Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pinion Ridge uranium mill under fire

Environmental groups file multiple legal challenges

This blog post is an edited version of an article published in Fuel Cycle Week, V9:N366, March 3, 2010, by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC.

The Sheep Mountain Alliance (SMA), a Telluride, Colo., environmental group, and its legal counsel, the Energy Minerals Law Center (EMLC), located in Durango, Colo, have taken a two-pronged approach to try to stop the development of the Pinion Ridge uranium mill. The 500 ton/day facility is being developed by Energy Fuels (TSE:EFR) and will be located in Naturita, Colo., about 50 miles northwest of Telluride.

The most significant legal action is a lawsuit filed in Montrose County District Court which alleges the County Commissioners erred by issuing a special use permit for industrial operations in an agricultural zone.

Travis Stills, attorney for the Sheep Mountain Alliance, told FCW the claim is a uranium mill is not an allowed use in an agricultural zone and that the county should have re-zone the site to industrial uses before issuing the special use permit.

Mediation may not work

mediationFor now a judge has told the county and the Sheep Mountain Alliance to develop a mediation proceeding to settle the case before it goes to trial. Stills isn't confident mediation will work. He's waiting for the county to give him a record of all the hearing notes and the county's record of decision.

However, Frank Filas, Environmental Manager for Energy Fuels, told FCW the Sheep Mountain Alliance "doesn't understand that the planned mill is not a smelter."

Plus, Filas says, when Energy Fuels approached the county with their request, "the county told use the special use permit was the way to go."

"They made that decision and are standing by it."

Robert Hill, the Montrose County Attorney, backs up Filas on that point. He told FCW "As a county, we think we were correct in that decision."

Hill adds the current lawsuit is really still an administrative proceeding. The court will determine, based on the hearing record, whether the county commissioners used the evidence before them to grant the special use permit. Hill also said the county was willing to make a "good faith effort" at mediation, but he also qualified it by remarking "we'll see where that goes."

Size of the mill?

yellowcakeSMStills also claims the size of the mill is a moving target. He told FCW that in some public forums Energy Fuels said the mill would be a 500 ton/day operation and in others it would process 1,000 tons per day.

Filas told FCW, "In the five feet of paper we submitted as our application for a radioactive materials license with the State of Colorado, we always maintained the mill would be able to handle up to 500 tons/day. If future market conditions support expansion, we'll have to come back the state to get permission to increase its size."

Area mines would supply the ore with varying grades of uranium per ton of ore. Assuming a grade of 4 pounds per ton of ore, a 500 ton/day mill would produce 2,000 pounds, or one ton of Yellowcake per day. Assuming operations for 300 days/year, the output of the mill would be 600,000 pounds of Yellowcake per year or 300 tons.

Dolores River center of contentions

sheepmtnallianceThe other issue environmental groups are raising is water rights. Hilary White, the acting executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, told FCW her group estimates the mill will need about 800 acre feet of water per year and that one-third to one-half will come from wells and the rest from the San Miguel River. She also said the Dolores River (right) would be impacted by the mill.

White said that the group is concerned toxic materials from the mill tailing pile will get into the river harming fish and wildlife and that wind will make dust from the piles airborne resulting in people inhaling uranium dust. She said the group is particularly concerned about the impact of the mill on tourism.

White said the Sheep Mountain Alliance will file briefs with state regulatory agencies challenging Energy Fuels on the issue of "beneficial use of the water." She's not alone. A Utah environmental group, Red Rock Forests, is also planning on challenging the water rights for the mill because the Dolores River, which is only a few miles from the mill site, eventually flows into the Colorado River 250 miles away in Utah.

Wild & Scenic Rivers assessment

DoloresRiverHarold Shephard, the director of Red Rocks Forests, told FCW the Dolores River is under review by the BLM to be a "wild and scenic river," and that depletion of the water flow, or contamination from the mill, could stop BLM from designating it with this federal resource protection. His group plans to join Sheep Mountain Alliance in opposing the acquisition of water rights by Energy Fuels for the mill.

The BLM Grand Junction Field Office said on its website Dec 11, 2009, that an April 2009 report found that while segments of the Dolores River are eligible for the designation, it is not a sure thing.

"Some river segments may be determined to have issues that will make manageability challenging given other conflicting uses. These segments would be determined to not be suitable for designation."

No determination has been made to date about the suitability of the Dolores River for the "Wild & Scenic" designation which must ultimately be approved by Congress.

Mill permit hearings

energy fuels Both the lawsuit and the water rights issue are taking place distinctly separate from a series of public hearing the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are holding on Energy Fuels application. The agency has about 14 months left to complete its review.

Filas told FCW that in a perfect world the state would allow Energy Fuels to break ground for the mill in January 2011, but, he says, "I don't think that's going to happen."

Filsa said he feels the environmental groups are relentless in their opposition to uranium mining in defense of their members' outdoor lifestyle and tourism. It appears to the uranium industry in western Colorado that fish trump jobs.

"We expect appeals of whatever decision the state makes. While the appeal process is short, these people don't give up. We expect more litigation."

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Virginia uranium study starts

Coles Hill site has an estimated 119 million pounds of uranium worth over $5 billion at current prices

earth_sciencesThis blog post is an edited version of an article published in Fuel Cycle Week, V9:N366, March 3, 2010, by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC.

The long-awaited study on the environmental and economic impacts of the giant Coles Hills deposit, a proposed uranium mine site in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, will start this month. The National Research Council will undertake an 18-month, $1.4 million review of the question of whether uranium can be mined and milled safely at the site. [study website]

What's riding on the outcome is the development of a mine with a NI 43-101 report detailing a measured and indicated resource of 119 million pounds of uranium. Also, according to company managers, Virginia Energy (CVE:VAE) plans construction of a mill capable of producing 3.5 million pounds a year.

