Saturday, April 28, 2007

Scarce nuclear workers on fast roller coaster ride

The pay is good, but opinions differ on the best opportunities

If you are a nuclear engineer or technician stand fast because you are in for a roller coaster ride with lots of switchbacks. Some people want you. Others don't. It all depends on what program you work on and what state you live in. Hang on because the ride is about to begin.

NRC sees shortage of trained nuclear workers

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says there is a shortage of trained workers to build new nuclear power plants. This isn't a new story, but coming from the chairman of the NRC is obtains a new sense of urgency. University engineering departments with students in nuclear engineering programs take heed! Dale Klein, NRC chairman said,

"Where are we going to get the educated and skilled workers to safely run the current fleet (of reactors) over extended lifetimes and the potential nuclear plants of the future?. Where are they being educated? Where are they being trained?"

The U.S. government, energy experts and even some environmentalists see a revival of nuclear power as a clean energy alternative, but that resurgence may be held up by a lack of qualified workers.

Nuclear workers call the NRC. They have jobs now or know where they will be based on licensing applications.

Craig to DOE "snap it up" on GNEP

When it comes to nuclear fuel reprocessing, Idaho Senator Larry Craig, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee doesn't mince words. He told DOE officials this week they should stop "reinventing" reprocessing technology and just get on with the job. He was referring the the Department of Energy's Global Nuclear Energy Program (GNEP).

Craig pointed out the US is running well behind European countries when it comes to reprocessing methods. He said the US should snap things up because "some of the Europeans have a pretty good history" of dealing with the nonproliferation issues associated with reprocessing.

Craig has been an advocate of the GNEP program. There are two proposals for GNEP facilities in eastern Idaho. The Senator hasn't taken a public position on either of them, but if one is funded by the government it could bring 1,000s to jobs to the state.

If the feds do move quickly to fund the multi-billion dollar GNEP program, then they will be competing for the same scarce workers as the commercial nuclear electric power industry. Some of them already work in Idaho and have experience with reprocessing which took place at the Idaho lab until the 1990s.

Alvarez to DOE "walk away" from GNEP

On the other hand, a vocal critic of the GNEP program said this week Congress should stop all work on GNEP until DOE can provide credible estimates on wastes that would be produced by the program. Robert Alvarez said, "unprecedented amounts of long-lived radioactive wastes could be disposed in the near surface and pose increased contamination risks for thousands of years."

Alvarez was a senior level official with the Department of Energy during the Clinton Administration. He also worked on the staff of the Senate Committee on Government Affairs for then Senator John Glenn according to his bio at the Institute for Policy Studies which issued the report.

Maybe those scarce nuclear workers should keep their eyes on the commercial nuclear industry after all?

Fresno nuclear backers go for French recycling

Backers of a proposed nuclear power plant for Fresno, California, say they have an answer how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel form the plant. They will send it by ship to France to be reprocessed there thus avoiding the current at-reactor storage problem facing all other US nuclear power plants.

California currently has a law on the books banning new construction of nuclear power plants due the lack of a viable storage plan in the US for spent nuclear fuel. A group of Fresno businessmen want to put a referendum on the California 2008 ballot to overturn the ban. The referendum is a high risk venture because polls show voters are split down the middle with just 8% undecided on the issue. An effort to remove the law died in a legislative committee earlier this month in a vote along party lines with Democrats leading the opposition.

Scarce nuclear workers in California take note. Register to vote now.

Nuclear careers look lucrative

Reuters reports the nuclear engineers and technicians who landed their jobs in the 1970s are retiring and there are few trained to take their places. Carol Berrigan, who researches nuclear infrastructure for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobby group, told the wire service the coming labor shortage as a "looming trend." A study by the Institute found that half of the industry's employees were over 47 years old, while less than 8 percent of employees were younger than 32. Most Americans retire after turning 65, and the survey found more than a quarter of nuclear workers were already eligible to stop working.

