Category Archives: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Post-election outlook for nuclear energy

By Jim Hopf

In my September post at the ANS Nuclear Cafe, I discussed the Democratic and Republican party platforms, along with their potential impacts on nuclear energy. With the 2012 U.S. elections now behind us, this post provides a post-election follow up, and discusses the impacts of the election results on nuclear’s prospects over the near- to mid-term.

With the reelection of Barrack Obama, and minor gains by Democrats in the House and Senate, the election results portend a continuation of the status quo, for the most part. Impacts of the election in various areas that may impact nuclear’s prospects are discussed in the sections below.

Yucca Mountain

I’ve always taken great issue with the Obama administration’s actions on Yucca mountain, and maintain that, at a minimum, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process should be finished, even if a political decision is made to not pursue the project. It is clear to most observers that the NRC technical staff (which had completed its review) was about to conclude that the repository met all the technical requirements, before the process was terminated near the finish line, for political reasons. The public has a right to know that Yucca would have met all the requirements, and that yes indeed there is a viable, acceptable technical solution to the nuclear waste problem.

With the reelection of Obama and with (Democrat) Harry Reid remaining as Senate majority leader, the current status quo on Yucca Mountain will remain. Reid will continue to block funding for completion of NRC licensing, and the (Obama/Reid-appointed) NRC chair will likely cooperate with the effort to stop the process. As was the case before the election, whether the NRC will complete the licensing process will be primarily determined by the courts.

Yucca Mountain is one area where a Romney administration may have been more helpful to nuclear, but it’s not clear whether there would have been any meaningful difference. Romney was also making anti-Yucca statements (such as “states should have the right to decide if they want the repository”) during the campaign. Republicans winning the Senate would have made a far larger difference, as Reid would have lost the Majority Leader position, which is essential to his ability to block Yucca. On the other hand, if the president is not interested in changing the situation, even that may have not made much difference.

It seems that completion of the licensing process (the best we can hope for in the near term) is up to the courts at this point, and would have remained so regardless of who won the election. Also unclear is whether the lack of progress on the waste issue is having a significant effect on how much nuclear power there will be over the near-to-mid term. I’ve grown to believe that it is not as critical an issue as I formerly thought.

Fukushima–related upgrades and regulations

Whereas the anticipated regulations and required plant upgrades that will result from NRC’s response to Fukushima will add costs for existing nuclear plants (and to a small extent, new plants), it is unlikely that the outcome of the election would have had any significant impacts on those regulations. No parties or candidates have made any significant statements on the NRC’s actions in this area.

Nuclear plant loan guarantees

The Obama administration had supported increasing the nuclear loan guarantee volume by a factor of several (to over $100 billion) but could not get it through Congress. On the other hand, the Obama administration has been dragging its feet in actually approving any loan guarantees, even for the Vogtle and Summer plants. With the current budget situation, any increase in loan volume is unlikely.

It is unlikely, however, that Romney or the Republicans would have been better in the area of nuclear loan guarantees. Although the Republicans are ostensibly pro-nuclear, many in the Republican party are opposed to loan guarantees for any energy projects.

Finally, the overall impact of the nuclear loan guarantees is no longer clear. Indications are that other factors such as lack of power demand and low natural gas prices, as opposed to the lack of loan guarantees, are the primary reason that no plants other than Vogtle and Summer (and Watts Bar) are going forward. As for the Vogtle and Summer projects themselves, they appear to be going forward even without the government loan guarantees.

Climate change policies

Although the Obama administration is not planning to propose a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax in the near future, Obama has stated that the nation needs to have a “conversation” about climate change, implying a desire to develop some type of policy.

It seems clear that the chances of some type of policy or progress on climate change are far greater under Obama and the Democrats then they would have been under Romney and the Republicans, who had explicitly promised to block all such efforts. For example, the chances of the Clean Energy Standard policy (being debated and developed in Congress) moving forward would definitely be greater under the Democrats. Any type of climate change policy that creates a disincentive to emit CO2 would be tremendously beneficial to nuclear, particularly over the longer term.

Although climate change had fallen off the agenda in recent years, and in the last election, there are reasons to believe that it will (again) rise in importance. Increasing numbers of Americans believe that climate change is a serious issue. As the economy improves, issues like the environment are expected to become more important in voters’ minds. Also of note is the fact that even some conservative organizations are starting to consider a CO2 tax as a better approach than cap-and-trade, as well as a potential source of government revenue in lieu of increased income tax rates (as one example).

Election impacts on coal

It is clear that the reelection of Obama has hurt coal’s future prospects. The coal companies themselves, as well as the stock market, confirm this. Coal company stocks fell substantially after the election, and some coal companies have laid off workers.

Under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of significantly tightening up air pollution requirements, which would significantly impact the oldest (and dirtiest) coal facilities. To stay in operation, such plants would have to spend large amounts of money on air pollution controls. Given the current low cost of natural gas, these requirements will render those facilities uneconomic, and many are expected to close. With Obama’s reelection, the EPA is also expected to proceed with a rule that requires all new power plants to emit no more CO2 than a typical gas-fired plant; a requirement that essentially precludes the permitting of any new coal plants.

In contrast, Romney (and the Republicans) campaigned on the promise to stop any tightening of air pollution limits, and perhaps even rolling requirements back. Their message was that they would act not only to keep existing coal plants open (including the oldest ones), but to increase the use of coal in the future. They emphatically opposed any efforts to reduce power-sector CO2 emissions.
With respect to any impact on nuclear’s future prospects, policies that result in the closure of old coal plants would help, the only question being how much. Any retired coal-fired generation will be replaced by gas-fired generation (as opposed to nuclear), at least over the short to mid-term. Over the longer term, however, the resulting increase in gas demand will result in higher natural gas prices, which in turn would make nuclear more competitive.

Regardless of any impact they may eventually have on nuclear, these air pollution and global warming policies are the right thing to do, in my personal opinion. Nuclear professionals and advocates need to ask themselves why, specifically, they support nuclear, i.e., why it’s important. Given our abundant reserves of coal (let alone gas), coupled with coal generation’s low cost, the economic and energy security arguments for nuclear may appear relatively weak—if they come from someone who doesn’t care so much about the environment, and therefore would have no problem with expanded fossil fuel use. The most compelling argument for nuclear (for me, anyway) has always been its environmental benefits. By extension, if one cares about air pollution and global warming, these policies are something to be celebrated, whether or not it is nuclear that replaces the old, dirty coal plants.

Wind tax credit

The reelection of Obama, and the Democrats’ small gains in Congress, make it somewhat more likely that the (~2 cent/kW-hr) wind energy production tax credit will be extended, for at least some period of time. Romney had stated that he would seek to end the tax credit, whereas Obama supports it. Even now, however, it is not clear that it will be extended, given the great need to cut government spending. This is true despite the fact that many Republican lawmakers, from farm states mainly, support the tax credit.

The wind power tax credit has some degree of negative economic impact on both new nuclear plant projects and existing plants. Wind often produces surges of power at times of very low power demand, which can actually lead to a negative market price for power over some time periods. The tax credit makes it still profitable to run the windfarms even under such conditions. These situations have a significant negative economic impact on existing nuclear generators in the region, which cannot shut down over short time periods. These problems are particularly acute in Illinois, where wind is being introduced and there is a large amount of nuclear generation (without much fossil generation that can be cut back in times of low wind demand). As a result, Exelon (the regional utility) has changed its position and is now opposing the extension of the wind power tax credit.

