Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pace of NRC license reviews aired at ANS

The nuclear industry is not happy about some aspects of the process

moneywheelOne of the more significant misconceptions about licensing a new nuclear power plant is that if you throw more money at the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC), it will speed up the approval process for new reactor projects and designs. This turns out to be wrong.

The license applicants and reactor vendors want the NRC go move faster, but their perception, as aired at a panel discussion held at the American Nuclear Society Annual meeting on 6/16, is that this is not happening. Although people were polite, it was a tense session. Off-hand sardonic remarks seemed to travel in the air. Frustration with government regulators can sometimes turn up some weird analogies and one was shared with me by an industry representative.

The metaphor is that if it takes a one woman nine months to give birth to a new baby, if you get nine women together, you ought to be able to have the baby in one month. Some things just don't work that way and throwing money at the NRC licensing process for new nuclear plants is one of them.

For the impatient, the answer, again metaphorically speaking, is that if you want to speed up the process, then take your electronic filing, put it in the microwave, add water, hit the power button and wait 42 months. Naturally, the nuclear industry doesn't see it that way. That somewhat unsympathetic comment came from another member of the audience, and not from an NRC official. What the NRC officials did say is that the agency is committed by its own regulations to lay down a record of environmental and safety reviews so 42 months is what it takes, assuming all else goes well.

These differences made for an interesting dialog held June 16 between a senior NRC official and some industry licensing managers. It aired out the views of both groups and shed light on what's taking so long.

High wire acts with billions at stake

high wire actGetting an NRC license to build a nuclear power plant, or certify a new reactor design, is a high wire act that can cost $50 million, more or less, and that just gets the paperwork done. There is a saying in the industry that when the weight of the paper equals that of the reactor vessel, you've done your job. It isn't true, but for some it feels that way.

Dave Matthews, Director, New Reactor Licensing, at the NRC started the meeting by describing the scope of work facing the agency. There are 18 COL applications that have been filed and three new reactor designs that are undergoing design certification (Areva's EPR, Mitsubishi's APWR, and GE's ESBWR).

The outlook to 2020, which at this point is just a decade away, is that 4-8 reactors will be in revenue services and another 15-18 new plants will be in some stage of formal development having received their license from the NRC. Matthews made it clear that just about everyone in the government and the industry regards the success of the '1st wave' as setting the stage for the next dozen or so projects.

Schedules are commitments

By 2011 the NRC is committed to completing a schedule for some of the COL applications on file and all of the design certifications. The schedules published by the NRC are regulatory instruments. Matthews said the license applicants and the reactor vendors need to meet the deadlines for the NRC's requests for information which come with a 30-day turn around.

smokey_fishGenerally, the industry members of the panel expressed annoyance with what they considered to be "nit pick" questions submitted by the virtual (electronic) truckload and all with 30-day clocks on them. The applicants aren't exactly thrilled with some of the questions or the huge volume. Taken together the burden is sometimes overwhelming.

Greg Gibson from Unistar, working on the Calvert Cliffs III project, said some of the requests appear to be trivial such as one that asked for the screen mesh size of a net used to capture and count aquatic wildlife in a survey of the local environment.

There are deficiencies in some of the applications which holds things up Matthews said. Also, some firms that submitted COL applications have put them on hold hoping to concentrate the NRC's regulatory review on higher priority projects. Matthews noted that Unistar has taken this approach with the Nine Mile plant in upstate New York in an effort to make progress with the Calvert Cliffs III project.

Dollars in as fees are not always dollars for the NRC’s work

It doesn't always work that way inside the agency Matthews said. As a fee recovery agency which bills applicants for the time of NRC engineers at least $250/hr, some applications will not be reviewed as quickly as others. One of the reasons is that while the NRC is required by law to collect the fees, Congress doesn't always appropriate the money back to the agency to cover the full cost of requested services.

Congress deals with the NRC fees the same way it does for entrance fees to national parks. The money goes into the U.S. Treasury, but that does not mean it gets allocated to the agency on a dollar-for-dollar basis. In fact, the NRC has two separate accounts. The first is funding to respond to regulatory requirements, such as license applications, about 90%, which comes from fees, and the second is for some agency initiatives such as international standards development, which comes from general tax revenues.

congressWith a budget in 2009 of just over $1 billion, Matthews said it isn't enough to make the industry happy all the time. Some in-and-outside the agency see the diversion of fees into other government accounts as a problem.

