Friday, May 29, 2009

NY Times claims “renaissance” is over

Newspaper tries to make the case the “nuclear renaissance” of the future has collided with its past – it is wrong.

overloadedIn a wrenching review of problems accumulating at Olliluoto, Finland, and Flamanville, France, the New York Times reports that the so-called “nuclear renaissance,” a vision of the future of nuclear energy as an answer to the challenge of global warming, has suffered from a head-on collision with the industry’s past.

In a three way pile up – cost over runs, technical issues, and regulatory mazes – the newspaper says these events are red flags for the Obama administration which has been notably quiet on how it feels about nuclear energy. However, this is the point where the newspaper gets its signals crossed and winds up with a collision of its own between news and opinion.

Plus, where's the hard news peg? The story of the delays at these two project, and what the company has been doing to correct them, has been around since 2007. See the four links to prior coverage on this blog below.

The most significant issues is that the NYT article takes two data points and applies assumptions drawn from them to the global nuclear industry. This would be roughly the same as taking the total consumption of orange juice in Brooklyn and applying it to a projection of what's on everyone's breakfast table for the U.S, England, and France.

I can see the headline now - Obama warned not to send economic stimulous money to Florida due to sharp drop in sales of concentrated juice in Brooklyn grocery stores.

There are problems with Areva’s projects

Areva logoThe NYT article is a litany of serious problems taking place at two enormous reactor projects both being built by Areva, the French state-owned nuclear giant. Both plants are 1,600 MW EPRs which are state-of-the art designs. The key problems are subcontractors which the Finnish regulatory authorities say poured bad concrete and ignored quality assurance procedures and standards for welding and related steel work. The article reports similar problems at Flammanville again with the concrete and steel foundations of the reactor.

This sounds suspiciously like the lowest bidder phenomenon. It has two parts well known to construction project managers. The first is if you want it bad, you’ll get it bad, and the second is, there is never time to do it right, but always time to do it over. The cost increases to double the original estimate and at least three years of delays in an estimated completion time are ample evidence that both factors are present at both sites.

For Areva’s part, the company has repeatedly pointed to delays in Finland caused by an understaffed and overwhelmed regulatory agency. However, as similar problems with pouring concrete and fabricating the steel have turned up on France, it is clear that control of subcontractors, getting them to work to nuclear industry standards, is at the heart of the problem.

The company says on its U.S. blog that it knows it has problems, expected some of them, and is applying lessons learned in Finland to Flamanville and to its planned U.S. projects.

We recognize that as with any first-of-a-kind project, there is bound to be a learning curve. We have learned much from the EPR reactor under construction in Finland and will apply this experience to future projects around the world. At our second EPR project in France, we’ve already implemented many of the improvements we’ve learned from the Finland project.

Areva isn’t the entire nuclear industry

What’s wrong with the NYT article is that it uses issues that are clearly within Areva’ control to fix as deal breakers for the nuclear industry as a whole. This is where the newspaper’s article derails itself and attempts to spike the nuclear renaissance like a bad story of cops and robbers from the police blotter.

kitchen sinkThe newspaper then takes on what can only be called a “kitchen sink” approach tossing every anti-nuclear argument it can muster into the pile.

It adds in specious claims about airliner impacts on containment building. Note to NYT editors – in such cases the airline loses, the concrete containment structure gets some scratches and scorch marks, but the reactor itself is untouched by the impact. Also, the NRC hasn’t bought the airliner issue.

The newspaper also turns to Caren Byrd, a wall street banker, who lately has wailed that the “warning lights are now flashing more brightly” for potential investors in the nuclear industry. Well, there is a reason for that – the wall street bankers, like Ms. Byrd’s employer, tanked the entire western economy, ours and Europe’s, with a Las Vegas gambling mentality. I don’t see how the newspaper can turn to them for authoritative comments on other industries when they’ve done so badly with their own.

As the the issue of the Missouri legislature rejecting Ameren’s request to overturn a 1976 anti-nuclear law, that clearly was a mix of ineptitude by both the utility and the legislature. Ameren came in the a proposal which undercut ratepayer rights. It gave opponents all the opening they needed to kill the measure despite compromises later in the session by the utility. A surprise in the mix was the opposition of one of Ameren’s biggest customers, an aluminum plant, which actually needs the electricity from a second reactor in order to grow.

In short, just about everyone involved in the “show me” state shot themselves in the foot. Ameren and the legislature have two more tries before the NRC issues a license to the utility sometime in late 2011. Maybe hanging together rather than separately would be a good way to go during next year’s legislative session.

So what we have with the NY Times is two articles. The first is a reasonably accurate account of old news about Areva’s problems which the utility has stated it is working to correct. The other half of the article is a collection of unrelated anecdotes which use Areva’s problems as a spring board for an anti-nuclear tirade against the entire industry that belongs on the op ed pages and not in the news section.

Prior coverage on this blog

News of problems with Areva's EPR projects in Finland and France, and what the firm is doing to correct them, are not news. Why the NY Times pursues the story now remains a puzzle since the original, cited above, has no hard news peg.

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Pete said...

The NY Times article says there are dozens of subcontractors at Olkiluoto, speaking 8 different languages. Too many subcontractors with insufficient general contractor oversight sounds to me like the WPPSS method of project management. WPPSS is the US poster child for bad nuclear construction management. It doesn't help any if everyone is speaking a different language, as it apparently is at Olkiluoto.

Toshiba built one of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa ABWRs in 41 months, so it can be done efficiently.

I hate the NY Times. They recently ran an editorial about nuclear weapons disarmament so full of errors and biases I couldn't even finish it.

James Miller said...

Clearly cost and schedule overruns are undesirable no matter how you slice it. What I would be most interested in is the common cause analysis for the problems in Finland and France. Something meaty that could be used to avoid similar issues here in the U.S. Anyone know of such a document? Further, like industry shaping events of the past, would it be prudent for NRC or NEI to preform such an analysis for the benefit of U.S. nuclear industry if one doesn't exist?

B.T. Adams said...

This is a thought provoking editorial review regarding the blatant media bias that our industry faces. I also enjoyed the comments from other readers. Sadly, though, I think the first US reactors will unavoidably be plaqued by some of the same problems noted in the Finnish plant. Specifically, we no longer have a trained workforce that has experience working to nuclear standards. While the GE/Mitsibushi Heavy Industries consortium has been able to construct their ABWR reactor design on-time and under-budget, they acknowledge that it will take longer and cost more to build the plants here to the same standards. They cite the workforce issue as the reason. So the answer seems to be that we, as a country, need to be developing the needed skilled workers. This could actually be a major intitiative that would REALLY turn the economy around, versus simply printing money to fund a stimulus package.