand: “There is simply not enough natural gas pipeline capacity in New England to serve both heating demand and natural gas-fired power plants during extreme cold.”

(SNL Energy’s Power Daily — April 25, 2014)

Any industrial customers that are left in the region are left out in the cold, and it can get quite cold in New England, especially during a polar vortex.

The state of Vermont bears a large portion of the responsibility for the pending closure; in fact, there are politicians in the state who have bragged about their success in getting rid of a reliable, low cost, clean energy source (of course, they may slant their claims a bit).

Peter Shumlin—both as senator and then as governor—and his allies made life uncomfortable for Entergy during the 12 years that the company owned the facility. Their efforts added substantial costs to the total operations and maintenance costs and they demanded several different kinds of tribute in return for “allowing” the plant to keep operating.

It is understandable that there are many people on the plant staff who are sad that they are losing their jobs, but conflicted about leaving a state that did not value their contributions anyway.

Unfortunately, nuclear professionals did not do all they could to help the valiant efforts of Meredith and George Angwin, Howard Shaffer, Robert Hargraves, and others who worked hard to counter the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) spread by the professional fear mongers like Arnie Gundersen, or the actions of professional nuclear energy industry critics like Mark Cooper and Peter Bradford.

So far, the antinuclear forces seem to have won the day.

Entergy has announced that no one wanted the plant. I will take them at their word, but I have to ask what kind of effort they invested to market the facility? It is almost like getting up one day and finding out that your neighbor, who owns a house that you always liked and thought would be a great place for your son or daughter to use to raise your grandchildren, had decided to tear down the house to leave a vacant lawn because that was easier than paying the upkeep after they retired to Florida.

He tells you that “everyone” knew the place was for sale and also knew that he planned to tear it down if no one came up with a reasonable offer. Somehow, you never noticed the little “For Sale” sign tucked in the bottom right hand corner of a front window. Perhaps it was because there was an overgrown plant out in front covering the sign.

At any rate, my little allegory would have a happy ending if you just happened to wake up and get your paper early enough on the day that the dumpsters were being delivered to stop your neighbor and halt the destruction before it started.

In the case of Vermont Yankee, there are potentially interested investors that never knew that the plant was for sale. There are also plenty of technically qualified people who could be formed into a technically qualified management team in short order to own and operate a nuclear plant that has already done all of the hard work of establishing procedures, schedules, required programs like QA and RP, and all of the host of other things that would need to be done for any new facility.

The reactions I have received from some very bright people when I describe the current plan can be summarized by the quote I received—second hand—from a correspondent who knows Nathan Myhrvold, the CEO of Intellectual Ventures and a partner with Bill Gates in Terrapower. My correspondent asked Myhrvold if he had any ideas about saving the plant. This is the response he received:

Not really…. It is an insane decision to shut it, but that is what nuclear has become…

Perhaps I am just a little odd, but I just don’t see how people can stand idly by and watch while a small group of people take actions that will harm a much larger group of people over a long time to come. If the action is, indeed, insane, the question is why should we allow it to happen?

Who is going to point out the insanity? When?

Back to the headline, which was the motto over one of the doorways at my alma mater.

“If not you, who? If not now, when?”

I guess that—for now—it’s going to be me and a few diehards who are still working hard in Vermont. With any luck, in a short period of time it will be me, those few diehards, and a dedicated team of well-resourced professionals who recognize that shutting down a well-operated nuclear plant is a betrayal of the people who have worked so hard to try to make the United States less dependent on foreign supplies of energy.

Some might say, who am I to question the analysis and decisions of a big company like Entergy. Surely the people working there know more about the situation than I do and should be trusted to have made the right call. As one of my many heroes famously advised: “Trust, but verify.” After I see the numbers, I might make a different call, but all of the publicly available numbers are pointing me in a different direction.

I may just be a guy who spends a good bit of his day blogging on the Internet, yes sometimes in my PJs. However, I’m also a guy who has been doing that for a long time while also holding down responsible positions in the US Navy and at a respected nuclear power plant design firm.

If you’re fortunate enough to have had the assignments I have had and you are any good at all, you end up meeting a few credible people who respect your ability. I even have a few friends in finance, some from my days at the Naval Academy and some from my sustained but eventually failed efforts to raise capital for Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.

BTW—did you know that the New England power grid burned diesel and jet fuel to supply 4 percent of its winter power this past year and that on some days, generators that were burning distilled petroleum products represented fully 25 percent of the electrical power supply? And those figures happened even WITH Vermont Yankee and Brayton Point supplying reliable power…

vermont yankee c 405x201

_______________________

Adams

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.

How can we stop premature nuclear plant closures?

By Rod Adams

During an earnings call on February 6, 2014, Exelon Corporation indicated that it may decide to shut down two or more of its nuclear reactors because of poor economic return. Exelon spokespeople have been warning about the effects of negative electricity prices for several years.

On February 8, 2013, almost exactly a year ago, the Chicago Tribune published a story titled Exelon chief: Wind-power subsidies could threaten nuclear plants. The Tribune noted that Christopher Crane, Exelon’s CEO, was concerned about the continued operation of some of the units in the company’s large fleet of reactors:

“What worries me is if we continue to build an excessive amount of wind and subsidize wind, the unintended consequence could be that it leads to shutting down plants,” Crane said in an interview.

Crane said states that have helped to subsidize wind development in order to create jobs might find themselves losing jobs if nuclear plants shut down.

The Chicago-based company doesn’t have any immediate plans to mothball nuclear plants, although at least one analyst has predicted that could occur as soon as 2015.

“We continue to believe that our assets are some of the lowest-cost, most-dispatchable baseload assets and don’t have any plans at this point of early shutdown on them,” Crane said.

If the discussed nuclear reactor shutdowns occur, they would be numbers six and seven in the count of prematurely closed nuclear power plants in the United States since the beginning of 2013. Though there are certainly antinuclear activists and analysts who will point to this record with a delighted “We told you so,” this is not a trend that bodes well for the economic stability of the United States or for the continued effort of the US to reduce its dependence on hydrocarbon fuel sources.

It is also a trend that puts a number of nuclear professionals at risk of suffering a significant economic setback and life-altering job loss, despite having participated in an exceptional example of continued performance improvements over a sustained period of time.

During a recent industry gathering hosted by Platts, Dr. Pete Lyons pointed to the trend of shutting down well-maintained and licensed nuclear power plants as something that is worrying the current Administration, especially because it will make it difficult to achieve progress in reducing CO2 emissions.

Jim Conca, writing for Forbes, noticed Exelon’s announcement and wondered about its effect on a number of important attributes of energy production. He reminds his readers that nuclear plants represent a large fraction of the emission free electricity produced in the United States each year. He also points out that the longer nuclear plants run and produce revenue, the better. Construction costs are already sunk, the plants already have stored inventories of spent fuel, and they already require some form of decommissioning. The costs and pollution associated with all of those features should be spread over as many kilowatt hours of generation and revenue as possible.

There are several things that nuclear energy advocates can do that might help to eliminate the pressures that have been encouraging nuclear plant operating companies to either shut down or consider shutting down useful assets.

  1. Learn enough about the natural gas market to discuss it with your friends and colleagues
  2. Advocate policies that put a fair value on generating clean electricity
  3. Advocate policies that reward generating sources for reliability
  4. Cheer efforts to market electricity to restore growth in demand

During the winter of 2013-2014, there have been a number of examples of the risks associated with concentrating heating, industrial uses and electricity production on natural gas, just because it has been accepted as “clean” and seems to have become abundant and cheap—ever since 2008—which is apparently a long time ago in the memory of some market observers and decision makers. The Nuclear Energy Institute continues to produce excellent materials and testimony about the importance of fuel diversity; they need as much assistance as they can get in spreading the message.

This winter there have been reported shortages and price spikes that have exceeded $100 per MMBTU. That is roughly equivalent to oil prices hitting $580 per barrel, since every barrel of oil contains 5.8 MMBTU of heat energy. Natural gas price spikes have not been limited to the northeast; spikes exceeding $20 per MMBTU (five times the pre-winter price) have occurred in the mid-Atlantic, the Pacific Northwest, the Chicago area, southern California and even Texas. Last week, a price spike of $8.00 per MMBTU even showed up at Henry Hub, at the intersection of several prime US gas production areas.

