Category Archives: licensing

Kewaunee: What does the future hold?

By Will Davis

kewaunee 200x92Shortly after 11 a.m. on Tuesday, May 7, 2013, the operators at Dominion Resources’ Kewaunee nuclear power plant opened its output breaker, disconnecting the turbine generator from the grid for the last time after just under 40 years of operation. Shutdown of the reactor followed, and the plant entered what for some is an uncertain (even if pre-ordained) future—a long-term storage period, followed eventually after many years by the complete dismantling and removal of the plant.

Prior to the shutdown, Dominion had announced its decision to change the plant’s status (after the shutdown) to what is called SAFSTOR, which, just as it sounds, implies “Safe Storage.” The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s official definition of SAFSTOR reads as follows: “A method of decommissioning in which a nuclear facility is placed and maintained in a condition that allows the facility to be safely stored and subsequently decontaminated (deferred decontamination) to levels that permit release for unrestricted use.” This definition implies that a long period of time will be allowed to elapse before serious and heavy dismantling and removal of key plant components is performed, and before the many site structures are completely demolished and removed.

While the intensity of radiation around the immediate vicinity of the reactor and steam generators is slight compared with when the plant was in operation (and those areas unoccupied), it is not insignificant. The time period between the final reactor shutdown and the beginning of the disassembly of the ‘heart’ of the plant will help in a major way to reduce the radiation exposure of the people who will be required to perform the work—not a small consideration, even in a relatively small nuclear station such as Kewaunee.

Briefly, in disposing of a shut down nuclear plant, there are three options: Decommissioning immediately, which means relatively quickly launching into demolition; SAFSTOR, as described above; and ENTOMB, wherein a plant and some of its components are sealed and abandoned in place for a long period of time or permanently. (Piqua and the Hallam Nuclear Power Facility are two examples of former commercial nuclear stations in this status.)

Dominion has, under federal law, 60 years to complete the entire complicated and expensive decommissioning process, which will see the nuclear plant site returned to “green field” status (releasable for any use) with the exception of a dry cask type spent fuel storage facility. According to Dominion’s latest 10-K filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, decommissioning cost overall will total $680 million; the decommissioning fund presently has roughly $578 million, with the rest expected to be made up by future earnings. Dominion took a $281 million after-tax charge in the third quarter of 2012 as a result of deciding to decommission Kewaunee.

SAFSTOR

Kewaunee is not by any means the only nuclear plant that will be in, or has been in, the SAFSTOR condition. There are a number of other plants that were placed in this condition either to prevent disruption of the operation of other plants on the same site and/or take advantage of economies of decommissioning multiple reactors at once (Dresden Unit 1, Peach Bottom Unit 1, and Millstone Unit 1 all fit in this category, since they are in SAFSTOR and occupy sites that in all cases contain two other operating nuclear plants.) Other plants, such as Dairyland Power Co-Op Genoa No. 2, which was much more commonly known by its Atomic Energy Commission title as the Lacrosse Boiling Water Reactor, was in a state of modified SAFSTOR for many years as most of the heavy work was deferred while some limited disassembly went on in irregular phases.

In the case of Kewaunee, Dominion will relatively soon (in the next months) remove the fuel from the reactor and move it to the spent fuel pool. Dominion will notify the NRC within 30 days, in writing, that it has shut down the reactor for good; after the reactor has been defueled, Dominion will again notify the NRC, which will issue a license amendment rendering the plant “possession only” in regulatory status, wherein Dominion cannot fuel, much less operate, the reactor.

A Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR) will be submitted to the NRC by Dominion within two years, which lays out expected procedures, timelines, and costs. Ninety days after the NRC receives this report, the plant owner could conceivably begin heavy demolition and component removal if the disposal choice were immediate decommissioning. However, in the case of Kewaunee, the plant will remain in a monitored state, with (very likely) some component removal taking place slowly.

A Dominion spokesman told Platts that the expectations are that Kewaunee’s spent fuel pool contents will be moved entirely to dry cask storage on site by 2020. Much later, in June 2069, heavy dismantling of the plant will begin with completion expected in August 2072.

Decommission

The difficult work will begin when Dominion finally commences the physical dismantling of the plant. Many readers may not be aware that a number of large (and small) nuclear power plants have been not only shut down, but completely demolished and removed. The challenges encountered at each included both expected and unique problems; the work is complex and time consuming, but is proven to be able to release a site completely for other use. A few examples are in order:

Big Rock Point containment under demolition; courtesy Consumers Power

Big Rock Point containment under demolition. (Consumers Power)

Big Rock Point: This plant (designated by the American Nuclear Society in 1991 as a Nuclear Historic Landmark) was an early General Electric boiling water reactor plant in a remote area of Michigan. The plant operated successfully from 1965 through 1997. Over the next nine years, Consumers Power completed major site surveys and engaged in the complete demolition of the plant. Heavy components such as the reactor vessel were shipped to South Carolina for burial. Thirty-two million pounds of concrete were removed; 53 million pounds of material labeled as low-level radioactive waste were transferred to storage facilities in other states.  Fifty-nine million more pounds of clean (uncontaminated) building materials were transported to landfills and buried. The entire 560-acre site was returned to “green field” or a natural state in August 2006, except for the independent spent fuel storage facility.

Connecticut Yankee: This plant, when shut down in 1996 after 28 years of operation, was designated for immediate decommissioning with no SAFSTOR period. The project to return the site (except for spent fuel storage) to green field took place over the period 1998–2007, and 525 acres of natural terrain were the result. Small sections of the property have begun to be turned over to other owners, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Yankee Rowe site as it appears today; courtesy Yankee Atomic Electric

Yankee Rowe site as it appears today. (Yankee Atomic Electric)

Yankee Atomic Electric: The nuclear plant constructed by this company was among the very earliest commercial power stations, yet operated for 30 years. After final shutdown in 1992, the plant began decommissioning the next year. From the official website of the plant: “Since the start of physical decommissioning in 1993, more than 21 miles of piping and tubing, 1071 valves, 8569 pipe hangers, 321 pumps, and 33 miles of conduit and cable tray have been removed. In addition, six large components weighing a total of more than 500 tons were also removed. Some of the material, including the large components, was sent to the Barnwell, S.C. low-level radioactive waste disposal facility for permanent disposal. Some of the metal was sent to a processing facility in Tennessee.” Over 1700 acres have been released by the NRC and are being considered for future use in a scenic, natural environment.