Their logic is that the fees for regulatory review are fees-for-service. Pre-emptive allocation of the money elsewhere by Congress raises hackles with the nuclear utilities and reactor vendors who have applications pending with the agency.

Design references implement the 80-20 rule

In another effort to speed things up, the industry has been trying to cut down on the number of unique reviews the NRC has to make by taking a "fleet" approach to standard references. For instance, Unistar is using Calvert Cliffs as a design reference for Nine Mile, Bell Bend, and any other Areva EPR the consortium will build.

Peter Hastings of Duke Energy, who is working with applications involving the Westinghouse AP1000, told the ANS panel that 80% of the standard reference design data is common to all of the projects. The 20% that is not is what is getting the NRC's attention. He said, "site specific challenges are a minefield," which can throw a license application behind schedule.

UnderConstruction Hastings said are that Vogtle will be the standard design reference submitted to the NRC for the "fleet" of AP1000s being built in the South and not TVA's Bellefonte Units 3&4. With EPC contracts in place at Vogtle, V.C. Summer, and Levy County, the Westinghouse reviews can't afford to be held up while TVA makes up its mind whether to go forward with Bellefonte 3&4, complete units 1&2, which were stopped in the 80s, or do all four. The lack of a defined construction schedule for any unit at Bellefonte is what drove the change.

Hastings also revealed that the COL for the Florida Power & Light dual AP1000 plants at Turkey Point will be submitted by the end of June and not in 2010 as indicated earlier this year by the utility.

Lessons learned in China will bring success to the U.S.

Hastings said Westinghouse is learning from the work it is doing in China. It has poured concrete for two AP1000s at Sanmen and will build two more at Haiyang. The Sanmen unit is supposed to enter revenue service in 2013 and Haiyang will start up a year later. Westinghouse has engineers in China who will bring lessons learned home to the U.S. to help make construction go more smoothly at new nuclear power plants here.

Another factor which will make life easier for Duke and Westinghouse is that five-of-the-seven plants it is working with are located at existing reactor sites. Only two are "greenfield" Levy county and William Lee. This means the projects at existing reactor sites already have data for the environmental impact statement and other site assessment information.

What to do about those delays?

I came away from the session with a perception that the NRC does not have enough money to process all the COL license applications in 42 months. However, some are not ready for prime time, because of deficiences, and other license reviews have been suspended at the applicant's request. The situation is better with reactor design certification. There NRC expects to finish all three that it has docketed by 2011.

The industry panel wasn't all about gripes and schedules. There is a atmosphere of respect between the NRC officials, some of whom spoke from the audience, and the industry licensing engineers. But no one is shy about airing a gripe. So in that regard, the ANS panel served a useful role of reminding everyone of the realities of the NRC’s review process.

big smallThe utilities and reactor vendors know the analogy of adding eight women to one that is already pregnant get a baby in one month is illogical. However, with tens of billions riding on these projects, if the industry could, metaphorically speaking, find a way to get those eight other women to move the NRC to speed things up, they'd have display ads in the Atlanta Constitution by sundown.

On the other hand, maybe they should save their money and instead book flights to Washington to lobby Congress to not use the NRC's budget to de facto throttle the future of the nuclear renaissance.

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Nuclear bloggers achieve critical mass at ANS Atlanta

A first-of-a-kind panel discussion explores the new media for the nuclear industry
The nuclear energy industry is not the first place you would think of when it comes to new social media like blogs. That perception was shattered this week when four of the nation's most prolific bloggers about nuclear energy met in person for the first time in Atlanta, GA, at the annual conference of the American Nuclear Society. The stars must have aligned in the skies over Georgia to bring this group together this week!

Rod Adams, Atomic Insights; John Wheeler, ThisWeekinNuclear, Kirk Sorensen, Energy from Thorium; and Dan Yurman, Idaho Samizdat; spent three hours on Wednesday June 17 talking to a group of about 100 people who wanted to know how blogs tell the nuclear energy story.

You can read all about it in an exclusvie report at the Energy Collective where it is now online.

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Areva EPR for Duke at Piketon, OH

Official announcement is released

Reuters reports that Duke Energy Corp (NYSE:DUK) plans to build a new nuclear power plant in Piketon, Ohio, the state's Gov. Ted Strickland said an energy conference taking place in Ohio.