One final potential impact of the wind tax credit is that since it will result in more wind power, gas demand will be somewhat lower in the future, which may result in lower natural gas prices that would in turn make nuclear somewhat less competitive.

A legitimate issue that nuclear supporters should have with the wind tax credit is the question of fairness, i.e., why one non-polluting form of energy should benefit from large subsidies and (often) outright government mandates, whereas another, nuclear, does not. Yes, new nuclear plants also get a tax credit, but unlike with wind, the credit is limited to just the first few plants. Another issue is whether wind is being sufficiently penalized for its intermittent nature (producing power when it is least needed). Perhaps having the tax credit not apply during periods of very low demand, or some type of mechanism to support the electricity price during such glut periods, should be in order.

Natural gas

I have saved the best for last. Most experts agree that the single most important factor that affects nuclear’s future prospects is the price of natural gas. If gas remains at current (very low) prices over the long term, not only will few, if any, new nuclear plants be built (beyond Vogtle and Summer), but even the continued operation of existing plants may be threatened.

A perfect example of this is the recently announced closure of the Kewaunee nuclear plant. The plant lies within a “merchant” market, where the price of electricity is determined by the “last” supplier (highest variable cost), which is usually a gas plant. With the low price of natural gas, market prices for power in the region are very low. At current prices, Kewaunee is losing money. (This came as a shock to me, as the whole idea with nuclear is that whereas the initial capital cost is high, the operating cost, once built, is extremely low, low enough to easily compete with anything—or so I thought.)

If anything, the reelection of Obama and the Democrats somewhat increases the chances that the price of natural gas will increase in the future. They are considering tightening regulations on the fracking process, to a greater extent than the Republicans would have (although neither party is showing a significant degree of interest). Also, as I discussed earlier, Obama’s policies concerning coal (and perhaps global warming in general) can only lead to higher demand for gas, which would act to increase prices.

It seems that the common wisdom today is that natural gas prices will remain low for a very long time. Others have a different view, although they seem to be in the minority, at present. To me, it seems clear that gas prices will increase significantly in the future, at least from today’s historic lows, for several reasons:

First, the cost of natural gas is extremely sensitive to the balance between supply and demand. As the economy improves, and gas demand increases (especially if large numbers of old coal plants are retired), gas prices will increase, a lot. Second, gas costs several times what oil does, on an energy equivalent (per BTU) basis. Given that these two fuels are supposed to be largely interchangeable, this situation cannot last. (Right now several proposals for using natural gas for transportation are being explored.) Third, natural gas costs 3–4 times as much (as current U.S. prices) in Europe and 5–6 times as much in Japan. This is also a situation that won’t last, and plans are being made right now to export U.S. gas to world markets. And finally, today’s natural gas prices are far lower than what it actually costs to extract the gas (about half, actually), and producers are losing money hand over fist. This, again, is a situation that cannot last.

Summary

The election results largely preserve the status quo concerning policies that affect nuclear and energy in general. So, as to whether or not Romney and the Republicans would have been better or worse for nuclear, it’s a mixed bag of offsetting effects. In any event, few new nuclear plant projects are expected over the short term due to the current low price of natural gas in the United States. Over the longer term, nuclear’s future looks significantly brighter, especially if a serious global warming policy is (eventually) implemented.

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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.

Spent Fuel Pool at Oyster Creek

By Will Davis

As the Eastern half of the United States falls under siege by Hurricane Sandy and combined weather fronts—which together are being termed ”Frankenstorm”—the nuclear community is targeted by nuclear opponents keen on capitalizing on this severe weather event. A recent piece quoting Arnold Gundersen asserts that Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station is facing serious problems should it lose offsite power, saying essentially that the plant will be unable to provide cooling for the spent fuel in its spent fuel pool.

This allegation is without merit.

This document—a memorandum from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission  staff to the then-operator of Oyster Creek—spells out the spent fuel pool (SFP) cooling arrangements in place back in 2000. It includes the following description of the SFP cooling arrangements:

Make up water to the SFP is normally provided by the condensate system from the condensate storage tank (CST) which has a nominal capacity of 525,000 gallons. The condensate pumps can provide 250 gallons per minute (gpm) with one pump operating or 420 gpm with two pumps. Additional makeup can be provided from the demineralized water storage tank (nominal capacity 30,000 gallons) by connecting the demineralized water transfer pumps to the SFP with hoses. The fire protection system can also provide makeup from the fire pond to the CST using the 2,000 gpm diesel driven fire pumps through a permanent connection.

The SFPCS {Spent Fuel Pool Cooling System} removes decay heat from fuel stored in the SFP through its associated heat exchangers to the reactor building closed cooling water (RBCCW) system. The SFP water is maintained within its TS limits by these systems. The SFPCS consists of two SFP pumps, two SFP shell and tube heat exchangers, two augmented fuel pool pumps, and one augmented fuel pool plate and frame heat exchanger. In addition, the SFPCS also includes interconnections with the condensate demineralizers and the condensate systems which filter and demineralize the SFP water as well as provide makeup water to the SFP. The SFPCS operates continuously to maintain the SFP water temperature at or below the Oyster Creek TS limit (maximum of 125 degrees Fahrenheit (F)).

As we can see, a total loss of offsite power (LOOP) scenario has clearly been considered—otherwise, diesel fire pumps would not have been mentioned.

Oyster Creek Nuclear Energy Facility

Plants designed to handle spent fuel pools during loss of offsite power

Oyster Creek, like all other operating U.S. nuclear plants, was built to design considerations (10 CFR 50 Appendix A) that set limits on design that includes the protection of spent fuel pool from events both man-made (operational) and natural. The plant has been designed to handle the full heat load of the spent fuel placed in the pool—even with a loss of offsite power.

Spent fuel pool cooling has received greater attention since the Fukushima Daiichi accident; during that accident and for some time after, many had wrongly assumed and asserted that the spent fuel pools were in dire condition. In fact, some even claimed that Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 was going to collapse and that the spent fuel was going to trigger a cataclysm. Those allegations were refuted at the time, multiple times,  and have been proven false.

Even though early post-Fukushima assumptions about spent fuel pools were overly unrealistic, the NRC has emphasized SFP cooling and level measurement as a part of its post-Fukushima action plan. Many experts and the Nuclear Energy Institute consider this approach sensible. NEI points out, however, via NEI Nuclear Notes that moving SFP actions to Tier 1 in no way implies that operating U.S. nuclear plants aren’t already safe. Read that post here.

The Safety Evaluation Report related to license renewal of Oyster Creek at the NRC contains the following information about Oyster Creek’s spent fuel cooling system:

The SFPCS (Spent Fuel Pool Cooling System) is designed for both normal and accident conditions of loss of offsite power coincident with a single active component failure.  The augmented SFPCS is designed to provide a seismically qualified cooling loop capable of providing cooling during such conditions.

As if that were not enough:

Exelon – Oyster Creek Safety and Emergency Planning Fact Sheet

Clearly, there is provision for SFP cooling at Oyster Creek using two SFP systems—the one that was originally installed and an augmented system installed when the pool capacity was increased—and also it’s a fact that the plant, like all others in the path of the storm, is and has been well aware of the approach of this storm and has even more personnel (and NRC inspectors) on site than usual, making full preparation for any event. “Any event” includes extended loss of offsite power.

