Friday, June 6, 2008

International Isotopes announces major expansion

islogoThe Idaho Falls company will build a uranium enrichment tails processing facility

[Additional coverage in Fuel Cycle Week]

International Isotopes (OTC:INIS) announced June 4 it plans to construct a commercial facility to process depleted uranium hexafluoride (UF6) tails from commercial uranium enrichment operations. There are no facilities in the U.S. today that convert depleted UF6 tails. The company's facility would close a significant gap for current and planned uranium enrichment operations in this country.

The company's decision to proceed with a significant investment in an operating facility comes as a result of developing a major intellectual property position with the filing of five patents for using the fluoride gas from the extraction process. It's in demand for applications used to produce certain pharmaceutical and agricultural products. The gas is also in demand for the production of microelectronics, semiconductors, fiber optic cable, and photovoltaic films for solar cell applications.

Demand for a UF6 tails facility

During the uranium enrichment process, uranium in the form of UF6 is enriched in the isotope U-235 to produce nuclear fuel. Approximately 90% of the UF6 that goes into the enrichment facility becomes “depleted” and emerges as UF6 “tails”.

uf6 cannisters By volume, depleted UF6 from the enrichment process is the largest waste component of the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Depleted UF6 cannot be disposed of directly, but must be converted into disposable waste forms.

There are no facilities in the U.S. today that can convert depleted UF6 tails. Steve Laflin, CEO, (below) told me there is strong demand for the services his planned facility will provide to customers.

laflin"The new facility will fill an important need facing commercial uranium enrichment providers. USEC, Louisiana Energy Services (LES), AREVA, and General Electric have all either announced plans to build, or are building, new nuclear fuel enrichment facilities in the United States. When these facilities are completed, at their initial stated capacity, they will produce approximately 60 million pounds of depleted UF6 tails each year."

Some plant equipment already purchased

Laflin said his firm has completed an asset purchase agreement with Sequoyah Fuels Corp. to acquire intellectual property and equipment related to an idled uranium deconversion facility. Sequoyah Fuels Corp. operated a uranium conversion facility in Oklahoma, but it has not had any production since 1993 and is now in decommissioning status.

The purchase agreement includes equipment and engineering design, drawings, procedures, software, licensing documents, and related know-how for construction and operation of a DUF6 to DUF4 deconversion facility. Laflin said the equipment will be disassembled and removed from the facility for use at another location yet to be determined, subject to approval of the NRC.

INIS plans to incorporate best available technology to design and build a new, state of the art, plant that will have the dual purpose of stabilizing DUF6 tails and providing DUF4 feed for the company’s Fluorine Extraction Process (FEP).

Plant location still in flux

grow idaho fallsLaflin said he would like to keep his operation in Idaho Falls, which makes sense since Areva has announced it plans to build a $2 billion uranium enrichment plant 18 miles west of town. However, he said he would go where it makes the most business sense. He told me there is no agreement with Areva at this time. In the near term if he can get good terms he might go to Eunice, NM, where Louisiana Energy Services is also building a uranium enrichment plant.

In response Linda Martin, executive director for Grow Idaho Falls, a local economic development group, said she's started working on a plan to keep Laflin's firm here. She mentioned that Areva's plan for a new enrichment plant "does make our city more attractive."

Laflin said the firm plans to begin hiring personnel and put subcontracts in place to carry out engineering design, licensing, site studies, and environmental reviews. His company submitted a letter of intent to the NRC last March 2008, informing the agency of its intent to submit a license applications in early 2009.

The location of the new facility has not yet been determined. Laflin said, “The company will narrow its search for suitable locations as part of our site location review process. He estimates about 100 people will be required for construction and the plant would eventually have 30-50 full time employees."

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Idaho Power and nuclear energy

* * * The piece about the future of the Partnership for Science & Technology is here.

There were some problems on the server side of blog which scrambled the order of posts. If you have problems finding any posts just scroll down. They're all here.

