Saturday, November 21, 2009

Will the nuclear renaissance start with small reactors?

A panel of vendors makes the case for it at the ANS winter meeting

sales strategyIt is the burden of all senior executives when serving on panel discussions at industry conferences to walk a fine line between being interesting and engaging with a skeptical audience on one hand and on the other hawking the daylights out of their product with shameless disregard for anyone's desire not to sit through a commercial.

A meeting of four such executives from firms planning to build small reactors, and one totally out gunned nuclear regulator, took place Wednesday Nov 18 at the winter meeting of the American Nuclear Society (ANS). This report is mostly about the highlights of the panel discussion. Details about designs are available at vendor sites. See the URLs in each section of this blog post.

Just to give you a flavor of the marketing emphasis of the meeting, the day started with a press release from Hyperion, It announced previously proprietary details of its small reactor design simultaneously publishing them, with additional technical details, in the U.S. and the U.K.

Truck trainOne interesting fact that came out from all of the small reactor vendors is that size matters in terms of the shipping envelope. All of them want to be able to get their reactors to customer sites by a combination of truck or rail. Reactor physics may offer opportunities to scale up to higher power levels, but in point of fact, the cargo envelopes of an 18-wheeler, or railroad flat car, are the key limiting factors.

All four firms said they expect to submit reactor design certification applications to the NRC by late 2010 or early 2011 and have completed combined operating and construction licenses by 2016-2018. In response, NRC’s Michael Mayfield called these schedule assumptions “aggressive” and in his presentation said at this point NRC has no idea what a complete application for any of the designs looks like. “We are testing the boundaries of existing regulations,” he said.

NuScale

The competitive spirit wasn’t lost on the other panelists. To start, Paul Lorenzini, CEO of NuScale, noted that it is one thing to announce your have a design on a cocktail napkin, it is another to bring it to market.

design on back of a napkinHe said that he’s aware of a staggering 90 small reactor designs world wide and every one of them is touting distributed electricity generation in developing nations as their marketing advantage. Even ANS President Thomas Sanders has one at Sandia, and so does software billionaire Bill Gates.

Lorenzini did what all CEOs do well, in terms of characterizing the competition. He cast doubt on the market prospects of the 89 other firms saying the “market for distributed power generation is unknown,” and that his firm is focused on the U.S. market.

He took things a step further by describing NuScale’s one-third test facility at Oregon State University. He said that because NuScale’s 45 MW reactor is a traditional LWR design, it doesn’t have to fabricate or test new fuels.

This is a subtle but directed comment about the two fast reactors in the mix, which are Hyperion’s 25 MW conceptual design and Toshiba’s “4S” R&D prototype which comes in 10 MW and 50 MW sizes. Both are liquid metal, passively-cooled designs which will require enriched uranium in the range of 17-19%.

NuScale was also the first to announce a modular approach to selling its reactors to customers. The idea is that a utility could buy a six-pack or eight-pack of the 45 MW units. This approach means that while one unit is being refueled, the others remain online. Subject to NRC approval of the idea, it could provide economies of scale for control room operations.

B&W mPower

John Ferrara, representing Babcock & Wilcox, emphasized the advantages of an early time to market for the mPower small reactor, a 125 MW LWR design that is still being completed on the drawing boards in Lynchburg, VA. The reactor will use 5% enriched uranium in fuel rod assemblies which are similar in design to those used in 1,000 MW plants.

prudent investorHe said that the advantages of his firm’s design is that, “it is not a bet the company” reactor project. This makes the small reactor attractive to Wall Street investors looking for a way to get into the nuclear industry without having to wait a decade, or more, for a payoff.

At a hypothetical price of $3,000/Kw, a single unit would cost $375 million providing carbon emission free power in a future setting which will be rife with carbon taxes and other offsetting economic and policy mechanisms to discourage new fossil fuel plants.

One of the intended uses of the mPower reactor is to “repower carbon-intensive plants where the transmission and distribution infrastructure is already in place. Ferrara said the first units could be received by customers by 2018 and that the reactor can can be shipped by truck and rail to a customer site and installed below grade by skilled trades without complex training.

He claimed that the time from ink on the order book to revenue service is about three years. Like NuScale, B&W plans to offer its reactor in a modular array of up to eight units.

See also the report by Rod Adams at Atomic Insights about his talk with B&W’s technical team at the ANS conference.

