Saturday, April 4, 2009

Oyster Creek renewed

Opponents at Indian Point, Vermont Yankee may find it harder to prevail

The nation’s oldest operating commercial nuclear reactor is going to get older, and continue operating. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), by a vote of 3-1, will renew the license for the 650 MW Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Ocean County, NJ, for another 20 years. The New York Times reports that in doing so the NRC rejected multiple claims submitted by opponents to close the plant.

The reactor entered revenue service in 1969 and over the years rust accumulated on its steel liner. Opponents claimed that the corrosion had weakened the liner and it would not be able to contain radioactive water in the event of a core accident. However, after NRC engineers evaluated the liner they decided it could still do the job.

The NRC concluded the opposition groups failed "to provide factual or expert evidence" to merit overturning the findings of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

"Nothing ... disturbs our overall confidence that Oyster Creek can and will operate safely during the renewal period," the commission concluded in its 96-page decision.

Anti-nuclear agenda thwarted for now

jaczkoNRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko (right) voted against license renewal and is often the lone vote representing the positions of anti-nuclear groups opposing the license renewal of older reactors. He previously worked for Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who’s primary contention with the NRC is over the review of the license application for Yucca Mountain.

The NRC is also considering the license renewals of the Indian Point, NY, nuclear power station and Vermont Yankee. Coincidentally, both of these sites are owned and operated by Entergy (NYSE:ETR), a major U.S. nuclear utility. Environmental groups are hoping that President Obama will name someone like Jaczko to the NRC’s vacant seat.

However, the NRC’s rejection of the usual grab bag of claims by anti-nuclear groups may indicate the agency is going to push back on political agendas aimed at influencing its evaluation of reactor license applications. The New York Times reported the NRC “sent a signal” that opponents of plant license renewals “may find it harder to prevail.” The NYT also reported that while Jaczko voted against renewal of the Oyster Creek license, in his remarks about the decision he said he agreed with parts of it.

Incendiary rhetoric lights the Jersey shore

In other developments anti-nuclear groups did not prevail with the argument that the threat of terrorist attacks requires the shutdown of the nation’s nuclear reactors. According to the Newark Star Ledger, a federal court judge dismissed a lawsuit in which anti-nuclear groups argued the NRC should consider the environmental impact of a terrorist attack before relicensing the plant.

Opponents pushing for closing the plant are the Nuclear Information and Resource Service; Jersey Shore Nuclear Watch Inc.; Grandmothers, Mothers and More for Energy Safety; New Jersey Public Interest Research Group; New Jersey Sierra Club; and New Jersey Environmental Federation.

In case anyone thinks dialog with this group is going to produce some benefit, consider this incendiary comment by one of them.

"This decision is radioactive. To keep open the nation's oldest nuclear power plant for another 20 years is just going to lead to a disaster," said Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club. "We could easily replace the plant with 200 windmills that will not pose a danger. If they would re-license this plant, they would renew Chernobyl."

This kind of rhetoric is irresponsible and serves only to create divisive debate. At least for now the NRC sees it for what it is, political rhetoric, and not evidence of engineering facts.

~ Previous coverage on this blog ~

Indian Point

Vermont Yankee

  • April 2008 – Lug nuts come off over Vermont Yankee
  • March 2009 – Playing chicken with Vermont Yankee

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Rethinking nuclear power - relaunched

Robert Hargraves opens his 2009 class online at Dartmouth

fusion graphicLast year, Robert Hargraves offered his now acclaimed online class on nuclear energy over the Internet. This year he’s added new content and launched a new program called “Aim High” to accompany the class.

He’s developed material on a little known nuclear reactor concept – the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). It is also sometimes called the “molten salt reactor” (large image).

Readers of this blog will recall that Hargraves published the well-designed and accessible blog on the Pebble Bed reactor designs for several years until he began teaching the “Rethinking nuclear power” class. He is now updating the blog with LFTR materials.

You can download the 2009 class slides in Powerpoint or PDF format and the audio portion of the class. Some of these files are quite large so get a fast connection or bring your lunch.

Not everyone is sold on LFTR but it is interesting

The commercial nuclear industry has considerable skepticism about the LFTR, but Hargraves has a vision for its future which is undeterred by such doubts.

While this blog will continue to focus on the commercial nuclear industry, it won’t ignore new technologies and ideas even if they are outside of mainstream industry market focus.