This piece about Idaho Power and nuclear energy was posted earlier this week, then lost, but recovered thanks to Newsgator's FeedDemon RSS reader which retains everything not just feed links.

~ original post ~

In the third decade of this century Idaho Power may buy electricity from INL's "Next Generation" nuclear plant

Hat tip to Dave Bradish and his team at NEI Nuclear Notes

IDPWRThe Mountain Express out of Mountain Home, ID has a news note for June 2 that reports sometime in the third decade of this century Idaho Power will consider acquiring electricity from a planned "Next Generation" reactor to be built at the Idaho National Laboratory. This news is consistent with an energy plan the State of Idaho published last year.

It's still a stretch to consider, on a realistic basis, that anyone will build a 3rd generation commercial nuclear power plant in Idaho especially as a Merchant. This business model removes all regulatory guarantees in terms of rate of return or the ability to pass along construction costs to rate payers before the plant is in revenue service. Just for starters Idaho Power isn't big enough, financially speaking, to bet the company on a new nuclear power plant. This is one of those situations where size does matter.

Here's the pull quote from John Miller, Senior VP for power supply, at Idaho Power, as reported in the Mountan Express.

"In addition, Miller said Idaho Power was considering -- long range -- the use of nuclear power to add to its energy generating capacity. While the company has had contact with the developers of a proposed nuclear power plant in Elmore County (and even has given them some advice), Miller said that plant is in such a preliminary stage of its proposal that serious negotiations to purchase power from it have not begun.

The company is, however, looking a little more seriously at a proposal for a power-generating next-generation reactor that could be built on the Idaho National Laboratory reservation between Arco and Idaho Falls, the home of several experimental reactors, but that proposed plant would not be available, at the earliest, until early in the 2020s."

The news report accurately reports that Idaho Power has had some discussions with Alternative Energy Holdings Inc (AEHI), a Virginia firm, but that no commitments have been made. The original news report also accurately notes that when the Idaho National Laboratory builds a Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), it will provide 300 MWe to the grid in Idaho. It could provide 600 MW, but the Idaho grid isn't set up at this time to handle that amount of power from a single source. The NGNP will also be used to demonstrate its capability to supply process heat for chemical plants and oil refineries and to make hydrogen.

Bottom line Idaho Power has not indicated it has any plans on its own behalf to build or sponsor the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant. It is willing to buy power from others, but that's it. Idaho Power was also reportedly interested in buying power from Warren Buffet's proposed plant in Payette, ID, to be built by MidAmerican, but that project was canceled due to financial issues. Idaho Power was not an investor in that project.

Having said that it is also worth noting that AEHI is a long shot with little chance of obtaining the funding needed to build a $3.5 billion, 1,600 MWe Areva EPR as a result of its agreement in principle with Constellation. AEHI has gone through two investment bankers neither of whom have any experience with energy projects much less nuclear power. The firm's stock is traded over-the-counter and currently sells for less than $1.00/share.

As far as NGNP is concerned, the Department of Energy has not yet committed to construction at this time, but has continued to fund R&D on fuel, materials, and other reactor basics. Lab R&D managers have said the funds are short of what is needed to start construction by about 2016. This may change as the nation develops an increasing appreciation of the role nuclear energy has to play in the response to global warming and the need to control greenhouse effects.

INLVHTR

While the NGNP will likely be a high temperature gas cooled reactor, possibly a pebble bed, there is no guarantee that design approach will prevail. Meanwhile, the South Africans are racing ahead with their pebble bed reactor and on on the verge of gaining a major infusion of cash from Mitsubishi. It is possible that by the time the Idaho lab actually starts construction of the NGNP, around 2016 or later, the South Africans may be well on their way to completing their demonstration pebble bed plant and will be taking orders for export of a 200 MW reactor. A Pebble Bed at 200 MW might be just the ticket for Idaho's electricity markets in 2020.