Oyster Creek has multiple cooling systems for spent fuel pool

UPDATE:  Exelon has re-confirmed to the American Nuclear Society by telephone and e-mail that Oyster Creek does in fact have numerous, redundant cooling systems for the spent fuel including closed-loop and service water systems. Exelon tells us that if required, two locomotive–sized diesel engines are ready and standing by should offsite power be lost, to provide power to those two backup systems during the refueling outage should an extended LOOP scenario arise.

Exelon has, as expected by many, declared an Unusual Event at Oyster Creek due to the rising water levels. Below are excerpts from Exelon’s press release on this declaration (emphasis added):

 Oyster Creek Generating Station Declares Unusual Event

Lowest of four NRC emergency action levels reached due to high water levels

Forked River , NJ (October 29, 2012) Exelon Nuclear declared an “Unusual Event” at Oyster Creek Generating Station at 7 p.m. today after water levels in the plant’s intake structure reached higher than normal levels.

This is an anticipated declaration required by procedures and is the result of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the region. There is no challenge to the safety of the plant. Oyster Creek is currently shut down for planned maintenance and refueling.

Oyster Creek is a robust and fortified facility, capable of withstanding the most severe weather. When the storm was identified, operators performed a host of plant inspections to ensure that all safety systems were operational and that outside equipment and materials were properly secured.

An Unusual Event is the lowest of four emergency classifications established by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There is no danger to the public or plant employees associated with this declaration.

Exelon Nuclear has notified all appropriate federal, state and local emergency response officials of the Unusual Event.

Oyster Creek is about 60 miles east of Philadelphia in Ocean County, New Jersey. The plant produces 636 net megawatts of electricity at full power, enough electricity to supply 600,000 typical homes, the equivalent to all homes in Monmouth and Ocean counties combined.

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For more information

Below is a brief video interview with the Nuclear Energy Institute‘s Everett Redmond, director of Nonproliferation and Fuel Cycle Policy. He breaks down in straightforward language the purpose and design of spent fuel pools to store used fuel at nuclear energy facilities. This is a basic overview that does not address specific nuclear energy facilities.

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Will Davis is a writer and Social Media consultant for ANS, is a Contributing Reporter to Fuel Cycle Week, owns and writes the Atomic Power Review blog, and is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W reactor plants.

ANS staff members also contributed to this report and compiled additional resources for readers.

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.

NRC Public Meeting on San Onofre: October 9 via Webcast, Twitter

Note: The NRC public meeting on San Onofre steam generator issues has now adjourned. The webcast will soon be available in archived form at http://video.nrc.gov/. The twitter feed featuring participation by groups on all sides of the issue can be viewed HERE (tweets will eventually expire).

WHEN:

Tuesday, October 9
6:00-9:30 P.M. Pacific Time
Click HERE for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) news release with schedule information

VIRTUAL ACCESS

The meeting is now live on webcast at: http://video.nrc.gov.

A phone bridge will be available by calling: 1-888-989-4359 and entering pass code 1369507.

The webcast and phone bridge will be one-way only.

SOCIAL MEDIA ACCESS

ANS will live-tweet the hearing at @ans_org using hashtag #SanOnofrePlease note that the person(s) doing the live-tweeting will be watching via webcast.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Click HERE for social media coverage by Will Davis of Atomic Power Review of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station steam generator issues, including a roundup of helpful links at the end of the entry.

Click HERE for a wealth of information from Southern California Edison regarding the San Onofre steam generator issues.

The party platforms on energy–and nuclear

By Jim Hopf

Both the Republicans and the Democrats have recently released their party platforms. Here’s a look at what each platform has to say about energy and environmental issues in general, and on nuclear specifically.

Republicans on energy

The Republican party platform favors an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that involves responsible development of all our energy resources, and results in a domestic, secure energy supply that is stable, reliable, and affordable. Other general goals of the strategy include the creation of jobs, spurring economic growth, lower energy prices, and a strengthened domestic energy industry. The platform states that it does not support, however, policies that “pick winners and losers” through government intervention in the energy industry.

With respect to environmental regulations, the platform is generally opposed to federal environmental regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency, preferring regulation by the states as well as an approach to achieving environmental goals that is more cooperative (vs. punitive) with industry.

With respect to coal, the platform support the development of new “environmentally responsible” coal plants, as well as research and development into clean coal technology and technologies to convert coal into liquid fuel or gas (that can be cleanly burned). The platform states that it is opposed to President Obama’s “war on coal”, since there is no economic replacement for coal (the largest electricity source) and reductions in coal use will result in the loss of large amounts of jobs in that sector. It states that the GOP is opposed to any type of carbon dioxide–limiting legislation such as cap-and-trade. It also opposes the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases, and supports legislation that specifically bars the EPA from doing so. It also appears to be generally opposed to stricter limits on other coal pollutants as well.

With respect to oil and gas, the platform claims that the use of imported oil is undesirable in that some of the money sent overseas may wind up in the hands of nations, or other groups, that want to harm the United States. The main response, favored in the platform, is the opening up of offshore areas, federal lands, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. In addition to reducing oil imports and increasing energy security, the platform states that the resulting domestic oil and gas development will result in large numbers of new jobs. It also explicitly states its support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline (from Canada to refineries in the United States) for similar reasons, and it criticized Obama for opposing the pipeline. It also expressed support for natural gas fracking and opposed new federal regulations on the practice, saying that state regulations are sufficient.

The platform touched briefly on renewable energy, stating that it supports the development of renewable energy in general, but that it was opposed to government loan guarantees for renewable projects. It instead favors a “market based approach” to renewable energy development. (Not in the platform is that most Republicans also oppose extension of the wind energy tax credit, one of the most significant federal renewable energy subsidies.)

Democrats on energy

The Democratic party platform does not have a section on energy per se. Its policies related to energy can be found in the section on the environment. The discussion on energy is shorter in general than it is in the Republican platform, and it generally does not discuss specific energy sources.

The platform states that protecting the environment is a top priority for the party, and touts Obama’s investments in clean energy and the administration’s efforts to protect the environment. It states that Obama has made the most significant strides in decades to cut pollution, citing the increase in the fuel efficiency standard for vehicles as an example. It specifically talks about many of the pollutants that primarily arise from coal-fired power plants and states that they are a significant threat to health. It states that clean energy development will be a significant source of domestic jobs. It also highlights Obama’s (first time ever) proposed limits on CO2 for new power plants.

Much of the platform’s discussion relates to climate change (global warming). It affirms the party’s belief that global warming is a problem, calling it “one of the biggest threats of this generation–an economic, environmental and national security catastrophe in the making”. It says that the administration (and party) will combat global warming by exercising leadership on the issue abroad, while using “market and regulatory solutions” to reduce emissions at home. It argues that domestic reductions are necessary to show leadership on the issue, which is essential to getting a global agreement to reduce emissions.

