Saturday, May 29, 2010

Oak Ridge supercomputers to model nuclear reactors

Department of Energy will spend $122 million over next five years.

casl logoThe future of nuclear energy will be found in software. The Department of Energy announced this week it will spend $122 million over the next five years to establish and operate a new Nuclear Energy Modeling and Simulation Energy Innovation Hub. The project is called the “Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors” or CASL.

The program, which includes partners from universities, industry and other national labs, will use advanced capabilities of the world's most powerful computers to make significant leaps forward in nuclear reactor design and engineering.

"The Nuclear Energy Innovation Hub is a critical element in our efforts to re-establish American leadership in nuclear energy research and development," said Deputy Secretary Dan Poneman.

ATR core The Nuclear Energy Innovation Hub will allow engineers to create a simulation of a currently operating reactor that will act as a "virtual model" of that reactor. They will then use the "virtual model" to address important questions about reactor operations and safety.

It will be used to address issues such as reactor power production increases and reactor life and license extensions. The combination of data gained from the "virtual model" and the physical reactor will be used to resolve technology issues confronting nuclear energy development.

The Hub will be funded at up to $22 million this fiscal year. The Hub will then be funded at an estimated $25 million per year for the next four years.

Partnerships are core of the program

The Nuclear Energy Innovation Hub will be located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. ORNL has the big iron and the ties to high speed computer networks to tie the partners together. In addition to ORNL, the members of the team are:

  • Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Palo Alto, California
  • Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho Falls, Idaho
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge Massachusetts
  • North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Tennessee Valley Authority, Knoxville, Tennessee
  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Westinghouse Electric Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Quick Facts about CASL

Director Dr. Douglas B. Kothe, a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from Purdue University. Kothe (right) is currently the Director of Science at the National Center for Computational Sciences, a part of the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility.

See Frank Munger’s Atomic City Underground of May 28th for a profile of Kothe. (Photo is linked from his blog.)

Here’s what Kogthe has in mind as an agenda for research.

Task 1 Develop computer models that simulate nuclear power plant operations, forming a “virtual reactor” for the predictive simulation of light water reactors.

Task 2 Use computer models to reduce capital and operating costs per unit of energy, extend the lifetime of the existing U.S. reactor fleet, and reduce nuclear waste volume generated by enabling higher fuel burnups. The CASL virtual reactor will also be used to accelerate the deployment of next-generation reactor designs, particularly advanced nuclear fuel technologies and structural materials within the reactor core.

Computer Assets The consortium will utilize the world’s three most powerful computers: Jaguar—a 2,331-trillion operations per second Cray computer at Oak Ridge; Roadrunner—a 1,375-trillion operations per second IBM computer at Los Alamos; and Kraken—a 1,029-trillion operations per second Cray computer, also at Oak Ridge.

Applications Validation against existing reactors at TVA, which will make available data for reactor design and model development, reactor operational parameters, reactor startup, and post-irradiation examination of spent fuel.

Legacy A preeminent computational science institute for nuclear energy that will produce an advanced modeling and simulation environment (the “virtual reactor”) for predictive simulation of Light Water Reactors. The new technologies will be used to strengthen the American nuclear industry.

Contacts Doug Kothe, CASL Director, 865-241-9392, Thom Mason, Director, ORNL, 865-576-2900, Billy Stair, Director of Communications, ORNL, 865-574-4160,

Modeling & Simulation for Nuclear Reactors - funding opportunity

The Modeling and Simulation for Nuclear Reactors FOA (reference number DE-FOA-0000170) is available for viewing from the Public Opportunities search page on the FedConnect website. To find this FOA, search for “DE-FOA-0000170” using the “Reference Number” search flag.

The vision for nuclear energy modeling and simulation has been developed over the last several years in a series of workshops that involved both the nuclear energy and the advanced modeling and simulation communities.

Several crosscutting issues in the enabling technologies emerged as themes during the workshop and are likely fertile ground for investment and collaboration.

  • Uncertainty quantification and error estimation in simulations
  • Methods for systems that couple multiple models
  • Movement away from empirical models toward physics based,
    first principles models
  • Algorithms and software that scale well on high capability
    computational platforms
  • Simulation workflow management, including data archiving and automated discovery.

Additional information about the science challenges of achieving the vision described above can be found at these two reports (link1) (link2).

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Failure to pass climate bill will benefit natural gas

With cap-and-trade unlikely, green groups see it as the best alternative to coal

This blog post is an edited version of an article published in Fuel Cycle Week V9:N376, May 13, 2010, by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC.

natural_gasThe long and probably doomed path of the Senate climate legislation, which contains what the nuclear industry considers a crucial emissions cap-and-trade provision, took another twist in May when its sponsors, Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), introduced it in the Senate without their Republican coauthor, Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who dropped out for political reasons.