Budget cuts put nuclear scientists on the street

Lawrence Livermore lays off 440 hitting a total of 1,800 going out the door

frenchfiresThe Associated Press reports that a major Department of Energy national laboratory has laid off 440 employees as part of a total reduction in staffing of 1,800. Of that number the wire service reports over 100 are top scientists and engineers with critical knowledge about the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. They may soon be flipping burgers, metaphorically speaking, or they may have other ideas.

Here's the issue. Once a government creates the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons, it has the same responsibility to safeguard that knowledge as it does to safeguard the weapons themselves. Turning top nuclear scientists loose on the streets to sell donuts named 'Fat Man' and "Little Boy' isn't very smart. There are other ideas.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sounded an alarm saying the layoffs at Lawrence Livermore and two other U.S. weapons labs (Los Alamos, Sandia) represent "a national security danger point." These unemployed experts might take their skills overseas, Feinstein said.

"The fact is, these are all people who are human — they have homes, they have families, they have educations to pay for. And I very much worry where they go for their next job."

What Feinstein seems to think is that U.S. workers will react to being laid off from nuclear weapons work the same way scientists did at the former Soviet Union's closed nuclear cities. Some of the scientists in the former Soviet weapons complex hopped the first plane for Libya, North Korea, and other places to sell their services. It was only when the U.S. started paying them to stay home that the risk subsided of having this expertise loose in the world.

tomsk Why is it that if the policy is good for nuclear scientists in the former Soviet Union, it isn't good for the people with the same skill set in the U.S.? Is it patriotism, pride, or fear of jail time, or what that would keep U.S. secrets safe? Maybe it is just cheaper to threaten our scientists with jail than to help them financially find a way to a normal life. The fact is there isn't much difference between a nuclear engineer in Tomsk and one in the U.S. Both deal with the same physical laws of nuclear chain reactions. It is how people react to losing their jobs that concerns us now.

Ken Sale, a physicist laid off from Lawrence Livermore on May 23, told AP that taking his knowledge of nuclear weapons overseas would be unthinkable, and that he knows of no laid-off colleague who would even consider it.

madmx-wikipedia commonsBut he also said "the recent history of spying has all been money-based," Sale said. "Being concerned about expertise you wouldn't want rattling around in the whole world, and workers being desperate for a job, is a reasonable concern."

AP asked the Department of Energy for their take on the issue. National Nuclear Security Administration chief Tom D'Agostino had this to say.

"Always in a situation where people leave under less-than-ideal circumstances, we worry about that, and it's something I assure you we're looking at closely. I'm always concerned about the counterintelligence part of our mission, and we have an active program to go make sure we understand where we're vulnerable and where we're not."

But no sooner had he gotten that thought out into the news media then another spokesman for the agency said it was up to employees to report any initiatives by hostile foreign power to buy the services of laid off nuclear weapons experts.

NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes told AP the agency is "always on guard for foreign entities approaching our employees, active or retired, but it's their responsibility to alert us to those circumstances."

Great. So far as history tells us, no one who ever spied against the U.S. ever told the government what they were doing, at least before they were caught by the FBI or betrayed by their own handlers.

Here's a thought. Why aren't these people being approached by the civilian nuclear energy industry? Back to Mr. Sale who said he worked on nuclear weapons testing, nonproliferation, and nuclear-detection projects. He told AP, "The specific experience you get doing that stuff doesn't have applications outside that narrow world," he said. "It's not obvious that I will be able to be fully employed."

This doesn't mean or even imply that laid off workers are potential security threats even if Sen. Feinstein thinks so. Far from it. When people get hungry and desperate, bad things happen. The country is heading into a recession. If the government had any brains, it would find a way to keep a financial safety net under these scientists and engineers. There are more reasons than just security at work.

The wire service also talked to Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney, whose district includes the lab. He said the stakes are especially high as the U.S. tries to use science to figure out what other countries are doing with their nuclear weapons programs.

nkorea nuclear"We need to be able to understand what the clues are about other countries such as Iran and North Korea and other countries that are potential nuclear weapons developers. Without those scientists that have been involved in that field for years, for decades, it's going to be a lot more difficult to know what's going on elsewhere in the world."