I will leave it to readers to make up their minds about the LFTR. Hargraves’ material can speak for itself. Here are the links

  • Rethinking Nuclear Power 2009 – Energy policy and environmental choices, a Dartmouth ILEAD course with class materials online
  • Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor – In this presentation, Hargraves claims it produces energy cheaper than from coal and can solve more crises than just global warming
  • Air High – Hargraves’ book on the LFTR available on Amazon

Kirk Sorensen’s blog Energy from Thorium is an excellent resource on this technology. Charles Barton also writes about the LFTR at NuclearGreen. See Barton's comment below which clarifies some of the history of the technology.

Check it out.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Western Lands Uranium Gopher for 04/04/09


Portions of this blog post were published in Fuel Cycle Week, V8N321 on April 2, 2009 by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC

~ Note to readers: This column will shift from biweekly to monthly starting with this issue. The next edition will appear in mid-May. ~

The nightmare in uranium stock prices continues with western uranium juniors haunted by an average loss of 90% of the value of their stock compared to this time last year. The other thing that makes worrisome sounds and goes bump in the night is the record low price of uranium. Both Ux Consulting and Trade Tech pegged it at $43/lb which many producers said was too low to mine ore. There is plenty of bad news to keep a uranium miner awake at night.

Ghost riders in the sky

Sixty years ago at the dawn of the atomic age, songwriter Stan Jones penned and turned into a #1 hit the awesome country ballad 'Ghost Riders in the Sky.' Readers would not be surprised to learn that some uranium miners are humming a few bars along with these lyrics.

ghost riders trail across the skyAs the riders loped on by him he heard one call his name
If you want to save your soul from Hell a-riding on our range
Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride
Trying to catch the Devil's herd, across these endless skies

Personally, I would go for the version sung by Johnny Cash, but there is no end to the choices anymore than there is for that endless sky. It still raises the hairs on the back of my head.

The quest for uranium profits and value for stockholders may be for now as elusive and as perilous as chasing the devil's herd across the sky.

URI puts Churchrock on Hold

Despite a long wait, which is getting longer, for the U.S. 10th Circuit Court to decide who can issue a permit for an underground injection control permit in New Mexico, Uranium Resources Inc. (NASDAQ:URRE) has decided it's had enough of sleepless nights. The reason is its partner in the joint venture, Itochu, a Japanese conglomerate, pulled out of the deal. Basically, the Japanese lost patience with delays caused by litigation.

church_rockThe firm is contesting a 2005 ruling by the EPA that the Churchrock property is under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation, which has banned uranium mining, rather than the New Mexico Department of Environmental Management. The 10th Circuit Court has not yet ruled on oral arguments submitted last May.

Rick Van Horn, Uranium Resources CEO, told the Gallup Independent March 27, the whole project is back in its corner forcing it to seek new investors. Van Horn blamed the combination of a pending court decision and depressed uranium prices. "Basically," Van Horn said, "the project was not going anywhere."

Denison suspends production at Tony M Mine

In its annual report released earlier this month, Denison (AMEX:DNN) announced the suspension of mining at the Tony M mine located at Ticaboo, Utah. Despite the suspension, Denison also announced new resources at the mine indicating that when uranium prices improve it is likely to reopen operations there to feed its White Mesa Mill at Blanding, Utah.

Henry Mountains UTDenison has published an updated NI 43-101 resource estimate for the Tony M Mine located in the Henry Mountains complex of southeastern Utah. Indicated resources are estimated at 8.1 million pounds U3O8 and Inferred resources at 2.8 million pounds U3O8.

These resource estimates update the previous historic resource estimate for Tony M of 1.3 million tons at an average grade of 0.21% U3O8, containing 5.3 million pounds. The Southwest deposit was previously estimated as an Indicated resource totaling 339,600 tons at an average grade of 0.32% U3O8 (2.2 million pounds) and an Inferred resource of 121,142 tons at an average grade of 0.30% (0.8 million pounds). The updated current resource estimate for Tony M is based on data from 1,082 holes drilled by prior operators. All past mine production has been accounted for in the current Tony M estimates.

Denison has reportedly invested $50 million on the Tony M mine and construction of surface facilities. Denison began operations at Tony M in September 2007, but put the mine on stand-by in November 2008. The firm said mine is being maintained in order to bring it back into operation as quickly as possible once sales contracts are in place.

Bluerock tries to come back from the dead

After suspending all mining operations in western Colorado, and its toll milling agreement with Denison, Bluerock (CVE:BRD) announced this week a private placement that it had raised CDN $275,000 in a private placement for which it issued stock and warrants. The funds will be used to pay near term debts and for general corporate purposes. The firm also announced that Clifford C. Rennie, Chairman of the Board of Directors, has resigned and left the company.