Specifically, the platform states that the administration will continue diplomatic efforts to work toward an international agreement to limit/reduce emissions. At home, Obama and the Democrats will continue to invest in clean energy, and will take steps (both legislative and regulatory) to reduce domestic emissions. Regulatory measures include the (already passed) vehicle gas mileage standard and the (proposed) EPA regulations that limit CO2 from new power plants (effectively requiring CO2 sequestration for any new coal plant). Possible legislative efforts would include cap-and-trade, some kind of CO2 tax, or the proposed Clean Energy Standard for getting ~80 percent of electricity from “clean” sources by 2035. None of these legislative options are specifically mentioned in the platform, however, with discussion of specific CO2 limiting policies such as cap-and-trade being conspicuously absent.

In another section of the platform, it states that global warming also represents a “real, urgent and severe” national security risk, arguing that it will result in increased geopolitical conflicts over resources (e.g., water) and refugees, will result in suffering from drought and famine (creating potential instability in various regions), and increased frequency and severity of natural disasters.

Finally, the platform criticizes the Republican party (and candidate), stating that the GOP doubts the science of climate change and wants to roll back regulations protecting our air and water. It also states that the Republicans do not recognize the benefits of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and do not recognize the jobs created by clean energy development.

Nuclear energy

In a relatively brief (two paragraph) discussion, the Republican platform expresses support for nuclear energy, saying that it “must be expanded”. It calls for timely review of new reactor license applications by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It also raises the waste issue, stating that federal government’s failure to address storage and disposal of spent fuel has cost “the States and taxpayers” a lot of money. It calls for a “more proactive” approach for managing spent fuel, which includes the development of advanced reprocessing technologies. Mention of Yucca Mountain is conspicuously absent.

The Democratic platform is completely silent on nuclear energy. Although the platform generally does not mention specific energy sources (as I said earlier), it also does not touch on any policies or proposals that would affect nuclear in any way.

Who’s better for nuclear?

While the Republicans have generally had kinder words for nuclear than the Democrats, it’s less clear whether or not Republican policies would be more helpful to the industry. In general, it appears that while Republicans may be more helpful in the area of waste, Democratic policies such as CO2 limits (and stricter limits on fossil fuel pollution in general) would do more to make nuclear more economically competitive with fossil fuels.

Waste issues

In the area of waste, it would be hard to do worse than the Obama administration, with the shameful termination of the Yucca Mountain licensing process, and the (political) suppression of the results of the NRC staff’s essentially finished licensing review (which virtually everyone knows was about to approve the repository). The administration also appointed not one but two NRC chairmen whose opposition to Yucca Mountain was clearly the primary basis for their selection. On the other hand, would the Republicans be much better? Given that Yucca is not mentioned at all in their platform, it appears that they are not willing to stand up for the repository (or the completion of the licensing process, at least) either.

My view is that the waste issue does not impact nuclear’s competitiveness, since the cost of storing the waste, even over a long time period, is very small—on the order of 0.1 cents/kW-hr. The primary impact of the continued delay in resolving the waste issue is that it strengthens and extends the false notion, held by much of the public, that nuclear waste disposal is an intractable problem with no technical solution. This, in turn, results in increased opposition to the construction or continued operation of nuclear plants. For this reason, I’ve advocated the completion of Yucca’s licensing process, even if the project itself is not continued, since it will show the public that we had a technically sound solution. I personally doubt that alternative solutions—such as the reprocessing discussed by the Republicans, which involves going back to the drawing board and pushing resolution of the issue decades into the future—will have much positive impact.

All that said, it’s not clear that public opposition to nuclear over the waste issue is all that big a factor, in the grand scheme of things. It has not led to much increased opposition to specific projects, especially in the Southeast, where most new plants are proposed. The biggest obstacle to new nuclear plants is clearly economic competitiveness (with fossil fuels, especially gas).

Economic competitiveness

The Republicans made a vague statement about expediting the NRC review of new reactor projects, but specifics, and any real impact, remains to be seen. One would hope that now that the initial license applications (e.g., Vogtle and Summer) have been approved, follow-on applications would go pretty quickly. In any event, a somewhat faster approval process will not help nuclear’s competitiveness that much. (The cost of the licensing process is more of an issue.)

On the other hand, policies that would significantly reign in fossil fuels’ privilege of just dumping massive amounts of pollution (including CO2) into the environment, for free, would significantly increase nuclear’s competitiveness in the future. I’ve always believed that nuclear will never stand much of a chance if it is required to completely contain all of its wastes/toxins (with even the small possibility of release being something that has to be avoided, almost regardless of cost), while its competitors have nowhere near the same requirements.

Policies that would aid nuclear’s competitiveness (in addition to being the right thing to do) would be taxing or limiting CO2 emissions, reducing allowable emissions levels for other toxic pollutants (e.g., particulates, mercury, etc.), classifying coal ash/sludge as a hazardous material, and doing something to more adequately regulate gas fracking, which currently enjoys an exemption from the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts (I believe).

The EPA’s proposed policy that effectively bans new coal plants that don’t employ CO2 sequestration would have a huge impact over the long term. Although it would mainly result in the replacement of coal with gas over the shorter term, it would greatly help nuclear over the long term, since it would increase gas demand (leading to higher natural gas prices). I (and many others) also believe that the current gas glut will not last forever, and that renewables will never be capable of providing most (let alone all) of our power generation.

It’s clear which party would be better in this regard. Many in the Republican party are actually calling for pollution regulations to be rolled back, let alone be improved. The GOP platform clearly states that it will block any attempts to tax or limit CO2, prevent or reverse the EPA’s proposed policy on new coal plants, and oppose any regulations on gas fracking. With fossil fuels getting such a (continued) free ride, and the regulatory playing field remaining so unlevel and unfair, it is hard to see nuclear being competitive in the future.

Some may argue that global warming policies will not happen anyway, so having more reasonable treatment of nuclear in the waste area, as well as (perhaps) better NRC appointments, would make the Republicans better for nuclear, over the next presidential term. My personal view is that the EPA’s new coal plant rule alone, not to mention not having air pollution regulations rolled back, is more than enough to offset those benefits, in terms of the overall climate for nuclear.

Nuclear’s influence?

My general view is that the Republicans primarily support fossil fuels while the Democrats primarily support renewables. Both are now supporting gas, to some degree. Neither party supports nuclear to any significant degree.

This is due to a profound lack of influence in Washington by the nuclear industry, compared to other energy industries. Recently, some have tried to suggest that the industry (Exelon Corp., specifically) has had significant influence with Obama, due to campaign contributions and its presence in Illinois. This view is absurd. Here’s a question: What is the ONLY major energy source that was NOT mentioned at all in Obama’s Democratic convention speech? He (the Democratic candidate) even made brief mention of “clean coal”, but didn’t mention nuclear at all.

Due in large part to this lack of influence, the current regulatory playing field is heavily slanted against nuclear, with nuclear’s requirements being orders of magnitude more strict than those applied to fossil fuels (as measured by dollars spent per unit of public health and safety benefit, etc.). Five years ago, it seemed like things were finally moving in a more fair, balanced direction, with the prospect of CO2 limits, etc., but now things seem set to get even worse.