Henry Hub spot prices as of Feb 10, 2014

Henry Hub spot prices for week ending Feb 5, 2014

When gas prices reach the levels seen this winter, many customers stop buying, even if they have no alternative fuel source available. If they are operating an industrial facility that needs the gas to run, they stop operating. If they are operating a household that needs the gas to stay warm, they put on more sweaters. If they are operating a school system; they shut the doors and tell the children to stay home.

In markets where wholesale electricity prices have been deregulated, gas fired generators are usually the marginal price setters, so the spikes in natural gas prices have directly affected electricity prices at times of peak demand, driving them to infrequently seen levels. It remains to be seen how the electricity price spikes this winter have affected revenues at generating companies, but it is unlikely to have harmed their bottom line. Unfortunately, brief spells of profitability may not be enough to encourage nuclear plant operators to keep running their plants if wholesale prices return quickly to loss-making level for much of the year.

Though many of us value the fact that nuclear plants do not produce any greenhouse gases or other air or water pollutants, that feature does not produce any additional revenue for plant owners. For the past twenty years, every alternative to fossil fuel except nuclear and large hydroelectric dams have been given direct subsidies, preferential tax treatment and quotas. Fossil fuel generators have not been charged for their use of our common atmosphere as a waste disposal site. It is time to put pressure on our representatives to pass legislation that establishes a price on carbon so that investors are encouraged to fairly value clean generation.

My personal favorite proposal is James Hansen’e fee and dividend approach where all hydrocarbon fuels pay a fee based on their carbon content and the public receives an equal share of the revenue. People who are careful and do not use much fuel will see a positive increase in their income; people who use more than average will see a net cost. Investors will recognize that it is worth their effort to identify technologies that do not emit CO2.

We also should advocate policies that reward generators for their ability to produce reliable electricity. It is a valuable service that helps to ensure that the grid is adequately served with a sufficient margin, and that we avoid the kind of volatility seen this past winter and that nearly bankrupted California in 2001.

Finally, we should seek to reverse the reluctance to tout the product we produce. Electricity is a wonderful tool that makes life better. It can be produced using a variety of fuels, though most readers here would probably agree that uranium and thorium are the best available electricity generation fuels. It’s time to recognize that the energy business is competitive. Like all competitive enterprises, it rewards people who fight for market share by producing a better product and by taking effective action to ensure that people know they are producing a better product.

While traveling through the southeast US last week, I heard an advertisement that made me smile. Alabama Power was offering to give people water heaters as long as they were shifting from gas heaters to electric heaters. Why have we allowed competitive energy producers to steal markets for so many years without fighting back?

I encourage people in the electricity production business to download a copy of the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of EnergyBiz and read the article titled Gas Competes with Power; A New Foundation Fuel, New Business Channels. While you are at it, you might also enjoy reading the challenge that NRG Energy’s David Crane lays down for the traditional business of generating and distributing electricity in his guest opinion piece titled Keep Digging: What Lethal Threat?

Exelon's Clinton Power Station

Exelon’s Clinton Power Station

______________________

Adams

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 Value of Energy Diversity (Especially In A Polar Vortex)

By Rod Adams

Since the natural gas price collapse that started in summer 2008, many observers have become accustomed to using the adjective “cheap” when talking about natural gas. Like the word “clean,” another adjective often applied to methane, “cheap” is a relative term. It is also a term whose applicability depends on time and location. As I wrote in a recent post on Atomic Insights, gas is only really cheap if nobody needs it. When demand increases due to some kind of perfectly natural phenomenon—like a winter with near normal temperatures—demand can exceed deliverability by a large margin.

When that happens, the only way that markets can match demand to supply is to allow the price to climb to a level high enough to destroy some of the demand. Because the infrastructure for extracting, storing, and delivering gas cannot be rapidly altered, suppliers are unable to bring additional supplies to market in time to provide relief.

Late last week, the price of natural gas at three major trading locations—New England, New York, and Mid-Atlantic—exceeded $70.00 per MMBTU. It is worth seeing the table for yourself.

Daily natural gas prices January 22, 2014

Daily natural gas prices January 22, 2014

Those prices are, of course, spot market prices that do not apply to customers that have signed long-term supply contracts; but since long-term contracts are often priced at a level that is substantially higher than the short-term spot market, many customers have been loath to buy the protection offered. Home heating delivery companies are generally seen as utilities that supply a vital need, so they have traditionally signed long-term contracts with priority delivery clauses. Most merchant power generators have taken the risk associated with short-term contracts.

When gas prices get too high, those merchant generation companies have a simple choice; they stop buying fuel and stop generating power.

During last week’s brutal cold weather in New England there was a day when 75 percent of the region’s natural gas-fired power generators were unable to operate, presumably because there was an insufficient amount of gas to supply both heating demands and power demands.

Even with the delivery-related demand destruction, withdrawals from working gas-in-storage reservoirs has been running at a higher pace than at any time during the past five years, resulting in a current gas-in-storage inventory that is about 14 percent below the five year average for this time of year. Natural gas analysts are starting to speculate about the ability to maintain a sufficient storage buffer to complete the winter.

The total working gas in storage in the United States for the week ending January 17 is 2.4 trillion cubic feet (TCF). To put that number in perspective, average daily use in January has been running at 97 billion cubic feet per day for a monthly total of 3 trillion cubic feet. Traders are starting to pay attention, and long-term pricing at the main delivery hubs is starting to climb rather steeply.

Natural gas prices at Henry Hub Jan 2012 - Jan 2014

Natural gas prices at Henry Hub

To maintain grid stability, the New England independent system operator resorted to using combustion turbines supplied by diesel or jet fuel. Though distillate oil is normally a premium fuel best reserved for transportation, it has an advantage over gas in times of high demand. Because it is more readily stored, it can be staged in advance so that it is ready to run when demand soars—at least until the tanks run dry.

It has not yet made the news, but there are probably quite a few New Englanders who are happy that they still have heating oil in tanks on their own property. The oil heat advocates at American Energy Coalition would certainly like to spread the word that gas may not always be the best source of winter heat.

Fortunately, the US power grid has not yet arrived at the state that seems to be the goal of the natural gas marketing departments and their allies in the media. Not only are there still a number of coal- and oil-fired power plants that are still capable of running, there are still 100 operable nuclear power plants that thrive on colder weather.

Though there have been one or two operational issues, the monthly nuclear power plant performance report for December 2013 showed a total generation of more than 71 billion kilowatt hours for an average capacity factor of 97.6 percent.

So far in January, nuclear plant performance remains impressive; with some days reaching average capacity factors in excess of 97 percent. Much of this performance comes from well executed maintenance strategies and adverse weather plans. Those preparations allow operators to take timely action to minimize the probability of weather-related outages.

Nuclear plants have a reliability advantage over their fossil fuel competitors; they usually enter high demand, bad weather seasons with “fuel tanks” that contain many months’ worth of accessible fuel. All other competitors can run into fuel-related problems when deep cold persists for too long. Coal piles have been known to become solid blocks of ice, gas lines can freeze, and even diesel fuel can get syrupy if not properly stored.

Nuclear power plant operators also benefit from fuel prices that do not change as a result of high demand periods—the average cost of commercial nuclear fuel in the United States remains steady at between $0.50 to $0.60 per MMBTU. For merchant power plant operators, the cold weather is providing a great opportunity to bank some terrific returns. If you look at the daily spot market price table above, you can see that electricity prices were very robust, especially for companies that operate generating plants with an average operating and maintenance cost of $24 per MW-hr.

It would be terrific if the operators that benefit from selling their output at those generous prices stash some of the money away for those balmy spring days when few people need gas for heat. Gas still is a cheap and relatively clean fuel when the demand is low. There will again be times in the near future when gas-fired generators sell their output at prices that are not profitable for many others on the grid.

Maybe one lesson worth learning this winter is that an electric grid supplied by integrated power utilities operating under rate regulation with an obligation to serve is not such a bad arrangement after all. Electricity is too important for the rest of the economy to allow its price and availability to be so dependent on the whims of the weather.