The number of nuclear engineering majors at colleges around the country has risen to 1,800 last year from just 500 in 1998, according to the Energy Department, but that is still not enough to feed current needs. Salary surveys report the average starting salary for a nuclear engineer with a bachelors degree is $51,182, higher than many other areas. Forbes magazine recently listed plant operators as one of its top 10 best-paying blue-collar jobs, with an estimated income of $56,472.

Idaho's invisible nuclear power plant

NRC and Idaho regulators are mystified by AEHI press reports

A Bosie, ID, TV station reports that a proposed nuclear power plant to be located south of Mountain Home, ID, is off the radar screen for just about every regulatory agency that would have something to say about it. In an on-air video story April 27th KTVB says the 1,600 Mw plant being planned by Alternative Energy Holdings (AEHI) of Virginia is essentially invisible to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (IDEQ).

“The only thing that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has heard, with regards to Alternate Energy Holdings, is what we have seen in the media," said Scott Burnell, NRC in response to an inquiry from KTVB.

KTVB also notes that Alternate Energy Holdings needs approval from the Idaho Department of Water Resources. That agency, according to KTVB, has not been contacted. Also, Owyhee County officials say they have not yet received an application for a building permit.

In response to the TV news story Don Gillispie said, "Our first step is county permission approval and if we get that, hopefully this summer, then that will start the next large process, which is the nuclear regulatory approval,”

Water is Idaho's pot of gold at the end of Thousand Springs

Water is a huge, controversial subject in Idaho, and any power plant's significant demand for cooling water supply from the Snake River downstream from Thousand Springs could create the political equivalent of a nuclear meltdown from farmers, Indian tribes, and other downstream water users.

Southern Idaho is a desert with less than 12 inches of rainfall per year. The state's famous potato crop depends on irrigation from winter snow melt in the mountains and groundwater pumping from the Snake River aquifer. Water is the key to Idaho's agricultural economy. Idaho Governor Butch Otter recently held a water summit in Twin Falls, ID, to try to get various water rights holders to agree to settle long standing disputes. Introduction of a plan for nuclear power plant into this environment would create high profile political opposition from a broad cross-section of water users as well as environmental groups.

Where are the investors?

There is nothing reported in the news media about who the investors are for the plant. AEHI's stock is in the over-the-counter "pink sheets" that currently trades for less than a dollar a share. According to public financial reports, the Thaxton, VA, firm has 26 million shares outstanding. The market close price on April 27th of $0.37.share that sets AEHI's value at less than $10M. The stock started the day at $0.51/share with a previous day market close of $0.46/share. Trading volume ranges from 7,000 to 40,000 shares per day.

The significance of these numbers is that it raises the question where the $50-100M will come from just to obtain an NRC license for the plant? The next question is where are the billions that are needed to build a 1,600 Mw nuclear reactor? The company's board of directors listed on its website includes a list of semi-retired nuclear industry executives and consultants. None of the directors have a financial industry background.

Is there an AREVA or WGI connection?

AEHI says it is in discussions with AREVA, the French nuclear power plant giant, to build a reactor in Idaho. While AREVA has announced plans to license its EPR reactor design in the US, press kit materials on its US facing website do not mention AEHI.

AREVA already has a US partner to pay for pursuit of an NRC license of its EPR design. The most current US development for AREA is UniStar Nuclear which said on April 5th it is working toward deploying a proposed EPR that could be built in Missouri or Illinois for Ameren. AREVA is building one of its newest designed plants in Finland. The European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) is a 1,600 Mw facility.

AREVA's public proposal for nuclear activities in Idaho are associated with the efforts led by the Regional Development Alliance (RDA) and the Idaho Nuclear Laboratory (INL) to build advanced nuclear fuel plants under the Department of Energy's Global Nuclear Energy Program (GNEP).

AEHI also says it held discussions in March with Washington Group International (WGI), a Boise-based engineering and construction firm that has significant nuclear industry experience. WGI is a part of the contractor team managing the Idaho National Laboratory and recently inked an agreement with Japan Nuclear Fuel as part of the same GNEP proposal in partnership with AREVA.