Component and structural removal

Eventually, the most solidly constructed components of Kewaunee will have to be removed; these are the reactor building and the components inside of it. Projects in the past have encountered special problems and considerations in this type of work, but enough ground has been laid in past years to provide ample experience in this project. Here are some interesting reactor plant related project links:

The International Atomic Energy Agency hosts an excellent presentation by Bluegrass on the processes used to remove the reactor vessel at the long-SAFSTOR but now decommissioning Lacrosse BWR in Wisconsin; see it here. Particular problems were encountered with very small clearances around the reactor vessel, especially at its lower head.

Saxton decommissioning; courtesy GTS Technologies

Saxton decommissioning; courtesy GTS Technologies

GTS Technologies has an impressive set of web pages showing the work it did to remove the reactor containment building at the former Saxton nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania.

The final result—in 60 years

Kewaunee employees right now aren’t thinking about whether or not someone will, eight or nine decades from now, be having a picnic or plowing a field on the spot where the plant’s turbine building once stood. They’re worried about where they’ll find work—Reuters has reported that 200 of the 630 workers will be laid off at the end of May, 100 more in another month. By the middle of 2014, the plant will have just under 300 permanent workers on site; this number will remain (along with outside contractors) for the duration of the procedures. Dominion has not yet announced whether or not it intends to contract some or all of the work to an outside company such as EnergySolutions, whose ZionSolutions unit is presently decommissioning Zion Nuclear Station.

Long after the memories of the stress of the workers’ movement and breakup of the Kewaunee Station’s family is over, it’s the intent that the plant site will be returned to as completely natural a state as is possible. As we’ve seen, even though this work will provide many challenging days ahead, it’s not only possible but proven—and perhaps, if we’re lucky, some entity will erect a sign at the site to tell future generations that a complete nuclear power station was built and operated here for many years, and then completely removed. It will be proper if a sign is needed in order to be able to tell.

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(For more information on the nuclear plant decommissioning process, you can read the NRC’s excellent pages on the topic by clicking here. In addition, other sites that have decommissioned include Maine Yankee, Rancho Seco, and Trojan. Part of the former Rancho Seco nuclear plant site is now the Rancho Seco Recreational Area.)

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WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; he will serve on the ANS Public Information Committee 2013-2016.  In addition to this, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

2012 ~ The year that was in nuclear energy

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

By Dan Yurman

Former NRC Chairman Gregory Jackzo

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

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

Iran continues its uranium enrichment efforts

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

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

Nukes on Mars

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

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

SMRs are us

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

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

Lehigh Forge at work

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

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

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

Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima

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

Map of radiation releases from Fukushima reported in April 2011

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

U.S. nuclear renaissance stops at six

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

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

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

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

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

Four reactors in dire straights

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

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

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

Flood waters surround Ft. Calhoun NPP June 2011

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

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

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

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

China restarts nuclear construction

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

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

India advances at Kudanlulam

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

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

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

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

UK has new builder at Horizon

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

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

You can’t make this stuff up

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

Y-12 Signs state the obvious

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

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

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

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

So long Chu

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

DOE Energy Secretary Steven Chu

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

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

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

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

Video: NRC Inspection at Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station

The Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, operated by FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company, is located on the shores of Lake Erie about 20 miles east of Toledo, Ohio. The 908-MWe pressurized water reactor came online on July 31, 1978.

On October 1, 2011, the plant shut down so that a new reactor vessel head could be installed. During preparations for installation, FirstEnergy identified cracks in the outermost shield building, the concrete structure that protects the steel reactor containment vessel from adverse outside conditions.  The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has conducted numerous inspections of the shield building and determined that the cracks do not affect the integrity of the shield building, and that the plant is safe for continued operation.

This interesting video released by the NRC takes viewers inside Davis-Besse to see the installation of the new reactor head, and includes interviews with NRC inspectors who oversaw its installation and testing, and conducted the safety reviews of the reactor shield building.

More detailed information at the NRC blog.

FirstEnergy recently opened a $6 million advanced Emergency Operations Facility dedicated for Davis-Besse emergency training and exercises.

Davis-Besse is under consideration for a 20-year operating license renewal from the NRC. Despite the NRC’s determination that the plant is safe for continued operation, the cracks in the shield building concrete remain a point of contention in regard to the license renewal, and the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board will hear oral arguments November 5–6 by intervenors on the issue.

Update on Nuclear Waste Confidence Court Ruling

By Jim Hopf

As I discussed in a June 20 ANS Nuclear Cafe post, a federal appeals court rejected the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s new nuclear Waste Confidence rule, and ordered the NRC to perform a more thorough evaluation that addresses potential risks and health and environmental impacts of very long term storage of nuclear waste at nuclear sites (until a final disposal option is developed).

As discussed in that post, anti-nuclear organizations were hopeful that the court ruling would lead to a halt in NRC licenses for new plants and plant life extensions, while others believed that the impact would be minor, the main result simply being more work to be done by the NRC. Recent events have shown both sides to be right, to some degree.

NRC’s response to the court ruling

In September, the NRC instructed staff to develop an environmental impact statement (EIS) to evaluate very long term storage of used nuclear fuel, and a revised Waste Confidence ruling. The NRC expects to complete the work in ~24 months. The NRC’s analysis will address issues raised by the court, including the impact if a repository is never built, as well as risks to spent fuel pools from leaks or fires.

The upshot is that the NRC believes that it can address the issues raised by a court, within a reasonable time period.

Suspension of licensing activity

On the other hand, and to the delight of nuclear opponents, the NRC also announced that it will not issue any final licenses for new nuclear power plants or 20-year life extensions (for existing plants) until the revised EIS and Waste Confidence ruling are completed and the court’s issues are addressed.