There is another lesson that is specifically applicable to the state of Vermont. Vermonters, you still have a licensed and operating nuclear power plant that supplies power to your regional grid that is equivalent to 85 percent of your total consumption. For political reasons, you elected a governor and representatives that made that plant feel so unwelcome that the owners have decided to shut down the plant instead of refueling it and continuing to operate for the rest of its licensed life.

It’s not too late to take note of the way weather has been affecting your regional grid this year and consider how bad things might get if Vermont Yankee gets shut down as currently scheduled. Take a look at the possible impacts of following through with the proposed Total Energy Study.

Once you have imagined that scenario, pick up the phone and call some of your government leaders. Tell them that you want them to ask Entergy to keep the plant running. Tell your representatives that they have your permission to beg for forgiveness if necessary.

____________________________

Adams

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.

Nuclear energy is built on an actinide foundation

By Rod Adams

During the past several years, I have been following the progress of a strange situation in my adopted state of Virginia. Despite being a state with a long history of mining and mineral extraction, we have a law in place that forbids mining one specific element—uranium. The law is technically just a temporary moratorium put in place in order to give the state’s regulators time to draft effective regulations, but the law enacting the moratorium was put into place more than 30 years ago.

At this point, it is rather difficult to consider that it is just a temporary measure, especially since there is no longer any progress being made to begin drafting the required regulations. There has been work in progress since 2008, but it has recently hit a pretty substantial barrier.

The governor-elect, Terry McAuliffe, made a statement about a week after his election party ended, stating that he would veto any legislation that ended the moratorium. Since he expects no change in the moratorium while he is governor, he said he would oppose any effort to begin drafting rules as a waste of time and money. The governor made that decision after a strong sales effort by people who did not like the idea of allowing uranium to be mined in the state.

I’ve spent some time on the phone with Ben Davenport, the leader of one of the main opposition groups. He told me that he and his group are strongly pronuclear and believe that nuclear energy is the cleanest and best way to produce electricity. However, Mr. Davenport and his group believe that mining uranium is the dirty end of the business that should be done somewhere else.

I believe that the established nuclear energy interests in the state have missed a good opportunity to build an effective coalition that would take advantage of a teachable period to help people understand more about nuclear energy, the basic materials that enable it to function, the measurably minor health and environmental impacts associated with modern mining, and the economic benefits that result from materials extraction from the earth.

The people who are already in the nuclear industry are the ones who are most likely to understand that it is a safe, clean, and productive industry with the ability to provide great benefits to society. We need to practice our ability to more clearly communicate those aspects of our business to a public that has been subjected to many negative perspectives, often from people with economic interests for spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about our technology.

One aspect of economic development that seems to elude most people who do not live in Texas, Oklahoma, or Alaska is that businesses that pull valuable materials out of the earth are essentially finding money that makes the resource pie larger for all of us. Though mining opponents claim that there is plenty of uranium available on the world market—and they are correct under current conditions—they fail to understand that the money spent to purchase that uranium from somewhere else goes to the supplier region and is spent there.

Money used to purchase uranium in Virginia, on the other hand, stays in the United States. It ends up in the pockets of people who shop locally, dine in local restaurants, buy propane from local distributors, pay mortgages to local banks, and send their children to local schools. The valuable material adds wealth and capability, especially compared to simply leaving the material resting in the ground.

Because the nuclear industry in the United States grew up after the Cold War weapons program, we ended up with a geographically dispersed industry that prevents the kinds of sensible concentrations that yield substantial scale benefits to most other industries. Virginia-based companies have the opportunity to streamline the nuclear fuel fabrication supply chain and to take advantage of synergies that result when there are several different employers looking for people with similar skill sets in a geographic area.

There are potential political and public acceptance benefits for concentrating a complete industry supply chain in a defined geographic area. That is especially true when the industry is something disruptive that has complex or unique features that require knowledgeable communicators who can help the public and the politicians understand the impact of their decisions on the industry.

Many of the elements of this kind of concentration exist in southern Virginia, where there are nuclear power plant vendors, nuclear fuel suppliers, a nuclear power plant operator, a nuclear capable shipyard, nuclear engineering programs at regional universities, and a number of nuclear-powered ships. Unfortunately, many of these elements are not allowed to talk to each other and have a long history of maintaining “radio silence” among their neighbors and friends.

Here is a vision that I would love to see being pursued—I’d like to see the companies that are already engaged in the business of creating finished actinide fuel components and the machines that use those finished assemblies talk with the people who own a large uranium deposit with a potential worth of $7 billion. The same people own several thousand acres of land surrounding that deposit.

The discussions need to include businessmen who are already operating successful enterprises and are devoted to improving the foundations of the local economy. I’d like them all to think and talk about the possibility of siting additional training facilities or laboratories related to fuel conversion, enrichment, and fabrication on the site. The site might even be suitable for demonstration and test reactors that can serve as long term training facilities.

There is already usable railroad infrastructure in the area that is connected to one of the most capable ports in the world. The supply chain of manufactured parts required for small modular reactors need to be produced somewhere; why not in some of the places in southern Virginia with a long history of manufacturing, with skilled populations that know how to work with their hands? Craftsmen can learn to master the demanding quality assurance requirements for nuclear parts; those skills have wide applications and are not easy to outsource.

Some of the people who have opposed the uranium mining make it very clear that they are opposed because they believe that the perceived risks outweigh the benefits. So far, those benefits have been described to them as the potential for several hundred good jobs sometime in the uncertain future, after all of the licensing and permitting work is complete.

The good, practically minded people in the area know that job promises do not provide any meals, do not help educate any children, and do not increase the customer flows at any local businesses. Perhaps, by applying some creative thinking and vision, good jobs can start more quickly and lay the groundwork for a sustainable industry that will enable long term prosperity and resilience.

The site of the Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia has some rotating photos that include one with a beautiful rolling pasture, complete with a few dispersed bales of hay. I enjoy bucolic scenery, and believe strongly that appropriate nuclear energy facilities can fit into that scenery quite nicely. However, from an economic development point of view, there are few land uses that are less progressive or economically important than growing hay.

Uranium ore

_____________________

Adams

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.

Do oil and gas suppliers worry about nuclear energy development?

By Rod Adams

The world oil market is not a free market. Prices are manipulated by a small number of producers that adjust production rates to achieve desired prices that are high enough to provide maximum profits, without being high enough to encourage customers to aggressively pursue alternative energy sources.

That is the most important take away for attendees at the OPEC Embargo +40 summit held in Washington DC on October 16. Unfortunately, the meeting sponsors avoided acknowledging that nuclear energy is the alternative energy source that most worries established hydrocarbon suppliers. Nuclear has held that position since the early 1960s, when General Electric first won a head-to-head competition against coal to sell the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant.

Nuclear energy is reliable, virtually emission-free, and uses a widely distributed, abundant fuel source that is no longer subject to influence by the same producers that manipulate other fuel prices. Its cheap, clean heat can help turn coal, natural gas, and plants (vegetation) into liquid fuels that can be drop-in replacements for petroleum-based fuels.

A glittering cast of American energy pundits gathered in Washington DC for the summit held on the 40th anniversary of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. Natural gas was the celebrity invitee everyone wanted to faun over, while nuclear energy was an uninvited guest disrespected by almost all of the speakers whenever it was brought up.

The event was hosted by a group of retired large company executives and military flag officers who have served in roles in which they should have learned about the vital role that energy plays in our economy and in our politics.

That organization, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), recently produced a document titled A National Strategy for Energy Security: Harnessing America’s Resources and Innovation 2013. There are only three uses of the word nuclear in that 125-page document. Two of those appearances are in the legends of graphs about energy sources; one is followed by the word “physics” in a list of education focus areas.

People who want to sell uranium, fabricate fuel, build and operate new plants, and stop a dramatic shift of leadership in technical innovation to other countries (e.g., Korea and China) must recognize that it’s past time to take action to force ourselves into the conversation, even if our technology makes some people uncomfortable.

During the summit, negative words about nuclear energy came from people representing numerous points in the political spectrum. Doubters included a man who had served as both chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and as Secretary of Energy, a woman who had been the Secretary of State, a man who is the chief executive officer of a large ship operating company, and a man who is the CEO of one of the world’s pioneering nuclear power plant vendors.