Hyperion

Mark Campagna, representing Hyperion, explained that the firm’s 25 MW “nuclear battery” (slides) is a spin-off from Los Alamos National Laboratory. The firm continues to rely on expertise from the federal science facility with a cooperative R&D agreement.

Distributed powerUnlike B&W and NuScale, both of which emphasized hooking up their reactors to existing electrical grids, Campagna said the competitive advantage of Hyperion’s design is that it is focused on providing local, or “distributed power,” where there is no grid. Key export markets will include remote oil and gas fields, mining, and military installations. A target use for developing nations will be to power potable water treatment facilities.

Hyperion is funding its development path with venture capital. Campagna said the firm is completing the first of three rounds of financing. He claims it is “over-subscribed” for latter stage financing. Key target investors are from the firm’s supply chain.

He said this approach will not only insure NQA-1 components, but also reliable supplies because the firm’s vendors will have skin in the game. Another objective is that, given the international scope of the firm’s marketing efforts, Hyperion is planning to “dual source” all reactor components, fuel, and manufacturing capabilities.

One of the issues which came up about reactor fuel is that Hyperion had previously announced a different fuel type than it specified in the design information it released last week. Campagna said that time-to-market considerations and easing the regulatory review were critical issues for making the change.

Toshiba 4S

Tony Grenci, representing Toshiba has his work cut out for him. The firm has publicized its proposal to put a 10 MW “nuclear battery” in Galena, Alaska. The chief limiting factor in the proposal is not to get it there, or to install it, but to convince a nuclear engineer to stay there to run it.

Galena Ak roadwayThere are no roads to Galena (map) which is served by a local airstrip and by boat traffic on the Yukon River during the brief summer season. In winter the town is cut off for days at a time by severe weather.

People make their living from seasonal tourism, timber, and from support to various state and federal agencies operating in that part of Alaska. The last census estimate listed fewer than 1,000 people recorded as living in the area.

Electrical power comes from high- priced diesel fuel. Toshiba believes that if it can bring in power from its unit below the price of diesel fuel, that it will have a competitive product for distributed power applications.

Like Hyperion, Toshiba is emphasizing applications that are off the grid including mining, military, and power for remote populations. Grenci took a straight forward approach to describing the technical details (slides) and planned market segments for the fast, passively cooled, liquid metal reactor. The reactor will be offered to customer in two sizes – 10MW and 50 MW.

Neither design will require on-site refueling. The smaller size will have a lifetime of 30 years and the larger one will be good for ten years. The below grade installation will have no moving parts in the reactor, but there will be balance of plant at grade to capture heat from the secondary loop.

NRC’s steep learning curve

Michael Mayfield, head of the Office of Advanced Reactors at the NRC, came to the panel with bad news for the small reactor vendors. He said that NRC is “unfamiliar with most small reactor technology and has no proven review process to certify one.”

eightballThis assessment puts the regulatory agency behind the eight-ball and produced a lot of grumbling from the vendors on the panel. They all offered “not happy to hear this news” types of remarks as Mayfield shot back that “vendor schedules [for NRC approval of their designs] are aggressive” and therefore unrealistic.

Another contentious issue is how control rooms will be configured and operated for modular installations of multiple small reactors. The vendors want a single control room, but the NRC is adamant, at least for now, that each reactor will need its own control panel and licensed operator. All of the vendors claim, that unlike the big iron, safety, security, and controls will be handled by small staffs rather than the hundreds of people needed to run a 1,000 MW unit.

One piece of good news is that Mayfield said the LWR designs have a good chance of getting through the Part 52 Standard Review with minimal changes to the process. The bad news for the two fast reactors, which are cooled by liquid metal, is that NRC’s initial gap analysis for review of these designs shows many unresolved issues. In other words, the NRC doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, like Rumsfeld’s famous “unknowns,” about certifying these designs.

All of the reactor vendors want to know if the NRC is open to changing the rule that requires 100% cost reimbursement for reactor design review. This issue, and many others that will affect the agency’s review, are stacked up like airplanes over DC’s National Airport in bad weather.

Mayfield said that the NRC’s Chief Financial Officer had published a notice in the Federal Register to consider changing the issue. Also, legislation has been introduced in the House (Udall, CO) and Senate(Webb-VA; Alexander, TN) to fund the NRC to conduct the reviews.

Mayfield challenged the vendors on the issue of when they would produce a prototype of their designs. While their words in response were diplomatically phrased, a more blunt translation is that the first units would be built for paying customers.

