Saturday, August 16, 2008

New trouble at Olkiluoto

Greenpeace exploits tensions between Areva and Bouygues

[Olkiluoto plant under construction - Helsingin SanomatUpdate 08/20/08]

The Financial Times of London reports that Finland's nuclear safety authority has launched an inquiry into the quality of welding work on construction of the country's fifth nuclear reactor due to be completed in 2011. Reuters reports the international environmental group Greenpeace went public last week with claims of problems with welds that do not meet safety requirements.

Areva denied Greenpeace’s claims and said it was “stunned” by the comments from the Finnish authority over the welding issues.

"These had been dealt with last winter," Areva said, “The subject was raised with the subcontractor concerned, Bouygues. The necessary measures were taken to conform to the Finnish safety authority’s demands.”

One wedge issue no waiting

The claims by the environmental group appeared to be aimed at two objectives - stopping construction work on the new reactor and driving a wedge between Areva and Bouygues which are building the plant. The FT reported that a public dispute broke out between Areva, which is supplying the 1,600 MWe EPR reactor and Bouygues, which is the construction contractor. Bouygues denied it had anything to do with the welding and demanded an immediate retraction from Areva, which continued to insist that the construction group had been designated to oversee this part of the work.

The newspaper said there is deep-seated enmity between the two companies. Areva is reportedly fiercely resisting Bouygues’ attempts to promote a merger with Alstom, the construction group’s turbine affiliate. The tensions could further jeopardize the project.

Greenpeace claims based on leaked documents

weldingThe Helsingin Sanomat reported Greenpeace claims that the first welding instructions were not complete until November 2006, when some of the welding work that had been done had already been immersed in concrete, and fixing it was no longer possible. This week a current affairs television program broadcast on Finnish TV reported that there was no oversight for the welding. “There is no way to know that the quality that was sought has been achieved”, Lauri Myllyvirta of Finnish Greenpeace said on the TV news report.

In a report prepared for Greenpeace, nuclear scientist Helmut Hirsch said the welding procedure specification for the steel framework, built by Bouygues for France's Areva, had been approved after the work had started.

'Specifications were approved and used without approval of a third party,' the report said. Hirsch made his assessment based on 11 documents that had been leaked from Bouyugues.

This isn't the first time Greenepace has disrupted work at Olkiluoto. In May 2007 several activists breached the security of the construction zone and climbed up into the steel scaffolding of the plant.

Video of Greenpeace protest at Olkiluoto

Regulators rejects Greenpeace claims

Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) official Petteri Tippana told the Finnish newspaper that there have been shortcomings at the construction site on naming a competent welding coordinator. However, he emphasized that the power connections that are critical from the security point of view have been made according to specifications, and that a competent welder was used for the work. STUK has also inspected the power connections by hand.

Tiippana told Reuters, "The ministry will ask for a report on this issue. We are therefore rather sure, that is, we are sure, that welding work that is important for safety has been done properly."

situational_awarenessThe Finnish regulator is no sock puppet for the nuclear industry despite claims by Greenpeace. Last September STUK stopped work on the steel containment liner over quality assurance issues. The subcontractors were asked to propose how to improve the welding process and its quality assurance as well as the supervision of work in future work phases. STUK also required that loads exerted on the weld seam during accident situations be verified by independent calculations. The strength of the steel liner in pre-calculated situations must be demonstrated by laboratory tests the agency said.

High stakes ride on the success of the reactor

poker chipsIn addition to casting doubt on the integrity of construction of the plant, Greenpeace also likely drew some satisfaction from setting off a public dispute between the two main contractors for the plant and probably caused as much delay from this outcome as the claim of improper welding procedures.

This new reactor is one of two current efforts to build new Areva EPRs in Europe. The other is in Flamanville, France. Failure at either site could bring the nuclear renaissance in Europe to a screeching halt.

ScrewUpThe current construction activity wasn't derailed in Finland, but the charges by Greenpeace made a big media splash and in the court of public opinion likely created doubts that will remain for some time. The activists got an added bonus of setting off a public dispute by the major firms involved in the project. So here's a note to firms building new nuclear reactors. The next time an environmental group makes a media splash with claims of problems at your site, take a deep breath, and think about how many different ways they are trying to run the train off its tracks.

