Thursday, December 18, 2008

Not even close and no cigar

A few instances where things went haywire in 2008

spotlightCovering the global nuclear energy industry requires a certain amount of restraint. Otherwise it would not be possible to offer straight-faced reportage of some of the absurdities that crop up wherever people are involved in nuclear energy, whatever their intentions.

Here for your review is a spotlight on an highly selective list of things that went “bump in the night” in 2008. It takes real effort to get on the list as you will see from the stories that follow.

This is an edited version of an article published in Fuel Cycle Week V7 N308, December 17, 2008 by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC

In the drink

The $1.4 billion refurbishment of Point Lepreau, New Brunswick’s only nuclear reactor is going to take a lot longer because two 107-tonne turbine rotors were briefly stuck in the mud under three meters of salt water in St. John Harbor. The two units are reported to be worth $10M each. According to the New Brunswick media sources, a barge carrying the two power generation components became top-heavy and flipped over dumping the huge devices into the brackish bay. No one was injured in the incident. Recovery operations have pulled the units back on to the shore where they are now drying out, but their condition at this time is unknown. It is likely the salt water did no favors to the factory-mint condition of the two rotors and turbine blades.

Hung out to dry

Alternative Energy Holdings Inc., (PINK:AEHI) which says it plans to build a nuclear power plant in southwestern Idaho, sued the anti-nuclear Snake River Alliance for libel after the group’s director called the penny-stock firm “a scam.” The thin-skinned AEHI also filed assault and battery charges against a Twin Falls foot doctor after he handed out anti-nuclear leaflets at a public meeting protesting the proposed plant. The slightly built podiatrist was convicted and is filing an appeal.

Unclear on concept

Former New York Gov. Elliott Spitzer wanted to shut down the two reactors at the Indian Point nuclear power station without having the faintest idea of where the replacement electricity would come from. He failed to accomplish his goal—then suddenly left office after an unrelated sex scandal. Entergy, the utility that owns and operates the plant, finally got its emergency sirens to work and pledged to spend $100 million over the next six years in plant, equipment, and safety system improvements.

Entergy put up with a lot of grief during its relicensing hearings, but got some unexpected relief when the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board took action against a citizens' group that had tried its patience to the breaking point. The agency said the Westchester Citizens Awareness Network (WestCAN) was barred from future proceedings because the counsel for WestCAN repeatedly disregarded agency regulations and instructions from the panel.

According to the MidHudson News for Dec 9, the NRC noted that the actions by WestCAN's counsel have "seriously disrupted the Board's efforts to meet its responsibility to conduct a fair, orderly and efficient hearing, has interfered with the other participants' efforts to use their own litigation resources efficiently, and has made our own review of the appellate documents and the underlying record far more time-consuming than necessary."

The Commission has also taken the rare step of ordering the NRC's Office of the Secretary to not accept any further filings from the lawyers for WestCAN, unless they meet all procedural requirements.

Sorry about that

Apologies abound in the Green Mountain state. Vermont State Senate leader Peter Shumlin called the CEO of the state’s largest employer, IBM, a “liar” for his support of relicensing cheap electricity from Vermont Yankee. IBM employs 6,000 people in Vermont due to the benefit of the low rates. Vermont’s governor later apologized to IBM to reassure the firm the state really wants to keep those jobs.

For their part the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant employees did everything they could to reduce public confidence in the plant. They dropped a cask of spent nuclear fuel when a crane failed and the plant suffered repeated and visually spectacular failures of the cooling system outfall pipes. No one was injured and no radioactivity was released from either incident.

The NRC ruled the cooling system breach was not “safety significant,” but some of Vermont’s citizens are not buying it. They shouted down Thomas Salmon, a former Vermont governor, when he tried to testify at an NRC hearing about relicensing the plant. The NRC apologized to him for losing control of the public meeting.

Anti-nuclear activists attacked the Vermont Public Service Board by bombarding workers there with plastic popcorn soaked in an obnoxious chemical. One worker was injured. The offices of the utility rate-setting agency are now closed to the public. No one from the Green Mountain Earth First group apologized for the incident.

Home-field advantage

Ontario’s provincial government scared off Westinghouse and GE-Hitachi for the new project at Darlington, leaving only AREVA and AECL in the bidding. With 30,000 AECL workers, who presumably vote, in Ontario, does Canada’s government care? Why would any bidder besides AECL show up on the firm’s home turf? Does AREVA know something AECL doesn't? [Update: see DBXL's comments, below, about these issues.]

What me worry?

Colorado homeowners bought large lots and built expensive trophy homes in a rural historic uranium-mining district in Fremont County near Colorado Springs and then acted surprised when a firm prospecting the old claims begin drilling within 500 yards of the subdivision.

Meanwhile, over in Telluride, seasonal ski enthusiasts with time on their hands are opposing development of a uranium mill located 40 miles to the west of their homes, which they fear would pollute their drinking water wells. In another amazing lapse of science and reason, they published information on a controversial web site about weapons grade-plutonium, which they implied could be found at the proposed mill site.

On the high plains of eastern Colorado, Ft. Collins residents of a self-described “green” city, 19 miles to the west and decidedly up gradient from a proposed ISL mine in Nunn, Colo., turned out in force to oppose it with claims about its alleged threat to property values. They appeared unmoved by explanations that if the groundwater of the remote geologic formations weren't already full of uranium, the mine wouldn’t be built there.