Large mill needed for the mine

The output yield of the mine is expected to be 1-2 lbs of uranium per ton of ore. Assuming the mine operates 350 days/year, the mill would have to process 5,000 tons/day of ore to produce 10,000/lb/day of U308.

This is a large mill by industry standards. Even so, at this rate, it would take 34 years to mine and mill the resources at the site. The size of the mill operation and its production capacity would expand over time. Actual production would be less as underground mining would not recover all of the resource.

Target audience is the Virginia General Assembly

VAGenAssemblyThe State of Virginia currently bans uranium mining, but the General Assembly could overturn it if the study results are favorable to uranium mining. The study is being managed by The Center for Coal & Energy Research at Virginia Tech. The entire cost is being paid for by Virginia Energy as part of its 28% earn-in equity position in the Coles Hill uranium deposit.

Norman Reynolds, CEO of Virginia Energy, told FCW the reason the firm agreed to have the National Research Council do the study "is that their reputation is beyond reproach." Michael Karmis, Director of the Virginia Tech research center agreed. He said, "the source of the money is irrelevant."

Jennifer Walsh, a spokesperson for the National Research Council, told FCW the official sponsor of the study is Virginia Tech. She confirmed that the study is just getting underway with the recruitment of experts to serve on the panel.

"This will take some time," she said. However, she also confirmed that the panel is tasked to complete its work by December 2011.

CEO Reynolds said the study is "an opportunity to have preeminent scientists provide independent and credible information about the development of a uranium mining and milling industry in Virginia."

He said Virginia Energy believes the outcome of the study "will provide Virginia with enough information to confidently bring uranium mining legislation and a permitting framework into being."

Best case scenario for opening a mine

pitchblendePatrick Wales, a spokesman for Virginia Energy, told FCW if the report's findings are conclusive, the company will ask the Virginia General Assembly to overturn the ban on uranium.

Wales noted that although Virginia is an "agreement state" with the NRC, under the current arrangement, that agency would still have the authority to issue a source materials license for the uranium mill.

"Our best case scenario is that we could be in production with a mine in four-to-five years. However, that's an aggressive time line," Wales said.

He declined to estimate the cost of developing the mine or building the mill. "They're just too far in the future," he said.

Opponents worry about bias

Opponents of the mine are not convinced that the organizational firewall at Virginia Tech between Virginia Uranium and the National Academy will work. Jack Dunavant, a registered professional engineer who heads up a citizens group opposed to the mine, told FCW that he feels the money from the company "will taint the results."

rainstormHe claims that tailings from the mine and the mill will be disturbed by Virginia's wet weather leading to increased exposure to alpha radiation and increased cancer cases from ingestion and inhalation of uranium dust. The area receives 40-50 inches of rain a year.

"I'm very wary of the conclusions that will come out of this study. Virginia Energy will leave no stone unturned to get their way."

Wales says that area opponents of the mine are ignoring the jobs that will come from the mine and the mill. He said the two facilities will eventually require 300-500 people and pay wages that are "far above the prevailing rates" for other jobs in the region. Wales noted that the current unemployment rate in the area is 15%.

Those economic arguments cut no mustard with Kate Maute, who is leader of a mine opposition group in Pittsylvania County. She told the Danville Register Feb 27 she is doubtful about the economic benefits that would come with development of the mine and she wants absolute certainty about health and safety issues before the mine is allowed to be built.

It is quite possible that no matter what the outcome of the NAS study, opponents of the mine will continue to have doubts about resolution of environmental issues for the project.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

A tale of two speeches

NRC Commissioners talk about Yucca Mountain

NRC Jazcko RIC March 10 2010The New York Times has excellent coverage this week of two speeches by NRC Commissioners Gregory Jazcko (right) and Dale Klein. What’s significant about them is that both proceed from the point of view of the chairman’s role. Jazcko is the current chair and Dale Klein is the past chair. Although still a member of the Commission, Klein will leave the NRC as soon as three pending appointments are confirmed by the Senate.

Both men spoke to a packed Regulatory Information Conference, an annual event that has a daunting agenda of tough minded regulatory topics that usually tax the mental powers of even the most seasoned nuclear engineers. However, this week there was no mistake about the very different views the two NRC commissions brought to the question of what to do about spent nuclear fuel.

The NRC currently allows nuclear utilities to store spent nuclear fuel at the reactor under a “waste confidence rule.” It anticipates the government has confidence that by 2020 it will have figured out what to do with the spent fuel. For the time being, dry cask storage at reactors looks like it has a shelf life of 50-60 years. However, Edward F. Spout III,the federal official who once ran the Yucca Mountain program, told the New York TImes, “You can’t keep that stuff in those canisters forever.”

Yucca Mountain license application

harry_reidThis brings us to the two speeches. Jazcko’s speech has hints of the political winds which he sailed to the current position he holds at the NRC. He is a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (rght) whose only interest in the issue of spent fuel is that none of it is stored in his state.

As Senate Majority leader, Sen. Reid is responsible for carrying the Obama administration’s water on crucial issues like health care and climate change. There is a price for this service, and Reid has made it clear the termination of the Yucca Mountain license application is part of it. Reid also saw to it that funds for evaluating the license were stripped from the NRC’s budget. The final step in a march to political oblivion is that the Department of Energy said it wants to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application.

Jazcko’s speech has these highlights . . .

“I would like to address an “elephant in the room” – the update to the Waste Confidence Rule. The Commission has been focusing on this update to our generic determination of the environmental impacts of spent nuclear fuel and working to develop a final answer . . .

Staff has taken a fresh look at the technical basis for our waste confidence findings and reaffirmed that spent nuclear fuel in any reactor can be safely stored, without a significant impact to the environment, for 50 to 60 years after the licensed life of operation . . .