Strathmore completes NI 43-101 for Nose Rock, NM

Strathmore Minerals (CVE:STM) completed NI 43-101 technical reports for portions of Nose Rock and Dalton Pass Uranium Properties. Nose Rock measured & indicated resource at Section 1 Totals 2.6 million pounds U3O8; Dalton Pass measured & indicated resource at Section 32 Totals 3.07 million pounds

The Nose Rock NI 43-101 report covers Section 1, which comprises approximately 540 acres of the company's property. The historical resource for the remaining 4,520 acre property as reported by Phillips Uranium (1979) is 4,383,582 tons at an average grade of 0.163% U3O8 for a total of 14,303,085 pounds (not NI 43-101 compliant).

The Dalton Pass NI 43-101 report covers Section 32, which comprises approximately 640 acres of the 1,120 acre project. The previously reported historical resource prepared by Pathfinder (1980) examined Section 32 only. Updated mineral resource estimates for the remainder of both properties will be prepared, subject to the availability of historical databases.

In an unrelated action, Strathmore Minerals (CVE:STM) has signed a letter of intent with Great Bear Uranium (CNQ:GBR) granting Great Bear an option to acquire a 100% interest in the Chord Uranium Property located in South Dakota. Great Bear has until the end of September of this year to close on the transaction.

The Chord Property comprises 22 claims totaling 440 acres and is located approximately 15 miles north of the town of Edgemont, South Dakota. Uranium was first discovered at Chord in the 1970s and extensive drilling by previous operators Tennessee Valley Authority and Union Carbide outlined a historical uranium resource estimate totaling 3.8 million lbs U3O8 at an average grade of 0.11%. These numbers are not compliant with NI 43-101 standards as they exist today.

PacMag digs for uranium, gets germanium in North Dakota

Formation Resources, the U.S. operation of Australia's PacMag Metals (ASX:PMH) is discovering that its exploratory drilling for uranium in North Dakota is turning up more valuable deposits of molybdenum and germanium.

PacMag consultant Jim Guilinger told the Associated Press in Bismarck on Feb 25 that last year the firm drilled 450 holes and the results are showing that it will be worthwhile to develop the uranium if there is enough germanium at least at current prices. While uranium has a spot price this week of $43/lb, the germanium is worth eleven times that amount because of rising demand for use the mineral in the manufacturing of solar panels.

The two minerals have been found in a coal seam that PacMag has targeted in a lease of 25,000 acres of private land. Ed Murphy, the North Dakota State Geologist, said it is currently the only permitted uranium exploration project in the state. There were numerous uranium mining claims being worked in the 1980s in North Dakota. PacMag has designated the area the Sentinel Project and plans to resume drilling in the Spring.

Virginia studies uranium

Virginia uraniumAfter nearly two years of contentious debate, the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission has approved a study of the potential pros-and-cons of uranium mining in Virginia to be carried out by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS study will look at environmental and health issues. A separate study will look at the financial and economic impacts of mining. The studies will take about 18 months.

Map Source: Virginia Uranium

Uranium mining has been banned in Virginia since 1982, but the lure of one of the world's largest untapped uranium deposits in southwestern Virginia has forced the state legislature's hand. That body has blocked previous efforts to carry out the study. Rural legislators from the area may try to convince their colleagues to refuse to pay for this one. Walter Coles, who owns the property, has offered to put up the nearly $1 million that will be needed to complete it.

Critics of the financing move said it would doom the study results because it would be tainted by the biases of the people who want to open the mine. However, Michael Karmis, Director of Virginia Tech's coal and energy resource center, which will manage the state's relationship with the NAS, said the academy is "totally independent" and won't let its deliberations be shaped by lobbyists or the Coles family.

Prior coverage on this blog

International Isotopes gains in sales for 2008

A small firm that has big plans to recover fluorine for industrial use from depleted UF6 reported a 19% increase in revenue in two business segments – radiochemical sales and cobalt products. Last year International Isotopes announced that it planned to build a $55 million plant to extract high purity fluorine via uranium de-conversion using wastes generated by uranium enrichment plants.

International Isotopes reported earlier this year raising $2 million from investors to build a demonstration facility in Idaho Falls. The firm reported a net loss for the year due to its development of the pilot plant. If successful, the firm will build the first commercial depleted uranium de-conversion and fluorine extraction plant in the U.S.

Update: International Isotopes chose Hobbs, NM, for its main plant on March 31.

LES plans Operational Readiness Review

A key step in the hot start process for a uranium enrichment plant, the Operational Readiness Review (ORR) is coming up for Louisiana Energy Services (LES) at its plant now under construction in the far southeast town of Eunice, NM.

The Hobbs, NM, Sun reports that Gregory Smith, Chief Operations Manager for LES, says he hopes to complete the ORR by September 2009 and spool up the plant's first centrifuges by December. Once fully operational, the plant will supply enriched uranium for use in manufacturing of fuel for civilian nuclear power plants.