The NRC’s decision appears to affirm the nuclear opponents’ position that new plants or extended operation of existing ones cannot be justified in the absence of a valid Waste Confidence determination. On the other hand, most experts (as well as the NRC) believe that the issue can be resolved with additional analysis and evaluation. At worst, some additional measures and costs may be involved, such as moving more fuel from spent fuel pools to dry storage casks, spent fuel pool modifications and upgrades, more rigorous long-term monitoring of dry storage casks, or the possibility of repackaging stored spent fuel, if necessary.

Limited impact

As serious as it sounds, the impacts of the suspension of licensing are minor to non-existent, at least over the short-to-mid term.

For both new plants and plant life extensions, the NRC has stated that it will continue with all on-going work on license applications. The NRC will simply not formally release any final licensing decisions. Thus, the NRC’s completion of work related to any license applications will not be delayed. The only parties that would be affected are those that were expecting final licensing decisions over the next ~two years.

With respect to new plants, both of the reactor projects at Vogtle, in Georgia, and Summer, in South Carolina, can still go forward, since they have already received their final construction and operating licenses (COLs). A few other plant projects (e.g., the Levy project in Florida) are in the licensing process, but most if not all of these other projects are currently planning to only obtain the license, and have not decided (yet) to proceed with construction. It is unlikely that any projects other than Vogtle and Summer would have decided to start construction over the next two years anyway (for several reasons, including lack of demand for new capacity and low natural gas prices). Thus, the two-year hiatus in (final) licensing decisions is not expected to have any impact on new plant projects.

With respect to existing plants, there are several plant life extension applications before the NRC. In theory, there are many such applications that would be affected by the two-year licensing freeze. However, plants are allowed to keep operating while life extension applications are in NRC review (and would only be required to shut down in the event of a formal rejection of a life extension application by the NRC). Thus, the freeze in final licensing decisions will not result in any plant shutdowns, or any other impacts on such plants.

For the above reasons, the two-year freeze in final licensing decisions by the NRC is not expected to have any impact on the industry. The only potential impact will come ~two years from now, after the completion of the revised EIS and Waste Confidence ruling, in the form of additional requirements related to used fuel storage.

My perspective

As I discussed in my earlier post, I find the court’s characterization of stored used nuclear fuel as a significant public health and environmental risk to be absurd, given the perfect, several-decade record of (dry and wet) fuel storage, and the lack of potential impact from dry fuel storage casks under any scenario. Unlike, say, fossil-fueled power generation, stored nuclear fuel has never had any impact at all on public health or the environment, and almost certainly never will.

As for the environmental impact analysis, I can sum it up in one sentence: “The public health risk and environmental impact from extended storage of used nuclear fuel is negligible compared to the impacts of the fossil-fueled power generation that would be otherwise used, in place of nuclear generation that was shut down or never built due to lack of ‘confidence’ in used fuel storage.”

I’m still waiting on a similar “waste confidence” evaluation for fossil-fueled plants, or a plan to capture, contain, and store all of their wastes/pollutants, for as long as they remain hazardous. How can our society get it so backwards in terms of which energy sources have a serious, intractable “waste problem”, and which source is the only one with a valid, acceptable long-term plan?

I work in the dry storage area, and I know that the maximum potential release from a dry storage cask that could result from any form or system degradation, any type of accident, or (even) any potential terrorist attack, would not have significant off-site consequences (certainly nothing that would approach even the daily impact from U.S. fossil-fueled generation).

We have already started detailed evaluations of the issues related to very long term dry fuel storage. Currently, opinion is that no significant degradation of the fuel assemblies is expected to occur, even over 100 years or more of dry storage. As the fuel decays, temperatures inside the cask will decrease (as will radiation levels). This reduces the driving force behind many potential fuel assembly degradation mechanisms. The metal components of dry storage systems, including the canisters that contain the assemblies, are expected to hold up well (and already have, over decades of storage). Whether the concrete vaults/silos (storage casks) that the canisters are placed in will be able to hold up over the very long term is somewhat less clear. That would be a problem that is easily solved, however, as the inner canister could simply be extracted and placed within a new concrete container.

Based on my dry storage experience, it seems to me that, along with (possibly) requiring some spent fuel pool upgrades, all the NRC should have to do to adequately resolve the court’s concerns is require some additional monitoring of dry storage casks, along with (perhaps) some additional money to be set aside by utilities to cover any potential issues that may occur down the road (including the possibility of some repackaging, decades from now).

One thing that should be obvious is that storage of used nuclear fuel is “acceptable”, even if it is assumed to remain on the nuclear plant site indefinitely, since any public health risks and environmental impacts are negligible compared to those associated with fossil-fueled power generation (gas as well as coal).

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Hopf

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

The NRC chair and Yucca Mountain

By Jim Hopf

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

New NRC chairman

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

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

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

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

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

Court decisions on waste program

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

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

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

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

Klein

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

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

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

Perspective on Macfarlane’s appointment

Macfarlane

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

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

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

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

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

Yucca Mountain's north crest

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

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

Perspective on court decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hopf

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

No easy road for U.S. nuclear new build

Getting the NRC license is just the first step

By Dan Yurman

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

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

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

Southern’s Vogtle project

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another opening for contentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freeze Pilgrim debate tonight: Follow on Twitter

This evening there will be a debate on a nuclear referendum that is on the town ballot in Plymouth, Mass. The referendum calls for a halt to relicensing the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, pending implementation of Fukushima lessons learned.

Dave Lochbaum, appearing on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, will be supporting the referendum. Russell Gocht, appearing on behalf of the American Nuclear Sociey, is a nuclear engineering graduate student at UMass-Lowell and will be opposing the referendum.

ANS has arranged live-tweeting of the debate via the ANS twitter feed @ans_org (https://twitter.com/ans_org).

This is the second of three nuclear-related public events in Massachusetts this week:

  1. Tuesday’s radio panel featured Meredith Angwin and Richard Schmidt
  2. Tonight’s FREEZE debate
  3. A forum on Thursday with Dave Lochbaum and others at MIT.

The Pilgrim plant

Please keep an eye on the twitter feed and take part in the social media conversations about the debate!

WHEN: Wednesday, April 25, 7-9 pm

WHAT: Freeze Pilgrim Forum. Plymouth, Mass.
http://freezepilgrim.org/news.html

WHERE: Plymouth South Middle School, Plymouth, Mass.