We should leave the ultimate strategy of disposal to organizations like the Blue Ribbon Commission whose job it is to examine the alternatives and make the recommendations on permanent disposal.”

In this speech, Jazcko basically takes the Yucca Mountain license application and punts the issue of spent nuclear fuel into the future. He says we’ve got 50-60 years to make up our minds. Technically, he’s right, but given the tens of billions the government has spent so far, and the limited storage space reactors have for the fuel, don’t we as taxpayers and citizens deserve more diligence on the subject?

Methods to regulate spent nuclear fuel

nrc sealKlein’s speech talked about the safety mission of the NRC. Instead of political process, Klein talked about scientific integrity.

The New York Times characterized Klein’s remarks as “blunt” with regard to the White House decision to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license.

The absence of a scientific judgment about Yucca Mountain, Klein said, does not create a vacuum to be filled by expedient solutions.

“Those who would distort the science of Yucca Mountain for political purposes should be reminded that it was a year ago today that the President issued his memorandum on scientific integrity, in which he stated that “The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.” [Italics added.] I honestly cannot say if Yucca Mountain could ever meet the stringent tests that would allow it to be licensed. But I do know that, under the law, that licensing determination… and the technical evaluation of the science… is the NRC’s responsibility.”

I think the current situation demonstrates that those of us who resisted a rush to update the waste confidence findings were correct to proceed with caution. I continue to question whether the Commission would have maintained its public credibility if it had finalized the proposed update without taking the time to consider more fully the reality of the current situation.

What many people—even many people in this room—fail to understand is that the waste confidence rule is a real challenge for us because it is not simply based on the technical judgment of the NRC. Part of the Commission’s “confidence” underlying the rule must be based on events that are beyond the NRC’s control, and when those events are in flux, the Commission has to be very careful in deciding whether it can credibly say that we have “confidence” that a repository will be open on a given date or period of time.”

The point of a “waste confidence” rule is not only to regulate the spent fuel, but also to provide a legal basis for public confidence in it. The NRC’s role should be about objective safety analysis based on science and engineering data. Political expediency exposes regulatory review about a profoundly significant issue to the shifting tides of political gravitas. Washington often works this way, and this is one more instance of it.

What about the Blue Ribbon Commission?

blue_ribbonSolutions to the issue of spent nuclear fuel won’t be decided solely at the NRC, nor with or without funding or a license application to review. A Blue Ribbon Commission, appointed by Energy Sec. Chu, will hold its first meeting March 25 & 26 in Washington, DC, to hash out policy alternatives.

It will take them 18 months to produce a draft report. Alternatives include finding another geologic repository for spent fuel, reprocessing, use of fast reactors, and a lot of other ideas. No one has a lock on the future of what this body does.

Here’s the link to the Federal Register notice about the meeting. Note there is a surface mail and email address in the notice if you want to communicate with the commission. The meeting location is the Willard Hotel at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW from 1-5 PM March 25 and 8:30 AM – 12:30 PM March 26. President Obama’s memorandum establishing the commission lays out its charter.

This blog usually doesn't pay much attention to the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, mostly because the more interesting stuff, building reactors, has so much going on. The Waste Confidence rule, and the role of the Blue Ribbon Commission, raise the level of interest. We'll re-visit both as events and circumstances develop over time.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Areva to build medical isotope facility

It will produce Lead-212 for anti-cancer treatments

Alpha emitters kill cancer cellsAREVA Med LLC, a subsidiary of the AREVA group, announced March 10 the future construction of a facility on its Bessines site in France (Limousin region) which will produce medical-grade Lead-212* for anticancer treatments.

Relying on its experience in radiochemistry and nuclear engineering, AREVA has developed innovative processes to extract rare isotopes derived from its industrial activities.

AREVA CEO Anne Lauvergeon said, “This project illustrates AREVA’s capacity for innovation. We are delighted to contribute to the development of innovative medical solutions that derive from our core business activities.”

In nuclear medicine, the development of new treatments is dictated by isotope availability. With this new facility scheduled to open in 2013, rare Lead-212 will become more widely available and allow for the creation of new targeted therapies for patients.

Over the past several years, AREVA Med LLC and its partners have demonstrated the benefits of Lead-212 for use in innovative alpha radio-immunotherapy to combat cancer.

In 2009, AREVA was awarded a distinction by the Global Clinton Initiative for its research efforts in the development of innovative approaches for producing Lead-212.

Prior coverage on this blog


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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Israel seeks commercial reactor from France

Start-Up of first commercial nuclear plant by 2025

Uzi_Landau(NucNet) Israel is proposing that its first commercial nuclear power plant  start operations within the next 10 to 15 years, the country’s infrastructure minister told NucNet March 5th.

Uzi Landau, Israsel’s Infrastructure Minister, (right) who addressed the International Conference on Access to Civil Nuclear Energy in Paris, told NucNet that his country was ideally seeking Generation III+ nuclear technology.  According to the interview, Israel will turn to France for this technology. [See prior coverage on this blog: Areva peers into the future of nuclear technology Feb 2, 2010.]

Mr Landau said that Israel would prefer to “go one step further” than Generation III technology, but a final decision could not be taken at this time.

Reuters reported that Landau had discussed with French Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo the possibility of cooperating on building a nuclear plant, together with neighboring Jordan, his ministry said. The project would be overseen by France and use French technology. “The issue is of course when it would be suitable to start this project. We believe that in about 10 to 15 years from today, we would already like this power plant to be operational. Of course we would like to have the most advanced technology. We have the will, the know-how and the scientific and engineering infrastructure. We just want to build it.”

Solar now, nuclear later

Mr Landau told the Paris conference that Israel was “an energy island” that had to rely on imports to meet virtually all of its domestic energy needs.

“We are in fact in the final stages of a large tender for the construction of two big thermal solar-powered plants in the northern parts of the Negev (desert region). But even with the most ambitious solar energy plant, we will contribute just a fraction of our energy needs.

