Friday, August 1, 2008

Six reasons why Indian Point will stay open

Two issues must be addressed, and four more will affect its future

hot rod rubber duckThe future of the Indian Point nuclear power station has been rocking on waves of public discontent like a rubber duck in a nor'easter gale. The latest in a series of fronts that have moved through the region is that the Indian Point Independent Safety Evaluation Panel (bios), which was chartered by the plant's operator, released its report this week and said there were two items at the top of the list.

Basically, the panel said the plant is safe, but relationships with the public are in the tank. See prior coverage on this blog - Indian Point under fire

The Panel concluded, after four months of work and meetings with the public that the plant is safe and that Entergy is focused on nuclear safety. The panel said operations are conducted competently and professionally, meeting the standards of the U.S. nuclear industry.

"Plant safety systems are well maintained and reliable. The plant's performance compares favorably to high performing plants in most aspects of nuclear safety."

entergysirenThe top issue that sets off the public like a 4th of July fire cracker is the failure of Indian Point's emergency siren system. Last January the NRC fined Entergy $650,000 for failed sirens. The New York Times reported that Westchester County’s government has boycotted some emergency planning activities involving the plant, at times arguing that no safe evacuation is possible and that the plant should close.

The political attacks on the plant by now former Governor Elliott Spitzer poisoned already contentious relationships with local officials, the public, and the press. It's not over. The New York Times also reported Andrew M. Cuomo, the New York attorney general, said his office would “fight tooth and nail against the relicensing of Indian Point.” The license for Indian Point 2 expires in 2013, and the license for Indian Point 3 in 2015. Here's the more measured voice of the panel on these issues.

The Panel found that Indian Point's relationship with the public and stakeholders, particularly on matters of emergency preparedness, is not healthy. Additionally, the Panel concluded that emergency response facilities and equipment do not meet high industry standards, and should be upgraded.

Overall, the Panel found that security at the plant is strong but problems with staffing shortages in some security functions and certain aging security systems and equipment should be addressed on a priority basis. That's not good news.

Four reasons why Indian Point is not out of the woods yet.

ForestThe panel didn't take on everything. There is a forest of issues yet to be resolved. Here are some highlights, and a few interpretations, based on the executive summary. There is lots of unfinished business for Entergy at Indian Point and here's why.

The panel could have put in some forward looking statements about license renewal, but passed. It recognized the realities of off-site emergency response. There will likely be future environmental releases which will affect public perceptions as well as license renewal even if they are below drinking water standards or limits in terms of radiological exposure. A reflex desire for closing the plant would have dire effects on the price of electricity in the region. It was and still is, economically, a very bad idea no matter how politically attractive it is to New York's Democratic party and to green groups that support it.

  • License Renewal

The panel ducked when it came to addressing license renewal issues though its members are well aware of the implications of their report on the eventual NRC hearings that will address this issue. Indian Point submitted applications for license renewals for Units 2 & 3 in April 2007. A decision by the NRC is expected in 2010.

The Panel reminded readers it was charged with examining the current state of Indian Point. It said, "license renewal is an NRC regulatory process that addresses its suitability for extended future operation." The panel said that while some information in this report may be pertinent to license renewal, "it did not explicitly examine Indian Point operations beyond the plants’ current operating licenses."

That's all true, but like the Vermont Yankee, Indian Point's opponents will seize on every document that builds their case. The panel tread carefully, but perhaps lost an opportunity as well to be more proactive and to frame some of the issues in terms of the license renewal decision criteria.

  • Off-site Emergency Preparedness

The panel issued a veiled criticism of off-site emergency preparedness organizations and said they complain a lot but don't work well with the plant. This is the heart of the second major finding, which is that public relationships are in the tank.

The panel said off-site evacuation planning and implementation are the responsibility of governmental (primarily county) organizations, with support from the reactor station. Like Desi said to Lucy, everyone in this situation has some explaining to do.

  • Off-site Environmental Issues

Indian Point has been the focus of several public uproars over releases of radioactivity in cooling water discharge and the effect of the hot water on aquatic life in the Hudson river. The panel simply didn't address these issues. They will come back to haunt Indian Point the way the problems with a dilapidated cooling tower has haunted Vermont Yankee.

  • Macroeconomics

The panel addressed plant economics/investment, but not regional electricity supply cost/demand issues or impacts. The reasonable translation is that the panel didn't feel it had to sharpen the focus on the issue too much about the huge cost increases in electricity that would hit the region if Indian Point were closed. That should be self-evident by now.