Another uranium firm collides with rural subdivisions

South American Minerals (PK:SAMM) wasn't looking for trouble when it exercised three options in November 2007 to acquire 10-year leases covering 19,300 acres of mining claims in San Juan County, Utah. The company started exploratory drilling and liked what it found, that is, until residents of the nearby Bridger Jack Mesa subdivision, with 42 platted large lots, began to howl about real and imagined impacts on their luxury homes.

To begin the homeowners want the reclamation bond for cleaning up the exploratory drilling raised from $11,000, as set by the State of Utah, to $872,000 in the event their drinking water wells are contaminated by the drill holes. They are not getting much sympathy from local government which approved the subdivision in the early 90s.

According to the Salt Lake City Tribune for Feb 28, Bruce Adams, the chairman of the San Juan County Commissioners, told the newspaper homeowners, " didn't do due diligence on ownership of minerals rights and now they want the county to solve their problems."

The Utah School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which leased the land for exploratory uranium drilling, agrees. Kevin Carter, the agency's executive director, says the signs of past uranium drilling and mining are everywhere. He also has a harsh assessment of the homeowner's plight. He said that the Trust's first obligation is to obtain revenue from state lands to support Utah's schools.

"They [the homeowners] want us to subsidize their Shangri-las by giving up children's rights to the minerals."

For South American's part, the company points out the drilling won't impact drinking water because the aquifer is below the uranium in the geology of the sites being explored. Phil Gramlich, a spokesman for the firm, told the ‘Tribune his company can "work in harmony with the home owners if they will get rid of their hysteria about uranium."

The homeowners remain stumped, the newspaper says, because they can't figure out how the mineral rights take precedent over the fact they bought homes on the surface. They are pushing a revised zoning ordinance that would establish a one-mile buffer around any uranium mining activities. The county refuses to support it.

Chairman Adams told the Tribune the county would face litigation if it took away mining rights guaranteed by state law. The Trust also objects pointing out that such a move would involve a "taking" of its property.

In the end it is another example of how rural gentrification of former uranium mining districts collides with the realities of mineral rights laws. In the rocky mountain west, the outcome of the battle between trophy home entitlement and the legal standing of minerals leases is that the trophy home developer, who doesn’t check mineral rights, loses every time.

Dylan said it best

“There's too much confusion,
I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine,
Plowmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth.”

And Jimi Hendrix can play it.

# # #

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Idaho Cleanup Project gets $468M

Funds will remediate hazardous & nuclear waste at INL creating over 500 jobs.

President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package showed up in Idaho this week with a whopping $468 million for cleanup of hazardous and nuclear waste in eastern Idaho. The Department of Energy approved the funding drawn from a $6 billion line item included in the package passed by Congress earlier this year. A portion of the money assigned to the Department of Energy is designed to accelerate environmental cleanup work and create thousands of jobs across 12 states.

The Idaho Statesman reported that In Idaho it will create 500 new jobs and speed-up the clean-up at the DOE's facilities at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). The Idaho Cleanup Project will get most of the money which will be used to demolish old nuclear facilities . Bechtel’s Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project (AMWTP), an Idaho cleanup contractor that is shipping waste to WIPP, will also get new money.

In a DOE press release, DOE Sec. Steven Chu said, "These investments will put Americans to work while cleaning up contamination from the cold war era. It reflects our commitment to future generations as well as to help local economies get moving again."

John Fulton, CEO of CWI, the prime contractor at the Idaho Cleanup Project (ICP), told KIFI TV in Idaho Falls the money will mean more jobs and a quicker clean-up for the next few years at the Idaho National Laboratory.

"We're going to dig up more and dig it up faster. We're in the process of demolishing buildings. We'll be able to demolish more and demolish it faster. We're already moving spent fuel, but we're going to be able to do more of that when we hire more people, so we'll have parallel crews."

Fulton emphasized to KIFI that the money came to Idaho because of the site's track record of accomplishment.

"The workforce here delivers. We deliver on time, we deliver safely and we deliver the clean-up promises made."

The other benefit of the stimulus money is that it will keep 250 people employed who would have been laid off without it. According to KIFI, the Department of Energy was expecting staff reductions at the cleanup site.

"It has put a real stress on our operations. We were expecting a substantial amount of layoffs but with the stimulus money, we're able to retain our workforce," said Jim Cooper with the Department of Energy.

The work scope for the stimulus money involves demolishing 80 nuclear facilities and excavating several acres of buried waste. A key task is moving thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods from wet basins to dry storage.