For the purpose of the diversification of resources and to ensure energy security and energy independence, Israel has always considered nuclear power to partially replace its dependence on coal.”

Regional cooperation means regional grids if nuclear energy plant is built

powerlinesMr Landau said that a nuclear power program could also be “an area for regional cooperation with the objective of promoting peace”. There are no existing grid connections between Israel and neighboring Arab countries, he added.

The New York Times reported that Jordon said there would be conditions for regional cooperation. It said cooperation was premature before a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordan has been talking about building a civilian nuclear power plant, and has discussed it with France. 

In Israel previous feasibility studies have been conducted and a potential nuclear plant site identified at Shivta in the Negev.

Mr Landau said Israel has “kept the site and the necessary scientific and technical infrastructures in place for the safe and reliable operation of a possible nuclear plant.”

“Naturally, all nuclear power reactors to be built in Israel will be subject to international safeguards as well as appropriate physical protection measures,” he added.  Israel also hopes to take part in international collaborative program such as Generation IV.

The Israel Atomic Energy Commission currently operates two research reactors, one each at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center and the Nuclear Research Center Negev.

What about Israel’s nuclear weapons?

Israel, a close ally of the U.S., has long been thought to have nuclear weapons, but has never made a public statement to that effect. 

If the country decided to proceed with commercial nuclear power, the U.S. might ask it to follow the UAE example by forgoing new uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing. It might also ask Israel to declare its current weapons capabilities and put them under IAEA inspection.  The path forward is littered with diplomatic and national security issues.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman addressed the plenary session of the same conference on nonproliferation issues.  He said:

“President Obama has called for a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation to ensure that countries have access to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes while minimizing the risks of proliferation.”

Development of regional cooperation, and a regional electricity grid with Israel and its Arab neighbors, will undoubtedly create linkage to the question about the future of its purported nuclear weapons and the facilities that support them.

AREVA not a fan of small reactors

Areva logoIf Israel asks for help from Areva for work on advanced reactors, it had better not ask for a small one.  Dow Jones News Wires reports March 10 that French nuclear Chief Executive Anne Lauvergeon warned March 8 against a “two-speed nuclear power industry” with low-cost solutions pitched against products with a high standard of safety.

One "can't see develop" a situation in which "low-cost" nuclear reactors emerge as an alternative to "high-standard" units, Lauvergeon told delegates at a nuclear conference.

Areva’s EPR pressurized water reactor, at 1,650 MWe, is a one of the largest commercial offerings in the global industry.

Areva may be reacting to the development of small reactors in the range of 50-300 MW for electricity generation and process heat.  At least four such reactor designs are being developed in the U.S. with targeted time to market in the range of 2015-2020.  [See prior coverage on this blog – Will the future of nuclear energy start with small reactors – 11/25/09.]

Reuters has additional details on the speech suggesting the Areva CEO was referring to KEPCO's win of a $20 billion reactor contract with the UAE in December.

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UK magazine relaunches reactor wallcharts


Idaho National Laboratory played a key role in bringing them back to life

Nuclear Engineering International magazine is republishing the 105 reactor cutaway diagrams that it has produced over its 54-year history.

Most of the diagrams, covering every major type of technology, including PWRs, BWRs, PHWRs, FBRs, HTGRs, Magnox and others, have been out of print for decades.

The archives, which runs from April 1956 up to October 2003, is itself a kind of history of the industry. It features the earliest experimental designs, including the Fermi pile (#2), early fast reactors (including both reactors at Dounreay, #12 and #54), the Marcoule gas reactor (#18) and even an early organic moderated reactor (#25).

Not all of the designs were eventually built. Some of the more interesting non-starters include the marine-based Atlantic Generating Station (#59), the Argentinian Argos PHWR-380 (#92) and the nearly-completed Alto Lazio 1&2 in Italy (#84).

Many of the reactor designs have proved popular over the years, such as the French 600 MWe PWR (#80), SNUPPS PWR (#68), Grand Gulf BWR (#77), or the CANDU 6 (#103) as used at Gentilly 2 and Point LePreau 1.

Some of the reactors in the series are still planned – the EPR (#98), SAFR (#91), PRISM (94) – or are still under construction, such as South Korea's Shin-Kori 1&2 (#102).

Assembling all of the charts has been a labor of love – and of years – for former University of New Mexico nuclear engineering professor Ron Knief. "It turns out that as a professor, one thing that you are always on the lookout for is somebody who has a great graphic," he said.

Although he started collecting the charts many years ago, a reprint of his textbook in the 1990s galvanized his interest in the wallcharts, Knief says:

"At the back of my book, I put a lot of effort in developing an appendix that I had identified reference reactor characteristics. They include a BWR, PWR, PTGR, PHWR, LMFBR, HTGR and extensive tables on their characteristics, so that it is easy to put them side-by-side for a student or professor to make comparisons....and I thought, how about getting the wallcharts for the reference reactors?"

Luck wins out finding paper charts

It turned out to be a question that was easier to ask than answer. By the 2000s, many utilities and US national laboratories had cut down their research libraries, so finding the folded paper charts proved tricky. Knief contacted about six different research libraries through his industry contacts, before he was able to assemble the complete collection.

The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) eventually supplied most of the wallcharts, and also supplied funding for digital scanning.

As part of the project, low-resolution versions of the collection will be posted on the University of New Mexico library's web site. Although only eight reactors are currently showing, eventually all of the wallcharts will be freely available. These charts will print at reasonable resolution up to 11"x17" (A3) size.

But for optimal study, high-resolution scans of all the wallcharts are now available as either a high-resolution PDF file (GBP62, or about $99), or as a print (GBP124, or about $199, including postage). About half the scans are in black and white.