Madeline Albright, the former Secretary of State, described the Atoms for Peace program as a mistake that led to too many unsolved “unintended consequences.” Meanwhile, according to James Schlesinger (former AEC chairman and one-time energy secretary), cheap natural gas has killed the nuclear renaissance and no utility CEO is going to consider proposing a new nuclear plant to his board of directors.

But you asked a question about nuclear. Madeline (Albright) mentioned the unintended consequences [of the Atoms for Peace speech]. There are unanticipated consequences. What we have seen as a result of shale oil development and shale gas development is natural gas so cheap now that nobody, no utility, is going to build a nuclear plant unless very heavily subsidized, and we are not seeing that. Philosophically we may be more interested in having more nuclear plants but as a practical matter, we’re just not going to see them. There is no nuclear renaissance coming.
(See SAFE video titled Insight from the Oval Office. Schlesinger’s comment dismissing nuclear energy starts at 24:55)

Adam Goldstein was asked if his Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines would be interested in nuclear power, as the company has replaced oil on large ships for more than 50 years. He chuckled uncomfortably—along with the audience—and stated that those ships do not have to carry passengers into Australia. He stated that costs make it prohibitive. He appeared unaware that his huge passenger ships are a tempting “early adopter” market for smaller reactor vendors; they operate baseload power plants running on low sulfur diesel fuel that costs more than $25 per MMBTU.

Jeff Immelt described GE’s new jet engine, which improves fuel economy by 15 percent, as his company’s most innovative technology for reducing oil dependence. When pressed about nuclear energy, he said that his company is going to keep their nuclear energy division on life support because his “successor’s successor” might be grateful to have that option available. He never mentioned the ABWR, the PRISM, or the ESBWR.

Nuclear energy received a few positive mentions; most of the best came from Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of Federal Express, a world-wide logistics company founded in 1971, just two years before the OPEC embargo. Smith fundamentally understands the importance of a reliable supply of fuel for his trucks, planes, and delivery vehicles.

He is also well aware of the fact—through repeated experience—that apparent abundance can rapidly turn into price-spiking shortage. He knows what that shift means to his company’s profits and what it means to the profits of companies that sell oil or alternative energy equipment. He noted the ongoing nuclear renaissance in China and his interest in what he called “pocket nukes” that are receiving investments from Bill Gates and Babcock & Wilcox.

Aside:  SAFE recently posted A Conversation with Jeff Immelt and Fred Smith on YouTube. Immelt repeatedly sings the praises of natural gas and explains how his company is involved in the industry. His comments about the most innovative technologies is in response to a question that Becky Quick asked starting at 23:46. Their discussion about nuclear energy begins with a question from Becky starting at 28:35. End Aside.

Carol Browner, who served as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator in a Democratic administration, insisted that nuclear energy has an important role to play in reducing fossil fuel dependence and reducing CO2 emissions.

Those examples show that the most receptive audiences for the nuclear energy alternative are people who buy a lot of fuel without selling any, and people who are deeply concerned about air pollution and climate change. The former understand that having additional supplies of reliable power will mean more competition to provide more stable and lower prices. The latter group knows that we cannot continue to dump CO2 into the atmosphere at an ever-increasing rate without unexpected consequences.

It’s time to get more aggressive in nuclear energy marketing. The uranium industry should teach people how heat is fungible in order to excite its potential supporters and capture attention from energy pundits.

Nuclear fission heat has already reduced the world’s dependence on oil; there is plenty of remaining opportunity. Nuclear energy pushed oil out of the electricity market in most of the developed world. Fission has replaced oil combustion in larger ships, but most others still burn oil. Nuclear-generated electricity has replaced oil burned for locomotives, city trolleys, and space heat, but there is room for substantial growth in these markets. Uranium producers should be influential members in the coalitions that are working to electrify transportation systems. Fission heat, especially with higher temperature reactors, can replace oil heat in industrial processes, including those well-proven processes that can turn coal, natural gas, and biomass into liquid fuels.

Fission can also reduce oil use by pushing gas out of the power generation business, thus freeing up more natural gas for other uses. As the gas promoters love to point out, methane is a flexible and clean burning fuel. It is important to remind their customers that fuel burned in power plants is not available for any other use.

There should no longer be meetings in Washington in which serious energy observers can hold sessions about efforts to reduce oil dependence, without discussing uranium’s important role in achieving that goal. There should also not be another meeting in DC discussing how natural gas is going to reduce our dependence on petroleum, without any apparent recognition that gas and oil are almost identical chemicals that come from essentially the same places in the earth’s crust, are supplied by essentially the same multinational conglomerates, and are delivered to customers using very similar types of pipes, ships, and trucks.

gas plant 290x201

Note: An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in the November 7, 2013 issue of Fuel Cycle Week.
_______________________

Adams

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.

How painful will the coming spike in natural gas prices be?

By Rod Adams

There is a good reason for American nuclear energy professionals to learn more about the dynamics of the natural gas market. We have been told numerous times that cheap natural gas is making our technology less and less viable in the competitive market place. Natural gas (also known as methane) is a terrific product, but it has been promoted as being capable of supplying a much larger portion of our overall energy demand. That promotional effort is putting us all at risk of a severe hangover when the low price bubble bursts.

I freely admit it; I am a contrarian who believes that the more the crowd pushes in one direction, the more beneficial it will be for me to move in the opposite direction. It is becoming more and more fashionable for casual observers of the North American energy market to make assertions about a long future of low natural gas prices that will benefit consumers and give energy intensive industries a competitive advantage in the world market.

In contrast, I am increasingly worried that there is going to be a painful spike in North American natural gas prices that will remind everyone that gas is a volatile commodity in both physical form and market price. Producers with supply that is not committed to long-term contracts will benefit enormously; consumers will suffer, independent power producers will suffer, and industrial customers will suffer, especially if they have recently made investments under an assumption that gas prices will remain low.

There are a number of factors in the multi-term differential equation that governs the balance between supply and demand in the gas market that are aligning to create an increasingly tight market.

  • Multinational companies like Sasol and Shell are planning or building gas-to-liquids (GTL) plants in the United States.
  • Drilling companies are scaling back drilling, especially in gas-rich areas.
  • The Department of Energy continues to approve export permits for liquified natural gas (LNG).
  • The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed CO2 emissions limits on new power plants that cannot be met with the best available coal burning technology.
  • Five existing nuclear power plant units, with a combined total capacity of more than 4,000 MWe, have either been permanently shut down or have announced an imminent closure.
  • Pipeline gas exports to Mexico have doubled in the past five years. There are projects underway that will result in another doubling in the rate of export to Mexico as our neighbor’s production capacity falls.
  • Canada is planning several west coast LNG export facilities.

Though increasing natural gas prices might seem to be a potential boon for nuclear energy development, there will be negative economic effects whose overall impact is unpredictable. History shows that a dramatically higher energy price reduces or eliminates energy demand growth, leads to inflationary pressures, and contributes to the risk of increased interest rates. Each of those effects puts new nuclear power plant projects at risk. The high prices may not last long; those effects tend to work to eventually bring markets back into balance.

United States citizens are often surprisingly unaware of events and market trends in other portions of the world. Even within my circle of colleagues that are working in the energy business, few realize that cheap natural gas is an almost purely North American phenomenon. European prices are approximately 2.5-3 times higher than current US prices, while Asian LNG buyers are often paying 4 or 5 times as much per unit energy as consumers in the United States.

That helps to explain why so many other countries are still planning a significant increase in their nuclear electricity production capacity. Outside of the United States, the nuclear renaissance is still moving forward, but that is not necessarily helping the nuclear professionals that like living and working inside the United States. (I am one of those people; with three young grandchildren, I am not interested in living overseas.)

All the above data points tell me that nuclear power plant owners should be much more reluctant to shut down their operating reactors, especially if they are making that decision based on an assumption that natural gas prices are going to remain low for many more years into the future. While it can sometimes require more patience than is common in corporate board rooms, a permanent decision to destroy a generating asset that meets all possible emission standards and does not burn natural gas seems to be a very short term decision. Observing those kinds of decisions makes my brain replay a refrain from a Jimmy Buffett song—”It’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”

The data also tell me that Southern Company and SCANA are going to be pleased that they made the long-term choice to expand their nuclear energy generating capability at just the right time to take advantage of low interest rates, low energy prices, low wage inflation, and new, passively safe nuclear power plant designs. Even though it seems to be a remote possibility today, someday in the near future their customers are going to be happy that they are served by utilities that did not follow the crowd down the seemingly easy path of increased natural gas dependence.

gas plant 290x201

_______________________

Adams

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.

