Saturday, May 9, 2009

Areva engages nuclear energy bloggers

Outreach effort ramping up from impulse power to warp drive

Areva logoNote to public relations consultants to major nuclear reactor vendors, Areva, the world’s largest integrated firm across the entire nuclear fuel cycle, thinks the blogsphere is worth its time in terms of dialog. The French nuclear giant has an initiative underway in which company officials hold monthly conference calls with nuclear energy bloggers.

During the hour-long call, bloggers get to ask some tough questions. For their part, Areva is working to emerge from a traditional corporate communications strategy of walking softly and not saying very much to the press, much less to bloggers.

Wide ranging topics for discussion

In the conference call held this past Friday, May 8, the fifth in the series, the firm fielded questions about the facts behind a hostile article published in the Economist May 7, the status of the MOX fuel plant under construction in South Carolina, and next steps at Calvert Cliffs III which was short-listed for federal loan guarantees and got a green light this week from the Maryland PUC. The project to build the first 1,600 MW EPR reactor in the US is scheduled to break ground in 2011 and enter revenue service in 2015.

Anne LauvergeonThe Economist article discussed political intrigues within the French government and how or whether Areva will be able to raise 11-12 billion euros for its capital requirements over the next three years. In a critique, Areva told the bloggers the firm is not interested in selling its Transmission and Distribution business unit to Alstom nor anyone else. According to Areva, the the firm’s CEO Anne Lauvergeon (right) sees it as a key component of the firm’s vertical integration to supply total solutions to customers.

In response to questions about the MOX project, Areva said that the issues raised by the DOE Inspector General's office has previously been reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and resolved by Areva and its contractors.

Areva is partnering with the Shaw Group construct the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina. This facility will convert former weapons-grade material into MOX fuel for U.S. electric utilities. Construction began in August 2007 and the facility is now approximately 30 percent complete.

Worldwide 35 commercial civilian nuclear reactors burn MOX fuel. Areva has a quick briefing on MOX fuel on its U.S. blog. See also "Fuel for Thought: Will the U.S. Move Toward a Sustainable Fuel Cycle?' An editorial column by Jacques Besnainou, President, AREVA Inc.

Reprocessing spent fuel

A key initiative which is coming to light is Areva’s planned push for reprocessing of spend nuclear fuel in the US. The firm shared with bloggers its conceptual thinking about a 800 ton/year plant which it says is the answer to apparent end of the Yucca Mountain repository project.

The firm did not put a time frame on when such a plant could be built nor would it say where. However, one blogger pointed out that with the Department of Energy consolidating its surplus plutonium at the Savannah River site (SRS), co-located with the MOX fuel plant already under construction there, South Carolina looked like a reasonable bet.

Jacques Besnainou2 A company official told the bloggers, “we want to renew the conversation about recycling as a policy to manage used fuel.” The firm also points out its EPR reactor is designed to burn MOX fuel.

Jacques Besnainou, President of AREVA Inc., (left) has made a series of speeches to raise public awareness on the issue. And there is support for his views within the US nuclear industry. TVA Executive Vice President Jack Bailey has stated US utilities are eager to recycle their spent nuclear fuel, but the expense of a recycling facility probably will require federal financial assistance.

Dialog to overcome a blind spot

The initiative to talk to bloggers got started last year when Areva’s corporate communications team, based in Bethesda, MD, realized the firm had a self-described “blind spot” when it came to what nuclear bloggers, including this one, were saying about the firm. In particular, this blog tenaciously covered Areva’s public quest to select a site for its $2.4 billion uranium enrichment plant.

blind-spot-mirrorThe state-owned nuclear energy firm is not used to that kind of attention either from the mainstream news media nor from independent nuclear bloggers. Indeed, more recent blog coverage of the firm’s efforts to secure federal loan guarantees took the low profile company out of its comfort zone.

It’s not that the firm isn’t paying attention. One company executive recently told me that he not only remembers the coverage, which he agreed was a neutral analysis, but he also recalled also the tag lines and graphics from some of the articles.

Being in the public eye means sometimes losing some control over message

My response in the conference call to Areva is that it is in the public eye. In fact, it was a ripe opportunity to use a metaphor from the movie Jurrasic Park in the famous scene where our heroes are being chased by a hungry dinosaur. The tag line in the rear-view mirror tells us “images are closer than they appear.”