For a complete list of wallcharts available, or to place an order, go to

Nuclear Engineering International magazine ( is the longest-running technical publication in the nuclear industry. It is a subscription-only magazine published 12 times a year from London, UK. Its publishers also produce the annual World Nuclear Industry Handbook.

Sample image – Grand Gulf


Monday, March 8, 2010

Competitive scenario for NGNP

What happens next after DOE gets conceptual designs from its $40 million investment?

Oil RefineryOn March 8, 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded $40 million to two firms (General Atomics, Westinghouse) for conceptual designs of a high temperature gas cooled reactor (HTGR). The designs are expected to focus on process heat applications for the petro-chemical industry. The reactor is generally known as the ‘Next Generation Nuclear Plant” or NGNP. (Prior coverage on this blog - DOE awards $40 million for NGNP.)

The first question is this – once DOE gets the conceptual designs, when will one be built? The second question is what’s the competition likely to be doing while NGNP is coming off the drawing boards?

These comments make no assumption about the type of conceptual design DOE gets for its money. There are lots of alternatives in the GenIV family of ideas. This blog post hits some of the highlights of getting the NGNP to market. It doesn’t dive into the level of detail that would make an engineer happy.

Small reactors out in front

While all this is going on with NGNP, a half dozen or more small reactors are also doing everything in their power to reduce time-to-market. Two of them, the B&W (125 MW) LWR) and NuScale (45MW) LWR have the best chance of getting NRC reactor design certification and inking deals with customers by 2015. This milestone would be achieved five-to-ten years before customers will be able to put their chop on an order for a HTGR reactor.

B&W mPower Reactor Quad Module - S The two small LWR reactors are targeted at electricity generation for U.S. customer. Deuces, quads, and six-packs are possible combinations for expansion for utilities after they’ve bought the first units.

Two other small reactor designs, which are liquid metal cooled nuclear batteries, may achieve market penetration outside the U.S. by 2020 or earlier. These units are targeting so-called “distributed power,” which means the applications are literally off-the-grid at remote locations including military bases, mining camps, and lesser developed countries that simply don’t have the T&D to get the power to customers.

The application mentioned most frequently in the breathless marketing literature of several of the developers of small reactors is to provide process heat for steam in the tar sands region in northern Alberta, Canada. The oil companies there taking heavy crude out of the ground currently burn natural gas to produce the steam needed for the primary extraction process and for primary refining to turn the bitumen into crude oil that can be shipped via pipelines to customers.

The oil companies are understandably skeptical that nuclear reactors can be delivered for their use in a timeframe that makes sense relative to their current business plans. For this reason, it is worth looking at the time-to-market for an HTGR and the major milestones along the way.

Next stop – detailed design

design tools DOE’s press release calls for the two contractors getting the $40 million completing their tasks by August 2010. That’s a very unlikely date and may be a typo in the press release.

The reason is that spending $40 million on conceptual design work in five months would represent a new land speed record for spending government money.

Given the number of partners in each contractor’s team, and the technologies they bring to the table, these people may not be able to decide on where to have lunch much less sort out their ideas on what to submit to DOE by August 2010. More likely, the completion due date is August 2011, which makes a lot more sense. I’ve asked DOE about it. I’ll update this part if I get an answer.

Update 03/08/10 7:25 PM MST: DOE is now backing off of the August 2010 completion date. A spokesperson for the agency told this blog late this afternoon, "The Department will now negotiate the final terms and conditions for the awards. Until we have completed negotiations, we won't be able to say definitely when the work will be done."

Assuming August 2011 is the correct date for DOE to get the results of its $40 million in conceptual design studies, someone has to evaluate it. My thought is DOE would do well to have the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) do that work. The INL could evaluate the pros-and-cons of each study, identify gaps, and even provide an overall evaluation on the likelihood the designs could be built with today’s technologies. It would be up to DOE to pick a winner. This way it would be an informed choice.

Update 03/09/10: I've been advised by a reliable source that INL will not be involved in the evaluation of the conceptual design reports. The agency will use independent reviewers.

Once DOE gets the evaluation, which could easily take a year to produce, it is now August 2012. It would take DOE another six months to develop a contract to fund the developer of the successful conceptual design to produce a detailed design. That job could take a couple of years and several hundred million. This puts the project at 2015.

Another five-to-seven years to get an NRC license

nrc sealOnce a detailed design is done, the next step to actually building a reactor is to get the reactor certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Since the NRC has never seen a license application for a high temperature gas-cooled reactor, the review for safety is basically a first-of-a-kind experience for a first-of-a-kind reactor. This is a double dose of “known unknowns.” Clearly, it will take longer than the standard review process for a light water reactor.

The time frame here would be about two years to prepare the reactor design certification package. It would take another three-to-five years for the NRC to get their job done. This puts us at 2020 or 2022 depending on how fast all parties in the mix work to achieve results. Of course, this assumes NRC and the vendor get some help from Congress to fund the license review. Otherwise, NRC will be forced to juggle priorities and LWR applications will go first.

Ground breaking in 2025 or later?

Even if the NRC issues a report that certifies the design in 2022, the company that wants to build one still has to apply for a combined construction and operating license. The vendor has the option of submitting the license application in parallel with the design certification which could speed things up. Even so, NRC won’t act on certain parts of the license application until it has wrapped up all regulatory steps to certify the safety of the design.