Ted Rockwell, Atomic Pioneer and Tireless Campaigner for Facts

By Rod Adams

letters from lynchburg 190x160On Sunday, March 31, 2013, just a few months before his 91st birthday, Ted Rockwell passed away quietly in his sleep. His passing has stimulated a profound sense of loss among nuclear energy professionals.

For many of us, Ted was a visible and active reminder that our technology, as established as it might seem to some people, is younger than the duration of a single human life. Ted may not have been around when people first realized that uranium nuclei had the potential to provide a reliable, energy dense source of heat, but he was actively involved in the process of taming the “new fire” known as atomic fission and bringing it indoors to begin to serve some of mankind’s growing energy needs.

Rockwell

Rockwell

When Ted started his professional career, Enrico Fermi and his team had not yet assembled Critical Pile #1, the simple construction of graphite bricks and uranium metal that conclusively demonstrated that a fission chain reaction could be established and controlled. Ted became a nuclear energy professional within a few months of that experimental demonstration, serving during the Manhattan Project as a member of an elite Process Improvement Task Force at the Clinton Engineer Works, the facility that is now known as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Ted’s professional accomplishments are legendary; when he met Captain Rickover, he was in charge of the Radiation Shield Engineering Group at Oak Ridge. He then served as Admiral Rickover’s technical director during the development and construction of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, and during the development and construction of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States. He was involved with the process to produce commercial quantities of zirconium and he was the assigned editor of the Shield Design Manual, a document that remains a basic reference for engineers more than 50 years after its initial publication.

In 1964, he and two of his colleagues from Naval Reactors left that organization to found MPR Associates, an engineering company built on the principles of excellence that they refined while working with Admiral Rickover. They had learned that one man can make a difference and that three men working together could build a formidable team to produce exceptional quality work.

Ted was the author of several books including The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference, and Creating the New World: Stories & Images from the Dawn of the Atomic Age, that should be a part of any collection on nuclear energy technology and history.

Though Ted stopped working full time at MPR several decades ago, he never got around to retiring. He was still actively writing and mentoring other nuclear energy professionals until the very end. He focused on several important nuclear energy topics including the health effects of low level radiation, using realistic assumptions to compute accident effects, the importance of agreeing on facts in order to achieve useful decisions, learning lessons from history and natural experiments, using nuclear energy to propel commercial ships, and the importance of sharing knowledge widely with as many different people as possible.

I had the good fortune to meet Ted at an ANS meeting nearly twenty years ago. He was a featured speaker at a session on the health effects of low level radiation organized by Jim Muckerheide in either 1994 or 1995. He has appeared as a guest on several Atomic Show podcasts and has provided a dozen or more guest posts on Atomic Insights. He was always generous with his time, his knowledge, and his vast experience.

Based on email correspondence with other nuclear energy professionals, my experience of Ted’s generosity was in no way unique; he was a mentor and an inspiration to dozens of others.

One of Ted’s many recent projects was serving as the technical editor for a not-yet-completed documentary about Admiral Rickover being produced by Michael Pack. His tireless efforts to share accurate information about nuclear energy technology are a good example for many people in the nuclear energy profession who are normally shy and retiring.

I think it is safe to say that the best tribute we can provide in memory of Theodore Rockwell is to continue his efforts against the spread of false information about radiation and nuclear energy by those who have been doing so for almost as long as Ted worked to correct that misinformation.

Ted Rockwell – Used fuel can be stored almost anywhere for at least 100 years

Ted Rockwell – There is nothing in the same class as nuclear

__________________________

Adams

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.

Talking about nuclear energy at Hunt’s barbershop

By Rod Adams

There are many benefits to living in Lynchburg, Virginia. Not only is it a scenically beautiful place with a diverse and growing economy that has continued its steady progress, even during the Great Recession, but it is also a place full of people who appreciate the value of nuclear energy technology.

Last week, I had the opportunity to evangelize about the importance of nuclear energy in a situation that might seem a little unusual for most places that are not Lynchburg. When I arrived at Hunt’s Barbershop, Glenda was busy with another customer, but she was also engaged in a conversation with that customer’s wife.

The waiting wife was a pleasant lady with an pronounced regional accent. She and Glenda were talking about grandchildren; there was an opening in the conversation for me to join in to mention my own granddaughter and the fact that we were looking forward to traveling with her across the country.

The lady waiting for her husband started talking about how much she and her husband enjoyed traveling, and asked me about my own journeys. We had a quick chat about how my wife and I had moved around the country during my naval career, and how I ended up in Lynchburg working for B&W mPower, Inc. She mentioned that she had once visited “The Plant,” and had been fascinated to learn about the fuel manufactured at the facility and how concentrated it was.

It turned out that this grandmotherly type had been an accountant, and active in local civic organizations before she and her husband retired. After retirement, she and her husband continued their habit of taking numerous cross country trips. We started talking about a number of energy-related topics; she was particularly interested in “backyard windmills.” She had heard people talking about how they could install a windmill and sell power back to the power company.

She said that she wasn’t sure how that would work because she and her husband had seen large wind installations on their travels. They had stopped a couple of times and had stood underneath the towers to see just how tall they were and how massive the blades were. She described how she and her husband had often wondered if those systems were doing much good; they had noticed that many of the blades were not even turning as they drove by.

That gave me a terrific opening to talk about how nuclear plants work reliably nearly all of the time, no matter what the sun and wind are doing. We talked a little bit about the nuclear Navy, and how I had been able to live for months at a time underwater. She was fascinated to learn how the ship had been able to run for 14 years on a tiny amount of fuel that would have fit in the space between us in the barbershop.

The timing of the conversation was fortuitous; earlier that day I had just been provided the link to a short video designed to illustrate, in a three dimensional, active way, the difference in the environmental footprint of a nuclear plant when compared to a wind farm. I had my phone with me, so I showed the below video to the woman as we talked more about what those wind turbines were doing and what they were contributing to the reliability of the electricity grid that supplies the country that she loved to visit.

.

The conversation lasted the length of a haircut, but it was a great opportunity to share my enthusiasm for nuclear energy with a curious member of a demographic group that is not always supportive of our technology. Engaging in such one-on-one conversations can be a great way to spread the word about the value of nuclear technology; I would not be surprised if that encounter encourages additional research and discussions.

Later in the same week, I enjoyed sharing a video produced by the Weather Channel titled A Mini Nuclear Power Plant around the office. As you might imagine, there were some happy, proud faces as my colleagues received visible evidence that their hard work was getting noticed. At least two of the people in my group make cameo appearances in the short clip.

.

There are times when it is tough to be an active nuclear professional. The days are long, the work can be frustratingly burdened by regulations and self-imposed work rules that seem almost purposely designed to impede progress, and people who are opposed to the technology are often loud enough to dominate the conversation. It is enough to make one feel completely unappreciated.

However, the reality is that plenty of people are interested in what we are doing. They are cheering for us to succeed and to make the world a cleaner, safer, more prosperous place. They want us to figure out how to stop the proliferation of wind turbines in pristine landscapes, how to slow the continuous build up of CO2 in the atmosphere—with its uncertain effects on the climate—and they want us to develop world leading technology that will help create good jobs here in the United States.

In Lynchburg, at least, we are making some progress on all of those fronts, but that does not mean it is time to rest. As was described here just last week, there are still plenty of people that are targeting our technology and telling the world that investing any resources into its development is a waste of money. It is up to us to prove them wrong.

Disclosure: Rod Adams is employed by B&W mPower, Inc., but his thoughts are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of his employer.

____________________________

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.

Looking forward to next 70 years of atomic fission

By Rod Adams

This past weekend the world quietly marked the 70th anniversary of the initial criticality of CP-1 (Critical Pile 1), the 55th anniversary of the initial criticality of the Shippingport nuclear power plant, and the decommissioning of the USS Enterprise, a 51 year-old nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Those events have put me into a reflective but incredibly optimistic mood.