We have the NRC considering adding even more regulation, and arguing that current regulations are insufficient since the Fukushima event inflicted significant economic costs, even though the public health impacts have been very small—much smaller than what NRC had always assumed the consequences of a severe meltdown would be (i.e, current regulations were always based on the assumption that such an event would be vastly more harmful). Meanwhile, we hear calls from the right side of the political spectrum, to reign in or even eliminate the EPA, with no similar calls for the NRC. Humble proposals to merely reduce the ~20,000 annual deaths, in the United States alone, from fossil plant pollution are loudly decried, while nuclear requirements are being increased even further, in a quest to reduce even the chance of the release of pollution to even more negligible levels, without any fanfare or political resistance (even from the industry itself).

Nuclear’s complete lack of political influence, and the overly powerful influence of other sources such as coal, is starting to be examined in some quarters—a recent article by William Tucker being one example.

If our industry does not find a voice, its future does not look bright. We will continue to have policies such as Renewable Portfolio Standards (that mandate the use of large amounts of renewable energy, regardless of cost or practically) on one side, while continuing to allow fossil fuel plants to freely pollute on the other. The tremendously unlevel regulatory playing field between nuclear and fossil sources will remain, or get even worse.

_______________________________________

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.

 

Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel: Safety Again!

By Meredith Angwin

VSNAP is the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel. This state panel gives advice to the state government on nuclear issues. The most recent meeting was in Montpelier, Vermont, on July 9.

In my opinion, VSNAP has not accepted the fact that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is in charge of nuclear safety. In other words, while a Federal judge already ruled in Entergy v. Vermont that nuclear safety is in the purview of the NRC but not the state – the state still doesn’t “get it.”

Bill Irwin (designee of the Agency of Human Services); Larry Becker (designee of the Agency of Natural Resources); Elizabeth Miller (Chair and Commissioner of PSD); Leslie Kanat (public member appointed by Governor Shumlin); Rep Sarah Edwards (Representative, chosen by the Speaker of the House); Jim Matteau (public member, appointed by Governor Shumlin). Not pictured, Sen. Mark McDonald (Senator, chosen by the Committee on Committees) (thanks to Sarah Hofmann of the Department of Public Service)

Many Changes

I had been to VSNAP meetings in the days before Governor Shumlin was elected, but I had missed some meetings that took place more recently. I wondered how the panel’s deliberations had changed. Since the last time I attended the panel:

* A Governor (Governor Shumlin) opposed to Vermont Yankee was elected, and he appointed a new Department of Public Service Commissioner, Liz Miller

* Vermont Yankee received its license extension from the NRC

* Reactors similar to Vermont Yankee suffered melt-downs at Fukushima

* Vermont Yankee won its federal lawsuit against the state of Vermont. The judge ruled that the state of Vermont has no authority over nuclear safety issues. Such issues are controlled by the NRC.

In the Old Days

The VSNAP panel includes two members of the Vermont legislature, a Senator and a Representative, appointed by the legislature. The panel is chaired by the Commissioner of the Department of Public Service; the Commissioner is appointed by the Governor. “In the old days” when I went to these panels, the Governor was in favor of Vermont Yankee operation and many in the legislature were against it. Back then, the Commissioner and the two legislative panelists were on opposite sides of the fence about nuclear matters.

In those days, the legislative panelists attempted to wrest control of the meeting from the Commissioner. At one memorable meeting, “wresting control” of the meeting included one of the legislators attempting to wrest the actual microphone out of the Commissioner’s hands.

Naturally, in those days, the panel talked about nuclear safety.

Times Have Changed

Those were the exciting old days. The new Commissioner, Liz Miller, has been appointed by the anti- Vermont Yankee governor, Peter Shumlin. She is basically on the same side of the nuclear fence as the legislative panelists. The meetings have calmed down. Microphone-wrestling is over.

In another change, this meeting was held in Montpelier, not Brattleboro or Vernon. (Brattleboro and Vernon are near the southern boundary of Vermont. The plant is in Vernon.) Liz Miller wants people throughout the state to have access to VSNAP meetings. I think this is a good idea. The same people always formerly came to the meetings. Many of the regular attendees came from nearby Massachusetts.

However, this Montpelier meeting had few attendees, and only three members of the public spoke during the public comment section. I think that if the former Commissioner had tried to move the VSNAP meeting away from the Brattleboro area, the proposed move might have been seen as a trick to make it difficult for plant opponents to attend the meetings. However, Miller was able to move the meeting and include people from different parts of Vermont.

Miller has also made the VSNAP website available to the public (a good thing!). You can hear audio files of the entire meeting here. Other VSNAP documents are available at the site.

Advising on Safety

VSNAP is an “advisory” panel. It doesn’t vote on anything, its job is to advise the state government (agencies and elected officials) on issues relating to nuclear power. It can talk about anything, since it is advisory only.

As far as I can tell, VSNAP advises the state government on safety, safety and safety. The panel had asked Entergy for a briefing on Fukushima upgrades required by the NRC. The Entergy presentation was the main business of the meeting. After Entergy’s presentation, it was almost as if the Judge’s ruling hadn’t happened.

The panel members asked about safety issues internal to the plant. Representative Sarah Edwards was concerned with the Mark I containment. Senator Mark MacDonald claimed that the NRC doesn’t enforce its own standards. He stated that the NRC will “change the graduation requirements, and everybody graduates.” Panel members suggested Entergy should move rapidly toward taking the fuel out of the fuel pool and putting it in dry casks (for increased safety, of course). Miller was concerned with the steam dryer and whether the plant was working effectively to coordinate with first responders in an emergency situation. The diesel generators, the hardened vents, diesel fuel storage. All were up for discussion.

One particular exchange showed the mood of the meeting. The Entergy presenter said “The Fukushima accident” as part of his presentation. Senator MacDonald interrupted him. “Was Fukushima an accident?” At that point, Miller asked MacDonald to hold his questions until the end of the presentation, but then she added: “Point well taken.”

The state panel, being advisory, can legitimately discuss anything. However, the question does arise: after they have held these meetings about safety, whom are they planning to advise? The legislature is in the middle of a court case about federal pre-emption,. The Attorney General (AG) denies that the legislature ever voted on “safety.” The AG claims that Entergy’s lawyers convinced the judge that the legislature was involved in nuclear safety assessments, but nothing could have been further from their minds.  Really?

To me, despite the new venue, the civility, and the new Commissioner, this panel was basically the same as all the previous panels. VSNAP is exactly where it was before the Federal court ruling: quizzing Entergy about safety and safety equipment. People on the panel also make it very clear that they don’t expect the NRC to adequately protect the public.

The state legislature cannot concern itself with nuclear safety, but the state can be an intervenor with the NRC. Maybe that is the point of the VSNAP meetings: helping the AG get ready for the next NRC intervention. Though one would expect such a panel to have a broader reach.

Who Discusses Safety

Many people inside and outside of the nuclear industry discuss safety. Everyone wants to be sure that safety changes prevent any recurrence of the events of Fukushima. People should talk about safety.

However, is nuclear safety the proper concern of a state advisory panel? I don’t think so. I think it is bizarre that elected state officials are quizzing Entergy about safety, and discussing the “inadequacies” of the NRC. To me, it’s like a time warp. It’s as if the court case never happened.

The fundamental issue remains the same. The Vermont legislature and its advisory bodies still seem to think that they, not the NRC, are in charge of nuclear safety.

References

A more complete description of the meeting is at Vermont Digger.

Howard Shaffer’s testimony at the December 11, 2011 VSNAP meeting.