NRC’s Mayfield departed from the podium as one thoroughly grumpy regulator. He’d been candid about the challenges the NRC faces under current law, regulation, and funding, and got roughed up for his trouble. This isn’t limited to his interaction with vendors. This panel was one of those sessions with high audience participation.

He did leave one salient point relevant for potential investors in small reactors, and that is the LWR designs will have an easier time getting NRC’s safety review done. The “fast reactors,” as Mayfield called Hyperion and Toshiba’s designs, will require changes to “defense-in-depth” safety analysis to eliminate accidents which are not feasible and to other parts of the regulatory requirements for safety analysis review.

sock darning

With a gap analysis pointing to a lot of holes, it’s unclear how much regulatory patchwork sock darning Mayfield and his colleagues will have to do to get the job done.

These changes will reduce the cost of the design certification reviews, but overall, both reactors will have a steeper hill to climb and take longer to do it. The NRC will have to change the regulations it uses to guide its standard review approach. Then it can do the reviews.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

AEHI gets positive turnout in Payette County

Rocky Barker has a comprehensive report in the Idaho Statesman (11/20/09) on the latest developments with AEHI's proposals to build a nuclear reactor in Idaho.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Taking the myths out of the debate on nuclear energy

News media coverage and blog posts take different paths towards the same destination

7thChevronAt the American Nuclear Society winter meeting taking place in Washington, DC, this  week, two sessions highlighted efforts to remove the veil of confusion on three critical issues affecting the public debate on nuclear energy. 

These issues are that development of civilian nuclear energy leads to proliferation of nuclear weapons, that management of spent nuclear fuel has no solution, and that the industry does not need loan guarantees for new reactors because they are subsidies in disguise.

The first session was a panel of top flight journalists who cover energy issues.  Organized by Mimi Limbach of Potomac Communications, it included reporter George Lobsenz, Energy Daily, Matthew Wald, New York Times, Angie Pointer, Dow Jones News Wires, and Jim van Nostrand, McClatchy News.  The audience had a typical ANS profile of nuclear engineers, utility executives, and industry consultants.

The second session was a meeting of 45 people involved or interested in new social media including blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and similar types of online tools and services.  In addition to your faithful reporter, the audience included Rod Adams from Atomic Insights, John Wheeler from ThisWeekinNuclear, Dave Bradish from NEI Nuclear blog, William Tucker, author of the new book Terrestrial Energy, Ed Kee, a consultant who moderates the leading nuclear energy group on Linkedin, Nancy Roth, managing editor of Fuel Cycle Week and many others.

Read the full text of this report direct from the ANS winter meeting exclusively on the Energy Collective.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hyperion reveals design details of its 25 MW reactor

Firm kicks-off effort to prepare a submission to the NRC for safety review

hyperion-nuclearUpdate 11/24/09 (below)

Hyperion Power Generation, which is designing a small, 25 MWe, nuclear reactor, revealed design details Nov 18 (slides) about the company's product at the winter meeting of the American Nuclear Society taking place in Washington, DC.

This is the first release of reactor design information by the company. It marks the kick-off of the firm’s pre-application process with the NRC for safety analysis review that leads to a reactor design certification decision by the agency.

No matter where, globally, Hyperion plans to build their reactor, the NRC certification is a critical success factor because the agency’s regulatory review is considered to be the “gold standard” by other countries.

According to John Grizz Deal, Hyperion CEO, the firm plans to submit its design to the NRC in late 2010 or early 2011. Hyperion technical staff said the NRC learning curve is a challenge since it is not a light water reactor.

“We hope that it will not be too hard for them to understand our design. We choose technologies for fuel and fuel cladding that are well understood from a safety perspective.”

Design details

design toolsThe sealed core, which is good for up to 10 years, does not require refueling at the customer site. Instead, the entire mechanism is replaced by a new one. The first use of the reactor at a customer site will be to produce electricity. The planned output of the reactor will be 25 MWe. Other applications include process heat and power for remote military applications. The company claims to have numerous customers lined up to buy the units.

Features include;

* Each unit will generate approximately 70MWt and 25MWe – enough to power 20,000 average American homes.

* The temperature of the secondary loop is 450-500 F. The secondary loop is a liquid metal circuit to produce steam so that there is no contact between the primary reactor and water in any form.

* Overnight costs are estimated by the firm to be $2,000 - $3,000 per KW capacity. The bottom line market goal is to generate electricity for < US$0.10 per kWh anywhere in the world.

