Friday, February 23, 2007

Iran to UN - stuff it

Only Britney is more bizarre, but she's not armed and dangerous

The US and Europe have a major headache on their hands with Iran's defiance of a UN Security Council resolution last December that told them to stop making enriched uranium. Not that it wasn't expected. The IAEA reported on 2/22 that Iran was going ahead with its nuclear program in defiance of the UN Security Council resolution.

In fact it was as about as certain that Iran would tell the IAEA to stick it, which they did this week, as the next instance of Britney Spears doing something bizarre in public like shaving her head. She says she's doing it for the money and wants a million bucks for her locks. The New York Post got it right when it referred to Spears as a "pop star turned train wreck."

Much the same could be said about the Iran nuclear crisis. The motives of Iran's government are no less suspect. In fact some seem to think they want to blow up the whole Middle East in the twitch of a nuclear trigger. Should Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meet the pop tart?

It's a coincidence that Iran's dangerous behavior on the international scene with nuclear enrichment, and Spears' wacko acting out in public have something in common. Both are self-destructive ego plays that lead to bad results. In Iran's case the western powers are now convening to figure out how to impose new economic and political sanctions on that country. For Britney, it may be all about custody of her two children over which he ex-husband is now contesting. Will Iran keep it's nukes? Will Britney's move to rehab help her keep her kids?

It's not a soap opera in either case with significant consequences if folks don't wake up and smell the coffee. We've got a lot more to worry about with Iran than with Britney. She might be having a mental meltdown, but she's not armed and dangerous. Iran is both.

The New York Times reports on 2/23 that Iran's enrichment facility is spinning up and is "very serious" about making weapons grade material. According to the NYT, David Albright, an expert on nuclear weapons, said Iran is moving "faster than expected" with its nuclear program. The NYT cited the IAEA estimate that if Iran is successful it could have enough material for more than a dozen nuclear weapons.

You don't have to hold your breath. At least not just yet. For now neither the US nor Israel are planning any unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear plants. The possibility of tougher sanctions is in doubt. The Washington Post reports that "European powers that conduct billions of dollars in trade with Iran, including Germany and Italy, have resisted stringent economic sanctions that would harm their commercial interests." Where is it all headed? For the diplomats the ball is in their court. Let's hope they keep talking.

As for Spears, the late night comics have taken her off the table as grist for their joke mills. Similarly, Iran's latest turn toward the dark side of nuclear technology is no laughing matter.

Money honey that's what it's all about

If wishes were fishes we'd be knee deep in flounder

Every couple of years a senior offical from the Department of Energy, and sometimes it is the Energy Secretary himself, comes to Idaho Falls and announces there is a great, shining future for the Idaho lab. In the late 1990s two successive energy secretaries annointed Idaho as the "lead lab" for nuclear energy research, but little new funding followed those pronouncements. And sometimes they change their minds. At his first appropriation hearing in 2005 Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman opposed funding for the construction of a next generation nuclear plant at the Idaho lab. He said that if he had $2 billion to work with, he'd put it into building conventional nuclear energy plants to meet baseload demand.

Since then a lot has happened. Significantly, the Energy Act of 2005 put someone in charge of nuclear energy at the Assistant Secretary level which could be a good thing. Now comes Dennis Spurgeon, who is the number one man at DOE for nuclear energy. He told the Idaho Falls Post Register this week "the outlook is more promising that it has been in a long time."

For those of you wondering if you should go out and buy the Taylor Crossing bridge as an investment, wait. Mr. Spurgeon at least deserves credit for wanting to put his money on the table. The Bush administration is asking Congress for a $250 million increase in funding for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in FY2008. DOE's request for new research on light water reactors, the 2010 program, is $114 million a whooping $60 million increase. The request for "Next Generation" reactors, so-called Generation IV technologies, is $36 mllion up $4 million. The nuclear hydrogen research budget also gets an increase up $4 mllion to a total of $23 million.

All of this is good news for the Idaho lab which will get a significant piece of the action assuming Congress passes a budget in some form for FY2008. Readers will recall the budget for FY2007 still isn't done. Asking for new nuclear research money in 2008 is one thing. Getting it is another.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, (D-NM) who chairs the Senate Energy Committee is skeptical of the request and says DOE is moving too fast with plans to build advanced nuclear reactors. Bear in mind this is a powerful politican who has two major DOE nuclear research laboratories in his state - Sandia and Los Alamos. These labs, with their nuclear science and engineering expetise, would stand to benefit from increases in DOE's budget for advanced reactors. So it is all the more surprising that the Senatror rips into DOE's budget request with considerable force. Here's what he said about the GNEP increase.

“There has been very little examination of the Administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program here in Congress, yet it is proposed for a one-year increase that is larger than the whole of DOE’s solar energy budget. With that increase, we would be spending more to investigate reprocessing that the entire amount we are spending on energy efficiency in buildings, transportation, and industrial processes. We will need to see if there is a rationale for diverting so much money towards a program whose details are poorly understood.”