WHO: Russell Gocht, PhD student at UMASS Lowell, will be opposite David Lochbaum, of UCS. Lochbaum is expected to discuss UCS’s report on the NRC’s post Fukushima actions.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Attend or follow the ANS live twitter feed: @ans_org or https://twitter.com/ans_org

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INPO certifies Southern operator training

Digital control room simulator at US NRC

With all the justifiable excitement about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s granting licenses to Southern Company to build two 1,100-MW Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors, it also is worth noting the progress the utility is making to train operators to run the new plants.

In March, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) granted initial accreditation of the Vogtle-3 & -4 operators training program. This enables reactor operator candidates to apply for NRC licenses to operate the new AP1000 units.

Steven Kuczynski, president and chief executive officer of Southern Nuclear, wrote in an e-mail message to all employees that it is a “very significant and positive achievement for the project.”

He added that the milestone was achieved 18 months prior to the first docketed operator exam and four years ahead of the first fuel load at Unit 3.

ANS Nuclear Cafe talked with Southern Nuclear’s Katherine Melvin in the public affairs office about the training program. Here is the interview:

What is the significance of the certification?

The accreditation allows the station to train operators in an NRC-approved training program [accredited by the National Nuclear Accrediting Board]. This facilitates industry best training practices, and the station has the flexibility to continuously improve performance (instead of training operators to meet NRC inspection criteria only).

What did Southern Nuclear have to do to earn it?

Southern Nuclear hired instructors for the operations training programs up to three years prior to accreditation so they could work with the plant vendor to train the instructors. We also:

  • Built a training facility
  • Installed two simulators in the building
  • Implemented procedures to support training and qualification of operators
  • Hired operator candidates and initiated training
  • Produced plans for the next five years to ensure a sufficient number of operators for two plants
  • Staffed operations management to provide support and oversight
  • Implemented an entire training organization.

A year prior to the board review, a comprehensive self-assessment using industry peers was conducted to check readiness for an accreditation team visit. An accreditation team assessed the ability of the station to train operators in the fall of last year, and then an accreditation board reviewed the accreditation team report along with an Initial Accreditation Utility Report written by Southern Nuclear. The accreditation board asked questions of executives and staff and reviewed documentation to grant accreditation.

Who will be trained at Southern Nuclear in the certified program?

Operators in all six programs:

  • Non-licensed operators
  • Reactor operators
  • Senior reactor operators
  • Licensed operators
  • Shift technical advisers
  • Shift managers

What will they be able to do as a result of the training?

The operators will safely and efficiently run the plant. Licensed operators will operate or supervise the operation of the controls of the reactor.

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The Nuclear Debate On the Road

By Howard Shaffer

Plymouth, Massachusetts, “America’s Home Town,” is the place where the pilgrims landed, and is also the home of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant. On March 29, a forum was held in Plymouth to discuss a non-binding ballot question for the town election in May. The question is whether or not to freeze the plant’s relicensing process until all the Fukushima fixes are completed.

The political setting

The town of Plymouth has a Nuclear Matters Committee (NMC), which keeps informed on plant issues and advises the town’s Selectboard. In New England, towns are governed by the town meeting, where all voters who wish can convene to become the town legislature. The executive is a group chosen by the voters, now called the Selectboard. Many towns now also have a town manager reporting to the Selectboard.

Massachusetts is known as a very liberal state, and proud of this tradition. In the 1988 election, a referendum required shutting down both nuclear power plants in the state—Pilgrim and the Yankee Rowe nuclear power station. This referendum was defeated, thanks to 2 to 1 and 3 to 1 voting margins in the towns along Massachusetts’ high tech beltway I-495 (how this was done is a story for another time).

There is a virulent anti-nuclear movement in the Plymouth area, spearheaded by an individual from the nearby town of Duxbury. This person is able to be an intervener, and has filed numerous motions in Pilgrim’s relicensing. She is expected to continue to file motions in hopes of delaying relicensing (the plant’s 40-year license expires in June). The law for all federal regulatory agencies, however, provides for continued operation of the plant if an agency has not completed action on an application for extension/renewal filed more than five years beforehand.

Arranging the forum

The Plymouth NMC arranged a forum to discuss the ballot question. It wanted to have both the “Vote Yes” and “Vote No” positions represented. The obvious underlying issues were nuclear power itself, and the Fukushima–Daiichi accident’s effect on the Pilgrim boiling water reactor with Mark I containment. To speak in favor of “Yes,” the committee obtained Arnie Gundersen, of Fairewinds Associates, Burlington, Vt. To speak in favor of “No” it first contacted Professor Gil Brown of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Gil is a long-time American Nuclear Society and ANS Northeastern Section member. However, he is on sabbatical and working at the State Department, and could not make their date. Gil called me and put me in touch with the panel organizer. When Arnie found out that I was to be on the panel, he said that he would withdraw! But eventually he changed his mind (this made an interesting lead-up story in the local paper).

Then the chair of the NMC took over organizing and moderating the forum. Entergy, the plant’s owner, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whose Region I staff were in the same room up to a half hour before the forum for their annual plant review meeting, could not participate (this article covers both events).

Before the forum we had a briefing with Jack Alexander, who does the Pilgrim public outreach; Paul Smith, retired Pilgrim staff and now consulting; and Chuck Adey, now retired and living in Plymouth, who has worked at the plant, done public outreach, and is an ANS Northeastern Section member.

 

The forum

The forum was held in the Selectboard meeting room in the town hall. This was formerly the high school, so the meeting room was originally a large classroom or small assembly hall. The NRC’s public meeting to report to the public on the plant’s prior year performance was held in half the room. Its meeting was informal and reception style, with no formal presentation. There were tables with displays, and Region I staff circulating to talk with attendees.

After the NRC meeting, the accordion wall dividing the room was folded, and chairs set up. The Selectboard members table was at one end of the room, on the floor with the audience, with microphones. The room had built-in TV cameras. The local public access station (PAC-TV) recorded for rebroadcast and on-demand viewing. A local radio station broadcast the program live, which necessitated one commercial break. A local newspaper had on-line coverage with a twitter stream, including many comments from Japan. Documentarian Robbie Leppzer had his camera set up in front of the first row of chairs, which unfortunately blocked my view of some of the audience. Meredith Angwin provided next day coverage at Yes Vermont Yankee.