Entergy breathes a sigh of relief

Baseball 1997 World Series Game 1: Rear view of Florida Marlins Bobby Bonilla #24 on field looking at umpire call Cleveland Indians Brian Giles #22 safe at 3B after making tag during game.Miami 10/18/97Credit: John IaconoSetNumber: X53751 TK1 R8 F35In a press release Entergy sounded relieved and said that the panel, which it chartered, was thorough and fair. This is comparable to a stand up triple and a call of "safe" at third. It isn't a home run, but at least the runner is in scoring position. Clearly, the company feels it is positioned to overcome the challenges that still face it especially the ones which the panel passed over.

"The independent panel members" hard work and expertise reinforces our belief that Indian Point is being operated safely and securely, and the plant is prepared today to respond to an emergency, including a terrorist attack."

"We will take to heart all of the independent panel's conclusions and recommendations, and we plan to use their report as a road map to achieving our goal of operating one of the nation's best run and best performing nuclear plants."

Michael Kansler, Entergy CEO, Entergy said the firm will provide a formal response to the independent panel in 60 days, including the issues raised in the report. It will describe the actions the company expects to take. Entergy also said will make this response available to the public. The next step will be to see what the company says, and more importantly, what it does. Electric bills in New York depend on it.

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India in speed run for nuclear deal

An ancient nation is pouring on the coal to use nuclear energy in the 21st century

Flash - IAEA votes for India nuclear deal

The Financial Times of London reports that India is in a speed run to get U.S. congressional approval of its nuclear technology exchange deal and open access to buying uranium on the world market for its shuttered reactors. The Indian public relations train has some steep terrain to cross in its journey.

The government of Manmohan Singh, the current prime minister, knows it must win political endorsements from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). However, India's refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treat, and its parallel refusal to allow inspections of some nuclear reactors used for military purposes, may result in a postponement or a vote against the deal by one or both bodies.

* * *

On Friday August 1st India gained approval from the IAEA. Reuters reports the plan approved by the IAEA will permit regular IAEA inspections of India's declared civilian nuclear energy plants, which is 14 of 22 existing or planned reactors.

It clears a hurdle to an accord that would allow sales of nuclear technologies and fuel for civilian use to India. India now needs the approval of the 45-nation nuclear suppliers group to grant India a completely unprecedented waiver allowing trade with a non-NPT state. It also needs ratification by the U.S. Congress for the deal to go through.

A vote by the Nuclear Suppliers Group is expected next week. There the international focus will be on whether India will be allowed to buy uranium from countries like Australia which have banned sales to countries that do no sign the NPT. Also, the issue of making a special case for India will be impacted by its relevance to how the U.S. and Europe are dealing with Iran and its nuclear program. It will be complicated and nuanced and require a lot more than the usual diplomatic fig leaves for India to come away with a victory.

The Washington Post reported that some experts say that India plans to invest $100 billion into its civilian nuclear industry over the next 20 years. The United States, France and Russia are vying for a chunk of that business. International indemnity legal issues may shape the competition.

In a statement, the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, David C. Mulford, called the approval of the deal by the IAEA "a key step towards implementing the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative. We will work vigorously with the Government of India to obtain an India-specific exception in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and final U.S. Congressional approval."

Back in the U.S. Democrats in Congress have reportedly ruled out a "lame duck" session after the election. It is unlikely that the deal will see a floor vote before then. It is unknown whether the deal would be a priority for either Obama or McCain in 2009.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Uranium mining permits go 'generic'

NRC tries to cover a lot of ground by combining environmental issues for in-situ recovery

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's work on a "generic" environmental study, which will be used in licensing reviews of in-situ leach (ISL) uranium mining operations, probably comes too late for Powertech (TSE:PWE), a Canadian firm planning to permit an ISL mine near Nunn, Colo, about 15 miles northeast of Ft.Collins.

There green groups spun up a political whirlwind that carried them all the way to Denver where the State Legislature passed a new law imposing stiff requirements for groundwater protection on uranium miners using the process. This was not an auspicious start for an ISR mine, and it sent a chill throughout the entire Colorado mining community.

What's a generic EIS?

Generic_footballFor the public, which is probably scratching its collective noggins over the combination of the terms 'generic' and 'environmental', the explanation may lie in trying to substitute a soccer ball for a football. They are both round, but some important specific are left out which make all the difference. This is the nature of the challenge facing the NRC. When the NRC first announced this idea last year, it kicked up political dust devils throughout Wyoming and New Mexico.