Angwin

Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents.

Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.  Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Some Big Changes in Vermont

By Howard Shaffer

Since the previous View from Vermont posted June 12, courts have issued several decisions that will have a major effect on nuclear power nationally, and on the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in particular. The Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Health Care Act has moved attention from these important federal court decisions, which otherwise would have received more publicity (outside of Vermont).

Three main rulings covered the following topics:

  • A lawsuit challenging the legality of the Vermont Yankee license extension issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • Refunding spent fuel storage costs nationally.
  • The “used fuel confidence” rule of the NRC.

Meanwhile, Vermont Yankee’s opponents staged another rally at the plant’s gates, with planned arrests.

And meanwhile, plant supporters continue to spread the positive message about Vermont Yankee and nuclear power.

The challenge to Vermont Yankee’s license

The State of Vermont and intervenors sued the NRC in federal court, claiming that the NRC issued Vermont Yankee’s 20-year license extension illegally. The plaintiffs asserted that the license extension was invalid because the plant has no valid water discharge permit.

The court of appeals dismissed the suit on procedural grounds. The court noted that there were six opportunities for the state to raise the issue during the licensing process. These opportunities were not used. The court said that all administrative avenues must be used before coming to the courts.

In other words, waiting until the license is issued, and then hoping the court will issue a “gotcha,” won’t work. Commentators expect that the Supreme Court would not accept a challenge to a circuit court decision on procedural grounds, when there is no disagreement between circuit courts and no larger issue involved:

Appeals court hands NRC a victory in Yankee license case

Miller

Commissioner Miller, chair of the Department of Public Service, argued the case:

State loses another legal round in Vt. Yankee relicensing

 

This decision was reported in the Valley News, our local paper, on the back of the front page, at the bottom. This area contains short, single paragraph articles of local interest. The Valley News does not support Vermont Yankee. If the plant had lost, it would have been a front-page story.

Yes Vermont Yankee has a great post about the ruling:

Vermont loses lawsuit against NRC about water quality permit

Used fuel storage cost refund

Vermont Yankee sued the federal government to recover the cost of storing used fuel on site. Other plants have filed similar suits. The plants claim that they have been forced into unnecessary costs because the federal government has not fulfilled its legal obligation to take custody of the fuel and remove it.

The court ruled for Vermont Yankee, and allowed almost all of the costs. What is of note in the Vermont Yankee case is that the state had put a special assessment on Vermont Yankee when the plant needed to build a concrete pad for dry cask storage. About this, the court said it would not be inappropriate to describe the high fee the state charged for construction of the concrete pad for storage of the dry casks for the used fuel as “blackmail”(!)

We will certainly hear more about “blackmail” in the fall election campaign. Vermont’s governor Peter Shumlin, a committed opponent of the plant, is up for reelection at the end of his two-year term.

Waste confidence rule

A federal circuit court decision found that the NRC’s waste confidence rule is not valid, because the NRC did not provide an adequate environmental impact statement for long-term storage. This decision is for all plants, not just Vermont Yankee, and will not affect Vermont Yankee immediately. The plant already has its 20-year license extension, so there is no pending NRC license to be stayed. However, there has been editorial commentary based on this ruling, and we can expect opponents to bring this up during the State Public Service Board hearings on the required Certificate of Public Good next year.

The State Public Service Board

Under Vermont law, the Vermont Yankee plant requires a Certificate of Public Good from the Vermont Public Service Board to operate. The original certificate expired on the same day as the expiration of the original NRC license.

The plant continues to operate under the original certificate because it had applied for a new one, and the proceedings are still in progress. The board had actually completed its proceedings several years ago, but was blocked from releasing them by a state senate vote that led to the Entergy v. Vermont lawsuit. The senate action was found illegal by the federal district court in January. The state has been enjoined by the court from acting to shut down the plant while the decision is appealed.

The board has set a schedule with proceedings finishing in August 2013, with their decision to follow. Entergy just filed a motion with the board suggesting the limits of the proceedings. Since the board cannot consider safety, or anything related to safety, or veiled attempts to imply safety, there is a real question about the proper scope of the proceedings. The board will hold a public hearing in Vernon, the plant’s hometown, in November.

The intervenors are expected to file their own opinions on the board’s proper scope. As a public radio reporter called it, intervenors are looking for any “hook” they can find to limit the plant’s power or shut it down. Vermont Yankee’s opponents are eying a requirement for year-round use of the existing cooling towers as a way of limiting the plant’s power. This was a partially successful tactic recently at the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey.

Some things stay the same: The opponents

The various local opponents groups, banded together during the last year as the Safe and Green Alliance, have not slackened their efforts to keep the Vermont Yankee opposition story in the news. They staged a protest event on Sunday, July 1.

Among other proceedings, a large “Trojan Cow” (600 lbs) was unloaded at the plant’s gates. The event received lots of free publicity from several newspapers, as opponents have become very good at this. In the Brattleboro Reformer, a state trooper was quoted as saying that the state was doing “due diligence” to shut the plant down, but the troopers had to do their own due diligence and arrest the protesters:

Protesters arrested at Vermont Yankee gates

Capt. Ray Keefe of the Vermont State Police said that there’s been a long relationship with the organizers and various police agencies to ensure that things run smoothly.

Cow attacks Vermont nuke plant (video)

Meredith Angwin has a stinging commentary about the protest at Yes Vermont Yankee:

Vermont Yankee protest: low turnout and low intelligence

A regatta is planned for August 18, with the objective of publicizing the plant’s use of the river.

And the supporters

There is no slackening of effort on the part of the plant’s supporters. For example, opponents always refer to the plant’s emergency planning zone (EPZ) as the “evacuation zone.” In a recently published letter, Dick January, now on the plant engineering staff, described another “EBZ”: the economic benefit zone.

The Vermont Yankee economic benefit zone

Dick is a long-time activist, going back to our days at the Yankee Atomic nuclear power plant and the Massachusetts shutdown referendum. His letter nicely shows that the Vermont Yankee plant is a very big economic benefit to the surrounding tri-state communities.

In fact, according to a member of the local chamber of commerce, this was one of the original justifications for locating the plant where it is. This fact will undoubtedly be raised again by supporters during the upcoming Public Service Board proceedings for a Certificate of Public Good.

_____________________

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.

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.

Write your own joke

by A. Priori

Summer is here, and while I’ve been on emeritus status at Excited State University for many years, my seasonal rhythms are still those of academia. This means that I’m loafing now, even when it comes to making wisecracks.

I’m willing, however, to guide others in the production of japery, and fortunately the real world has provided us with some excellent raw material. What follows is a direct quote from a licensee event report posted on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Web site on June 12. The reporting organization was the NRC itself, through its Region I Office:

“On May 8, 2012, Region I identified that a survey instrument check source containing approximately 2.64 micro-curies of strontium-90 was missing. The source is believed to have been inside of a metal cabinet that was inadvertently discarded on May 2, 2012, during the removal of excess property in preparation for relocation of the regional office. The source is not considered to be a hazard to public health and safety due to its low activity level and beta emission decay path.

Upon discovery, the Region implemented several immediate actions including: attempts to locate and retrieve the source; confirmation that the remaining instrument check source was properly secured; and, a courtesy notification regarding this issue to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In addition, a review of this event, consistent with the NRC’s Management Directives, was initiated to identify and implement appropriate follow-up actions to prevent recurrence.