According to Reuters sources said Duke wwould build an Areva 1,600 MW EPR at the site. Executives from Areva were at the meeting with the governor.

Areva has a statement on its North American blog which confirms the fast breaking news.

Update 12 Noon eastern time 6/16/09
Marketwarch reports Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, Duke Energy, Areva, USEC, (NYSE:USU) and UniStar Nuclear Energy said June 18 they formed an alliance to build a nuclear power plant at a U.S. Department of Energy site in Piketon, Ohio, which is about 85 miles east of Cincinnati.

Named the Southern Ohio Clean Energy Park Alliance, the consortium will evaluate the site as a potential location for a new nuclear power plant, including preparing a plant siting study and licensing documents for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

UniStar is a joint alliance between France's EDF and Constellation Energy (NYSE:CEG). The energy park follows an effort by the U.S. Department of Energy to convert former weapons sites for energy production. Duke will manage the project, provide project oversight and serve as the applicant for the NRC licensing applications. No date was announced for submission of a COL. This is Duke's first reactor project with Areva.

World Nuclear news reports the proposed site is the location of the Portsmouth gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plant, which operated from 1954 to 2001. The plant and its facilities were then kept in 'cold standby' until 2005, when they entered 'cold shutdown', and decontamination and decommissioning began to clean up the contaminated site.

In 2004, US enrichment company USEC selected the Portsmouth site as the home of its American Centrifuge enrichment plant, currently under construction and due to begin commercial operations in 2011 or later depending on how soon USEC attracts full investor funding for the project.

The site could host an Areva 1,600 MW EPR reactor and might also be a replacement for Ameren's withdrawal from Callaway II following action by the Missouri legislature's decision not to enable "construction while in progress" (CWIP) legislation.

Update 6:00 PM 6/16/09

The New York Times reports that because the old gaseous diffusion enrichment process used so much electricity, the site has strong connections via TVA to transmission and distribution grids. It is also in a region that needs the jobs from industrial development.

Jim Rogers, Duke CEO, told the NYT,

“I’m confident I can fund it. Most of our fleet in Ohio, which is coal-fired, will be retired over the next 15 to 20 years, and we’re going to need to replace it, and this plant will be a good candidate to replace that capacity.”

The NYT also reportered that the plant would be built as a regulated generator, not a merchant generator, and state approvals, once they are enactred, will allow the company to begin collecting money before it is finished.

Rogers told the NYT Duke is looking for additional partners. He would not specify a target price or a target date for breaking ground.

“This is the beginning of the beginning,” Rogers said. “It’s a very long process to build a plant in this country but if you don’t get started, you won’t get it done.”

If you want to know how serious Areva takes this project, consider the fact that Anne Lauvergeon, the CEO of Areva, was in Ohio for the announcement. She said in a telephone interview with the NYT that nuclear power was the only choice for reliable, low-carbon energy.

On the issue of financing, there have been questions asked about how the firm will raise the estimated 11 billion euros it needs for global expansion into projects like this one. Lauvergeon told the NYT that the financing was an issue for Areva’s customers, not for Areva itself. The plant would provide 4,000 to 5,000 construction jobs and 500 to 700 permanent jobs, she said.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Story telling and blogs

What makes a good blog?

Hat tip to Merlin Mann at 43 Folders

At the American Nuclear Society conference taking place in Atlanta this week I was part of a panel discussion with Rod Adams from Atomic Insights, John Wheeler from This Week in Nuclear and Kirk Sorensen from Energy from Thorium (speaking from the audience). This is a critical mass of nuclear energy bloggers by any definition.

A lot of the discussion was on the mechanics and practices of blogging, and you can find this stuff on the Internet in a much more comprehensive way than I can represent the conversation here. Also, I’ll have additional coverage on the conference workshop over at the EnergyCollective later this week.

One of the things I talked about was that blogs tell stories. I've edited my prepared remarks and include a link to the slides for your reading pleasure below.

In 2008 a San Francisco, CA, blogger named Merlin Mann wrote a brief essay about story telling and blogging. However, I felt I could take the essay further in a number of areas and so adapted his essay with my extensions. Here it is.