Nuclear Bloggers The point is that bloggers have readers, just like newspapers. Areva deserves credit for realizing that growing role of Internet sources of information are competing with traditional mainstream news media. It also means control of the corporate message is a lot messier now with all these bloggers around.

Of course even pro-nuclear bloggers are also sometimes seen by the industry as a bunch of noisy “know-it-alls” who don’t appear to understand, or ignore, corporate culture and freely speculate about firms’ global business objectives. One executive asked how people could write and publish blogs about nuclear energy if they aren’t nuclear engineers.

It is a reasonable question, but then most nuclear bloggers are targeting general audiences who don’t care that much about the technical ins-and-outs of reactor operations. At the same time, this group of bloggers who write about the nuclear industry tries to be fair. It is clear both the company and the bloggers are still learning to overcome a bit of wariness over the exercise.

CEO owns the brand not public affairs

tim-chambersAs part of its efforts to learn how to have dialog with bloggers, Areva hired Tim Chambers (right) from the Dewey Square group to provide advice how to talk to bloggers. This was terra incognita for Areva since it didn’t even have a good list of who the nuclear bloggers were and how to contact them.

The first conference call held with about a dozen participants produced a wide range of expectations and a clear signal to Areva that “dialog,” and not the traditional “push” model of broadcasting the corporate message, was the strategy that would have credibility. So Areva launched its own blog.

branding strategy Company officials have recognized their role in the new corporate blogging effort. Jacques Besnainou, President of AREVA Inc., posted a welcome message last March during the first week the Areva blog was up. He wrote . . .

Though we are joining a diverse and exciting energy blog community, AREVA is the first nuclear energy company, and one the first energy companies of any kind to maintain a blog. This is very much in keeping with our policy of openness with our stakeholders, a policy spearheaded by our CEO Anne Lauvergeon and supported by the rest of the AREVA team.

Areva has told the blogger group that it expects to receive comments on its blog and will post comments on other blogs when its activities are covered by them. And it has done so.

As part of its outreach effort, Areva also launched a US web site that describes its entry into the nation’s nuclear energy market with its EPR reactor design and its selection of a site in Idaho for the uranium enrichment plant.

Some of the other blogs in the mix include Rod Adams Atomic Insights, Charles Barton Nuclear Green, Stephen Packard Depleted Cranium, Steve Aplin Canadian Energy Issues, Cheryl Rofer Whirled View, and Neurovore's Nuclear News Network.

Note to other bloggers with an interest in nuclear energy, if you are not on distribution for these conference calls, drop an email to Tim at

What’s Next?

Areva is planning to host an hour-long conference call between the nuclear bloggers and Areva President Jacques Besnainou in June. It will be an unscripted Q&A session. Also, an interview is in the works with Patrick Bourdet, the President of a new Areva company in the US which is developing nuclear isotopes to treat specific types of aggressive and deadly cancers. I’ll be posting the outcomes of these planned “on-the-record” conversations on this blog.

chinese-dragon-mosaicIt is the nature of blogs to step out on the edge of the known universe and peer over the other side. Whether there be dragons or the golden fleece will always be a surprise, but exploration of unknown territory is what makes it worth doing.

Areva is still learning to trust itself and the bloggers in this dialog. The same executive who recalled my coverage and the tag lines also told me that he sees bloggers as “writing a lot of speculation on stuff that isn’t decided yet.”

He’s right about that. It is what bloggers do. As bloggers we don't’ expect the company to talk about multi-billion projects before its ready. At the same time, there is no way you can hide one of them under your hat.

hats offSo hats off to Areva for taking the first step. Will other nuclear energy companies follow in its footsteps?

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Idaho reactor to power NASA deep space missions

A down payment on new production of Pu-238 is in the 2010 budget

NASA CassiniSending unmanned space probes into the deepest reaches of our solar system takes them far beyond the effective use of solar energy panels. Given the long distances, and years of travel, of deep space probes, only the decay heat from nuclear materials (Pu-238) can produce electricity in radioisotope power systems (RPS) to make such missions possible. Pu-238 is a special nuclear material generated in the heart of a unique nuclear reactor in Idaho.

For years NASA relied on supplies of Pu-238 from DOE’s Oak Ridge and Idaho laboratories and from Russia, but current supplies are running out. In Idaho the INL’s Advanced Test Reactor was used to make some of the Pu-238 in the past. The Russians have stopped making it as well.