Imagine how exciting it must have been to be in the nuclear field in the early years. Talented engineers and scientists moved the technological needle from a basic pile of graphite bricks with uranium lumps, to full-scale power production, in machines that lasted for many decades, over a brief span of less than two decades. They accomplished that progress during a period when calculations were made with slide rules and modest-capacity computing devices that filled entire rooms, and when drawings were created by rooms full of people using hand tools. They overcame the disadvantage of having lost almost an entire decade (1946–1954) during which only the selected few could think nuclear thoughts without risking incarceration.

By 1990, the annual electricity production in the United States from steam plants—whose furnaces were heated using the controlled fission chain reaction that Fermi and his team had proven—exceeded the entire amount of electricity produced each year by all of the power plants that were operating in the United States in 1960. That commercial milestone occurred less than 50 years after the basic physical process was proven.

Unfortunate slow down

Even by then, however, the growth in nuclear energy production around the world was slowing down as a result of many factors, including an increasingly well-organized and well-funded movement expressly aimed at halting the use of nuclear energy. Nuclear technologists bear some of the blame for the loss of support; they (we) failed to explain why we’re so darned excited about the possibilities offered by this fascinating new technology.

We also failed to notice that there were a large number of rich and powerful people who were not enthusiastic about creating a power source that could approach a goal of being so inexpensive that no one would bother measuring how much was consumed each month. As a group, we were so happy to be working with a material that stored 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as the most energy-dense hydrocarbon fuels that we overlooked the fact that many people enjoy enormous benefits from selling hydrocarbon fuels. It is a great business to be in; anyone who bought fuel yesterday is likely to buy fuel again tomorrow.

People whose livelihoods depend on moving mass quantities of material from deep underground, through capital-intensive processing plants, and into furnaces and engines around the world, were not so terribly excited about the reality that Fermi had shown us—how we could use a material that allows a man with a backpack to transport as much energy as a supertanker.

Listen to nuclear communicators

On December 2, 2012, I gathered a group of nuclear professionals who have taken on a shared avocation of communicating the wonders of atomic fission and the possibilities that its unique characteristics can provide. You can listen to that conversation at Atomic Show #191 – 70th Anniversary of CP-1, the First Controlled Fission Chain Reaction.

We spoke about the magical simplicity of Fermi’s design and about the fact that, unlike the enormously expensive and still elusive effort to harness controlled nuclear fusion, Fermi and his team could be supremely confident that their device would work on the first try. We spoke about how it would be possible for a group of high school students, given the proper materials, to build a working fission reactor that could be safely started and controlled.

We then discussed how incredible it might be if we could treat nuclear technology in a manner similar to the way that we have treated computer hardware and software technology. Kirk Sorensen, a forward–thinking nuclear technologist who is the co-founder of Flibe Energy, has given several talks to audiences in Silicon Valley, and always comes away energized by thinking about how far we could advance our energy production systems if we adopted some of the knowledge-sharing principles that pervade the Valley.

I’ve had that experience one time at a Google Tech Talk; it may be time to make that trip again, to help increase support for the truly exciting developments in small modular reactor development that are happening in a number of places in the United States.

Shippingport Atomic Power Station

Though we were all in agreement that we could be doing far more with nuclear energy than we are today, we were not the first people to recognize just how wonderful it was that people had learned how to access atomic energy. Here is a quote from President Eisenhower’s famous Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations, given on December 8, 1953.

The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here today. Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?

To hasten the day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds of the people and the governments of the East and West, there are certain steps that can be taken now.

To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you, and therefore before the world, its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma—to devote its entire heart and mind to finding the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.

(Emphasis added.)

That is the vision that keeps me moving forward. I share it as often as I can on whatever pulpits I am offered.

Solving the trilemma

Along with the material endowment provided by nature (God, if you prefer), nuclear knowledgeable people have in their minds the capability that will help to solve what the World Energy Council describes in a recent series of reports as a “trilemma”.

.. simultaneously address energy security, universal access to affordable energy services, and environmentally-sensitive production and use of energy is one of the most formidable challenges facing governments—indeed some might argue that it is the most formidable, or even the most important. The World Energy Trilemma report, now in its fourth year, aims to help governments rise to the challenge of tackling this ‘trilemma’.

_________________________________

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.

Vermont Yankee’s Greatest Hits from the Public Service Board Hearing

By Meredith Angwin

On November 7, an important hearing about the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant was held before the Vermont Public Service Board. Howard Shaffer has an excellent post on this hearing at ANS Nuclear Cafe.

At that hearing, 39 people spoke in favor of Vermont Yankee. I have been collecting their statements and their pictures (as best I can), and posting them on my blog. I have 17 posts to date.

I wanted to share some of these pro-Vermont Yankee statements with ANS Nuclear Cafe readers. They were all great statements — but, with seventeen statements, I needed to choose a subset for this post.  So, I chose excerpts from five of the statements.

Here goes!  (Drum roll. Maybe trumpets.)

The Vermont Yankee Greatest Hits! from the November 7 Vermont Public Service Board hearing held in Vernon, Vt.

Baseball and Baseload. Statement by Dick Trudell, civil engineer

“[Why did I drive 360 miles round trip] to spend a couple of minutes testifying to this board?

I’ll give you an analogy.

Vermont Yankee has proved to be a dependable source of baseload power for Vermont, with approximately half of its 620 MW capacity serving the homes and businesses of Vermont, with over an 80-percent capacity factor. Now, if you had someone on your team batting .800, it is unlikely you would kick them off the team—that’s just plain common sense. Some Vermonters still seem to think that with enough conservation, plus solar and wind power, we can replace Vermont Yankee’s 620 baseload megawatts with a couple of rookies that are batting at best .300, require state subsidies before they could even go to the locker room to suit up, and their salaries cost more that the dependable pro you have had for years.”

Buy Local and Help Your Community. Statement by Kenyon Webber, Vermont Yankee engineer

“…Third, this area should be committed to the “buy local” motto. I suppose many of you feel that because this is not some farm stand on the side of the road, it is not a local business. This business employs hundreds of local people that support the farm stands and other local businesses. We live here locally, and spend our money locally, just like any other person in this community.

So, I close with three good reasons to vote favorably for Vermont Yankee. We provide higher wage, stable careers for more than 600 people, not to mention the millions of tax dollars we provide; we are a good community partner; and, you should be buying your electricity local.”

The Ability to Live in My Home. Statement by Karen Wilson, Vermont Yankee employee

“I live here in Vernon with my daughter, Heather, who happens to be an adult with developmental challenges.

My other daughter, Amanda, also lives here in Vernon with her partner, Jason, and my two granddaughters, Kali and Reis.

I moved to the area in 1971 and began raising my family here in 1980.

I worked at a local business in Brattleboro until a few years ago, when, due to the times, I found myself in a position like many and was laid off.

Thankfully, just over a year and a half ago, I was offered a job and accepted a position at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee has many programs and offers support not only to the community but to its employees.  With the support of management and my fellow employees at Vermont Yankee, I am able to take advantage of one program they offer, that is allowing me the opportunity to go back to school to complete my business degree.

Having Vermont Yankee here in Vernon, as an employer, has made it possible for Heather and me to continue to live in our home, for me to support my family, and for me to continue my education.”

Phobias Should Not Determine Policy. Statement by Peter Roth, chemical engineer

“There is no rational argument to shut a facility that continues to produce safe, reliable, and low cost electricity for Vermont and the New England grid, and has demonstrated so for a long time. Electricity is not a luxury, but a vital necessity, as we know when a storm like Hurricane Sandy shuts down power for millions.

Loss of power creates a high level “Misery Index” for people, but creating a condition that raises electricity costs for marginal income folks also creates a Misery Index. We are dealing with a commodity that is essential to our lives and an option that cannot be deferred. Food, clothing, shelter, and power cannot be deferred…..

Those that fear “Nuclear Power” may suffer from the same anxiety and condition that causes fear of flying, or fear of heights, or fear of enclosed space, and no rational argument can dissuade them from their phobias. However, their fear should not be an argument that impacts the lives of more rational people.”