Update 08/20/08

A wire service report from Helsinki indicates that claims of poor quality welding work at a Finnish nuclear reactor under construction were rejected Wednesday by the Finnish nuclear watchdog. The Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) said allegations of "faulty" checks of the welding work being built at Olkiluoto, south-western Finland were "false."

Environmental group Greenpeace cited "confidential documents" for its call to halt work on the reactor.

STUK said it had monitored welding "of importance for security" and had not found reason to question how the work was planned or conducted, noting that it had approved the welding procedures used.

Prior coverage on this blog

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Friday, August 15, 2008

NGNP Licensing Strategy

NRC and DOE deliver report to Congress

nrc sealThe U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) this week delivered to Congress the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) Licensing Strategy Report.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 directed the agencies to jointly develop a strategy for licensing the NGNP demonstration plant. The report to Congress explains that current NRC requirements for light-water reactors need to be adapted for the advanced non-light-water reactor designs DOE is considering under the NGNP initiative.

The report also describes the analytical tools, research and development activities and estimated resources necessary to complete an NRC licensing review by 2017, which would allow DOE to build and begin operating the plant by 2021.

“The NRC’s new reactor licensing process is currently focused on light-water reactors, and the staff is confident this basic framework can also support an NGNP review,” said NRC Chairman Dale Klein. “We will work with DOE to supplement that framework with NGNP-specific items.”

The report outlines DOE’s conclusion that the NGNP would be a very-high-temperature gas-cooled reactor that could produce electricity, as well as process heat and hydrogen.

“DOE is committed to the development and commercial deployment of NGNP technology in a timely manner,” said DOE Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon. “Nuclear energy is vital to our nation’s energy security and the NGNP has the potential to extend the benefits to bring nuclear technology to a whole new sector of the U.S. economy.” See also the companion DOE press release

seal of approvalNote that the report does not convey a seal of approval. All it does is lay out a strategy for licensing a reactor which has not yet been designed.

Congress still has to decide whether to fund construction of the plant at the Idaho National Laboratory which could cost up to $2 billion.

Update 08/18/08

World Nuclear News reported this week that three reactor designs are closely linked to NGNP through previous research and development deals with DOE. There is General Atomics' GT-MHR; Areva's similar Antares design; and the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), backed by Westinghouse, South Africa's PBMR Pty, the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology (INET) at China's Tsinghua University, the Shaw Group and Sargent and Lundy.

Prior coverage on this blog

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

The future of MOX fuel

Nations hungry for energy are investing billions in new plants to make it

Recent claims by environmental groups, and some attention in mainstream media reports, on the outcome of a long-term core test of MOX fuel at Duke Energy's Catawba nuclear power station missed two essential points. One of them is the growing commercial potential of MOX fuel and the other is that it is safe to use.

tall buildingOn the safety issue this week two environmental groups issued a joint press release citing the apparent premature end to the test of an experimental MOX fuel assembly test. In a leap of logic that looks like Superman's flight over tall buildings in a single bound, they called on the Department of Energy (DOE) to suspend the entire MOX fuel program at Savannah River. The agency broke ground for construction of a $4.5 billion MOX fuel plant in August 2007. These same environmental groups tried to invoke IAEA inspections as a method to shutdown the startup of construction. (See prior coverage on this blog.)

Friends of the Earth (press release) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said the test fuel assemblies, produced by AREVA, grew longer than expected in the reactor. This excessive growth, they claimed, is a safety hazard because it can deform and damage the MOX fuel. Duke Energy informed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) about the test results in a June 10 report. (Search for "ML081650181" at the NRC's Adams web site.) The two groups based their press releases on the report. Here's what they said.

"The failure of the plutonium fuel experiment is another major setback for the MOX program," said Tom Clements, FOE's Southeastern Nuclear Campaign coordinator.