This report is being submitted in accordance with NRC MD 10.131 Part V for missing material in a quantity greater than 10 times the quantity specified in 10 CFR 20 Appendix C.”

NRC’s Region I is moving from an office in King of Prussia, Pa., to another office in King of Prussia, Pa. The name of the town alone is always good for a chuckle. In your joke development process, feel free to take a wider perspective: NRC’s Headquarters is also getting ready for a move, as the third White Flint North building is finished and the parts of the agency that have been overflowed elsewhere join up again with the HQ folks in the first two buildings.

Sadly, it’s too late to use this in the Nuclear Energy Institute’s joke-writing contest, which expired June 15. You’re welcome to post your jokes here as comments, but all you’ll win is the admiration of your peers.

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A. Priori

A. Priori is the heatstroke-induced hallucination of E. Michael Blake, Senior Editor of Nuclear News, the monthly magazine of ANS. Blake would like to point out that he has no opportunities to loaf, in any season, but he’s just a whiner.

NRC nominations hearing in US Senate today

A hearing titled “Hearing on the nomination of Allison Macfarlane and re-nomination of Kristine L. Svinicki to be Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission” was held in the US Senate this morning starting at 10:00 AM EDT.

The hearing was webcast live starting at 10:00 AM.

Please see this earlier Nuclear Cafe post for more details.

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ANS Honors NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki with Presidential Citation

NRC Commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki (Photo: NRC)

American Nuclear Society (ANS) President Eric Loewen today announced that Ms. Kristine Svinicki of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will receive a 2012 ANS Presidential Citation. Commissioner Svinicki will receive her award during the ANS President’s Special Session at the ANS Annual Conference: “Nuclear Science and Technology: Managing the Global Impact of Economic and Natural Events,” being held June 24-28 in Chicago, Illinois.

“Commissioner Svinicki has demonstrated leadership and adherence to the highest standards of professional conduct while serving on the Commission,” said Loewen. “She combines an unshakeable demeanor with proven technical and professional qualifications, and we support her nomination to a second term as NRC Commissioner.”

The Presidential Citation recognizes the following achievements:

Commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki—For courageous leadership, dedication to public service, and unwavering commitment to a regulatory framework that enables and facilitates safe and secure use of nuclear technology.

Commissioner Svinicki is a nuclear engineer and policy advisor and has extensive nuclear technology experience. She is a longstanding ANS member, where she served two terms on the ANS Special Committee on Nuclear Non-Proliferation. In 2006—before she was nominated to be NRC Commissioner—the Society honored her with a Presidential Citation in recognition of her contributions to the nuclear energy, science, and technology policies of the United States.

Commissioner Svinicki’s current term is set to expire on June 30, 2012. President Obama has nominated her for a second five-year term. A U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on the re-nomination of Commissioner Svinicki and the nomination of Dr. Allison Macfarlane—who would serve the rest of current NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko’s term, which expires at the end of June 2013—is scheduled for Wednesday, June 13, 2012.

For more information about the conference, visit www.ans.org.  For information about ANS Honors and Awards, visit http://www.new.ans.org/honors/.

Facts and fears at NRC public review in Vermont

By Howard Shaffer

View from VermontVermont Yankee’s annual NRC performance review for the previous calendar year was held May 23, in Brattleboro Union High School, within 10 miles of the plant. In previous years, annual reports and state meetings have been held here, and in the Vernon Elementary School, across the road from the plant. The town of Vernon stopped hosting plant-related events due to behavior of some attendees.

This year’s meeting was in two parts. The first was set up like a science fair, with displays and the opportunity to move from one exhibit to another to talk individually with presenters. The second part of the meeting was held in the same room after the removal of displays, with a traditional setup of chairs for attendees, a table and chairs for NRC officials, and a moderator to manage a Q&A session. Events during this second part of the meeting were covered in “The Politics of Intimidation.”

An important display

BWR MK I Containment and Reactor Building, showing location of used fuel

One of the displays in the “science fair” part of the meeting was a cutaway model of Vermont Yankee’s reactor building. The model showed the fuel pool wall and liner depicted with clear plastic. In the pool were models of fuel assemblies, and the walls were blue to show the location of the water. This model clearly demonstrated that the fuel is several stories below the refueling floor, behind a thick outer wall, the thick pool wall, and pool liner. Obviously a great deal of work and expense had gone into this model. It seems to have been made to address one of the issues that “anti-nukes” continually raise against boiling water reactors with the MK I containment: an alleged vulnerability to aircraft attack by intentional collision.

An attempt to explain

As I approached the table with the model, a member of the public was examining it. Behind the table was the staff member assigned to explain it to the attendees. I joined the conversation. I mentioned my background as a startup engineer at the plant and pointed out that the fuel is behind very thick walls, as shown in the model. Also, the top of the pool is at the refueling floor level, and the water surface just below, as clearly shown in the model. It was pointed out an aircraft would not be a good “battering ram” against the reinforced concrete walls.

The reaction

Walking away with the member of the public  toward the next display, I continued to explain that the industry had carefully studied the effects of intentional large plane crashes into plants. The study found that the only parts of a large commercial jet of concern are the engines. The turbine shaft acts like a spear. The rest of the plane is only a little more than heavy duty aluminum foil, when a plane is used as a battering ram. The tragic crash at the Pentagon on 9/11 proved that.

Stopping, turning, and looking at me, I could see the fear in this person’s eyes as she said “I don’t buy it.”

Enhancing fear

During the second part of the meeting, nearly all the speakers were opposed to Vermont Yankee and nuclear power. Many statements and questions raised or reinforced fears.

One speaker listed all the core damaging accidents in the history of nuclear power, then said that the frequency was much more than had been predicted and “promised.” As I recall from hearing Professor Rassmussen describe the results of his work [WASH-1400 "Reactor Safety Study" (1975)], the frequency he stressed was for core damaging accidents resulting in releases to the public. Core damaging accidents not resulting in releases to the public would be expected to be more frequent. After the Three Mile Island accident he reviewed his report, and found that an accident like TMI was predicted to have already happened before then!

A calm request

Former State Representative Sarah Edwards, from Brattleboro, complemented the opponents for being there, and for being persistent. She said that she had visited Waterford, Yucca Mountain, WIPP, and Oak Ridge, and was on the Vermont State nuclear advisory panel; all while a member of the legislature. She asked that used fuel in the pool be moved to dry casks as soon as possible. Edwards said that she understood that used fuel had to stay in the pool for five years after being discharged form the reactor. As I understand it, this request could be fulfilled, once the Vermont Public Service Board modifies the plant’s Certificate of Public Good. Currently, the plant is approved only for dry cask storage sufficient to reach the end of the original 40-year license—which was this past March.

The future

On June 4, the State of Vermont filed an appeals brief in the US Second Court of Appeals, as expected. The consensus is that this case, Entergy v. Vermont, will go to the Supreme Court.

The Vermont Public Service Board is conducting an examination for a new Certificate of Public Good for Vermont Yankee. There will be a public hearing in November in Vernon, the plant’s location.