* The reactor, which measures 1.5 x 2.5 meters, can be transported by truck to a customer site. Connections to a secondary loop, turbine, and transmission lines increases the footprint, but not by much.

Hyperion Reactor Information

Hyperion Reactor Overview 1

* Operation is limited to reactivity adjustments to maintain constant temperature output and it has much fewer in-core components than a light water reactor. Hyperion claims that operational reliability is enhanced by the reduction of moving mechanical parts. Staffing will be at least two people at all times to comply with NRC requirements.

The reactor is intended to meet requirements for dedicated power by hospitals, factories, foundries, government centers, water treatment, or irrigation and desalinization. Resource intensive uses at remote sites include mining and oil production & refining. Military facilities that cannot compromise tactical readiness relative to having enough electricity may find the small footprint of the reactor and ease of transport to be of interest.

Safe shutdown

The reactor has two shutdown systems which provides redundancy. In event of a problem, there is a space in the center of the core into which the operator can rapidly dumped marble size boron pellets which will lead to rapid shutdown of the reactor.

Hyperion Plan Review of Active Core

Hyperion plan view of active core

Once reactor comes to end of fuel cycle, in about 5-10 years, it takes two years to cool down via air circulation. Then the entire reactor can be removed for disposition. Ideally, a customer will have two setups for these reactors so that one slot is empty at startup of the first one. When it’s done, you put the new one in the empty space, and let the old one cool off in place for two years. Then the customer can arrange for Hyperion to remove it. It gives new meaning to the term “plug and play.”

Future fuel fabrication plans

Fuel will be enriched to between 15-19.6% because this small reactor needs more highly enriched fuel to get power levels to point of economic value. Fuel is a uranium nitride alloy. No fuel has been fabricated or tested so far. A system engineer at Hyperion said in an interview INL’s ATR is an option for testing fuel. Other international sites (unnamed) are also interested if ATR is not available. The firm’s goal is to verify that fuel meets requirements for higher burn-up rates.

Hyperion said in October it plans to build a factory to make the reactors in the UK. CEO Deal is making a simultaneous announcement there about design details this week. Nuclear Engineering International Magazine published a technical update 11/19/09.

Update 11/24/09

Like everyone else, I was surprised by the change in fuel types. My report on Idaho Samizdat referenced above is based on telephone interviews on 11/16/09 with technical staff at Hyperion and with CEO John Deal.

Note also that Hyperion's technical staff told me explicitly that no fuel has been fabricated or tested. I've since been told by an expert in the matter that Los Alamos, which is supplying technical expertise to Hyperion via CRADA, has in fact done work with this fuel type.

See also
R&D work done at UC Berkeley in 2002 and paid for by the US Department of Energy.

The change in the fuel type for Hyperion is based on a decision by the company to go with a fuel type that it believes will have a better chance of passing regulatory review.

At the ANS winter meeting 11/18/09, M. Mayfield of NRC characterized both Hyperion's design and the Toshiba's 4S as "fast reactors." See my
additional reporting on small reactors from ANS for comparisons between small LWRs and the two fast reactors.

The Hyperion design is very similar to the Soviet KLT-40S. This 25 MW reactor has been used in Russian subs and ice breakers. The design has a 10-12 year cycle after which the reactor is repalced and the old one decommissioned.

Prior coverage on this blog

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Alexander v Jaczko: 180 degrees of separation

Sen. Alexander and Webb put their oars it the water, but NRC’s Jaczko says the nuclear industry is sinking its own ship

OarsAs dutiful attendees to industry conferences know, the first 45 minutes of a “plenary” session are often extra snooze time to make up for a night on the town. Once the worthies of the conference leadership have gotten through the obligatory self-congratulations, the real interesting stuff shows up.

At the start of day one of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) meeting being held this week in Washington, DC, the 1,400 or so registered at the meeting filled a giant hotel ballroom to standing room status.

21st century Manhattan project in the works

One the highpoints of the half dozen speakers who offered their views on the state of the nuclear industry was a bipartisan tag team talk by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (Alexander’s original press release on his plan (blueprint document) for 100 new reactors) and Sen. James Webb (D-VA) (Webb Press Release from today’s speech).

They discussed a stand-alone effort called the “Clean Energy Act of 2009” modeled after the Manhattan project in World War II. The 21st century equivalent is an effort to double the amount of electricity generated by nuclear reactors in the U.S. by building 100 more of then in the next two decades. They also proposed funding of $1 billion to cover the cost of reviewing small reactor designs at the NRC and another $1 billion for educating the next generation of nuclear engineers and skill trade crafts to build those 100 new reactors.