There was standing room only. The members of the NMC were in the first row. The first several rows were filled with plant opponents. The moderator announced the program, and we began by introducing ourselves for 45 seconds, followed by our 20-minute presentations (see my presentation and the ANS report on Fukushima). Questions and answers followed for the balance of the two hours. The moderator, Jeff Berger, maintained strict control, including telling a person who raised a sign saying, “No Dose is Safe” that it was not permitted. The NMC members, now with a majority of technically oriented citizens, including Paul Smith who was on the plant staff and is still consulting, were given preference in asking questions. (The committee had recommended that the Selectboard not put the question on the ballot.) Then citizens of Plymouth were called, and when there seemed to be no more questions from them, people from other towns were called.

The content

The two-hour recording of the forum from PAC-TV Plymouth can be seen on demand.

My presentation and answers put the question of nuclear power in the context of a national policy to replace coal and its adverse health effects. I discussed the Fukushima-Daiichi accident and history of the Mark I containment as part of the development and learning process common to all technologies.

For his part, Arnie Gundersen continued his relentless attack on the Mark I Containment, saying it is too small, can’t contain, and must be vented. He dragged out references to Stephen Hanauer’s 1972 memo and other staff statements referring to Mark I as having serious problems. Additional claims by Gundersen:

  • A reactor produces 5-percent decay heat, which doesn’t stop.
  • NRC commissioners are vetted by the Nuclear Energy Institute. The NRC is cozy with the industry.
  • NRC Chairman Jaczko has said that people will have to be restricted from evacuation zones forever.
  • Fukushima will result in a million cases of cancer over 30 years.
  • Service water systems are vulnerable to sabotage, so reactors could lose all cooling. Gundersen referred to an incident in the recent past where a foreign sailboat got inside the buoy line around the plant’s intake.
  • The Chernobyl accident resulted in the demise of the Soviet Union, per Mr. Gorbechev.
  • Moving as much used fuel as possible to dry casks is important for safety.
  • The NRC is now concerned with drone attacks on a plant.

Most questions from the audience were also along the lines of these statements.

Members of the NMC and a few others did raise cogent points and dispute some of the statements made by Gundersen and others.

Aftermath

The local newspapers reported the forum, but the Boston newspapers and TV did not. Jack Alexander took this as a good sign, observing that these media specialize in only negative stories about the plant.

Supporters were satisfied that their position had been defended.

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Shaffer

Howard Shaffer has been an ANS member for 35 years. He has contributed to ASME and ANS Standards committees, ANS committees, national meeting staffs, and his local section, and was the 2001 ANS Congressional Fellow. He is a current member of the ANS Public Information Committee and consults in nuclear public outreach. 

He is coordinator for the Vermont Pilot Project.  Shaffer holds a BSEE from Duke University and an MSNE from MIT. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

NRC approves two new reactors in South Carolina

By Laura Scheele

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on March 30 voted to clear the way for its Office of New Reactors to issue two licenses for two new AP1000 reactors at the V.C. Summer site in Parr, S.C. This marks the NRC’s second approval of nuclear units to be built in the United States in two months. In February, the NRC approved a license for Atlanta-based Southern Company’s Vogtle project, in Waynesboro, Ga. The NRC had not issued any new reactor licenses since 1978.

The five-member commission approved the license for the Summer project in a 4–1 vote, with NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko dissenting. Jaczko was also the lone dissenting vote for the Vogtle license. The NRC’s news release on the Summer approval can be found here, and the NRC staff is expected to issue the combined operating license for the project within 10 business days.

The vote clears the way for SCANA subsidiary South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) and Santee Cooper to build and operate the two new reactors at Summer. A SCANA spokesperson was quoted in The Augusta Chronicle as saying that about 1,000 workers have already been engaged in early site preparation for the project. The project will peak at about 3,000 long-term construction workers over three to four years, and the two units are expected to add as many as 800 permanent jobs when they start generating electricity. The Summer units are expected to begin operating in 2017 and 2018.

Soon there will be four new reactors with operating licenses in place under construction in the United States, and—with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s ongoing completion of Watts Bar-2 in Tennessee—five reactors total under construction.  Stay tuned to the ANS Nuclear Cafe for more coverage of the licensing decision.

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Laura Scheele is the Communications and Public Policy Manager for the American Nuclear Society.

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.

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NRC/Fukushima hearing in US Senate on Thursday

A hearing titled “Lessons from Fukushima One Year Later: NRC’s Implementation of Recommendations for Enhancing Nuclear Reactor Safety in the 21st Century” will be held in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, March 15, at 10:00 AM EDT. The hearing will be a joint session of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety.

NRC Commissioners Magwood, Svinicki, Chairman Jaczko, Apostolakis, Ostendorff

Featured testimony will come from NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko and fellow NRC commissioners Kristine Svinicki, George Apostolakis, William Magwood, and William Ostendorff.  The hearing will be webcast at the website for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

In the aftermath of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, the NRC formed a task force to reevaluate the safety and security of the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States, and develop a series of recommendations based on the lessons learned from Japan. The March 15 hearing will concern the orders, rules, and other actions from the NRC intended to enhance reactor safety and protect public health based on those task force recommendations.

The hearing is a follow-up to the Senate committee’s hearing 0n December 15, 2011, titled “Review of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Near-Term Task Force Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century,: which is archived here. The prepared opening statement of Chairman Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) for that hearing is here. The prepared opening statement of Ranking Minority Member James Inhofe (R., Okla.) is here.

Jaczko and the other commissioners have not always been in agreement on regulatory decisions facing the NRC, notably including a recent 4-1 vote to grant a license to build and operate two reactors at the Vogtle nuclear facility in Georgia.

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Indian PM Singh claims anti-nuclear protests funded by U.S. NGOs

Kundankulam nuclear project jammed in new controversies

By Dan Yurman

PM Singh & Pres. Obama during state visit in New Delhi ~ Nov 2010

Months of protests have significantly delayed the hot start of twin Russian-built 1000-MW VVER nuclear reactors in Kudankulam (KKNPP 1-2), located in Tamil Nadu, India’s southern-most state. The protests are being paid for by funds from foreign anti-nuclear groups.