Too many applications - not enough NRC permit writers

The NRC currently expects to receive 20 applications for new uranium recovery operations and 10 applications for expansion or restart of existing facilities through 2011. Most of them will be in Wyoming or New Mexico.

About 75 percent of them are expected to be for in-situ leach operations. By addressing common issues associated with environmental reviews of these facilities, the NRC staff plans to use the GEIS as a starting point for its site-specific environmental analyses of individual license applications or as a supplement to previous environmental analyses of existing sites. A reasonable translation is that the NRC simply hasn't got enough people to get their arms wrapped around every application in every detail.

That's quite a plan and one that will likely be tested by environmental groups much more interested in the site-specific nature of each ISR permit. So far there hasn't been much comment, but watch this space once the public meetings start up next month. See the schedule below for dates.

Meetings and more meetings

The federal regulators will hold a series of public meetings in Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and New Mexico, the four states where uranium milling companies have indicated interest in applying for new NRC licenses. Staff members will present the findings of the draft GEIS and accept oral and written comments.

The meetings will be held Aug. 25 in Spearfish, S.D.; Aug. 27 in Chadron, Neb.; Aug. 29 in Newcastle, Wyo.; Sept. 8 in Gallup, N.M.; Sept. 9 in Grants, N.M.; Sept. 11 in Albuquerque, N.M.; Sept. 23 in Gillette, Wyo.; and Sept. 25 in Casper, Wyo.

NRC wants your comments

The draft GEIS is available on the NRC Web site at http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr1910/

Public comments will be accepted on the GEIS through Oct. 7. They may be addressed to:

Chief, Rules Review and Directives Branch
Mailstop T6-D59
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, D.C., 20555-0001.

Comments may also be submitted by electronic mail to NRCREP.Resource@nrc.gov. Be sure to include “Uranium Recovery GEIS” in the subject line or your prose will be reduced to spam.

And here's the abstract from the official notice. Blogs only publish abstracts. If you want to whole meal deal, you'll have to hunt it down on the NRC's web site. See the URL above for a starting point.

Abstract for Uranium Generic EIS

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has prepared a Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (Draft GEIS) to identify and evaluate potential environmental impacts associated with the construction, operation, aquifer restoration, and decommissioning of in-situ leach (ISL) uranium recovery facilities for identified regions in the western United States. Based on discussions between uranium mining companies and the NRC staff, ISL facilities could be located in portions of Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, and New Mexico. NRC is the licensing authority for ISL facilities in these states.

NRC developed this Draft GEIS using . . .

(1) knowledge gained during the past 30 years licensing and regulating ISL facilities,

(2) the active participation of the State of Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality as a cooperating agency, and

(3) public comments received during the scoping period for the GEIS. NRC's research indicates that the technology used for ISL uranium recovery is relatively standardized throughout the industry and therefore appropriate for a programmatic evaluation in a GEIS.

As a framework for the analyses presented in this GEIS, NRC has identified four geographic regions based on

* Past and existing uranium milling sites are located within States where NRC has regulatory authority over uranium recovery;

* Potential new sites are identified based on NRC's understanding of where the uranium recovery industry has plans to develop uranium deposits using ISL technology; and

* Locations of historical uranium deposits within portions of Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, and New Mexico.

& & &

That's all folks, at least for now.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Ameren files for 2nd reactor with NRC

It specifies a 1,600 MW Areva EPR to be online by 2018-2020

bulbThe St. Louis Business Journal reports that Ameren (NYSE:AEE) has submitted a construction and operating license (COL) application with the NRC for a new nuclear power plant in Callaway County, Mo.

The Journal reports the 8,000-page application seeks approvals from the NRC to build an Areva EPR, a 1,600 MW unit, next to AmerenUE's existing nuclear unit, Callaway Plant, located 10 miles from Fulton, Mo.

At $3,500/Kw the plant could cost $5.6 billion, though by the time the utility breaks grounds these costs could be higher. Review of the application will take three-to-four years. Also, the Areva reactor design is not yet certified by the NRC. Assuming that process moves ahead briskly, a new plant could enter revenue service within five-to-six years of NRC approval of Ameren's COL.

Thomas Voss, CEO, said there are compelling reasons to file the application.

"Given projections for a nearly 30 percent increase in demand for power in Missouri in the next two decades, we believe we will need to build a large generating plant to be on line in the 2018-2020 timeframe. Applying for a license now better positions AmerenUE to build."