Paperwork piles up at NRC

overloadedOne of the low points was a list of complaints by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko about the nuclear energy industry’s collective interactions with the agency. He said utilities and reactor vendors are not following the agency’s licensing and reactor design certification process as intended creating all kinds of headaches for the NRC’s rapidly growing and inexperienced staff.

He mentioned that the agency has increased its budget by 60%, but that 50% of the staff have less than five years of experience with the agency. That group presumably includes Commissioner Jaczko, who started there in 2005.

Sail boats for submarines?

There is frustration on the current situation with both advocates and critics of the nuclear energy industry. In one of those metaphors that sticks in your mind, Alexander described the loss of U.S. competitive position for nuclear energy globally this way.

“If we were going to war we wouldn’t mothball our nuclear navy and start subsidizing sail boats.”

Alexander said that if you wanted to build a wind farm that would supply as much power as a 1,000 MW reactors, you would need to cover a land mass the size of West Virginia. Of course that’s not the best place to build a wind farm, but like the sail board analogy, he got his point across to the audience.

He said China is starting new nuclear reactors at the rate of one every three months, the UK just announced it will build 10 and the UAE will build three.

Speak softly and carry a big paint brush

paint-brush-02 On the other hand, NRC’s Jaczko painted a picture in broad strokes with a wide brush characterizing the vendors of nuclear reactors as turning in poor quality responses to requests for information and often late to boot. He added the utility operators are “complacent” about the NRC’s oversight process. That’s the type of complaint that keeps licensing managers awake and which is also a flare that lights up the night sky for anti-nuclear groups.

It is significant that Jaczko complained about the NRC’s “overwhelming work load" which includes three new reactor design certifications, two revisions to existing reactors, 13 combined construction and operating license applications that are active (another five are on hold), and nine power uprate applications.

Here’s where things got murky. Jaczko said that unless the nuclear industry followings the processes for reactor design review and licensing more to the agency’s liking, that the “NRC could not be predictable” in or “timely” in its responses.

On the surface, this sounds plausible. a regulatory agency like the NRC is, after all, prescriptive when it comes to telling the industry how to deal with it. If the industry turns in bad data and late, it has only itself to blame when the NRC takes longer to straighten things out. That’s called sinking your own ship to borrow from the nautical flavor of Sen. Alexander’s thinking.

On the other hand, the broad critical sweep of Jaczko’s speech could also be interpreted another way. Try this translation – if you (the nuclear industry) don’t straighten up and fly right, don’t expect me to make your sloppy work my crisis by not slipping the review scheduled to fix the resulting mess.

Time to market and enter revenue service depends on NRC

Since time is money, and every month, or year, of delay in getting a reactor design certified or license is a delay in entering revenue service, the NRC has substantial influence and power to take the position of “my way or the highway.” That’s the prescriptive part of how regulatory agencies behave when they get their socks in a knot.

Coming back to Sen. Alexander’s plans to build 100 new reactors in 20 years, one wonders how NRC Chairman Jaczko would manage the review of eight-or-nine dozen license applications in the first five-to-ten years of the program? Right now the NRC seems to be mired in dealing with just one dozen license applications.

Few cans short of a six pack

six pack It appears the missing piece in Sen. Alexander’s 100 reactor plan is how to sustain safety standards in the review of license applications while at the same time getting the paperwork through the process? One answer is that Congress must stop stripping off some of the reimbursement payments from the industry to the NRC to use them for pet pork projects in other appropriation bills. Fully funding the agency consistent with its workload would help.

Chairman Jaczko owes it to the industry to be more proactive than just complaining and sitting on his hands when the paperwork goes south. Rapping knuckles, metaphorically speaking, at an ANS conference is an effective way to get industry’s attention. The question is that after getting it on Monday, what are you going to do about it on Tuesday?

Finally, if there are legitimate problems, like “zombie RAI’s” that waste everyone’s time, why isn’t the NRC listening to industry concerns?

As Ricky Ricardo once said, more than once to Lucille Ball, “Lucy, you got some explaining to do.” It looks like more explaining and less complaining would get us a lot more reactors built a lot sooner.

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#ANS09 hashtag on Twitter for live updates from American Nuclear Society, Washington DC. Nov 16-18