AEHI is effective associating its name with credible, large nuclear firms. Hypothetically, AEHI could issue press releases it is having discussions with the milkman, the butcher, and the candle stick maker, but that doesn't make them partners in the design and construction of a nuclear power plant in Idaho. What has been published so far are outbound press statements from AEHI. What is needed to determine its credibility are confirming public statements by AEHI's partners including its investors.

Resolving unknown unknowns about AEHI's nuclear plans

Defense analysts divide threats and risks into three categories - known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. The last one is associated with the greatest degree of uncertainty. While presenting an energetic public face through press releases and interviews to financial analysts, AEHI's plans for a nuclear power plant in the Bruneau area of Idaho remain off the radar screen for federal and state regulators. They don't know much about the plant and are not able to assess its environmental, technical, or economic risks. For the time being the plant appears to be positioned somewhere between an "unknown unknown" and a "known unknown." That's pretty close to invisible.

That said Don Gillispie is nothing if not energetic in getting his message out. In a recent audio interview with a Wall Street public relations service, he explains his plans for a nuclear power plant in Idaho and other energy projects including a project to turn lightning into electricity. The firm has issued numerous press releases and audio interviews since its announcement last winter. The firm joined the Nuclear Energy Institute in February 2007 in an effort to boost its credibility with the industry.

Whether AEHI's press announcements that it plans to build a nuclear power plant are for real or are just a public relations ploy to push up its stock price are anybody's guess. There is lots of uncertainty for both points of view. KTVB in Boise thinks the plant has lots of big challenges ahead before it breaks ground and that's a fair assessment.

*** Updates here ***

Thursday, April 26, 2007

April Blog Update & Archive Items

This is an irregular update to readers.

New content is posted on the blog mostly on the weekends. Posting is light usually two or three items per week.

Archiving has been changed from monthly to weekly and there is a limit of 10 days of content on the main page. Different browsers see the blog differently. For some browsers the archive listings in the right hand column are pushed to the bottom of the page.

Indexing now occurs on Google, Blogger, Technorati, Bloglines, Feedburner, Newsgator, and Tailrank.

Feeds are available in a variety of formats. See the right hand column of the blog for clickable icons.

Comments are always welcome either on the blog or to me:

Chernobyl fact & fiction

The Nuclear Energy Institute has a fact sheet and retrospective history on the event. It makes for interesting reading even after all these years.

For a fictionalized version of the post incident nuclear landscape in the Ukraine read Martin Cruz Smith's Wolves Eat Dogs

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Israel PM says Iran issue can be settled peacefully

Olmert warns against panic over Iran's boasts of nuclear progress

The Associated Press reports Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that there was still time for international diplomatic efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, without the need for military action. Olmert has never ruled out taking military action, but he has repeatedly said he would prefer a diplomatic solution.

"I believe the international efforts will achieve the goals. There is no need to get caught up in any apocalyptic prophecies that have no basis in reality."

Olmert warned against panic over Iran's nuclear program. "Iran is far from crossing the nuclear threshold. Unfortunately, it is not as far as I would like it to be, but it is also not as close as it proclaims to be."

This is a reference to Iran's claim to have 3,000 uranium centrifuges, with plans for 50,000, when in fact it only has 1,300 that are operational and about 10-20% of them have failed explosively according to Iran's Atomic Energy ministry.

Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear program have been intensified by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated calls for Israel's destruction. His Holocaust denial pronouncements have been designed to create a political atmosphere which legitimizes efforts to destroy the Israeli state.

The UN Security Council imposed sanctions in December 2006 and strengthened them with a precedent setting second round of measures last month because of Iran's refusal to stop uranium enrichment. The process can produce fissile material for a weapon or fuel for civilian energy. The UN Security Council has set a new deadline for late May.

"The security council has passed two resolutions, which impose unprecedented sanctions," Olmert said. "I think there is a possibility, even without a military operation, to stop Iran from going nuclear."

That's good news. Maybe Mr. Olmert also saw the video of US presidential candidate John McCain singing "bomb Iran" to the tune of a Beach Boys pop song, a performance that ought to give anyone second thoughts about voting for him. Maybe McCain should call up Howard Dean and asking him about the "scream" in the 2004 election?