Here's a short summary list of the milestones based on an optimistic, some would say, "aggressive" schedule. Obviously, your mileage will vary depending on NRC's funding, the complexity of the reactor design, and the levels of government funding. Prolonged U.S. deficits and a slow economic recovery could add delays to this schedule or kill the project. Also, all fuel issues would have to be resolved including testing and fabrication.
  • 2011 - complete conceptual designs
  • 2012 - complete evaluations and pick a winner, award contract for details design
  • 2015 - Complete detailed design including master equipment list and fuel specifications
  • 2017 - Submit reactor design certification package to NRC
  • 2018 - Submit combined construction operating license application to NRC
  • 2020 - NRC issues safety evaluation report on reactor design
  • 2021 - NRC issues COL license. award EPC contract, break ground
  • 2025 - Hot startup
Where will NGNP be built?

crude_oil_pumpMost likely, NGNP won’t be built in Idaho. The vendor will want a revenue stream as soon as possible. This means the first plant will be built at a customer site. Most likely such a site would be a major petro-chemical facility like a refinery or chemical manufacturing plant. The objective is to swap out two sets of costs – the cost of crude oil and other fossil fuels and the carbon taxes that surely will be in place by 2012.

A significant challenge for the customer will be learning how to operate a first-of-a-kind nuclear reactor in the context of absolutely depending on it for steam. That suggests a breaking-in period of at least several years running the reactor in parallel with existing fossil fuel boilers.

Why process heat first?

steamThe process heat applications for an HTGR would operate at 450-550C. While the temperature inside the reactor could be as high as 850C, the secondary loop would deliver steam at the lower temperature to allow the customer to use conventional materials to harness the heat.

To get real value from the reactor in making electricity, experts say it would have to operate at 800-1,000C. The problem is these temperatures pose substantial challenges in terms of the types of materials used in the secondary loop to transfer heat from the reactor core to a turbine.

It makes a lot more sense for a petro-chemical plant to take the process heat application, using temperatures it knows how to control, as well as the steam, with equipment it already owns. it eliminates the need for a whole new round of R&D to develop turbines and heat exchange technologies that would operate reliably at the much higher temperatures to cost-effectively generate electricity.

The process heat niche takes some of the competitive pressure off NGNP since the two LWR designs most likely to get to market in the next five-to-ten years are targeting electricity generation. The size of the NGNP suggests it would not be suited for off-the-grid applications since it would be difficult to transport its components to such sites. This leaves large petro-chemical plants that have both the water access for barges and the need for 600 MW (thermal) of process heat.

Competitive costs?

prudent investorThe best case scenario for payback to process heat customers for a commercial version of the reactor looks like this. Assume a member of the NGNP Alliance burns 1 million barrels of oil/day at $70/barrel. That's a daily cost of $70 million. Every 30 days it burns $2.1 billion in crude oil for process heat and over 300 days it burns $21 billion. DOW chemical, a member of the NGNP Alliance, cited these numbers in briefing slides presented to the Heritage Foundation in 2009.

If a new 300 MW high temperature gas-cooled reactor costs $3,500/Kw, or $1.05 billion, the payback occurs in the first or second year assuming all the oil used for process heat is eventually swapped out for heat from the reactor. The actual payback will be much longer due to the need to amortize R&D, NRC licensing, and start-up costs, which could be an additional $3 billion. Also, the plant would have to reconfigure steam lines and control systems to deliver heat from reactor instead of fossil fueled boilers.

Update 03/09/10: The competitive advantage of the NGNP is its size and affordability. Bruce Power is promoting development of two ACR1000 reactors (1,110 MWe (electric) each) for the tar sands region. At $3,500/MWe, the price would be $3.85 billion each or close to $8 billion. A 300 MWe (electric) NGNP reactor, would be $1 billion as noted in the article. Engineers would like to see more specific financial ratios than the examples used in this blog post.

There are plenty of challenges ahead, and they will take the better part of two decades to resolve them. Readers are encouraged to suggest ways to achieve a shorter time-to-market.

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DOE awards $40 million for NGNP

The money will be used for conceptual designs

DOE logoU.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced Mar 8 selections for the award of $40 million to two teams led by Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Co. and San Diego-based General Atomics for conceptual design and planning work for the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). 

The results of this work will help the agency determine whether to proceed with detailed efforts toward construction and demonstration of the NGNP.  If successful, the NGNP Project will demonstrate high-temperature gas-cooled reactor technology that will be capable of producing electricity as well as process heat for industrial applications.

It will be configured for low technical and safety risk with highly reliable operations.  Final cost-shared awards are subject to the negotiation of acceptable terms and conditions.

According to DOE about 16% of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial process heat applications.  The process heat or steam generated by the high-temperature nuclear reactors could be used for highly-efficient electricity co-generation, which has the potential to help energy-intensive industries, such as petrochemical producers, reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

"This investment reflects President Obama's commitment to building the next generation of nuclear reactors that will create thousands of jobs and supply the clean energy to power our economy," said Secretary Chu.  "It's time for America to recapture the lead in the nuclear energy industry and lay the foundation for a stronger, cleaner, and more competitive economic future."

NGNP project is being conducted in two phases 

Phase 1 comprises research and development, conceptual design and development of licensing requirements. The selections announced today will support the development of conceptual designs, cost and schedule estimates for demonstration project completion and a business plan for integrating Phase 2 activities.

The Department of Energy will use information from its independent Federal advisory committee, the Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, information and data gathered in Phase 1, and other factors in determining whether the project should continue to Phase 2.

Phase 2 would entail detailed design, license review and construction of a demonstration plant.
The Department will now negotiate the final terms and conditions for the awards with the intention of completing the designs by August 2010.

  • Westinghouse Electric Co.
(Pittsburgh) Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Limited, Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure Inc., Toshiba, Doosan, Technology Insights, and M-Tech Industrial (PTY) Ltd
  • General Atomics
(San Diego) General Dynamics Electric Boat Division, URS Washington Division, Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, and Fuji Electric Systems
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Japan moves ahead with advanced nukes

Monju FBR ready to resume trial operations

fuji(NucNet) The Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) submitted a plan Mar 2 to the country's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the central Fukui prefecture for the resumption of trial operations at its prototype Monju fast breeder reactor (FBR) (Project website)

Monju, which is owned and operated by JAEA, was shut down in December 1995 after a sodium coolant leak.