Los Alamos cut its work force last year by about 550 through retirements and attrition, and Sandia, also located in New Mexico, plans to lose workers through retirement, attrition, and outright layoffs.

LLNL spokeswoman Susan Houghton told AP Congress cut $100 million from Lawrence Livermore's budget in the fiscal 2008 budget, and the lab was hit with an additional $180 million in costs due to its transfer last year to a new prime contractor.

w87-design

Anybody got a clue? Shouldn't the government give this some additional thought? This isn't a plea for handouts. The fact is many of the people losing their jobs have 20 years or more of their lives invested in helping to keep the defense of this country strong.

In this line of work they learned terrible secrets about the most destructive powers on earth, but in doing so they also cut themselves off from being able to do most other types of jobs. In its quest to keep nuclear weapons information secret, the government also has an opportunity to provide the keepers of these secrets with a reasonable guarantee they will never have to trade them to put bread on the table.

Image source: Global Security

Thinking about the future

What's next for pro-nuclear advocates in Idaho?

nuclearThe Partnership for Science & Technology (PST) played an important role working with elected officials and economic development groups in Idaho to land Areva's $2 billion uranium enrichment plant. This is a huge victory shared by many. The question for PST is what does it do next?

On its website the group defines itself this way.

"The Partnership for Science & Technology is a nonprofit, grassroots organization formed to provide accurate and timely information on existing and proposed activities at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Site, and to advocate for nuclear and environmental technologies and decisions that are in the public interest."

Looking into the future, there are two projects on the horizon for the INL, but both are far in the future. They really belong to a category of actions that are more suited to attention span of technological visionaries rather than political activists.

These projects are the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), scheduled to start construction in 2016 and the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which has had a difficult time getting political support and funding in Congress for its plan to build massive nuclear fuel recycling centers and fast burner reactors. That said it is noteworthy that the Department of Energy is funding design and engineering tasks for both projects. A decision to build facilities under either program is still years away.

So the question is what will PST do this year and next to advance its agenda? The organization has a visible track record of working well with elected officials and other economic development groups. This is good as regional collaboration will be a key element of its future. My personal view, unrestrained by any formal relationship with PST, is to offer three audacious goals for the group. I'm sure no one at PST is sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for the government to start building NGNP eight years from now. Just in case the group would like some extra encouragement on next steps, here they are.

First, raise funds to hire a part-time lobbyist in DC (short list of functions includes meet & greet with key members of congress outside of Idaho, liaison with ECA, etc.) - goal $50,000/year.

This step is needed because it is time consuming and expensive to keep plugging PST's team into airplanes every time a meeting is needed in Washington, DC. The lobbyist would have the advantage of feet on the ground to provide valuable face time for the group that otherwise would come at a steep price in terms of travel resources. The fact is the more face time the group has, via representation with Congress and federal agencies, the more effective it gets at influencing decision makers with its pro-nuclear message.

Second, incorporate a separate political action committee to raise campaign funds for pro-nuclear, and pro science & technology, state and federal office candidates - goal $250,000 distributed every two years

This step is needed because the way of the world is that money talks in Washington, and people remember you when your name is attached to campaign contributions. PST's influence in the rocky mountain west (Utah, Wyoming, Montana) as well as in Idaho will hinge on name recognition. For an activist group there is no better or faster way to "build the brand" with elected officials than to provide campaign contributions linked to PST's issues.

Third, hold a regional conference to gain community buy-in to these goals (Madison, Jefferson, Butte, Bonneville, Bingham, Bannock counties, all cities, and especially business communities via Chambers of Commerce, etc.) Cast a WIDE net - Cost $5,000 in first year. Hold meeting annually to keep momentum going. Don't forget statewide groups and key stakeholders in Boise.

This step is needed to accomplish three things with the leadership group and regional stakeholders.

* Get the group to take the long view.