Three strikes you're out

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire spooked economic development groups in Richland, WA, when she talked with Areva’s chief executive officer about a possible uranium enrichment plant in Richland and “reiterated my concern about disposal of waste.”

In fact, the governor's lukewarm support, and stern lecture, about the $2.4 billion project convinced Areva the firm was not wanted in Washington. The plant is now being built in eastern Idaho which offered millions in attractive tax incentives and an overwhelmingly supportive political climate.

Gregorie was unapologetic about her appeal to the west of the Cascades green vote and a roundabout slap in the face to the folks in the Tri-Cities. She survived a close election in 2008 and was returned to office for a 2nd term. No love was lost in Richland. As far as they are concerned, the mighty Gregorie had struck out costing them the jobs that went with a $2.4 billion construction project.

Cancel my flight

GE Hitachi pulled out of bidding for three new nuclear plants in Turkey, the entire U.K. nuclear build, and the Darlington, Ontario, Canada, reactor tenders. Also, Exelon canceled its plans for twin ESBWR reactors for a "greenfield" site in Victoria, TX. Serious questions from the NRC as part of the design certification review for the ESBWR played a role in these outcomes although leaving the bidding in Turkey was probably a good idea (see next story).

One if by sea

Turkey, which dreams of energy independence from its large, resource-rich neighbor to the north, got a harsh reality check. The Turkish government published a tender for 4,000 MW of nuclear capacity, but refused to include provisions for the protection of proprietary technology, guarantees for sale of power for 15 years after startup, indemnification and the ability to have foreign workers run the plant until Turkey can train their own. Consequently 12 of the 13 potential contractors decided to forgo the bid. The only one to make an offer was Russia's Atomstroyexport. Turkey is rethinking its solicitation strategy and whether to award the contract.

Loose nukes

In a CBS 60-Minutes TV news report South African officials denied, a year after it happened, that a breach of sophisticated security systems by two teams of armed men at the Pelindaba nuclear site, which included shorting out a 10 KV electric fence, was an attempt to steal HEU. Officials called it a botched burglary. No one has been arrested for the break-in though several security guards were fired for what appears to have been an inside job.

The one apparent hero of the incident, Anton Gerber, decked two of the intruders when they crashed into the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and was well on his way to knocking out the daylights out of the other two men when they shot him. He survived his wounds and is now suing his employer over the injuries.

Overshadowed in the excitement is the report that another roving security team was alert and spotted the other group of four intruders. The guards opened fire under the standing rule that if you see someone at night inside the security fence, "it's not us" so shot first and ask questions later. They did and the four men fled into the night empty handed but not before shooting back. It isn't known whether anyone was wounded in exchange of gunfire.

Lucy, you've got some explaining to do

Aaron Tilton a former Utah state legislator, and former entrepreneur of nutritional supplements on the Internet, wants to build a 3000 MW nuclear power plant in Green River, Utah, to be guaranteed by the entire rate base for the Beehive state. The goal is to make up for the cancellation of a 900 MW coal fired power plant and to export most of the nuclear generated electricity to Los Angeles.

Tilton, who is now executive director of Transition Power, inked a controversial deal for 30,000 acre feet of water for the plant with fellow legislator Mike Noel who's day job is director of the Kane County Water District. No Utah ethics laws were broken though some people think Tilton and Noel have some explaining to do about who will benefit from the proposed plant.

Penny for your thoughts

German Chancellor Andrea Merkel and her conservative Christian Democrats thought they had a plan to save Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants from being shut down: extend their operational life by diverting some of the profits from the sale of electricity into a fund to buy down the higher costs of wind and solar power. The plan would generate €40 billion (US$56 billion) over a period of 20 years.

But Social Democrat Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, speaking for a broad coalition that include the country’s green groups, called the plan “a return of the nuclear industry.” True. It just goes to show that the German greens are sticking to their principles even if it costs them $56 billion.

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DV8 2XL said...

One more time: the Premier of Ontario is Dalton McGuinty who sits in the Ontario legislature at Queen's Park in Toronto. Steven Harper is the current Prime Minister of Canada which is the national government.

The electric power is strictly under the control of the Provinces in Canada, therefore the Harper government has nothing to do with this matter. If you are going to point a finger at anyone in this affair of the so-called 'open bid' for the new reactors, it should be McGuinty and his government.

djysrv said...

Additional comments received via email from DV82XL.

AECL is a Crown corporation, and as such is not controlled by the Prime Ministers Office, or the Cabinet, or even Parliament for that mater - not at least in any direct sense. Also this government made it clear during it's first mandate that it wanted to sell AECL off, in whole or in parts to the private sector.

All areas of electric power generation, transmission and distribution, are under the control of the Provence's, and this is something that is carved in stone. The decision to stage this bid was made by the Ontario Power Generation Ltd, because it is now a private entity (one of several created by the break up of Ontario Hydro. Long time observers of the Canadian nuclear business, like myself, understood that this was a ploy to leverage a better deal from AECL via guarantees from the Ontario government, who had done so in the past, and while I'm sure that they wouldn't turn up their nose at federal money, Ottawa was not the primary target of this action.

Now just for the record, I am not a fan of the Conservatives in Ottawa, and I have been disappointed at their general disinterest in the uranium/nuclear sector, but this circus is not their doing. I'd I like to see blame fall where it's deserved.