Vermont Tourism Supported by Vermont Yankee. Statement by Heather Sheppard, employed by a major Vermont resort

“Beauty, clean air, and affordability. Vermont Yankee is a benefit to all three. Beauty, because having an operational Vermont Yankee means we are in less of a rush to clear cut our mountain ridgelines and valleys to make way for wind farms and for crisscrossing new power lines for the hodgepodge of small-scale power generation that some would have replace it. Clean air, because Vermont Yankee emits no air pollutants, unlike the coal and gas plants that will be ramped up if Vermont Yankee closes. Some environmental groups that should know better have suggested a patchwork quilt of woodburning power plants, carbon emissions and all, to replace Vermont Yankee. From an air quality point of view, this makes no sense. To me, one of Vermont Yankee’s greatest environmental benefits as a power producer is that it already exists. No more trees need to be cut down, nor rocks blasted, nor tourist-drawing scenic views destroyed. There is no need for lines of slow, loud, exhaust-emitting trucks running to and from construction sites and woodchip plants.”

Excerpts from five statements are linked above. Readers are encouraged to visit Yes Vermont Yankee to see more of the statements in favor of continued operation of Vermont Yankee:

Farm and Forest in Vermont, Bruce Shields

Young Workers in Windham County, Lindsay Rose

Vermont’s Fair Share of the Grid, Howard Shaffer

Air Pollution and Vermont Yankee, Meredith Angwin

Avoid Carbon Dioxide, Keep Vermont Yankee, Dr. Carlos Pinkham

Vermont People work at Vermont Yankee, Patty O’Donnell

Global Warming and Vermont Yankee, Ellen Cota

Affordable Reliable Electricity, Dianne Amme

A Strong Vision for the Future of Vermont, Charles Kelly

Power, Carbon and Costs, Peter Lothes

Vital for the Region and My Family, A Teen-Ager’s View, Evan Twarog

Over 600 Families, Cheryl Twarog

Thanks to Paul Bowersox of ANS for suggesting the idea for this post

______________________________

Angwin

Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents. Angwin formerly served as a commissioner in Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.  Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Friday Nuclear Matinee: “Nuclear Energy: Cleaner, Safer and Made in America”

The 2012 Nuclear Energy Assembly wrapped up this Wednesday evening in Charlotte, NC.  The Nuclear Energy Assembly is the nuclear energy industry’s annual conference, attracting leaders worldwide from all segments of the industry.

The Nuclear Energy Assembly is organized by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). A few months ago NEI unveiled a multimedia campaign to highlight the benefits of nuclear energy for policymakers and opinion leaders. The following appealing and effective video debuted on primetime network television as part of the campaign. Enjoy!

 

4th Annual Texas Atomic Film Festival

The 4th annual Texas Atomic Film Festival (TAFF) is being held April 26 to May 3, 2012. The festival attracts short films (3 to 5 minutes) produced by students in nuclear engineering courses at the University of Texas at Austin. A public screening of the films, which focus on nuclear and energy related topics, is being held on April 26 at 12:30 pm at the UT Student Activities Center auditorium.

The goal of TAFF is to provide an opportunity for students to take creative approaches to convey scientific information through short films. Griffin Gardner and Alex Fay are this year’s media judge and technical judge, respectively, and awards will be given in four categories:

  • Best Film
  • Technical Content
  • Editing
  • Audience Award

The Audience Award is based on the number of “likes” accumulated by each film through the Facebook social plugin available on the TAFF website for the 2012 entries.

Please visit the TAFF website, view some of the films in the 2012 Entries section, and vote for your favorites by clicking on the “like” button. You can also follow TAFF and make comments through Twitter by using the hashtag #TAFF2012.

TAFF includes 11 films this year:

  1. How Dangerous is Low Dose Radiation?
  2. An Outlook on Future Energy Solutions
  3. The Legend of HP-Man
  4. Radon—Hazards in the Home: Myths and Facts
  5. The Chicago Pile: A History
  6. The Influence of Nuclear Events on the Public Perception of Nuclear Science
  7. U.S. Electrical Power Production:  A Comparison of Energy Sources
  8. REYOLOGY
  9. Special Report: Nuclear Terrorism
  10. From War to Peace: Non-Proliferation 101
  11. Nuclear by the Numbers

Other schools are invited to participate in next year’s TAFF. If you are interested, please contact Steve Biegalski.  Special thanks to Juan Garcia and Matt Mangum, of the Faculty Innovation Center at UT, for their continued support of TAFF.

____________________________

Kudankulam hot start within reach

Tamil Nadu provincial government support pulls rug out from under protest groups

By Dan Yurman

Tamil Nadu map

The long running controversy over the start of NPCIL’s Russian-built twin 1,000-MW VVER reactors at Kudankulam, in India, may be coming to an end.

The provincial government of Tamil Nadu, India’s southern-most state, said on March 20 that it was dropping its opposition to hot start and also withdrawing support from local anti-nuclear protests.  The decision follows more than six months of fence sitting despite pleas for support from the protest groups and counter pressure from the central government.

In return for supporting the nuclear plant, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha wants political air cover, and she named as her price the control of distribution of 100 percent of the electrical power from the plant. She’s not likely to get all of it and she knows it.

Jayalalitha’s demand carries political weight with the locals, however. It helps  preserve her position that is newly energized as a purveyor of political patronage in the form of access to electricity.  The region is ravaged by electricity shortages, so having some to allocate puts the Tamil Nadu government in a much more influential position than hanging with the protest groups.

Work resumes at reactor

What has happened as a result of the new-found support in Tamil Nadu is that work has resumed at the plant that is 95-percent complete. More than 1,000 local Indian workers and about 100 Russian technical staff re-entered the plant. The combined action of restart of work at the plant and the provincial government’s acceptance of a hot start date to take place in about two months generated spontaneous protest demonstrations of about 500 people on March 23, of which several hundred were arrested by police.  The protests then fizzled out, however.

The central Indian government had said in February that the protests were coming from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by supporters in the United States. The BBC reported on March 23, however, that among those arrested was the leader of a Tamil nationalist political party.

While it may be that separatist political groups had seized upon the reactor issue as a way to mobilize support for their causes, there is no way to assess how much of an influence they really have. In the world of politics, however, even the appearance of influence can have consequences.

The central government’s crackdown on the protest started within a few weeks of an official notice by the Russians that they were not happy with the delay of the start of the Kudankulam plants. Success there is the key to new deals and the credibility generally of Rosatom’s export program.

Handing out the juice

The transition of the Tamil Nadu central government from a position of neutrality regarding the protests to becoming a supporter of the reactors may have as much to do with political self-preservation as it does with political reality.

As it turns out, Tamil Nadu, like many other places, suffers from severe power shortages with frequent blackouts, with some areas having no electrical power. Nationwide, about 40 percent of the Indian population has no access to it, which is why the Indian government is committed to building about 20 Gwe of new nuclear power generating capacity over the next 15–20 years.

Having control over who gets the new electricity from the plant is a huge source of leverage relative to keeping political allies in line and is an effective method for demonstrating the lack of political power of the protesters and any separatist movement. This light bulb appears to be the one that lit up in the minds of the provincial government leadership, which is why they climbed down off their “neutral” position and endorsed the reactors over the protests of many of their constituents.

The Indian government’s Union Minister of State for Power K.C. Venugopal said on April 2 that a policy with regard to sharing of power from nuclear energy was in place and that the agency would not change it.

The minister’s response came as a result of media questions over Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha’s staking claim to the entire projected generation of 2,000 MW power from Kudankulam nuclear plant.

Venugopal said that there is a policy in which 50 percent of power from these plants would go to the home state where it is located. These norms have not been changed so far, he said.

As it turns out, NPCIL has already allocated 925 MW of power from the two reactors to Tamil Nadu. In the meantime, the central government has continued its crackdown on leaders of the anti-nuclear groups. The intensification of the government’s action came as the protests themselves were winding down and life was returning to normal.

Protests over but crackdown continues

The Indian government is furious with the delays of the hot start of the two reactors. NPCIL told the Hindustan Times on March 12 that the fact that the two units were postponed from hot start last August has cost the government US$50,000/day in lost revenue from new rate payers. While this may not seem like a lot of money to American eyes, in a developing nation like India, $50,000 a day in losses is more than enough to give government officials high blood pressure. It also sends them looking for someone to blame.