That’s the fiery and spectacular allegation made by India’s sitting prime minister Mammohan Singh this week, who got a pat on the back for his remarks from none other than Russia’s ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin.

Singh also alleged that the funds came from non-government organizations (NGOs) based in the United States and Scandinavia. This charge of interference with India’s nuclear program produced a quick response in the form of a denial from U.S. Embassy charge d’Affaires Peter Burleigh, who said that the United States supports India’s nuclear energy program.

Singh’s remarks appeared in the Indian press one day after the Russian and Indian foreign ministers had met in New Delhi. For their part, at that meeting Russians officials reportedly expressed impatience with the lack of progress in getting the Kudankulam reactors up and running. The Russians have built two 1000-MW VVERs there. They want to build more, but can’t unless these first two enter revenue service.

Kudankulam nuclear reactors

What has given PM Singh’s claims a high profile, credibility, and international exposure is that he aired them as part of an interview in the February 2012 issue of the AAAS magazine ‘Science‘.

“The atomic energy program has gone into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the U.S., don’t appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply… there are controversies.

“There are NGOs, often funded by the U.S. and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces. But we are a democracy, we are not like China,” PM Singh said. { The full text is behind a pay wall }

Singh also froze the bank accounts of four of the 15 Indian groups involved in the protests and revoked their licenses to operate. He has yet to publicly name the U.S. NGOs, however, that he says are paying for local protests.

V. Naryanasamy, adviser to India PM Singh

V. Naryanasamy, a spokesman in the prime minister’s office, told the BBC on February 28, “there is clear evidence the protests are obviously being engineered.”

On February 27, the Indian government deported a 49-year-old male German national from Tamil Nadu after claiming his confiscated laptop files and cell phone records proved that he has been a conduit for NGO funds to anti-nuclear protest groups. (Indian TV video report)

The TV news report notes that Sonntag Rainer Hermann was hustled out of the country in the dead of night with no notification of the German embassy nor were any charges brought against him under Indian law. The government said that the deportation order was issued based on violations of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.

Source of protests suspect

The protests erupted last fall in Kundankulam as the commissioning dates for the reactors became public. Local fishermen claimed that the hot water discharged by the reactors would harm the environment and their fish catch.

Later, the fishermen, joined by local groups, mounted a hunger strike that intensified the protests in December. The local groups also claimed that the reactors were not safe, citing the Fukushima nuclear crisis as the basis for their fears. It is unclear why the fishermen and local protest groups waited nine months after Fukushima to make the connection to KKNPP.

Catholic church charity singled out

Singh’s office named four local groups working in Tamil Nadi including NGOs associated with the Tuticorin Diocese Association (TDA) and the Tuticorin Multipurpose Social Service Society. Singh’s office also named a group from Sweden said to be providing funds to Indian protest groups.

The prime minister’s office said that the Catholic church groups used the equivalent of 550,000 Indian rupees ($11,123) to fuel the protests. The government said that the NGOs provided food and booze to protesters based on a stipend equivalent to 500 Rupees/day ($10).

Tuticorin church leader Bishop Yvon Ambroise, who has been outspoken in opposition to the nuclear plant, denied the government’s allegations. For its part, the government has not published documents backing its claims or has showed to the press any proof that the church had diverted funds to protests from accounts assigned to relief and medical programs.

S.P. Udayakumar, Head of PMANE

The evidence may come out in trials of the NGOs against whom the government has now filed criminal charges.

S. P. Udayakumar, head of the Peoples Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), lived in the United States for a period of time and returned to lead the protest movement. He tells the local news media that the charges by the Indian government are “totally false.”

He also denied that PMANE received any financial support from the Catholic church.

Government seeks to recover from protests

The government, caught off guard by the sudden and vehement outbreak of the protests, sent a high-level group of scientists to review the plant’s safety and to meet with protest leaders. Despite a series of public meetings, however, distrust of the government was not diminished and the visiting scientists appear to have had little effect on the enthusiasm and energy of the protest groups.

Srikumar Banerjee, India Atomic Energy Commission

In another twist in an increasingly strange turn of events, Srikumar Banerjee, director of the India Atomic Energy Commission , told an international meeting being held in New Dehli, sponsored by the World Nuclear Association, that start-up of the Kudankulam reactors would take place in about six weeks.

The official, whose remarks were reported in The Hindu on February 22, said that the commissioning process would take about four months. About 3000 people are reportedly working at the plant, which is about 95-percent finished and needs to be maintained while the government addresses local concerns. There have been conflicting media reports about the effects of the protests on plant staffing.

A Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) spokesman said separately that the protests would be contained by a four-member team set up by the Tamil Nadu provincial government. This may be wishful thinking. That panel met this past week with the lead protest group, PMANE.

J. Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu state chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, who has been caught between the central government and the protestors, pressed her four-man panel to complete a safety inspection of the plant and to meet with local villagers.

According to a report on NDTV, that meeting, which took place on February  20, was “cordial,” but apparently little progress was made. PMANE’s intense distrust of the government, and demand that the government appoint “experts” of its choosing also have equal standing, has kept the dialog at loggerheads.

The four-man team submitted a report to the provincial government saying that the plant is safe, but their efforts made little if any impression on PMANE or other protest organizations. For their part, the protest groups issued inflammatory statements objecting to PM Singh’s charges that their funds came from U.S. NGOs.

Local protest groups also claimed that the allegations about the NGOs were an attempt to distract people from their issues about plant safety. Despite this antagonistic atmosphere, the Tamil Nadu provincial government has not contradicted the allegations made by Singh’s office about foreign funds being funneled to local NGOs.

India needs foreign nuclear technology

India’s nuclear energy program depends on imports of technology from Russia and France. In addition to future projects at the same site in Tamil Nadu, French state-owned nuclear giant Areva has an agreement with NPCIL to build at least two and as many as six nuclear reactors.