Blogs tell stories

image A good blog, indeed an extraordinary blog, must address the fundamental question of why the reader should spend time with its story. A good story, a satisfying story, must have a compelling start, a middle which lays out the struggle to resolve conflicts and contradictions, or which celebrates the triumph of hard work, dedication, innovation, or which captures the fortunate circumstances where just plain luck arrives and often when it is not expected.

Blogs tell stories, but there are dividing lines between ordinary blogs and those that tell the best stories. The best blogs are not just journalism. In some ways they hearken back to an oral tradition that is thousands of years old.

A blog has a voice

image A blog must have a distinctive voice which in its highs and lows conveys the personality of the blogger and what it's publisher has to contribute to its readers' knowledge of how the world works. The voice of a blog is not a measured monotone. A good blog is exuberant and conveys its enthusiasm for its subject matter to the reader. A good blog is also serious when its needs to be, and must display determination to pursue a topic to its logical conclusions.

A blog cannot mere be a curator of links, a collection of pointers to the work of others, or a mish mash of citations of media clips. The voice of a blog must carry the reader to a new place, where there is better understanding of an issue, a topic, or an event. The blogger's voice cannot falter. The voice of a good blog tells a compelling story which carries with it elements that border on obsession about its topic.

Blogs are passionate about their subjects

image A good blog takes the readers basic interest and captures their attention. Good blogs reflect commitment to an issue or cause, an industry, a person, product, or an idea. The stories told by a strong voice in a good blog overflow with a clear desire to satisfy curiosity about the subject matter. The reader must come away from reading such a blog knowing that the publisher never stops reading and learning about the blog's focus.

A good blog has tenacious attention to detail without burying its readers in a mass of disorganized facts. A good blog encourages the reader to follow the evolution of the story, including the use of links to reinforce the authenticity of the facts of the tale.

Blog success is derived from dedication to a craft

image No successful blog is the product of "add water and microwave." Good blogs tells stories that reflect years of effort to refine the craft of written communication. Good blogs require dedication, hard work, and sometimes getting up at 2 AM to put an idea on the net so it will not be lost. Good blogs must be kept current with fresh, new stories.

Polite blogs do not make a difference

Good blogs must challenge their readers and take them out of their comfort zones. Good blogs are platforms for new core ideas which can create fundamental change. Blogs highlight divergent thinking that the mainstream media sometimes overlooks, and blogs may at times confound their readers with complex ideas out of the ordinary.

image Even when a blog is an advocate for its subject, it cannot avoid the inevitable potholes in the road, and must write about them with equal attention to excellence. Blogs will also tell their readers when a story has no happy ending or where there is no prospect of closure.

Good blogs are persistent. They will repeatedly return to compelling subjects without taxing the patience of their readers because each new visit is a new perspective on the topic at hand. Good blogs are not boring or signals the publisher has stopped taking his medication.

Blogs put honor before elegance

Good blogs tell stories that explain the world from a unique perspective. They answer the "so what" questions. They do not waste your time, and when you finish reading the current day's offering, you are ready for more.

Good blogs explain more, analyze deeply, illuminate their subjects using high beams, and if they are really successful, inspire readers to go out and slay dragons or at least not be afraid of things that go bump in the night.

Good blogs pick you up the way the sun evaporates water from the sea. They carry you across the skies, and release you like rainfall into a new land. That's what blogs are or ought to be about.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Right-size reactors fuel vision of new ANS president

Thomas Sanders comes to the office this week with a commitment to help the U.S. rebuild its manufacturing capabilities for nuclear technologies

In an exclusive interview with the Energy Collective, Thomas Sanders, Ph.D., who takes office today as the President of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), shares his vision to revitalization of American manufacturing capabilities for "right-size" reactors and a companion program of reliable fuel services. This audacious agenda will be a signature of his term as the head of the nation's leading scientific and engineering professional society for nuclear energy.

Thomas Sanders, Ph.D. says he isn't just painting a picture of commercial success. What he has in mind is a combination of "right-size reactors" of 100-300 MW and cradle-to-grave reliable fuel services for developing nations. This is an early exposition of what Sanders plans to make as major priority for the nuclear science and engineering professional society during his term in office.

Read the full interview at the Energy Collective web site.

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Elmore County punts but no field goal

County commissioners tell planning team to re-work industrial land use policy

puntThe Elmore County, ID, county commissioners decided yet again not to decide the fate of AEHI’s (OTC:AEHI) proposed nuclear power plant for southwestern Idaho.