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID), who opposed the President’s economic stimulus bill, and voted against it, said in a press release he supported the cleanup provisions in it. He told KIFI doing the cleanup work now will save money in the long run.

"By spending it early we save money in the long-run for tax payers and we're able to have shovel-ready work if you will, that will get underway right now and does provide a stimulus to the economy."

Simpson meets with Chu

In other Idaho nuclear news, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) met with Energy Secretary Steven Chu as part of a 4-member delegation representing the nation’s four large nuclear cleanup sites.

Simpson covered a range of topics in the discussion including funding for the Idaho National Laboratory and development of a new long-term strategy for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Simpson said in a statement he wants results.

“The DOE has said what it won’t do. Now it needs to articulate what it will do, and I expect those answers sooner rather than later.”

Other parts of the discussion included long-term funding for the Idaho Cleanup Project and Areva’s pending loan guarantee for construction of a uranium enrichment plant 18 miles west of Idaho Falls.

Simpson said he got “articulate” feedback from Chu on the issues that are important to Idaho.

“He clearly understands the importance of nuclear energy to our base load supply and its crucial role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I made clear my strong support for nuclear energy and my intention to renew my pro-nuclear message with him in budget hearings later this spring.”

Simpson was joined at the meeting by was joined in the meeting by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), Rep. Zack Wamp (R-TN), and Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-SC). They represent DOE sites in Hanford, WA, Oak Ridge, TN, and Savannah River, SC. All of these sites also got economic stimulus money to speed up their respective DOE cleanup programs.

More information?

For small businesses and subcontracting information, call Natalie Packer at 208-533-0243 or email her at:

If you are interested in job opportunities, check the home page of the Idaho Cleanup Project - job listing tab - and use the “search” link on that page.

CWI Video – 2007 Highlights of Accomplishments

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Monday, March 30, 2009

International Isotopes Chooses Hobbs, NM

$55M Facility will recover high quality fluorine via uranium de-conversion

International Isotopes (OTC:INIS), a small firm located in Idaho Falls, ID, has big plans to recover fluorine for industrial use via uranium deconversion from depleted UF6.  Steve Laflin, CEO, announced this week he has chosen a site in Hobbs, NM, for a $55 million plant.  It will eventually employ 150 people.

The new facility will consist of both depleted uranium de-conversion and fluorine gas extraction processes. INIS holds patents that give it exclusive rights to the Fluorine Extraction Process (FEP), which produces high value, high purity gases in conjunction with uranium de-conversion and provides a key commercial advantage to the de-conversion project. 

The plant is expected to have an initial de-conversion capacity equivalent to processing approximately 575 deleted UF6 tails cylinders per year. Those cylinders are expected to come from one or more enrichment companies in the U.S. and INIS will charge for this de-conversion service. The end products of the de-conversion process will be high purity, anhydrous hydrofluoric acid (HF) and silicon tetrafluoride gas. Both of those products are in demand for a wide range of industrial manufacturing applications.

Lea County Offered Advantages

Laflin said the economic development advantages of the location outweighed other choices. He said the Lea County site, which is west of Hobbs, has good access to disposal facilities and utilities needed for the project.

Hobbs is just 25 miles north of Eunice, NM, where Louisiana Energy Services (LES) is building a $2 billion uranium enrichment plant that will spool up its first centrifuges by the end of 2009.

Laflin said his firm will submit an application for an NRC license for the New Mexico facility by November 2009. He hopes to break ground at the Hobbs site in 2011. 

Technology demonstration plant in Idaho Falls

Laflin isn't standing still. He's also building a large-scale $10 million technology demonstration plant in Idaho Falls that will employ 20 people.  He is plowing the current round of investment funding, some $2 million, into engineering design for both facilities. 

His business plan to attract investors is to show them the technology works in Idaho Falls, and to book contracts for the New Mexico facility. 

When asked if he has a contract with LES, he said, "not yet," but he added "I'm not tied to just once facility. I hope to do business with Areva's Eagle Rock uranium enrichment plant." That facility is expected to comes online in 2014.

Separately, International Isotopes reported for 2008 a 19% increase in revenue in two business segments – radiochemical sales and cobalt products.

At market close on March 27 the stock price stood at $0.29/share against a 52-week range of $0.91-$0.15.  market capitalization was $81.3 million.

Prior coverage on this blog

June 2008 - INIS announces deconversion plans
November 2008 - INIS raises $2M

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PBMR joins forces with China on pebble bed technology

It's a quantum leap in overcoming the "not invented here" paradigm

Hat tip to Rod Adams at pebblesSouth Africa and China have agreed to joint development of pebble bed reactor technology A press release from Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (Pty) Ltd (PBMR) of South Africa indicates that firm has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in Beijing on 26 March 2009 between the Chinese and the South African developers of pebble bed technology.