The site for the first two EPRs is in Jaitapur south of Mumbai. Protests there erupted when local farmers objected to the loss of their land for the reactor site. They demanded increased compensation for relocation and new farmland. However, the intensity there of protests was not nearly on the same scale as what’s happening in Kundankulam.

The United States has been shut out of the Indian nuclear energy market by a tough supplier liability law. While it was passed by Parliament, however, implementing regulations have not been published, leaving the situation in somewhat of a state of limbo.

U.S. sources in India familiar with the matter declined to be quoted for this article on the outlook of the liability law, citing the sensitivity of the Indian government to anything perceived as interference its domestic affairs.

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Yurman

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

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s final report

By Jim Hopf

Soon after declaring that it would end the Yucca Mountain repository project, the Obama administration created the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to reevaluate the nation’s nuclear waste program and policies. The commission was asked to recommend improvements to the waste program and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), and to make general recommendations on the path forward. The commission was specifically instructed to not address the Yucca Mountain project, or any specific project or site. The commission’s final report was released this month.

Primary recommendations

The main recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) are as follows:

• A repository (or long-term storage facility) should be sited using a “consent-based” approach, as opposed to having the federal government select a site and then impose it on the state and/or local community. The government would offer incentives to a large number of communities, whose locations are potentially suitable as a repository site, and let communities (and states) come forward voluntarily. (In essence, this implies that Yucca Mountain should be abandoned and the process should start over.)

• Responsibility for siting, licensing, building, and operating repositories and/or centralized storage facilities should be shifted from the Department of Energy to a new, independent single-purpose organization (most likely a federal corporation). Most experts agree that such an organization would offer more focus, stability, and credibility than the DOE, which has lost credibility with many stakeholders.

• The waste program must have full access to the nuclear waste fund that has been paid for by the 0.1 cent/kW-hr fee levied on nuclear-generated electricity. In the short term, the administration should amend the DOE’s standard contract so that only the money appropriated (i.e., spent) that year is transferred from the waste fund to the federal government. Remaining funds would be placed in a trust account that is managed by an independent organization. Over the longer term, legislation should be passed that transfers the entire balance of the nuclear waste fund to the new waste management organization.

• A prompt effort to develop a geologic disposal facility is necessary. There is scientific consensus that deep geologic disposal is the best option for final disposal of nuclear waste, and that a geologic repository will be necessary for any type of fuel cycle. The BRC did recommend further research and development of advanced fuel cycles and reactor designs, but stated that committing to a specific fuel cycle option or technology at this point in time would be premature.

• There should be a prompt effort to develop one or more consolidated used fuel storage facilities. This would allow the government to meet its contractual obligation to take the used fuel from utilities much sooner than if it waited for a final repository to be developed. It may also reduce the (small) risks associated with fuel storage somewhat, by reducing the number of sites where fuel is stored. Removing the fuel from decommissioned nuclear sites would free those sites up for other uses.

• Preparations for the eventual shipment of large amounts of used fuel should begin soon. A large number of stakeholders should be involved in the planning of the waste transportation program.

• The government should support research and development into advanced reactors and fuel cycles, as well as nuclear workforce development programs. The BRC stated that the general direction of the DOE’s current R&D is appropriate.

• The United States should maintain its leadership role in the international community in the area of nuclear technology. It should provide aid, advice, and technical and regulatory assistance to other countries, particularly those who are starting new nuclear programs.

NWPA changes

The BRC’s recommended path forward involves specific changes to the NWPA:

• The NWPA currently specifies Yucca Mountain as the sole site to be evaluated as a repository. The law would have to be changed to allow other sites to be evaluated.

• The NWPA currently allows only one centralized used fuel storage facility with limited capacity, and this storage facility may only be developed after a repository is licensed. The NWPA would have to be amended to allow multiple centralized storage facilities, and to remove any linkage with repository licensing.

• The NWPA would be amended to broaden the number of jurisdictions that could receive funding and technical assistance in support of the fuel transportation campaign.

• The NWPA would have to be amended to create the independent waste management organization discussed earlier, and to shift the DOE’s current responsibilities (for siting, licensing, building and operating repositories and/or centralized storage facilities) to that organization.

• The NWPA would also have to be amended to remove the nuclear waste fund from the congressional appropriations process, and to allow the independent nuclear waste management organization to have full access to the fund.

• Some NWPA changes may be required in order to allow the United States to provide a broader range of support to other nations in the area of nuclear waste management.

ANS response

The American Nuclear Society has responded to the BRC’s final report. ANS concurs with the BRC’s recommendation to create a new, independent agency to manage the nation’s nuclear waste in the future. ANS also agrees with the recommendation to create one or more centralized used fuel storage facilities, to accommodate much of the nation’s used fuel until a final repository is finally sited, licensed, and constructed. ANS also supports the BRC’s call for continued R&D on advanced (closed) fuel cycles.

One area of disagreement between ANS and the BRC, however, concerns the Yucca Mountain repository. While ANS acknowledged that the BRC was explicitly instructed not to address Yucca Mountain, it reiterated its position that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should conclude the licensing process for the repository (at a minimum).

My perspective

I largely concur with ANS’s point of view on the BRC recommendations. Almost everyone believes that having an independent organization, as opposed to the DOE, manage the waste program would be helpful. Allowing full access to the nuclear waste fund (for its intended purpose) is absolutely essential, given the history of Congress in hijacking the waste funds for other uses or for political reasons. Right now, the fund is little more than a (punitive) 0.1 cent/kW-hr tax on nuclear electricity.

I also agree that R&D into advanced fuel cycles and reactors is important. The BRC stated that they do not believe that fuel cycle technology that would significantly alter the nuclear waste situation is anywhere on the horizon. ANS thought that this was overly pessimistic, and I’m inclined to agree. Fuel cycle technologies such as “UREX+” are a few decades away at most. Such fuel cycles have the potential to significantly reduce the bulk and heat generation level for the final waste stream, which should greatly reduce the number of final repositories required (to one, probably). This is enormously important.

I also agree with ANS on the subject of Yucca Mountain. It is imperative that the NRC complete the evaluation and licensing process, and formally rule on whether the Yucca Mountain repository would have been acceptable from a scientific and technical perspective. (Virtually all observers believe that NRC staff had concluded that the repository met the requirements.) This should be demanded as part of any “compromise”, in exchange for accepting the BRC’s recommendation that we start the repository siting, evaluation, and licensing process all over again (largely wasting the ~$15 billion that has been spent).