It took a compelling report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released this week to wake up the Obama Administration. Once eyelids were open, the government immediately decided to put $30 million in the 2010 budget. The money will be used for design and engineering studies.

Jen Stutsman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy, said the agency said it had "a long and successful history" of supporting NASA's needs. It said it welcomed the National Research Council findings.

That’s good news for the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) where some of the work was done in the past and now will continue with the revived program.

mars_science_labAccording to the report by the National Academy of Sciences, it will take $150 million rebuild the nation’s ability to produce Pu-238 in the quantities needed by the space agency for deep space probes to Mars and beyond scheduled for launch over the next 10-12 years.

Johns Hopkins scientist Ralph McNutt told Los Angeles Times this week without the material, a lot of space exploration might have to be put off or might never happen at all.

The LA Times also reports that according to Ralph McNutt, who is co-chairman of the NAS committee that produced the report, the United States stopped making Pu-238 about 20 years ago, with the end of the Cold War. He points out Pu-238 is not weapons grade material, and its slow rate of radioactive decay powers spacecraft through conversion of heat to electricity by the use of sold-state thermocouples.

Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) are the common name for these devices which were used to power NASA’s Cassini mission and the Voyager spacecraft.

McNutt wrote in the report the ramping back up of the nuclear fuel program “ will not be an overnight process.” NASA wants to launch the Mars Science Laboratory in 2011 so they’d better hurry. More information below.

Read the NAS report here

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

DOE funding pipeline plugs up

Energy Sec. Chu roasts "conservative culture" inside the agency

steven-chuThe Department of Energy has billions in energy program grants and loan guarantees for nuclear and alternative energy programs, but so far the only people who seem to be benefiting from the funding opportunities are consultants who advise perplexed applicants how to meet paperwork requirements.

This brings us to a speech [video] by Sec. of Energy Steven Chu (right) this week to the AAAS in which he let fly with several broadsides at the slow pace of decision making in his own agency.

Before coming to Washingto n, DC, to serve in the new Obama Administration as the Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu was the director of a Department of Energy national laboratory.  So it should come as no surprise to the Nobel Prize winning physicist, who everyone acknowledges is a very smart guy, that the bureaucracy that he knew and loved as a loved as a laboratory director would behave exactly the same way now that he is in charge of it.

This brings us to the issue of federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants which have been simmering for some time on DOE's back burner. Congress authorized $18 billion in insurance coverage way back in 2005.  Since then little has happened. 

There are a few milestones. First, the agency issued "implementing regulations." It also hired a director for the program, solicited applications, received and ranked them, and then promptly sat on its hands while blaming everyone else for inaction.

That's not exactly fair, but it is how now Sec. Chu portrayed the situation to an admiring audience of fellow scientist at the AAAS.  According to media reports, Chu wants his agency to get the lead out.

newtron apple"Chu railed against the conservative culture of the  agency he now runs and described his struggles to get money out the door.

"Newton didn't get it quite right," Chu told the AAAS "

A body in motion tends to stop the next day if pressure is not continually applied."

Stirring the Pot.

Chu didn't stop there. If you thought the first round was pretty hot stuff for a government bureaucrat, wait until you get a load of his "barn burner" report from the trenches at the agency's imposing HQ on Independence Ave. Chu reportedly described DOE as place in which "everyone is afraid of making a mistake"

Chu told the AAAS audience that a "cottage industry" has sprung up over the DOE loan program in which consultants were charging hundreds of thousands of $$$ to help prepare applications because the technologists who stand ready to spend the agency's money can't get any answers, much less decisions, from DOE.

Apparently, Chu asked why the government wasn't  answering applicant's questions and was told that such assistance would be "improper" because it might put other applicants at a disadvantage.

BarrelThe agency is rolling in money. In addition to over $30 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear and alternative energy projects authorized four years ago, the agency has billions more in new funding under the Economic Stimulus program. It's all just sitting there inside the beltway. That's a heck of a way to roll the government pork barrel, especially in a major recession.  According to Chu, he intends to do something about it.

Either Chu has forgotten everything he ever learned about DOE while he was running one of its labs in California, or he's acquired a whole new perspective now that he's in charge.

rowing raceHis reply on the issue of helping applicants their hands on the money was that "there are two ways to be fair. You can help no one, or you can help everyone. And then I said, consider the alternative." When told that the applications were running up to 1,000 pages, he replied, "I think a 50-page limit is reasonable."