This signals that they have given up, at least for now, on regaining Graham’s support, which they had hoped would attract more Republican votes. As a result, their chances of advancing the bill in the polarized Senate are dim. Even some Democrats are wary of the bill because it contains incentives for offshore drilling, as an out-of-control oil spill on the Gulf Coast grows more dire every day.

The White House keeps trying to get Graham back in the fold. In attaching a measure to add $9 billion in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear plants to an appropriation bill, if passed, will cover two new reactors in South Carolina. That might get his attention.

Should the Democrats lose their majority in the coming midterm elections, as seems ever more likely, it may be years before anyone tackles emissions-curbing legislation again. This scenario would deal a heavy blow to the nuclear industry.

Wheels come off plans for a carbon market

dysfunctionalFor some time key nuclear utilities, including Exelon, Duke and Florida Power & Light, have campaigned for a steep price on carbon-dioxide emissions, hoping to see benefits for both nuclear and renewable generation. They posited that the climate bill’s carbon tax would drive investment toward nuclear new build, which generates no emissions while delivering enormous amounts of energy.

That would help utilities overcome the obstacles of heavy upfront capital investment and long lead-time before plants are brought on line. John Rowe, chairman and CEO of Exelon, has expressed the hope that the emissions tax would permanently shift utilities’ capital investment planning toward nuclear construction.

Natural gas, the preferred fossil fuel because of its relatively low emissions, would fare better if the emissions measure were to fail, however. For most nuclear utilities, that creates a dilemma in deciding whether to back the cap-and-trade proposal, because most also run fossil-fueled plants. The independent power generator NRG, for instance, plans to build two new nuclear reactors in Texas, but also has significant coal-fired and natural gas generation assets.

As Exelon’s Rowe has pointed out, the essence of the electric utility business is return on assets. The quicker capital assets generate revenue, the happier stockholders will be over time. The time-to-market for a 500 MWe natural gas plant is a lot faster than for a nuclear reactor. The reactor has a longer operating life, and the energy density of uranium insures it will produce more electricity, but it takes a lot more money to build one and more time with much of it consumed by regulatory reviews.

William Tucker, an advocate of nuclear who authored the book Terrestrial Energy, is nevertheless a realist about the fossil-fuel market. He has noted that the supply of natural gas in the abundant and will grow with the contribution of huge gas producing shale deposits. Moreover, these deposits are not on federal lands, which will make development much less subject to regulatory delay and environmental paralysis by analysis.

How to keep the gorilla in the closet

gorillaOne thing boding well for the climate bill is that no one in any industry wants the Environmental Protection Agency involved in regulating CO2 from coal plants. In effect the EPA is the administration’s gorilla in the closet that it can threaten to unleash if the disputatious senators do not figure out how to work together. Just before the climate legislation was introduced in the Senate, representatives of about 100 companies met with Sen. Kerry to suggest climate legislation that would stave off EPA and state emissions regulations.

One likely option would be to swap out coal for natural gas. Coal accounts for 48% of electricity generation in the U.S., and that hefty market segment represents a major opportunity for the natural gas industry. The same utilities that fear regulation of CO2 by EPA think the agency might give natural gas a pass because of its lower emissions. If that would keep the regulatory gorilla at bay, these utilities would build natural gas plants, with their quicker return on investment, and postpone nuclear energy to future decades if and when a carbon emissions market comes into being in the U.S.

Antinuclear groups would also favor the substitution of natural gas for coal. It would let them claim they had succeeded in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, without appearing to cave in on nuclear energy, which would alienate their base. These groups are pushing hard for a climate bill, and they are part of President Barack Obama’s political base. He’ll need all the support he can get from them come November. That’s good for natural gas and bad for nuclear.

Note: My friend and online colleague Rod Adams at Atomic Insights has written extensively on competition from natural gas relative to nuclear energy. See in particular his blog post on the cozy relationship between green groups and natural gas companies.

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NRC’s Jaczko’s trial balloon on nonproliferation

In radio interview he raises questions about GE-Hitachi’s new laser enrichment process

This blog post is an edited version of an article published in Fuel Cycle Week V9:N377, May 20, 2010, by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC.

BuoyGregory Jaczko, Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), may be breaking new ground for review of GE-Htiachi's planned laser enrichment when he said in a radio interview April 12 that national security issues need to be considered before a license would be issued by agency for construction of a plant in Wilmington, NC. In raising the issue it is unclear whether he sailed past the outer buoy of NRC’s statutory authority without realizing it or is intentionally headed into deeper waters.