Currently, the PBMR design is in pre-certification review at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Similar technology is being developed by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). The lab calls its project the "Next Generation Nuclear Plant" or NGNP. It is also a high temperature gas cooled design.

Full text of the PBMR press release is on the Atomic Insights blog. Click here.

# # #

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Foreign policy wonks whack nuclear energy

Nonproliferation dangers trump global warming benefits

radiationThe foreign policy establishment struck a nerve with the nuclear industry this week with a long report attacking the future of the global nuclear industry. The report, which has the provocative title “Nuclear Energy: Rebirth or Resuscitation” [PDF file], is published by the Carnegie Endowment. It is the latest in a series of mostly critical analyses [transcript, video] which raise the issues of nonproliferation first and cost second without offering plausible alternatives or solutions. The report’s author has also testified before Congress that the defined contribution of nuclear energy to address the problem of global warming is “an illusion.”

The report seems to have just one message and that is stop new nuclear power plants anywhere regardless of country guarantees because the risk of nuclear weapons and the cost of new plants are just too great. It is so easy to just say “no.” Here’s a sample.

“The exigencies to energy security and climate change do not warrant racing ahead before institutional frameworks can insure that any expansion makes sense, not just for energy needs, but for world security.”

Twenty or thirty years ago this policy position might have made sense because the US was still locked in the madness of mutually assured destruction with the Soviet Union. Today, the Soviet Union is blending down its HEU (90% enriched) and selling civilian nuclear fuel (3-5% enriched) to the U.S. for cash on the barrelhead.

The report has five key points which I’ll briefly address

1. Nuclear power cannot significantly help combat climate change in the next two decades, when the biggest reductions in emissions will have the most impact.

global-warming-mapWrong – nuclear power can head off the increase in new greenhouse gases by swapping out plans for new fossil fuel plants. TVA’s revival of the Bellefonte site and plans for two new AP1000 reactors there is a good example. There is terrific coverage in the Chattanooga Times Free Press this week on these developments.

It is as important to stop the increase in new production of fossil based emissions as it is to reduce the overall level of emissions. We’re on a trajectory that still posits an increase in green house gases. Slowing it down is part of overall effort to reverse course. Just ask China. which has the world’s most intense investments in nuclear energy globally. and is a significant contributor to green house gases, why they are building so many new nuclear power plants.

2. Nuclear power cannot reduce dependence on foreign oil, since oil accounts for a small percentage of electricity production in most countries. The key to reducing oil dependence is transforming the transportation sector to rely on other fuels. States like France and Japan, which rely heavily on nuclear energy, are still overwhelmingly dependent on foreign oil in transportation.

google electric car in motionCorrect – but for the wrong reason. No one who wants to build a new nuclear power plant has much interest in transportation fuels. Widespread use of electric cars is decades away. The report objects to nuclear for an entirely irrelevant reason. it is a great sound bite, but it doesn’t compute.

Nuclear power is valuable because it satisfies base load demand and keeps transmission and distribution networks humming so they can also carry electricity from variable sources such as solar and wind. The electricity from all of these sources supplies household, business, industrial, and government use of electricity for homes, offices, and factories. It has almost nothing to do with the transportation sector. In this critique, the report’s misses its target not in terms of miles per gallon but by miles period.

3. To compete with alternatives, new nuclear plants need significant government subsidies. Like other low-carbon energy sources, nuclear power would also benefit from the imposition of a high price on carbon emissions.

wheat_harvestWrong on the first count, somewhat right on the second. Loan guarantees are not subsides. They function the same way agricultural crop insurance does for the wheat crop. They reduce the cost of capital, which reduces the cost of the delivered product to customers.

In the case of nuclear power plants, the utility does not have to bet the company’s total stock capitalization on a single project and it does not have to pay higher interest rates to borrow money to build the plant. Even more to the point, loan guarantees are only issued to the most credit worthy projects further reducing the risk to taxpayers.

Pricing of carbon emissions may help nuclear power, but only if the government can implement it on a massive scale with a regulated exchange and predictable cap-and-trade program. No one is going to buy credits in a nuclear power plant if they cannot be assured their purchase will be cost effective and benefit stockholders in the long run.

The government’s case for pricing carbon emissions, at least based on what the Obama administration has said so far, is that it is a source of revenue to reduce the deficit. That objective probably won’t benefit new nuclear plants in the near-term.

4. The international community must act now to mitigate the proliferation risks of a potential expansion of nuclear energy. Key steps include strengthening the rules of nuclear commerce and transparency, reducing the prestige associated with nuclear power, and helping other countries undertake clear-eyed assessments of all available options for generating electricity.