Keeping its options open

Reuters reports the company said it has made no decision to build a new reactor at this time, but was seeking NRC approval to preserve the nuclear option for the future. Voss said the company's decision on whether to build depends on a number of factors, including

  • forecasted demand for power;
  • effectiveness of energy-efficiency initiatives;
  • projected costs and financing challenges of building an advanced nuclear power plant;
  • state and federal regulatory and legislative actions.

AmerenUE said it's pursuing a nuclear energy plant because "the generation of nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gases or air emissions."

The company will spend $30-50 million on the application. It's certainly plausible the utility would walk away if the numbers don't add up when it comes time to build. The firm wouldn't start down this road if there wasn't an equally plausible reason for them to go ahead. Ameren's caution is required by Missouri law which stipulates the utility adhere to the principles of the "prudent investor," a uniform law implemented in many states. Likely, Ameren would make an announcement to build just prior to the construction state of the reactor project.

& & &

Prior coverage on this blog: Ameren to move on second reactor

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Small reactors have NRC's attention

Chairman Dale Klein says they're part of the "nuclear renaissance." He has some advice for how to deal with their licensing issues.

drummerThe drumbeat for a global nuclear renaissance is giving some people a headache and that includes NRC chairman Dale Klein who complained about it at a conference by the same name in Alexandria, VA, last week. While NRC's head honcho is very interested in small reactors, he thinks the bigger picture will take "decades to unroll."

Business is booming at the NRC

Klein led off by telling his audience since 2007 the NRC has received 9 license applications for 15 new plants. He said the agency has been told by various utilities to expect another 11 applications for another 16 reactors by the end of 2009. The agency is under the gun to meet its self-imposed 42-month deadline for reviews of combined construction & operating license (COL) applications. That's 20 new applications and 31 new reactors.

Jaw boning session for NRC applicants

To get the applications reviewed on time, Klein said the industry must stop changing their minds about things. He did some serious jaw boning with reactor manufacturers and their customers. Now he didn't use these words like "stop screwing around," but if you sift through the window dressing of a government speech, it is pretty clear he's got a beef or two and wanted to get a few things off his chest.

fear-turtleHe reminded permit applicants to use the Early Site Permit process and certified reactor designs. Some have planned to bypass both and may come to regret that decision Klein said. Essentially, he told the industry the agency is not issuing permits for tortoise hunting. It is reviewing applications for nuclear reactors. It is a serious business and he wants people to be realistic when they file their applications.

The problem Klein said is that only one-in-five of the designs being referenced in COL applications are certified reactor designs. He said that some design certification applications and COL applications lack the information NRC staff need to conduct their review. This is giving him and his agency a headache. It's a clear object lesson for promoters of small reactors who have captured Klein's attention.

Why small reactors matter

ICB_TwinKlein said the NRC has been contacted by several designers of small, advanced reactors, and that his agency takes no position on which ones ought to succeed or fail. The commercial outcome, Klein said, depends on market issues.

That said he noted small reactors cost a lot less and may be very attractive for that reason in developing nations which need energy for economic growth. He said "reliable electricity can literally change people's lives." Klein clearly is focused on small reactors. He said,

My own view is that these small, advanced designs offer enormous possibilities for providing both electricity and process heat, and for improving the standard of living for people in the developing world in the near future, and perhaps even for people here in the U.S. in the long term.

Despite these attractions, NRC isn't seeing any interest by U.S. customers. He expects it sooner or later, and like his prior speech on licensing fuel recycling facilities, he encouraged industry to form technical working groups to start figuring out how to build small reactors, especially modular groups of them, for U.S. customers. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

NGNP is a special case

One of the small reactor designs that has a high profile is the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). One of them will be built at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) with construction expected to start in 2016.

Klein pointed out the high-temperature gas-cooled design is mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Currently, Klein said, NRC staff has briefed him on one pebble bed design and two prismatic core reactor designs (large image). Next month the NRC will deliver a report to Congress, jointly with the Department of Energy, on a licensing strategy for NGNP.

Here is the heart of Klein's message on licensing a small reactor like the NGNP.

This advanced technology presents several technical issues that we will need to address, including:

  • Fuel performance
  • Containment functional performance
  • Safety and security issues
  • Material performance under very high temperatures,
  • The use of probabilistic risk assessment in the licensing process.

whalesOver the long term, Klein said, the NRC is "very interested" in keeping up to date on technological developments related to small reactors and their promise for small markets.

That's a whale of a lot of attention for small reactors from the chief nuclear regulator. Advocates for small reactors take note.

& & &

See previous coverage of small reactors on this blog.

There is an excellent discussion taking place on small reactors over at Rod Adams 'Atomic Insights' blog. See his article and very interesting comments that have spun off from it.

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