OK. If you are done flinching after that shot across DOE's bow from Senator Bingaman, Mr. Spurgeon has more good news. He says the commercial nuclear energy industry has woken up with 14 companies seeking licensings from the NRC for as many as 32 new plants. Spurgeon says that the plants are needed for two reasons. The first is to replace nuclear energy facilities built 30 or 40 years ago and the second is to meet new demand. In the latter case the number quoted is a 50% increase in demand for electricity. The major sticking point right now is how DOE will implement loan guarantees for investors in the new plants.

At a groundbreaking ceremony for a new research and education facility at the Idaho lab on Feb 20th, Spurgeon reminded the entire Idaho congressional delegation, and the governor, that you can't get that kind of juice from wind power. Regretably for Mr. Spurgeon, all of them are republicans which places Idaho's votes in the minority on appropriations committees. The Bush administration is going to have to work really hard to get that new nuclear money.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

China has nuclear on the menu

Two Deals, Six Reactors, No Waiting

In the past two months China has committed to building six nuclear energy power plants. In December 2006 China awarded a contract for four plants to Westinghouse in the US and awarded another contract in February 2007 for two additional plants to Areva, the French nuclear power firm.

The value of the four plants to be built by Westinghouse is estimated to be between $5-8 billion. Each of the new reactors is expected to have generating capacity of 1,100 megawatts. Half of that work would be done in China, but Westinghouse says the deal will generate 5,000 new jobs in the US. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, signed an agreement with the Chinese government to authorize the sale of US nuclear know-how. Industry analysts have pointed out the Chinese are "very demanding" when it comes to transfer of technology for the construction of future power plants. Westinghouse agreed with this view saying the deal will "make it possible for China to build future nuclear reactors with less help from overseas."

The Areva deal which came nearly two months to the day for two additional reactors is estimated to be worth $5 billion. The two reactors are slated to go into service in 2013. Political considerations may have played a role in the award of this contract. The French firm was reportedly stunned when China awarded the first four plants to Westinghouse. Intense lobbying by the French government probably was a key factor in China's decision to award two additional plants to Areva.

China is expected to spend $50 billion on 30 new nuclear plants by 2020. The International Energy Agency estimates that the combined impact of China's investments in nuclear energy will raise their capacity by 2015 to 15,000 megawatts. However, these investments may have little overall effect on global warming due to China's expected investments in coal-fired electric power plants. China is expected to add 331,000 megawatts of coal fired generating capacity by 2015.

Peking, Pretoria push pebble bed progress

China and South Africa are plunging ahead with technology research and construction of engineering prototypes for the pebble bed nuclear reactor. China is getting help from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the R&D and construction of an engineering scale prototype in Shanghai. The new reactor design relies on small, round fuel elements and is cooled by Helium rather than water as used in current designs. It runs at much higher temperatures.

According to MIT professor Andrew Kadak, for the past six years, MIT and Tsinghua research teams have been working independently on studies of the modular high-temperature pebble-bed reactor. MIT researchers have been performing analytical studies and simulations, while Tsinghua researchers have built and are running experiments in a 10-megawatt (thermal) research reactor, the world's only operating pebble-bed reactor.

The South African government says it plans to award a bid by mid-year 2007 for construction of a new pebble bed reactor. The planned commercial version would produce between 100-200 megawatts and be used in a network of plants.

By comparison work on the "Next Generation Nuclear Plant" (NGNP) in the US is still in an early state of development according to a report by the US General Accounting Office released last September. At a congressional hearing held in conjunction with the release of the GAO report, MIT's Kadak said that NGNP is not getting the funding it needs to make progress. Kadak also told the House hearing the government's R&D plans plans for a 1,000 C degree plant are "overly ambitious" and called for a plant design to run at 850 C. Government scientists said that the higher temperature is needed to use the reactor to make hydrogen as a fuel to compete with $3/gal gasoline.

The scientists estimate a commercially viable plant could be built at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2016 at an estimated cost of $2.4 billion. Funding for NGNP is competing with Department of Energy priorities for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and other nuclear R&D programs. Last September the Department of Energy released $8 million to three companies to perform engineering studies and develop a pre-conceptual design to guide research on the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). The firms are Westinghouse, Areva, and General Atomics.

At the rate things are going one scenario that looks plausible is that in 10-20 years the US might wind up licensing pebble bed reactor technology for commercial use from either the Chinese or South Africans, or both. Meanwhile the US would continue to export current steam generating reactors overseas. Planned construction of as many as 30 new so-called "third-generation" nuclear plants in the US over the next two-or-three decades will be based on designs approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The real challenge will be not to just design a "next generation" plant, but also to get the NRC to approve that design. Does anyone at NRC speak Mandarin?