According to a report by Rocky Barker in the Idaho Statesman, the commissioners told the planning and zoning commission to consider amending the county's comprehensive plan. The idea is to create yet other heavy industry areas in the comprehensive land use plant besides the one along Simco Road.

The decision pleased no one. AEHI’s CEO Don Gillispie really has only one thing to show for all his several years of effort to site the plant and that is that the Idaho news media knows how to spell his name. Otherwise, he has virtually nothing on paper to bring to potential investors because he doesn’t even have the local approval he needs to build the plant much less an NRC license. With only time on his hands, Gillispie told the media he’ll wait to see what the county does next.

This is AEHI’s second site having abandoned an effort to get approval for a site in Owyhee County just south of the current candidate for the proposed 1,600 MW plant. That site had geologic problems and the distinct disadvantage of being on the wrong side of the Snake River relative to access to the interstate highway.

The Elmore county commissioners are also concerned that if they grant the zoning change, and then AEHI fails to raise the money for the project, and abandons the project, that a future developer could come along to build on it because of the zoning. In that regard they have a point because Idaho planning law goes to the allowed uses of the zoning and not specific projects. Once the heavy industry zoning is approved, anything that fits within it can be built there.

Anti-nuclear “watchdog” barks

watchdogAndrea Shipley, the outspoken director of the Snake River Alliance, a self-described “nuclear watchdog,” is based in Boise less than a hour’s drive drive from the county seat in Mountain Home, ID. It has recently been reinvigorated by making destruction of Gillispie’s nuclear dream its life mission. Shipley told the Idaho Statesman she was equally unimpressed with the commission’s further deliberations.

However, the group also sees the delay as an opportunity to perhaps trot off to Sun Valley to wave the ghost of the nuclear industry’s past at a few more trophy home owners to raise funds. Shipley called the decision a success "because we can start talking about the issue at hand, which is nuclear power."

Like many anti-nukes, Shipley can quickly tell you the names of two famous nuclear accidents, but she can’t name ten plants that run at 100% of capacity without mishap of any kind. It reflects the group’s take no prisoners philosophy when it come to advocating for their cause.

She told the media since the proposal is still alive, she and and her organization will keep working to kill it.

New banker has clean record

When AEHI first came to Idaho there was plenty of skepticism about its intentions and questions whether it was legitimate or was just another penny stock outfit with large dreams and empty pockets. Now working with its third investment banker, and having registered with the SEC, the firm appears to be making moves towards bolstering its financial credibility.

penny stockThe Twin Falls Times News this week did a check on Source Capital and found a series of minor infractions and an apparently solvent operation. The newspaper reported that fines for infractions of state regulations in Connecticut and Arizona, and federal law, were few and far between and peanuts compared to the multi-billion dollar busts seen on Wall Street.

According to the Times-News, Richard Kreger, senior managing director of investment banking, said he joined Source Capital just three months ago because he was impressed by its clean history.

The firm has its work cut out for it to raise $70 million to pay for site preparation and submission of a COL application to the NRC. At market close on Monday June 15, AEHI’s stock traded at $0.20/share against a 52-week range of $0.40/$0.01/share. Total market capitalization is just a hair under $20 million. In its last filing with the SEC, the firm recorded less than half a million in cash on hand.

One thing is for sure, unlike the tight-lipped Steve Winn from NRG, Don Gillispie won’t have to worry, at least any time soon, about Exelon launching a hostile takeover of the firm.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Exclusive interview with NRC's Dale Klein

Direct from the annual meeting of the American Nuclear Society and exclusive to the Energy Collective

In a first ever sit-down one-on-one interview with a nuclear energy blogger, Dale Klein, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), answered questions about the key issues of his tenure at the NRC. Klein continues to serve at the NRC. His term expires in 2011.

The interview is now online at the Energy Collective

Tweeting #ans09

I'm at the American Nuclear Society conference in Atlanta, GA. I'll be sending tweets twice a day to #ans09

The first batch is already up. Look this evening on the Energy Collective for longer posts.

The Tweets and blog posts are brought to you as a result of support from the Energy Collective.

Update 1520 hrs 6/15

See Rod Adams blog post on nuclear bloggers attain critical mass