End note

David Ropeik, former Boston environmental journalist and expert in risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, is well known to the American Nuclear Society’s Northeastern section, having spoken at and attending our meetings over the years. His recent article on “what controls what we think” is highly worthwhile reading. The feelings and behavior at the NRC’s May 23 meeting confirm his conclusions.

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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.

Macfarlane and Svinicki NRC nomination hearing June 13

A US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing titled “Hearing on the nomination of Allison Macfarlane and re-nomination of Kristine L. Svinicki to be Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission” will be held Wednesday, June 13, at 10:00 AM EDT. The hearing will be webcast live starting at 10:00 AM.

President Barack Obama nominated Macfarlane to be an NRC commissioner and will designate her as NRC chair upon appointment. Macfarlane is an associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University (GMU), a position she has held since 2006. Macfarlane served as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future from March 2010 to January 2012.

Macfarlane would serve the remainder of current NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko’s term, which expires at the end of June 2013. On May 21, Jaczko announced that he would resign his position as soon as his successor was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

President Obama has re-nominated current NRC Commissioner Svinicki for a second five-year term. Svinicki’s current term is set to expire at the end of June 2012. On May 14, the American Nuclear Society issued a statement urging the U.S. Senate to act promptly on Svinicki’s nomination so that there would be no interruption in her service.

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Starting a new nuclear construction industry is hard work

By Rod Adams

Construction at Vogtle units 3 and 4 and VC Summer units 2 and 3 is not going as well as many nuclear advocates would like. I’m not surprised, but neither are most people who have been involved in complex construction and technology projects that involve a lot of moving parts and numerous interested parties. Nothing that happens at those projects will change my mind that atomic fission is a superior way to produce heat and boil water. There is little chance that events at those individual projects will convince me that there is something fundamentally wrong with the advanced passive reactor plant design.

There are some important lessons that need to be shared widely so that the chances of them recurring is minimized, but it is difficult to completely eliminate the challenges that will inevitably be a part of all major construction projects. For the nuclear industry and all nuclear advocates, it is important to recognize that even if things were going perfectly, there would still be plenty of negative publicity coming from the professional opposition to what we do. We are involved in starting up a new nuclear construction industry, almost from scratch.

For the sake of brevity, I will put the current issues at Vogtle and Summer into three categories—backlog of design changes from the certified design, delays that were partially caused by licenses and permits whose issuance was resisted at every step of the process, and an error that resulted in laying concrete rebar that did not match the licensed standard requirements.

Licensing

Soon after the issuance of the AP1000 design certification and the associated combined operating license for Vogtle, the project leaders began the process of submitting design license amendments so that they could implement changes and refinements. Many of the requested design modifications are based on lessons learned during the construction of similar units in China. Unfortunately for the project owners, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has no process for handling license amendments that can keep up with the needs of a construction project.

The “one step” licensing process that is described in 10 CFR 52 (CFR–Code of Federal Regulations) results in the issuance of an operating license based on a certified design. The underlying assumption by the regulators is that the design is complete and will not be changed during construction. Any changes to the design as certified need an operating license amendment.

Even if the change is an improvement, it requires a rigorous NRC evaluation and approval process designed to prevent unintended negative consequences directly affecting reactor safety. The operating license amendment process is quite different from the one used to process changes when the owners build based on a construction permit and request their operating license after completing construction and low power testing.

The problem with one step licensing is that it is a poor assumption to believe that it is possible to build first-of-a-kind (FOAK) construction projects without making any changes to a design that was completely conceived on paper and inside computers. Reality often does not match models. In addition, construction codes and standards are continuously evolving; even though the process is slow, there are inevitably going to be changes that might affect a design that was first submitted for certification 10 years before construction actually started.

The backlog of potential changes for Vogtle and Summer developed because the leaders were understandably reluctant to submit any changes while the design certification work was still in progress. There is not much that the project leaders can do at this point other than to be even more reluctant than they already are to accept any suggestions that would require a license amendment.

With the clarity made possible by hindsight, the Part 52 one-step licensing process might not be the best choice for any FOAK nuclear power plant, even if similar units have been built outside of the United States. US licensing requirements are different enough to require what is essentially a new design and a different construction process.

The opposition’s strategy: delay

It is hard for nuclear advocates to fail to notice that the organized opposition—which did everything in its power to slow the licensing and permitting processes required for Vogtle and Summer—are engaging in “I told you so” crowing about the high cost of new nuclear plant construction. Every story about a potential cost overrun is accompanied by quotes from groups like Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Arjun Makhijani’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. (Note: Makhijani is famous for fantasizing about a carbon free, nuclear free energy supply.)

Arjun Makhijani, the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, said efforts to rush such a complex project to completion set the scene for delays and rising costs.

“The cost increase should not be a surprise; rather it is déjà vu all over again,” he said. “It would be much better if construction were suspended until all design issues were resolved.”

(Source: Augusta Chronicle (May 11, 2012) Price of Vogtle expansion could increase $900 million)

There is no secret to the opposition’s recipe for making any construction project excessively costly. All they have to do is to force schedule delays and costs inevitably increase due to financing, idle labor, labor force reconstitution, issues associated with supply chains, and inflation. Project managers are rarely applauded for missing deadlines, even if they adhere to a carefully prepared, logical schedule that gets pushed to the right (on a timeline) by external forces. Once delays have been imposed, costs will increase again if efforts are made to revise schedules and accelerate work to attempt to get back on schedule.

Supply chain issues are especially difficult to explain to people who have not worked in an industrial setting. When the parts that are needed are large and custom made, they need to be ordered months to years in advance. Once those parts are finished, the manufacturer needs to ship or needs to get paid for storage.

If the parts require special environmental controls to ensure that they do not deteriorate, storage charges increase dramatically. Suppliers who have to delay order shipments or who receive purchase orders several months after they expected the orders to arrive become more reluctant to do business. (That means that they start negotiations for the next order at a higher unit price.) Suppliers also logically delay investing in production capacity until after the orders—and the associated payments—actually arrive.

Rebar

The final current issue associated with Vogtle and Summer is a specific error that resulted in rebar (reinforcement bars of steel that strengthen concrete) being laid at both projects that did not match the concrete standard that was included as part of the certified design. Correcting the error will result in a several month delay at both projects while rebar is removed, new rebar is cut and the new rebar is laid. No concrete can be poured before that happens and there are many steps in the construction process that cannot take place until the concrete is in place. Management is going to be distracted.

The source of the error has not been determined and the results of the investigation may never be made public. What seems to have happened is that someone or some group on the project team decided to use a reinforced concrete standard that was updated after the license was approved. That standard specified a different rebar configuration. The design change was prepared, but never approved by the NRC. Somehow, the rebar was installed to the newer standard even though the license amendment had not been approved. I suspect that there was a communications breakdown that prevented the installers in the field from knowing the exact status of the design. It might have been as simple as a drawing or specification that specified a standard without specifying the exact revision of the standard.

It is going to be an expensive lesson. It is one that can be avoided by projects that have not yet begun construction. In nuclear construction projects, effective change control and effective communications plans are essential.

Reviving a slumbering giant of an industry is hard work. There will be plenty of successes to celebrate, but I would not be a “nuke” if I did not seek to learn as much as possible from the difficulties experienced by others and if I did not seek to document those lessons so that others can also avoid making the same errors. That is part of our learning culture.

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Adams

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