Tuesday, September 29, 2009

WSJ forum on nuclear energy

A discussion forum for subscribers and visitors to the newspaper’s online edition

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In late summer 2008 the online Wall Street Journal set up a series of community forums to take advantage of emerging social media.

Since September 2008, I’ve been hosting a discussion forum at the online WSJ on the nuclear energy industry globally including new reactor investments, economics, politics, technologies; and, issues associated with the entire nuclear fuel cycle. So far it has about 250 members, which makes it the largest energy-related group at the WSJ.

This month, on the one-year milestone of the forum, I’ve opened the forum to anyone who is registered at the online WSJ web site. You can view the forum without being a subscriber. You can register for free to comment on topics in the forums, but you must agree to use your real name. Click on the "Join this group" button to become part of the forum.

There are opportunities to post topics and comments to generate discussions. Please stay on topic or start a new one, e.g. nuclear energy topics. Off-topic posts will go in the bit bucket. Content citations in HTML links are OK in the text of a topic post or a comment. Please make sure your link works.

If you want to move beyond a discussion of nuclear energy, you can search for other groups using the ‘search’ tab on the community page. One of the more interesting forums is called “Question of the Day” which is moderated by the WSJ editors.

Who's there?

You can see who has joined the nuclear energy group as the members are listed by name. If they have chosen to fill out a profile, you can learn more about them as well. In that way it is like the Linkedin groups, and, like Linkedin, the demographics are based on who selects to register and participate.

Why does the WSJ require you use your real name? Here's the answer.

"The Journal Community encourages thoughtful dialogue and meaningful connections between real people. We require the use of your full name to authenticate your identity. The quality of conversations can deteriorate when real identities are not provided."

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The WSJ does not compensate me, nor does anyone else, for owning this forum, or operating it, within the Journal Community. I am a paid subscriber to the online WSJ.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Merkel’s election win saves Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors

Social Democrats and green groups wanted to close them in favor of wind and solar power

Germany_Angela_Merkel_chancellorReuters reports Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives have won enough votes in Germany's election to form a center-right government with the Free Democrats (FDP). The anti-nuclear agenda of the lef-of-center Social Democrats was not accepted by the voters.

Reuters notes that Merkel’s political party and its partners will extend the operational lives of Germany's 17 nuclear plants. Plans by the Social Democrats and green parties to decommission the plants by 2020 were not accepted by the voters. Business groups campaigned vigorously to keep the plants as reliable, low cost source of electricity to power Germany's export driven manufacturing sector.

The New York Times reports that Merkel's election win, with a narrowly focused set of campaign tactics, came at at cost. She earned only 34% of the vote compared to 35% in 2005. Even so, her new government is expected to hold 320 of 616 seats, a solid majority which ensures her energy policies will prevail against further attempts to shut down the reactors. Merkel's coalition will continue to invest in solar and wind power. Funds for investment in these energy technologies will come from a tax on the profits of the nuclear reactors.

Merkel's partner in the election, the pro-business Free Democrats, boosted their share of the vote from just under 10% to 15% giving them a bigger voice in how the government implements measures to control greenhouse gasses. Some of their measures, which include limits on the pace at which new, higher gas mileage measures are imposed on cars, may not sit well with Merkel’s European neighbors.

Anti-nuclear agenda defeated at the ballot box

Merkel had at one time signed on to the plan by her “grand coalition” with the left of center Social Democrats to shut down the nation’s nuclear plants by 2020. However, in 2008 she returned from the G8 conference in Tokyo with a changed mind and a reversal of her policy stance. She arrived there as the only international leader in the group with an anti-nuclear agenda relative to the growing realization that global cooperation was needed to stop the growth of greenhouse gasses.

singh-merkelAfter talking with her counterparts, especially India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, she returned to Germany issuing a courageous call to stop the plan to shut down the reactors which supply more than 25% of the nation’s electricity.

Had the Social Democrats prevailed, the nation could have become much more dependent on Russian natural gas and the political baggage which has emerged as a cost of doing business with Gazprom, which has become an unpredictable supplier. In January 2009, the Russians cut off natural gas exports to a dozen European nations, including Germany, in a political dispute with the Ukraine. The Russians accused western European nations of siding with the Ukraine.

The Social Democrats vowed to make Merkel’s defeat and the end of the nuclear plants center pieces of their elections efforts. Today, voters in Germany spoke and the anti-nuclear agenda lost at the ballot box.


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A small country wants big reactors

The reason is it has the world’s third largest reserve of bauxite, the raw stuff of aluminum

modular unitsWhen you think of small, developing nations, and nuclear energy, in the same firing of a synapse, what you get are small reactors. Once on the market, small reactors will be comparatively cheap, easily fit into a low capacity electric grid, and offer resilient power in six-or-eight packs of units of between 50-200 MW each.