Nuclear projects takes years to bring to reality. The day-to-day work in the trenches of representing a community's objectives for economic growth needs balance with the ability to see new possibilities and to imagine how the group will respond to social, economic, and political shifts taking place at the national and international levels.

* Broaden the vision and the base

This will encompass various aspects of the nuclear industry, not just the nuclear fuel cycle and reactors. New firms may enter the industry with new products and services, and will be looking for places to set up shop. Can the group develop the foresight to see these opportunities and capitalize on them?

* Capture multiple perspectives and diverse voices

This will cast a wide net to the communities in the region especially from key stakeholder groups but also from the general public. It might be possible to find ways to get groups that are not typically aligned with nuclear energy or even associated with PST or one another to join the effort. Only by rethinking outreach will these opportunities be realized.

What's Next?

PST could close up shop tomorrow and find an honored place in the history of Idaho, but I don't think that's what the group's leadership or supporters want from it.

You've got wind in your sails now from success with Areva. Now is the time to roll out audacious goals. Capitalize on your well earned reputation for getting the job done.

I'm sure there are others with ideas about the future of the organization. So I'll close with a question rather than a conclusion. What's next PST?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Westinghouse on a roll

Firm signs its second U.S. EPC contract for two AP1000s

vcsummer1Westinghouse signed its second Engineering & Procurement Contract (EPC) in six weeks inking a $9.8 billion deal for two 1,117 MWe AP1000 reactors to be built in at the V C Summer Nuclear Station in South Carolina. The first plant is expected to come online in 2016 and the second in 2019. It is only the second time since 1978 that a utility has made a commitment to build a nuclear power plant in the U.S.

Six weeks ago Westinghouse signed an EPC contract for two similar reactors with Georgia Power at the utility's Vogtle site. These units are expected to come online in 2016 and 2017.

tritch Company officials could hardly contain their enthusiasm, which by all accounts is well deserved. Steve Tritch (left), Westinghouse CEO, said in a statement the EPC contracts show, "that nuclear power is now fully accepted as a cost-competitive, clean and safe source of baseload generation."

In July 2007 Westinghouse, which is owned by Japanese industrial giant Toshiba, and its partner The Shaw Group, signed contracts to provide four AP1000s, two at two sites each, in China. According to industry estimates, AP1000s are also slated for new reactor sites being planned by Florida Power & Light at Turkey Point, Duke Power at the William Lee site, Progress Energy at the Harris site in North Carolina, and by TVA at its Bellafonte site.

Cost of new V C Summer plant

Cost control is a key factor in the new EPC contract. The estimated cost for the two units on completion is $9.8 million which also includes considerable investments in transmission and distribution facilities.

marsh sce&g Kevin March (right), president of of SCE&G, said that the EPC contract is a flexible in terms of dealing with rising costs of concrete and steel.

"The EPC contract is designed to help us minimize the cost of the new units. A significant portion of the contract price is fixed, or fixed with agreed-upon inflation factors."

He also pointed out that building V C Summer units 2 & 3 at the current site will result in cost savings by using existing infrastructure.

Risk sharing among the investors in the project is a key to success. SCE&G share of the costs is about $5.4 billion and Santee Cooper's share is about $4.4 billion. The two firms are joint owners of the 966 MWe V C Summer plant which began commercial operation in 1984.

Current ratepayers will be billed for construction costs of the two new units. Last year the South Carolina General Assembly passed a law which sets up this arrangement. SCE&G and its partner Santee Cooper praised the law at the time and said it would "substantially lower the total cost of the new units when completed."

South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) submitted its combined construction and operating license (COL) application to the NRC in March. Construction is expected to begin in 2010. The construction phase is expected to generate 4,000 jobs and a permanent workforce of up to 1,000 employees. The two reactors supply 2,234 MWe are expected to supply electricity for 1.7 million homes.

When asked why the utility is betting its future on nuclear energy, CEO Marsh said, "our evaluation included coal, natural gas, and other forms of generation including renewables. Bottom line, nuclear is the right choice for our customers."

ap1000

Image Source: BBC Science News