Start-up tests were scheduled to start in February 2009, but were postponed after corrosion was discovered in the outdoor exhaust duct of the reactor auxiliary building.

After reviewing a report on the series of safety inspections conducted by JAEA at Monju since 1995, NISA concluded on 10 February 2010 that conditions were safe and ready for resumption of functional tests.

The findings were accepted as “reasonable” by Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) on 22 February 2010, paving the way for JAEA to submit plans for start-up tests.
JAEA is in the final stages of taking specific steps toward the resumption of operations at Monju, expected at the end of March 2010.

MOX Fuel approved for Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi-3

26 Feb (NucNet): The governor of Japan’s Fukushima prefecture is to approve the use of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel at the Fukushima-Daiichi-3 nuclear unit, owned and operated the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco).

Governor Yuhei Sato said at the Fukushima Prefectural Assembly on 16 February that he intended to approve the use of MOX fuel at the boiling water reactor (BWR) unit, paving the way for the program to continue after a nearly decade-long hiatus.

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Sarkozy calls for easier financing for nuclear energy

World Bank does not offer loans for reactors

Sarkozy SA.jog(NucNet): March 8, 2010 Paris - French president Nicolas Sarkozy (right) urged  developing countries to embrace nuclear energy and called on financial institutions to help fund it so countries are not “condemned to rely on more costly energy that causes greater pollution.”

“We need nuclear energy” to meet global goals for fighting and slowing climate change, Mr Sarkozy said in opening the International Conference on Access to Civil Nuclear Energy in Paris.

“I do not understand why international financial institutions and development banks do not finance civil nuclear energy projects. The current situation means that countries are condemned to rely on more costly energy that causes greater pollution.”

He urged the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and other development banks to make “a wholehearted commitment” to financing nuclear energy projects.
He also highlighted the “problem” of allocating carbon credits through clean development technologies. He said outdated ideology means that a country developing civil nuclear energy cannot obtain carbon credits.

“Therefore, I propose that CO2 credits be used to finance all forms of decarbonised energy under a new global architecture after 2013.  “The important task today is to send the world a message about our shared determination to make civil nuclear energy a tool for peace, cooperation and prosperity.” 

He said the “quasi-theological opposition” between nuclear energy and renewable resources is out of date.
“We need both. Of course, nuclear energy cannot reverse climate change on its own, but it will be necessary.”

Mr Sarkozy called for an “enhanced” International Atomic Energy Agency with broader powers and with a kind of scoreboard to rate international reactors on safety.

He also spoke of the need to make sure the nuclear energy industry had adequate human resources. He said he had decided to step up France’s efforts by creating an international nuclear energy institute that will include an international nuclear energy school.

The school would offer high quality education at the nuclear sites of Saclay and Cadarache.

The two-day conference is organized by the French government in partnership with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).

Additional coverage by the Seattle Times

CEO Of South Africa’s PBMR project steps down

(NucNet): Unable to obtain funding from the World Bank, or other investors, the CEO of South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) resigned, just weeks after the company said it was contemplating a large-scale restructuring in an attempt to reduce costs and extend its operational life.

Jaco KriekPBMR said in a statement that Jaco Kriek (right)has agreed with PBMR chairman Alistair Ruiters to help with the handover process. Mr Kriek will also continue to help with some PBMR activities in the next few months.

On 18 February 2010, PBMR said it was considering a restructuring that might involve a reduction of approximately 75 percent of the company’s 800 staff.
In a statement at the time PBMR said the future of the company would depend largely on the outcome of discussions with existing and future investors and stakeholders to determine their conditions for further investment.

The PBMR project involves the building of a demonstration plant at Koeberg, the site of the country’s only existing nuclear reactor unit, and a pebble fuel manufacturing plant at Pelindaba near Pretoria.

Efforts by South Africa to obtain funding for conventional light water reactors have also failed.  The country cancelled a tender for two 1,000 MW plants last year.  Talks about re-starting the tenders have been muted due to the dire financial condition of Eskom, the state-owned utility.

Previous coverage on this blog

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RSS feed update

Google and Amazon changes may require you to re-subscribe

As some readers may know, Google acquired Feedburner a while back and has been slowly implementing changes for Blogger. 

The RSS feed for this blog has changed, but re-directs should make the change seamless for most users.  In the event you stop seeing updates to your feed, here is the new RSS URL

This is not something I have much control over as Blogger is a free, ad-supported platform.  If the service providers make changes, I just have to roll with it.

Also, Google’s Adsense, and Amazon, has joined up in terms of how ads appear on Blogger.  You may see ads in the RSS feeds, or not, depending on how you access the data stream. 

At the same time, Blogger has implemented a new editor for posting which has some quirks. 

The ads in the sidebar will remain the same.  There should not be any change in blog performance. I have not implemented a feature that will pop up Amazon ads from the blog text.

Let me know via comments if you see anything that is a problem.

Thanks for your patience and support.

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Answer to Carl Pope at the Sierra Club

Ignoring the fundamentals of electricity supply won’t change reality

carl-pope-webOne of America’s top environmental leaders thinks expanding loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants is a bad idea. Carl Pope, (right) the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, writes in the Huffington Post that Congress should not approve the $36 billion increase the President asked for in his FY2011 budget. He says that safety issues and costs make investments in new nuclear power plants a risky proposition.

In a provocatively worded essay, Mr. Pope mixes his metaphors as though he was making toll house cookies and egg salad at the same time. On one instance he refers to nuclear power plants as “buggy whips,’ and another calls them “toxic assets.” It is barn burner rhetoric, but it misses some essential points.

1st reality – coal and nuclear are the only sources of electricity that can meet baseload demand. Solar and wind cannot do this. A Black & Veatch survey of 300 utility executives expects a price on carbon by 2012 which will fundamentally alter the economics of coal-fired power plants.