Now there's a guy who want's more people pulling on both  oars all the time.  And he's likely to get his wish. While Sec. Chu was raking his agency over the coals, metaphorically speaking, in the Senate frustrated lawmakers were making their own plans to get DOE's billions out the door and into the hands of energy developers.

Moving day coming soon for loan program

Reuters reports two leading Senators introduced legislation this week that would establish a new independent agency to get government money awarded to fund clean energy investments.

The bipartisan bill, introduced by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman and ranking member Lisa Murkowski, would establish a Clean Energy Deployment Administration within the Energy Department. This is a powerful bipartisan push in a Congress where "bipartisan" efforts have been a scarce commodity.

moneywheelReuters report the new agency would provide loans and  loan guarantees to support technologies that diversify the nation's energy supply and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The short translation is that DOE's loan guarantees would get out the door and so would the stimulus money and this year not next.  The main goal of the agency is to back technologies that are deemed "too risky" by private companies.

In addition to the billions of dollars authorized under the 2005 law, the department was also allocated billions for clean energy projects and 'smart grid' transmission loan guarantees in the stimulus package.

Bingaman told Reuters he hopes to have a comprehensive energy package approved by the panel by the Memorial Day holiday on May 25.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Nuclear reactor new build roundup for May 3, 2009

Who wants to build nuclear reactors?

The Russians and the Brits are going at it as fast as they can, but there are setbacks in the U.S. in Tennessee and Florida.

Russia to build 26 nuclear reactors

russian-rouble-coin-woodenThe Nikkei Report, Tokyo, reports that Russia has announced it will build 26 new nuclear reactors with electricity generation capacities of 1,000-1,200 MWe each by 2030. Assuming the Russian pricing model, in constant dollars, prevails over the next two decades, the new build has a staggering cost of $78-to-$104 billion.

The Japanese newspaper said that although Russia is encountering increasing financial difficulties, it is putting nuclear power at the center of its energy policy. Success will depend in part on the Russian ruble being worth more than a plugged nickel when the current world financial crisis turns around. Russia plans to pay for its domestic new build in part with earnings from export of its nuclear reactors in deals such as the one it inked with India last December.

According to a statement attributed to Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, Russia plans to increase its total electricity production from nuclear reactors from 16% of total national use to 30% or nearly twice the current capabilities. Some of the new reactors will replace reactors that are currently in service.

kiriyenkoRosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko (left) reportedly said the state-owned firm will try to diversify sources of investment including using bonds to raise $39 billion for the first half of the new build or 13 new reactors. This suggests a cost of $3 billion for each new power station.

Russia also has problems similar to western nations which is quickly training enough nuclear engineers and technicians to support its nuclear energy ambitions. However, other, and potentially more significant problems, are also challenges for the drive for nuclear energy.

The United Nations Development Program reports declining birth rates and deteriorating health care have drastically shortened life expectancy in the former Soviet Union especially for men. Cases of AIDS and antibiotic resistent TB have increased significantly in recent years. The radical change in demographics affects many state enterprises including the military as well as civilian industrial sectors.

UK auctions three new nuclear sites

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has successfully auctioned off three sites in the U.K. to be used for construction of new nuclear power plants. World Nuclear News reports they are a 178 hectare site at Wylfa, a 119 hectare site at Oldbury, and a 200 hectare site at Bradwell.

Wyfla aluminumThe Wylfa site supports a major aluminum smelter and manufacturing operation. Industrialized nations have long relied on nuclear plants to provide reliable power to the aluminum industry. Earlier this year the UAE said its plans for two new reactors in that gulf country would support, in part, a new integrated aluminum smelter and manufacturing plant for the region. However, in the US, a Missouri utility found to its dismay the biggest opponent to expansion of nuclear energy was an aluminum plant.

A consortium of German companies E.ON and RWE took the first two NDA sites in the UK while French EDF took the third. A consortium composed of GDF Suez, Spain’s Iberdola, and Scottish & Southern withdrew from the bidding saying the prices were too high. They plan to participate in bidding for up to eight sites that the UK government will offer that are not on the NDA list.

The total revenue from the auction was {L}387 million or $572 million. The funds will be used for decommissioning and decontamination of closed nuclear sites in the U.K.