57 chryslerWrong. “Reducing the prestige of nuclear power” sounds like nations are going around building nuclear power plants the way upwardly mobile families in the 1950s bought luxury cars. This is insulting are worst, and patronizing at best. It is display of paternalistic thinking which is truly jaw dropping in places like India, Italy, and other countries all of whom have very plausible and solid reasons for re-starting their nuclear energy programs.

As far as “clear eyed assessments” are concerned, the one place where that quality is definitely needed is Turkey. There the government has amply demonstrated most of the ways you should NOT run a tender for a new nuclear power plant. However, the reason has nothing to do with proliferation concerns. It is due to the fact the government managed to run off 13 potential bidders leaving only the Russians who submitted a proposal that asks for twice the going rate for commercial electricity.

5. Government and industry should also cooperate to phase out national uranium enrichment capabilities, preferably in a legally binding way. A treaty to halt fissile material production for weapons, with new impetus from the Obama administration, could require all new and existing fissile material production capabilities to have multi-national ownership within a decade.

gnep logoGood luck with that. Uranium enrichment is a huge international industry and no one is going to allow the western nations, under the guise of GNEP, nor Russian, under the umbrella of whatever state owned agency is now churning profits for oligarchs, to establish OPEC cartel-like control over nuclear fuel. In any case what would change?

Nation states already control most the trade in enriched uranium. There is no dominance by the private sector in the uranium enrichment business. It is so valuable that state-owned mining operations in Kazakhstan compete head-to-head with similar state owned operations in France and Russia. Commercial operations in the U.S. are strictly regulated, and even Canada, which wants to move up the value chain for its uranium exports, has to get permission from other countries before pursuing development of enrichment capabilities in Saskatchewan.

Challenge for the nuclear industry

squasson testify houseThe author of the report is Susan Squassoni, [right] who according to her bio, is a senior associate in the Carnegie Nonproliferation Program and has been analyzing nonproliferation, arms control, and national security issues for two decades. Previously a specialist in weapons of mass destruction proliferation at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Squassoni also served in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the State Department.

Based on this profile, she has no experience in the commercial nuclear world and little appreciation for the business side of the house. Nonproliferation is an important objective for the U.S. in its pursuit of national interest in foreign policy. However, in this case, Ms. Squassoni and the Carnegie Endowment have over reached in their pursuit of the objective and lost sight of the value of the industry.

It is clear the Carnegie Endowment is an influential voice in the world of Washington policy wonks. Maybe it is time the nuclear industry paid more attention to what they have to say and who they say it to. Dialog with the industry, rather than Amory Lovins, a frequent featured speaker at the Endowment’s meetings, is needed because Mr. Lovins not a confidence builder for near term consensus. You have to start somewhere. A more thorough nuclear industry response to Ms. Squassoni’s report might was well be the place to do it.

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TMI haunts the nuclear industry

It has for 30 years and likely always will

China Syndome MovieThe movie the China Syndrome and the accident at Three Mile Island are forever linked in American history. The movie was showing in theatres nationwide when the cooling pumps failed in Harrisburg, PA, on March 28, 1979. Cinematic visions of an over wrought Jane Fonda, paired with a young Michael Douglas and a hysterical Jack Lemmon, along with melting pools of nuclear fuel rods, are fused in the American imagination. The double tap of Hollywood's message from the movie and the reality of a real accident are frequently used as a blunt instrument to beat up any utility that announces it wants to build a new nuclear power plant.

The threats to the future of the nuclear industry aren’t over yet, and they aren’t always coming from the world views of Greenpeace or Hollywood. According to the New York Times, the lessons of TMI were apparently lost on the operators of the Davis-Besse plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio. In this case, the nuclear industry was its own worst enemy.

In 2002 FirstEnergy Corp (NYSE:FE) resisted shutting down the plant to check out a leak of acid laden water that eventually ate a hole in the concrete of the containment building. The firm paid a fine of $33.5 million and two technical staff at the plant were convicted of felony charges of willfully giving false data to the NRC. However, neither served any time in jail receiving fines and probation. The NRC itself reportedly didn’t press the utility very hard despite repeated warnings by its own inspectors.

This incident, occurring 25 years after TMI, should serve as a warning post to the industry that it still has bad operators that need stringent oversight. Relicensing troubles at Vermont Yankee, which bear a close resemblance to a demolition derby, are another clear signal. It should also be a warning in the new nuclear renaissance to keep amateurs out. See NRC Chairman Dale Klein’s now world famous 2007 “no bozos” speech on this subject.