2nd reality – nuclear energy currently supplies 20% of U.S. electricity. New construction, based on the existing loan guarantee program, will add approximately 9 GWe of new carbon emission free electricity by the end of the next decade.

  • Southern – two 1,150 MW Westinghouse AP1000
  • SCANA – two 1,150 MW Westinghouse AP1000
  • Constellation – one Areva 1,650 MW EPR
  • NRG/STP – two 1,350 ABWR

Missing the point with Exelon

exelon logoMr. Pope cites Exelon CEO John Rowe who has said there is no nuclear renaissance in the near-term. CEO Rowe may dismiss the term “nuclear renaissance” for public relations purposes, but he has been a stalwart supporter of putting a price on carbon to pay for new nuclear generation capacity.

What Mr. Pope did not mention is Exelon’s current investment in up-rates to existing reactors. Taken together, the total increase in power at multiple sites is about 1,500 MW or basically an entire new reactor. Also, Exelon has not given up on building two new reactors in Texas. The company will file an Early Site Permit for them with the NRC later this year.

Rhetoric aside, Mr. Rowe’s actions speak clearly about his confidence in the future of the nuclear energy industry and his commitments on behalf of his company’s stockholders. Mr. Pope would do well to examine the financials of Exelon’s investments before relying too heavily on John Rowe’s offhand remarks to the news media.

Bringing the supply chain home

bray_butterfly_valves_lgThe current supply chain for new nuclear power plants is global in nature, but by 2014, the American scene will look a lot different. Three new manufacturing centers, each employing at least 500 people, will be churning out components for new reactors.

Areva and Northrop Grumman are building a $300 million facility in Newport News, VA. The Shaw Group and Westinghouse are building a similar plant near Baton Rouge, LA. Babcock & Wilcox are expanding their manufacturing capabilities in the Midwest.

Because of the maturity of their capabilities, B&W may be the first to market with new small, modular reactors at 125 MW each. These reactors are the answer to former VP Al Gore’s claim that reactors come in one size – large.

Mr. Pope hitches his wagon to the complaints of steelworkers, but in a few years those complaints will be muted by the jobs created at U.S. manufacturing plants.

Funding the new build in the U.K.

Citibank and Mr. Pope have both misunderstood the political situation in the U.K. Mr. Pope cites Citibank as claiming the government is expecting the private sector to take on too much financial risk in building new nuclear power plants.

The fundamental issue in the U.K., and the U.S., is what price the government will put on carbon dioxide emissions. There is no lack of political will by the government. Last November Energy & Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband committed the nation to “significant infrastructure construction” in the next decade. He’s talking about at least 11 new reactor sites.

Ed-Milibank_UKMiliband (right) told the daily Telegraph Nov 7 Britain will face a serious energy crisis unless plans to build new nuclear power plants are sped up. The government warned that endless delays will have only one result – lights out. He told the newspaper, “”saying no to nuclear is no longer an option.

“We have go to say yes to nuclear energy. It isn’t just the green thing, it is the right thing by way of energy security.”

Miliband also targeted the expected backlash from anti-nuclear groups. He said, “We can’t have endless delay.”

The reason for Miliband’s move is that natural gas fields in the North Sea are running out and so-called clean coal technologies are not available at a commercial scale.

He wants the first nuclear power station, at Hinkley, Somerset, 40 miles southwest of Bristol, to be in revenue service by 2017. He wants eight under construction by 2015 Otherwise, he says, the U.K. could experience blackouts on a major scale.

Vermont Yankee is not a touchstone for the nuclear industry

Carl Pope and other environmental leaders have seized on the problems at Vermont Yankee as a way of tarring the entire industry with Entergy’s brush. There are issues are Vermont Yankee. Also, the New York State Public Service Commission is not happy with the financials of the Enexus spinoff. These are well known facts.

vegetable protiensThere is a problem with Mr. Pope’s logic. He wants you to believe that because Vermont Yankee has operational and personnel problems that they are typical of the entire nuclear industry. Here’s another way to look at it by comparing the situation to another industry.

My question is whether Mr. Pope would also condemn the entire fast food industry for problems involving contamination of vegetable protein in mayonnaise from a single supplier. One recall doesn’t taint the entire processed food industry.

Mr. Pope hopes that readers can name one plant that has issues and fail to recall the other 103 that do not. BTW: The NRC just completed a performance review of Oyster Creek, another of the nation’s older nuclear reactors, and gave it a passing grade.

The environmental benefits of loan guarantees

Mr. Pope’s essay is a lot like a 4th of July fireworks show. There is a lot of noise and bright colors but that’s all. Here’s the real issue. At the end of the evening, everyone goes home, and the first thing they do when they come through the door is turn on a light switch.

FireworksThe choice facing Americans is whether the power to make those lights go on comes from coal, with its greenhouse gas emissions, or nuclear, without them. That’s why the President reached out to environmental groups like the Sierra Club in his speech to trade unions in Maryland Feb 16. He said:

"Even when we have differences, we cannot allow these differences to prevent us from making progress. On an issue that affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can't keep on being mired in the same old stale debates between the left and the right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs."

The president made it clear he understands the benefits of nuclear and communicated them in terms that reach out to environmental groups. He said "…nuclear energy remains our largest source of fuel that produces no carbon emissions."

He went on to point out that a single nuclear reactor, like one of the units to be built by Southern in Georgia, will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 16 million tons a year compared to a coal fired plant with similar electricity output. Put another way, the President said, building one of the new reactors will have the equivalent impact of taking 3.5 million cars off the road.

These are important benefits. Mr. Pope chose to ignore them in his essay in the Huffington Post. I urge you to remember them and write your Congressman or Senator to support expansion of loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants.

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