UCS Senior Staff Scientist Edwin Lyman said, "To go forward with MOX now, AREVA would have to redesign the MOX fuel, and Duke would have to repeat the entire experiment, delaying the testing program by at least eight years. DOE should instead dispose of the plutonium directly by mixing it with radioactive waste and encasing it in glass, which would be safer and cheaper than continuing the MOX program."

What's wrong with the rush to judgement by UCS and FOE?

flounderFirst, tests of new nuclear fuel materials often fail to meet all expectations. That's why they are called tests. A failed test does not doom an entire program even if its opponents would wish it to be so. The logic of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) proves only one thing, and that is if wishes were fishes, Edwin Lyman would be knee deep in flounder. He'd like nothing more than an "eight year" delay in testing MOX fuel. There is something fishy about his claim the test showed the fuel is not safe.

power_nuclear_catawaba Second, there was no compromise of the safety of the Catawba plant (left). Areva, which carried out the test, brought the lead test assemblies (LTAs) through two flawless cycles of irradiation before pulling them from the reactor. Areva and Duke still plan to use 20-40% MOX fuel in future loads at the Catawba plant. With billions of dollars in nuclear plant at stake, which produces 2,258 MWe, neither firm is going to make these kinds of plans unless they are very sure of what they are doing and that the regulatory agencies will accept them. The utility points out that MOX fuel has been safely manufactured, transported, and used in Europe for more than 20 years, and is currently used in 35 reactors there. (See Duke's plain English explanation of its plans to use MOX fuel.)

nuclear fuel assemblyThird, Areva has formally refuted the claims by UCS and FOE. Spokesman Jarret Adams told World Nuclear News that the assemblies completed their test run after their second 18-month operating cycle. At that point, an inspection revealed that they had "extremely slight" growth beyond an acceptance limit, which is defined separately from safety limits. Fuel assemblies for a pressurized water reactor (PWR) like Catawba are typically around four meters long and feature springs to accommodate the thermal expansion of around 15mm expected during their lifetimes in the reactor core.

The future of MOX fuel - swords into plough shares

The energy potential from MOX fuel is so significant that its market share is expected to rise to 5% of all fuel loadings worldwide by 2010. According to industry studies, a single recycle of plutonium in the form of MOX fuel increases the energy derived from the original uranium by 12% and if the uranium is also recycled this becomes about 22%. MOX fuel in this form cannot be used in nuclear weapons or explosives.

The global inventory of nuclear materials available to be recycled, according to the World Nuclear Association, as of July 2008, is mind boggling.

  • 320 tonnes of plutonium
  • 45,000 tonnes of uranium from spent fuel
  • 70 tonnes of plutonium from military sources
  • 230 tonnes of spent fuel from military sources

Swords into plowshares at UNThe U.S., France, Russia, and Japan have all realized the energy potential of MOX fuel. The U.S. is building a $4.5 billion MOX fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina which will convert 34 tons of weapons grade plutonium to commercial reactor fuel. A similar plant will be built in Russia with similar production goals. These two plants are the cornerstones of the joint nonproliferation program supported by both countries. It is the ultimate "swords into plough shares" program.

The example from Japan

Japan, which has no nuclear weapons, is building a MOX fuel plant that is about to commence hot start-up of operations and should go into production next year. Here is what Japan Nuclear Fuels said about the safety of MOX fuel which is why they plan to use it.

It has been verified that there is no significant differences in characteristics between MOX fuel and uranium fuel and that the safety of reactors can be ensured with MOX fuel as well as with uranium fuel on the basis of the experience and various data obtained. Existing light water reactors for power generating facilities can be utilized in their current status by replacing part of the uranium fuel in the reactors with MOX fuel.

Reuters reports that a Japanese utility is building a 1,400 MWe nuclear power plant that will run entirely on MOX fuel. The plant is due to be completed by 2012.

Areva signed a contract in April 2008 to supply MOX fuel to the KANSAI electric power utility in Japan. This contract follows the renewal of Japan’s recycling program. In 2006, AREVA signed agreements to supply MOX fuel to three other Japanese utilities: Chubu, Kyushu and Shikoku.