Post TMI Traumatic Disorder

So where does that leave us today? Despite the reforms instituted by the nuclear industry, including the formation of INPO, and a mostly trouble free history,the American public still is happy to support nuclear industry so long as the reactor is in the next state over, preferably downwind. For example, California is still willing to try to develop energy colonies in Utah and Arizona rather than overturn its 30 year ban on new plants in the state.

Wisconsin nuclear plantsWisconsin may cave in to anti-nuclear hysteria and its legislature may vote to keep its ban on new nuclear plants even though it gets a lot of its electricity from three nuclear power plants in the state and one on its border in Illinois. Previous efforts to repeal the ban have failed. The current crop of environmental leaders in Wisconsin belittles nuclear energy calling it a “distraction” despite its very significant role in the state’s energy supply picture. In neighboring Minnesota that’s exactly what happened despite the best efforts of very credible people and a lobbyist from NEI.

Steven ChuThe new Obama administration seems to be tone deaf on the issue of nuclear energy. Newly minted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (left) is reportedly becoming more of a ‘chief science officer’ for the agency than a policy maker. The New York Times wrote an unflattering piece on March 22 that the Nobel Prize winning scientist is in over his head in the rough waters of Washington’s continuous tempest of energy debates. Political observers say that the administration’s real energy policy will be made in the White House by former EPA Administrator Carol Bowner.

Last month John Rowe, who heads Exelon (NYSE:EXC), the nation’s largest nuclear utility, told the National Governors Association he wasn’t going to waste any more political capital trying to get Congress to support additional loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants. That's a pretty clear signal of early frustration. Significantly, it comes from Obama's home state of Illinois which gets a huge percentage of its electricity from nuclear plants.

The challenge of renewable energy advocates

climate_change_carbon_taxThe Obama Administration seems to be smitten by the claims of advocates for green energy, ok “renewables,” that nuclear is not needed. This is a real head scratcher for me because 1000 MW solar and/or wind energy is not the same as 1000 MW of nuclear energy. It comes down to base load v. variable capacity.

Comparing apples to apples, 1000 MW of wind power has a 30% capacity factor versus 1000 MW of nuclear power with a 90% capacity factor. Capacity Factor is calculated by taking the plant's average production and dividing it by the number of hours in a year. What this means is that the nuclear plant produces three times the electricity of the solar or wind plant. Put another way, relying solely on renewable energy is like planning to have your lights out more often than not.

sock puppetThe battle over “renewables” v. nuclear is really a battle for investment capital. The nuclear industry is capital intensive so wind and solar firms see it as a zero-sum competitor on Wall Street, what’s left of it, for new investors. That’s why former VP Al Gore was hired by a venture capitalist firm and is now promoting solar and wind technologies for them. Al Gore's "moonshot speech" for wind and solar energy is an unattainable vision.

Taken another way, the reason coal-fired utilities feel threatened by the relicensing for construction of TVA’s Bellefonte plant is that their cash cows, some of which are fully depreciated assets, will have to compete with emission free nuclear energy plants once Congress eventually does something, likely in 2010, about carbon taxes and carbon cap-and-trade. In the meantime, arguments by green groups against new nuclear power plants are, de facto, testimony in favor of more coal fired plants because of the capacity factor issue.

Are there any bright spots?

There are thought and opinion leaders who are bringing a pro-nuclear message to the mainstream news media. This blog has also previously highlighted the writings of William Tucker and Gwyneth Cravens and their books on nuclear energy. It will take their books, and a lot more, to shape public opinion. The lasting legacy of TMI will resonate for a very long time.

todd tuckerMost recently, Todd Tucker (right), a former U.S Navy submarine officer, wrote an very accessible piece in the Washington Post called “Five Myths on Nuclear Power.” He spotlighted some of the irrational fears of nuclear energy and noted that reflex opposition by green groups was “quasi-religious.”

Most importantly, Todd Tucker says that debates about the future use of nuclear energy must take place in the same context as debates about the risks and rewards of other energy sources. If there is one thing the nuclear industry ought to do, that is it. Leveling the playing field in the court of public opinion for nuclear energy is a very daunting task. If the industry is planning on building a next generation of nuclear plants that will last for t60 years, it has better get cracking now.

The future of the nuclear industry also depends on how its trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, responds to TMI as a signature event every time it comes to a public hearing about a new nuclear plant or one to extend the license of an existing plant.

nei logoOn this point it is clear the organization is headed in the right direction. See especially NEI CEO Marvin Fertel’s March 24 testimony to the Senate. It is a comprehensive review of what the industry has learned from TMI and how it works with those lessons today in the operations of the nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants. This testimony is evidence that the lasting legacy of TMI is one that the industry has taken to heart.

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