E.On and RWE said their plans for the two sites they acquired, plus others, involve construction of up to 6,000 MWe of nuclear generation capacity. However, EDF said it would build 6,400 MWe on its site and others. The total UK new build is expected to bring nuclear energy to 25% of total electricity generation capacity on completion.

ForgemastersIn a separate move the UK government named 11 potential sites for new nuclear power plants and most are pads at existing nuclear plants. Three of them are the NDA sites noted above which are now a done deal. The Department of Energy & Climate Change is taking comments until May 14 on the remaining eight sites. Details are available at a special website set up by the agency.

In another development in the UK nuclear industry, A Sheffield company has asked UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown to help it complete financing of {L}20 million to build a 15,000 tonne press to make very large nuclear reactor components. It has raised the rest on its own.

The development of the giant press to be built by Forgemasters would support the UK new build and also serve export markets competing head-to-head with Japan Steel. A Forgermasters’ spokesman told the Independent newspaper the plant, if built, would shorten the global backlog of new reactor parts. He added that the UK market alone was worth {L}400 million. He added the expanded plant could sustain enough production to shorten the global backlog of large forgings by two reactors per year in addition to meeting UK needs.

NuStart changes horses but keeps AP1000 design

AP reports that a utility consortium will use a Southern Co. nuclear plant rather than a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) site as the basis for a new combined construction and operating license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

nustart logoThe consortium, called NuStart Energy Development, includes TVA and Southern (NYSE:SO). It is developing common standards for licensing, engineering and safety for the AP1000, a Westinghouse design, that could be used by any utility to speed up their licensing process. It plans to build a fleet of them starting with two AP1000s at the Vogtle site. Another two are planned, but work has not started, at TVA’s Bellefonte site.

NuStart and TVA have been using TVA's Bellefonte site in Hollywood, Ala., for the initial application. However, TVA is burdened by the fact the Bellefonte site includes two partially complete reactors. TVA has not yet made up its mind whether to complete them or build the two new units or build all four. Another barrier is that TVA will have to ask Congress to raise its debt ceiling for any of these options. In the current financial turmoil of failed banks and a major recession, it could be difficult for TVA to convince Congress to take this action.

Meanwhile, Southern is roaring ahead to add two more reactors to its Vogtle site. The utility broke ground there in April. TVA is expected to continue work on its Bellefonte application on its own schedule.

Startup of Progress plant in Florida delayed by 20 months

OrangesReuters reports Progress Energy (NYSE:PGN) will delay the construction for its twin AP1000 reactors, and related transmission and distribution infrastructure, reportedly costing $14 billion, in Levy County, FL. It will also delay collection of a rate increase to pay for the plants, the company said on May 1.

The utility said a 20-month delay in the construction schedule for two 1,105-megawatt, AP1000 reactors will push commercial start-up in revenue service for the first unit to 2018, rather than 2016. A second reactor at the site could start-up in early 2020.

The schedule change follows a ruling by the NRC that prevents early excavation and foundation work until Progress receives its license to construct and operate the plant. Progress wanted to go with this work ahead of the license, which is expected in 2012. However, the NRC said it had not yet completed its evaluation of the geology and environmental issues associated with the site.

For its part Progress executives gripped and grinned trying to put a positive spin on the setback.

  • The delay may work in their favor from a financial view.

Jeff Lyash Progress EnergyJeff Lyash, (right) Progress Energy Florida president, said, that while the Florida nuclear reactors remain a "top priority," the delay may be best for customers' wallets, given the severity of the economic slowdown.

"Shifting this portion of the work until we have the combined operating license in hand enables us to spread some of the costs over a longer period," Lyash said.

  • The delay may also improve the project's chances of being built.

The shift "provides time for the economy to recover, which should allow for financing in a more stable market," said Progress Energy Chief Executive Bill Johnson.

The Tampa Tribune reports that a significant consumer backlash to the rate increases was rising rapidly so the delay may also play in the favor of the utility. Unemployment is at record highs in Florida and home foreclosures are following behind.  As economic conditions improve, there may be less opposition to the rate increases to pay for the new plants.

Florida was one of the first states to allow utilities to collect early costs ahead of construction. The legislation was seen as a way to advance Gov. Charlie Crist's effort to address global warming concerns by reducing Florida's carbon dioxide emissions. It may still work out that way, but not as fast as Progress wants.  The utility sees backing off of the rate increases as a prudent move to stop the consumer backlash to rate increases from spilling over into legislative action that would repeal current state law.

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