On April 2, the home ministry in the national government demanded that one of the leading organizers of the Tamil Nadu protests surrender his passport. S.P. Udayakumar, of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), told the Times of India that he will not do so despite the government’s assertion that there are charges pending against him and his organization for misappropriation of NGO funds to pay for the anti-nuclear protests.

The home ministry also raided two more NGOs alleged to have diverted funds from education and rural development programs to fuel the protests over the past six months. Subsequently, the government dropped charges against 178 people, while opposing bail for another 30 of those arrested. The government still has not revealed the names of the U.S. NGOs alleged to have provided funds to the protest groups.

Confidence building for India’s nuclear markets

As these developments were unfolding the government announced, perhaps buoyed with new confidence at having “defeated” the protests, that it planned to ink a deal with the Russians for two more 1000-MW reactors at Kudankulam. Overall, India plans to add 64 Gwe of power to its grid by 2032 to reduce the gap in rural electrification.

The United States remains locked out of the market by a supplier liability law that is orbiting in a kind of political limbo. The law is in the books, but the central government has so far not issued implementing regulations to give it operational status.

The Indian nuclear reactor market is said to be worth $150 billion. So far, the only firms making inroads are the Russians with projects at Kudankulam and the French with two planned reactors at Jaitapur, south of Mumbai on the country’s west coast.

________________

Yurman

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

Federal judge: State can’t shut down Vermont Yankee over spent fuel

The plant dodges another bullet at least for now

Federal District Court Judge J. Garvan Murtha ordered on Monday, March 19, that the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) cannot use the issue of spent nuclear fuel as a mechanism to deny a certificate of public good to the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Murtha wrote that the PSB cannot prevent the plant, owned and operated by Entergy (NYSE:ETR), from continuing to operate because of the necessity of continuing to store its current inventory and new spent fuel.

Last January, Murtha ruled that the State of Vermont’s legal efforts to shut down the plant were improperly driven by issues involving nuclear safety. He said that state law in this area is preempted by federal law and that regulation of nuclear reactor safety is the province of the federal government.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed the license in 2011 for the Vermont Yankee plant to operate for another 20 years. (See also Tamar Cerafici’s February 10 legal review of Judge Murtha’s decision here on ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

On February 27, Entergy filed an appeal of the ruling claiming that the PSB should not be able to stop Vermont Yankee from operating over the spent fuel issue. The judge concurred with the appeal saying that any effort to do so by the PSB would fall under the umbrella of nuclear safety regulation and was outside the jurisdiction of the state agency.

The Vermont Yankee plant on the banks of the Connecticut River in southern Vermont (file photo)

Murtha wrote that any act by the PSB to deny Entergy the authority to store new spent fuel on-site would force the reactor to shut down, thus slamming the door shut on revenue for Entergy and with it the loss of the workforce without the possibility of recovery.

The key part of the judge’s ruling this week is that Entergy can continue to operate past March 21 while its petition for a certificate of public good is pending before the PSB. He pushed back on Entergy’s request to set aside the requirement to have one at all.

The PSB told the Vermont news media that it would allow continued operation of Vermont Yankee for the time being, not because it agreed with the reactor operator’s issues, but because the federal court gave it no choice. It is not clear when the PSB will complete its work. One possible outcome is that it will wait until the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals rules on the State of Vermont’s legal action in response to Judge Murtha’s ruling last January.

Legal experts say that the twin legal processes, an appeal by the State of Vermont to Judge Murtha’s January ruling, and the PSB’s deliberations are likely to take some time to work themselves out. In the meantime, the reactor will continue to operate, which shows that Entergy’s big bet to complete a fuel outage in 2011 is likely to pay off.

Separately, anti-nuclear activists say that they are planning protest demonstrations in Vermont, which may involve civil disobedience at the reactor plant’s front gate. A pro-nuclear demonstration last week brought out about 70 people.

__________________

Small Modular Reactors on Military Installations?

By William J. Barattino

(This article summarizes a paper presented by the author at the ASME 2011 Small Modular Reactors Symposium)

Federal agencies have been directed by public laws and executive orders to reduce energy consumption, increase usage of clean energy sources, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is working with the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a long-term strategy to embrace and implement these directives for military installations that includes small modular reactors (SMRs) in the mix of clean energy technologies. This blog post provides an initial assessment of the market size of SMRs on U.S. Army installations located in the United States that includes background factors driving the shift to clean energy sources; characterization of energy consumption and costs for Army installations; maximum overnight costs for breakeven based on offsets of current base electricity costs; and reductions in GHGs with use of SMRs.

The DOD is moving toward “NetZero” energy installations serviced by utility sources that are secure, reliable, and cost effective. NetZero energy implies power systems located within the boundaries of a military installation (or possibly on federal land to service a number of agencies within a region) for providing secure and uninterruptable power supplies for mission-critical base facility energy requirements.

Contractual processes for implementing new energy reduction, monitoring, and production for servicing base energy requirements are already used extensively by the DOD. Details of contract types differ, but are similar from the context that benefits (or savings) of an alternative must exceed costs over the system lifecycle. The good news here is that implementing contracts for cost-effective, alternatives requiring public-private relationships for servicing energy consumption on military installations is routine today.

Eighty installations were considered with peak power ranging from 0.6 to 132 MWe (the majority in the 1 to 75 MWe range). Installation energy consumption and cost data are recorded in the U.S. Army Energy and Water Reporting System, an on-line data reporting system with monthly inputs provided by base engineers.

Total energy consumption cost was $855.8M during fiscal year 2010. Of this total, $573M representing two-thirds of total cost was for electricity; and $282.8M representing one-third of total cost was for industrial processes. Hawaii has the highest yearly electricity cost of nearly $49 million per year due to its extremely high cost of 20.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, whereas the average cost of electricity for the entire set of 80 installations is 7.3 cents per kilowatt-hour. While SMRs can operate in a co-generation mode, the higher relative cost of electricity led to the conclusion that the primary focus should be for electricity production from a cost efficiency perspective.

After characterizing energy usage and costs, an economic assessment was conducted of projected cost savings that an SMR must remain below for its lifecycle costs to be competitive with displaced fossil fuel. The revenue stream to offset expenses was represented by the monthly cost of electricity of $2.7 million. Costs for site preparation, manufacturing, and construction were expensed as monthly construction loan payments over years 6 through 10 with a 4 percent cost of capital. For this scenario, the manufacturing and construction (i.e., overnight) cost of $1420 per KWe was required to meet our target goal of return-on-investment>10 percent.  With a yearly cost escalation of 3-5 percent for electricity, the allowable overnight costs for breakeven increased to $3000-4000 per KWe. These preliminary analyses led to the conclusion that the DOD requires an energy business model that reconciles operational importance with cost. In other words, the principle of a “secure energy premium” will be required to balance energy-assurance-with-affordability.

Dramatic reductions in current base GHGs are realized with use of clean energy technologies. Nuclear energy for electricity results in a significant reduction of nearly 76 percent in GHGs averaged for all Army installations in the United States. When the SMRs are also used in a co-generation mode, GHGs are reduced by more than 96 percent.              

Clearly, much work remains to accurately quantify the upfront and recurring expenses for SMR systems on military bases. This analysis provided an initial assessment as to whether SMR system lifecycle costs can compete with existing installation electricity costs. There is a high potential for moving forward with alternatives that demonstrate lower system cost, enhance security, and reduce GHGs. The more challenging cases, however, will be for installations where the SMR lifecycle cost is somewhat higher than continued use of fossil fuels, but enables secure NetZero energy with significantly lower GHG emissions.

In summary, this first look at SMRs on military installations is encouraging from a number of perspectives and should lead to further evaluation of this sector. The Army Corps of Engineers has successfully operated small nuclear reactors for remote sites on a very small scale from 1954 through 1979. So, location of SMRs on bases is not a new, untried concept. It will require, however, renewed commitment and revitalization of an industrial base that the United States once had, but must re-establish.

______________________

Barattino

William J. Barattino is the chief executive officer at Global Broadband Solutions, LLC. He has more than 30 years experience in program management and systems engineering and integration for telecommunications, space systems, lasers, imaging, facilities engineering, and applied mechanics. He is an ANS member and a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.