Since 1995, AREVA’s MELOX facility, has been fabricating MOX fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants in various countries, including France, Germany, Switzerland, Japan and the United States. With more than 1,300 metric tons produced to date, MELOX is the world’s leading producer of MOX fuel. Areva is also a key contractor building the U.S. MOX fuel plant. (See prior coverage on this blog.)

Japan is building a MOX fuel plant at Rokkasho. Japanese electric utilities are aiming to use MOX fuel in 16-to-18 reactors by 2010. In the early stage of the program, the utilities are planning to use MOX fuel manufactured by Areva. Once the MOX fuel fabrication plant at Rokkasho commences operation, plutonium recovered there will also be used by Japanese utilities. The planned MOX fabrication plant in Japan will have a processing capacity of 130 tons a year. It is expected to begin operations in 2009.

The value of MOX fuel for export markets

Money futuresFrance and Areva are already in the business of exporting MOX fuel to an energy hungry nation. Other nations that are just starting their nuclear programs like Turkey, and countries that have deep maturity with the technology, like Canada, both know the energy value of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. They told the U.S. during discussions about GNEP, and global nuclear fuel management, to forget getting any of their spent nuclear fuel for the cartel. It is far too valuable for future export to let an international consortium control its market. While the IAEA and state regulatory agencies will have oversight roles to insure safety, these countries, and others, don't want regulatory agencies nor an OPEC type consortium, allocating nuclear fuel materials for sale. The Nuclear Suppliers Group will eventually have to address this issue. It will be a tough one.

In the U.S. the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took notice. In a speech to an industry conference on June 17 of this year, Chairman Dale Klein said the agency is currently working on a safety evaluation report for the South Carolina MOX fuel plant and will publish it in December 2010.

In the next few decades MOX fuel could become one of the world's most valuable energy sources and countries that want to boost their generation of electricity from nuclear power will likely rely on it to do so. The export value of MOX fuel is quite simply remarkable. It has so much potential you have to wonder why the U.S. is even still talking about Yucca Mountain.

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Moab tailings will move by rail

The government will ship 16 million tons of waste 30 miles.

Moab site aerial photo - US DOEWithin the next 10 years approximately 12 million cubic yards of the MOAB uranium mill tailings will take a final journey of just 30 miles and end a disturbing episode in the history of the West. This week the Department of Energy restated its intent to move the tailings by rail from their current location on the banks of the Colorado river to a disposal site at Crescent Junction, UT.

How the tailings got there

The Salt Lake City Tribune reports that over time the tailings have leached ammonia, uranium and other contaminants into the Colorado River, which serves some 50 million people in seven states. The tailings were created as part of the uranium boom & bust cycle. In 1956 the Moab uranium mill began operation processing 1,400 tons of ore a day.

The operation was sold in 1962 to Atlas which operated the plant until 1984. Atlas placed an interim cover over the tailings pile in 1995 as part of decommissioning activities conducted between 1988 and 1995. Atlas proposed to reclaim the tailings pile for permanent disposal in its current location but declared bankruptcy in 1998. In doing so it relinquished its NRC license and forfeited its reclamation bond.

Work starts soon

Work on the railroad line to move the tailings is expected to begin in Fall of this year and be completed about six months later. Special containers will be brought in to the tailings site to be loaded with the waste material for transport. The shipping operation will not use ordinary hopper cars. Because of the volume and weight of the material, it could take up to a decade to complete the shipments and close the Moab site forever.

UP pulling powerDOE at one time considered using trucks to haul the debris, but was persuaded that U.S. Highway 191 couldn't handle the oversize shipments. EnergySolutions, which is managing the project for DOE, estimates that using rail will involve a train shipment a day with 178 rail cars. The trains will run six days a week for the next ten years assuming the money is available from Congress. The total project cost is expected to be about $800 million dollars.

NRC on board

DOE also said that the NRC is required to concur on the plan. The agency has regulatory authority over the management of uranium tailings. In a prepared statement, James Rispoli, DOE Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management, said work with NRC has taken place 'in record time," and that cooperation between the two agencies has allowed them to expedite the project.

& & &

On the net - Department of Energy MOAB project office website

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