Saturday, May 19, 2007

Nuclear plant security chief had fabricated resume

Who's watching the watcher?

In the department of "you can't make this stuff up" there is a report in the June issue of Esquire magazine that the Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan employed Rambo, or at least someone who thinks he is Rambo. Even more interesting the Michigan job is the second this guy held as a security director at a nuclear power plant. According to the magazine William E. Clark also worked at the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire.

Clark reportedly made up fantastic stories about being a paid assassin and having worked as a mercenary in an impossible combination of dangerous places for political celebrities of all kinds. With his cover blown Mr. Clark is no longer working as a security chief in the nuclear industry, but his troubles aren't over.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) is hot on his trail and is hopping mad demanding answers from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about how Clark got hired in the first place. In a press release Markey wants to know whether Clark was more of a danger to the plants he worked at than the threats he was supposed to protect them from in the first place.

Markey certainly gets one thing right. He calls it a "bizarre episode."

Sunday, May 13, 2007

TVA reopens Browns Ferry

The plant came in at $1.8B in capital costs or $1,500/kilowatt

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) plans to reopen the Browns Ferry 1 nuclear reactor this month 22 years after it was shut down down for safety reasons and after five years of upgrades and renovation. The cost is $1.8 billion, which is nearly as much as a new nuclear power plant.

The plant, located in Athens, GA, has a valid license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). It will generate 1,200 megawatts of electricity for the region at a cost of $1,500 per kilowatt. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) estimates new plants can be built for a price of $1,200 to $1,400/kilowatt. Despite the higher costs TVA felt that having the bulk of the regulatory paperwork behind it was a big advantage in making the decision to invest in reopening the plant.

Critics were not persuaded by this reasoning. David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer who once worked at Browns Ferry, and now works for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that upgrading the plant is like buying an eight-track tape in an I-Pod era. UCS also issued a report that stated in its analysis that aging nuclear plants, despite upgrades, are in the "wear out" phase.

Despite these concerns, TVA is also studying whether to finish the Watts Bar 2 nuclear power plant where work stopped in 1988. Watts Bar 1 came online in 1996 after years of delays.

Iran still in the nuclear black market

Two rounds of UN sanctions in Iran is still shopping for weapons parts

Although U.S. and allied intelligence services have broken up parts of the nuclear-parts trafficking network run by A.Q. Khan, creator of Pakistan's atomic bomb, Iran has constructed a new, and possibly larger, clandestine network for acquiring nuclear technology, according to a new report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.

"Iran remains the most active customer in the nuclear black market, a customer that has built an equivalent if not even larger network than A.Q. Khan's," IISS proliferation specialist Mark Fitzpatrick told reporters and proliferation experts in Washington this week.

The IISS study, Nuclear Black markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks, concludes that despite Khan having been placed under house arrest by the Pakistan government in 2004, elements of his supply network, which spanned three continents, remain active and dangerous.

UN sanctions against Iran for its uranium enrichment program appear to have had little if any effect on that country's ambitions to develop nuclear weapons. IISS wrote that Iran remains the most active customer in the international nuclear black market. Iran has sought dual-use goods from some of the same people and firms previously linked to Khan, but has also turned to new technology brokers. Iran evades export controls by repeatedly changing front companies and financing arrangements.

Time Magazine reported that US State and Treasury Department officials have said that some of these front companies and bank accounts are thought to be centered in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states. The U.S. has repeatedly sought help from these countries in shutting down Iranian fronts and financial networks, but with mixed results, at best.

The IISS study asserts that the UAE is a "common destination for illicit items and eventually the hub of the Khan network." It adds that Iran is one of the top recipients of non-oil exports from the Emirates, and predicts that "the UAE's relatively lax export controls will no doubt prove tempting to Iran if the international community continues to target its nuclear-related imports."

The IISS report made a big splash in the news media in Pakistan where Kahn is a national hero and in neighboring India where he is not.

Loan guarantee regulations out for comment

Less than half the amount would cover nuclear plants

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for its Loan Guarantee program, which will help investment in energy technologies. Under the FY2007 Continuing Resolution, Congress provided DOE with authority to issue guarantees for up to $4 billion in loans; and in the Administration’s FY2008 budget, DOE requested $9 billion in loan guarantee authority.

The guarantees will provide guarantees of up to 90% of loans required for clean-energy projects, as long as the debt does not exceed 80% of the total project cost. Of $9 billion requested by DOE for the guarantees in its FY2008 request, the department may guarantee $4 billion to nuclear or carbon sequestering coal-fired plants. Another $4 billion could go to support biofuels and clean transportation fuels, and $1 billion to electricity transmission and renewable power systems.

Note that the government will only provide air cover for up to 80% of the project cost leaving investors in the other 20% in second place in case of a default. With the cost of a new nuclear plant measured in the billions, that's a lot of exposure.

The proposed rule making has something for everyone. According to the announcement, DOE seeks a broad portfolio of large and small projects, from a wide variety of technologies. Within DOE's FY2008 budget request to guarantee up to $9 billion in loans, DOE has proposed to guarantee $4 billion in loans for central power generation facilities such as nuclear facilities or carbon sequestration optimized coal power plants; $4 billion in loans for projects that promote biofuels and clean transportation fuels; and $1 billion in loans for projects using new technologies for electric transmission facilities or renewable power generation systems.

More information on the proposed rule making and a link to the full text are found here.

DOE offers $60M for GNEP designs

Keep your day job. Only$15M is for 2007. The rest is up to a skeptical Congress.

The Department of Energy announced this week a funding opportunity totally $60M over two years for conceptual designs of GNEP facilities.

If interested please keep your day job because only $15M of the funds will be available in 2007. The rest, $45M, won't be available unless Congress approves the funding for 2008. So far Congress has been critical about GNEP and slashed funding for the program every year DOE asked for it.

Here's the deal. DOE wants industry to come up with conceptual designs for all three types of GNEP facilities and figure out how to make the business case for them. The $60M over two years is likely going to be inadequate for the task. DOE wants multiple design, technical, and business studies for three distinctly first-of-a-kind nuclear facilities.

The fact that it costs $60M to license just one conventional nuclear power plant, with a design previously approved by the NRC, doesn't seem to have been a reality check on this announcement.

The feds say the purpose of the funding is "to engage industry experts in the conceptual design of the initial nuclear fuel recycling center and advanced recycling reactor as part of GNEP. Studies will include scope, schedule and cost information of the proposed facilities and will also identify technological needs that will be used to guide GNEP’s R&D activities."

According to DOE applicants for the funds will be asked to explore the technical and business issues that address the design, construction, and operation of GNEP’s initial nuclear fuel recycling center and advanced recycling reactor.

One of DOE's more successful tactics, when it isn't sure what will sell with Congress, industry, or the public, is to develop technology roadmaps. Note the emphasis on the plural. This means the government is keeping its options open. That's a rational choice given the size and complexity of the program. The announcement requests a complete package.

In conjunction with the conceptual design studies, the recipients of funding will also develop technology roadmaps to describe the state of the current technology, perform a technology “gap” analysis, and define the methods and plans to acquire technology needed to achieve the GNEP goals. The business plans will address how the market may facilitate DOE plans to develop and commercialize the advanced fuel cycle technologies and facilities. The communications plans will address the dissemination of scientific, technical, and practical information relating to nuclear energy and closing the nuclear fuel cycle.

DOE will use the information and recommendations provided by these studies to inform a Secretarial decision on the path forward for GNEP, including site selection, scheduled for June 2008. He's going to need some more help with that decision. At best the paper studies generated by this funding will document the unknowns about GNEP facilities and that includes the business issues.