I believe that the single largest drawback of starting the repository program over, and delaying final resolution of the waste issue by decades, is that it will result in a large fraction of the public continuing to believe—falsely—that there is no technical solution to the nuclear waste problem. This in turn will measurably increase public resistance to nuclear power, which will result in greater fossil fuel use in the future. The public health risks and negative environmental impacts of this increased fossil fuel use will utterly dwarf any risks and/or impacts associated with any nuclear waste repository.

Although it wouldn’t be as good (or effective) as having an actual repository in place, having the NRC formally rule that the Yucca Mountain repository met all of the (impeccable) requirements would go a long way toward convincing the public that we do have acceptable scientific/technical solutions to the nuclear waste problem.

I would go on to insist that the government make sure that NRC’s ruling is highly publicized. The government should inform the public that an adequate technical solution to the waste problem has been found, but that we are electing to wait awhile to see if “even better” solutions can be found. Waiting is justifiable and prudent, given the very small risks and economic costs of storing nuclear waste. Those “better” solutions may include the use of advanced fuel cycles that result in a smaller, colder, or shorter-lived waste stream, or simply a final repository that has a greater level of political support from the surrounding state and local communities.

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Hopf

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

TVA’s countdown to MOX fuel

The utility is assessing options to use it 

By Dan Yurman

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) could be one of the first nuclear utilities to accept mixed oxide fuel (MOX) from the Department of Energy (DOE) for use in its commercial nuclear reactors. The government is building a $4.8 billion factory in South Carolina that is scheduled to start producing MOX fuel assemblies by 2016 by blending weapons grade plutonium with uranium. The resulting fuel can be swapped out for regular uranium fuel.

The government’s nonproliferation objective is to get 34 tonnes of surplus weapons-grade plutonium out of circulation forever. TVA’s objective is to get nuclear fuel that will work safely in its reactors and at a competitive price.

TVA is a public power provider for a seven-state region serving nine million people. In 2010, 36 percent of its power generation came from nuclear energy. One element of its charter, which dates back to the New Deal programs between 1933 and 1936 of President Franklin Roosevelt, is to support national security missions. TVA built power plants to provide electricity for the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge.

Today, it participates in the DOE’s nonproliferation efforts through the use of fuel made from blended down highly-enriched surplus uranium.

Evaluating the potential for MOX

Mick Mastilovic, TVA's manager of Nuclear Fuel Supply

Mick Mastilovic, TVA’s manager of Nuclear Fuel Supply, told ANS Nuclear Cafe in a telephone interview that the utility’s evaluation of the potential for using MOX fuel will primarily address safety as well as economics of using MOX relative to all uranium fuel. TVA has not yet made a decision to pursue MOX fuel licensing and implementation.

If TVA decides to use MOX, it could eventually replace up to 40 percent of the fuel assemblies in the cores of its Sequoyah and Browns Ferry reactors. The two Sequoyah reactors are pressurized water reactors with 193 fuel assemblies each. The three Browns Ferry reactors are boiling water reactors with 764 fuel assemblies each.

The DOE’s MOX plant is expected to produce the equivalent of 1,700 PWR assemblies to dispose of 34 tonnes of surplus plutonium. At a projected output rate of up to 70 metric tons heavy metal per year, the MOX facility may produce more fuel than TVA’s five reactors could consume.

The National Nuclear Security Administration and its contractor, Shaw Areva MOX Services, are working toward agreements to market additional MOX fuel through the fuel fabrication vendors operating in the United States: Areva, Westinghouse, and Global Nuclear Fuel Americas (GE-Hitachi).

TVA won’t start out at the 40-percent core replacement level. The initial replacement level for the reactors will be about 8 assemblies of MOX fuel. Ramp up time to the 40-percent level depends on the DOE’s production schedule, how well the MOX works, and cost factors, among others.

“There is nothing quick about the process, as we have many gates to go through before possible implementation,” Mastilovic said, adding, “For instance, in the best case, we don’t expect to be able to load MOX assemblies before 2018.”

Explaining MOX to the public

One of the challenges that TVA faces is that the public perceptions of using plutonium as fuel needs some explaining. TVA starts by describing that MOX is a mix of uranium and plutonium. MOX has about 4-percent plutonium oxide (of which 94 percent is Pu-239) and the rest is depleted uranium oxide.

Commercial nuclear fuel starts as uranium oxide. What many people do not know, Mastilovic said, is that plutonium is a normal byproduct in nuclear reactors that fission uranium.

Plutonium builds up in the fuel inside the reactors and eventually provides up to 40 percent of the core’s heat energy. Fission of plutonium produces this energy in the reactor at the end of the life of the fuel.

“We’re not introducing a new element to a core, plutonium is already there,” he said.

And he also noted that “we’re not changing the thermal output of the reactor.”

Mastilovic said that while Pu-239 is more energetic than U-235, “The license governs the use of MOX. Heat inside a core can be managed by blending different fuels just like mixing different types of wood in a fireplace.”

Oak Ridge National Laboratory data presented by TVA to the Nuclear Waste Technology Review Board show little difference in decay heat loads between used MOX fuel and normal non-MOX fuel.

“Thus the difference in heat load between used MOX and used uranium oxide fuel can be accommodated in spent fuel pool cooling or space requirements and in dry cask thermal design,” Mastilovic said.

Next steps

Overall, with TVA support as a cooperating agency, the DOE is on track to complete a supplemental environmental impact statement for MOX fuel use that will assess safety for workers, the public, and the environment. TVA’s public affairs office told ANS Nuclear Cafe that the MOX program will proceed in phases with multiple opportunities for public input.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses for all the reactors that are candidates to use MOX will have to be updated to address physical operating differences and any changes in safety requirements. Technically, at this point, TVA believes that the physical modifications needed for each reactor are manageable. Also, TVA expects the DOE’s MOX to cost less than uranium fuel.

A decision to proceed with engineering and licensing is currently expected to be made in 2013.

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Yurman

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