So, when news emerged periodically that Viet Nam is thinking about nuclear energy, the logical thought was they are a potential customer for small package light water reactors like those being developed by Babcock& Wilcox and NuScale. Theses designs, when commercially available in the next decade, would meet many of the criteria to generate electricity for a developing nation.

vietnam-mapLarge reactors for a very large project

The surprise is that Viet Nam is not thinking about small reactors. According to English language media reports, the country plans to build as many as seven 1,300-1,500 MW nuclear reactors by 2030. That’s a lot of kilowatts for a population of 87 million. What’s driving that vision of a massive new build in a small, developing nation?

The answer is bauxite, the raw ore of aluminum. An April 2009 report in the Economist indicates View Nam has the world’s third largest reserve of it. Rather than just export a basic commodity to China, Viet Nam wants to move up the value chain and launch an aluminum smelting and manufacturing industry to export finished goods to global markets.

China will still be the country’s first and largest customer. Also, it will be the source of mining and engineering expertise to develop the bauxite deposits.

Viet Nam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (left) reportedly has set a goal for the nation to obtain 15-20% of the nation’s electricity from nuclear energy by mid-century. Ta Van Huong, Energy Minister, says the plan is needed to reduce the country’s dependence on imported oil. Based on numbers from U.S. plants in the Pacific NW, it will also need 2-3 MW of electrical power for each 1,000 tons of finished aluminum smelted in a new production facility.

VN DPM Hoang Trung Hai Nguyen_Tan_DungThe bauxite mining and alumina industry would create an impetus for socio-economic development in the Central Highlands, said Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai (right) at a conference held in Hanoi on April 9. According to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Vietnam’s bauxite reserve is estimated at 5.4 billion tonnes. Hai said that getting enough electricity is the key to successful development of an “alumina industry” for the nation.

Tan Rai project

According to an April 29 Reuters report, a Chinese company has a contract to develop the bauxite project. Reuters reported the Tan Rai bauxite complex includes a $460 million alumina plant being built by China Aluminum International Engineering Co, the engineering arm of Aluminum Corp of China Ltd.

The Chinese company is building the operation under an Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contract, but will not take an equity stake in the project.

The mine, in Tan Rai, Lam Dong province in central Vietnam, may start output as early as August 2010, and produce 650,000 tons of alumina annually by late 2011, Duong Van Hoa, vice president of Vinacomin, said this past April. The mine is in Buon Ma Thuot in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Environmental issues over mines

Environmental concerns about pollution from the plant have achieved a very high profile. In January, war hero Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, 97, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Dung asking that the bauxite mine to be put on hold until international experts can make an assessment of the environmental consequences of the project.

Giap reportedly still wields moral authority in Vietnam as a former military leader. He cited concerns among scientists and activists about "the serious risk to the natural and social environment posed by bauxite exploitation projects.”

bauxite-VN mine He said that in the early 1980s he had overseen a study on whether to mine for bauxite in the region, and that Soviet experts had advised against the project because of the "risk of serious ecological damage."

Giap didn’t mention nuclear power plants in his letter, but if the reactors are needed to provide the electricity needed to smelt the ore, side bets are environmental opposition will get around to them in due time.

Scope of planned investment

By 2015, Viet Nam reportedly plans to obtain $15 billion in new investment in its aluminum industry with expected production by that year of 4.8-6.6 million tons/year. Electricity demand will run in the range of 2-3 MW of power for each 1,000 tons of finished aluminum based on U.S. production technologies used in the Pacific NW.

The timing of Viet Nam’s new nuclear build may not be moving fast enough to meet the demand for electricity from its rapidly growing aluminum industry. The initial plans by the Ministry of Trade and Industry called for the first three plants, with a total of 3,000 MW, to be operational by 2025. The government is pricing the plants at $6 billion for each reactor with a construction period of about six years each.

nuclear-train VN A key limiting factor is access to skilled trades and professional engineering talent. Viet Nam’s government initially turned to Japan for technical help, and several hundred Vietnamese nationals are studying nuclear technologies in Japan as a result. The government has also reportedly solicited interest from France, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. to discuss possible investments.

Update Oct 9, 2009

Vietnam’s first two nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 4,000 MW will be built in the central coastal province of Ninh Thuan.

The plants are expected to start commercial operations in 2020, according to the Vietnam News Agency, construction of the plants will begin in 2014.

“The construction of the plants is the best and necessary option to ensure the national power security,” Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Truing Hay told a conference in the province Oct 8th.

There is a strong likelihood the plant will be located on a major waterway to assure delivery of large components by barge and for cooling water supply.

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