Jaczko's remarks came in response to questions posed on National Public Radio concerning a paper published March 4 in the science journal Nature by Francis Slakey, a physicist at Georgetown University, and Linda Cohen, a law professor at University of California. They wrote that the laser enrichment process is easier to implement, uses less electricity, and has a smaller facility footprint making it easier to hide from international inspections. The authors raised the issue in the Nature article whether the NRC "should consider proliferation issues in the licensing process" for the laser enrichment process.

In his radio interview, Jaczko appeared to buy into some of the arguments raised in the Nature paper. He said with the GLE application the NRC is looking at a new type of enrichment technology. The government has to insure, from a national security perspective, there is adequate protection of technologies and materials.

However, he tempered his remarks by cautioning the NRC should not "change the rules in the middle of the game." Also, he demurred when asked by Richard Harris of NPR if the technology is "too dangerous" to be allowed in the U.S.

GE Hitachi officials responded to NPR via email that the U.S. government had previously approved the acquisition of the SILEX technology from Australia which addressed nonproliferation concerns. The email also questioned the addition of the nonproliferation issue to the licensing review process.

The NRC is on record as disclaiming any authority to consider nuclear nonproliferation impacts from a licensing process. In a letter written March 15, Michael Weber, Director of the NRC Office of Nuclear Material Safety explained to Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth that,

"The NRC considers nuclear nonproliferation . . . to be outside the scope of the agency's statutory responsibilities." After citing several key statutes, include the Atomic Energy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Weber went on to deny Clements' request for a nuclear nonproliferation impact assessment of the GLE technology.

Test loop success reported

GE's Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) project reported April 12 the initial phase of the test loop had been completed successfully at its Wilmington site. The testing process began in July 2009. The firm is now looking at design approaches to build a three-to-six million SWU facility.

In June 2009 GLE submitted its combined construction and operating license application to the NRC. It was docketed in January 2010. The published NRC schedule indicates a license could be issued by early 2012.

GLE owns 51% of the project. Hitachi owns 25%, and Canadian uranium producer Cameco owns 24%.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spain plays politics with reactor re-licensing

Government ties renewal to election cycle

Maria Teresa Dominguezdn(NucNet) May 25 - Spain needs to renew the licenses of its eight commercially operational nuclear reactor units and plan for the construction of three new units by 2035 if it is to maintain a competitive and sustainable electricity mix, the president of the Spanish nuclear industry group Foro Nuclear told a parliamentary subcommittee yesterday.

Maria Teresa Dominguez (right) told a special subcommittee on energy of the Spanish Congress of Deputies that Spain needs another 2,600-3,000 MW of nuclear capacity.

The subcommittee has been working for a year on a national energy policy to 2035, which it is expected to submit to the full Congress later this year, Foro Nuclear said.

Ms Dominguez told the subcommittee that all major studies on Spain have concluded that nuclear power is necessary for economic, security of supply and climate protection reasons. She said the Spanish nuclear industry is prepared for new build and the re-launching of a Spanish nuclear energy program would be compatible with strategies in the EU and the rest of the world.

Nuclear energy’s share in the mix is expected to increase in the short, medium and long terms, she said. In two successive election campaigns, Spain’s current Socialist government has pledged to phase out nuclear power, but it has yet to close a single plant.

It did, however, limit the usual 10-year license renewal period for Garona, Spain’s oldest operating plant, to four additional years when its license was up for renewal in 2009. That license expires in 2013 now, after the next expected national elections in 2012.

Apply for ten year license, get four

According to the NucNet, one of the odd issues associated with this license renewal is that it is tied to political deadlines rather than a regulatory finding based on engineering safety analysis.

The reactor owner and operator said it would file legal action because it had complied with all the requirements for a ten-year extension. Nuclenor also said the action was arbitrary and that the government has violated its own rules.

The Spanish Nuclear Industry Forum. Foro Nuclear, raised the issue of jobs and joined with trade unions protesting the government's actions.

The reactor will be 42 years old in 2013 which makes it younger than Oyster Creek, a reactor just re-licensed in the U.S.

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Webcast – What does the gulf oil spill mean for energy policy in the U.S.?

Live Webcast June 2, 1:00 PM ET / 10:00 AM PT

Register here (free webcast)

energycollective_logoA month after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and into the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the full environmental costs of the disaster remain unclear. However, some of the event's implications for the oil industry, the political environment, and the future of energy in the United States are already beginning to take shape.

With the help of a panel of industry and policy experts, The Energy Collective will explore the circumstances that led to the Gulf oil disaster, and dig into its potential ramifications, for offshore drilling and much more:

  • To what extent can we attribute the event to a systemic failure of the industry, government, or otherwise?
  • What changes can or should be made to prevent future events?
  • How will the event effect the relationship between the oil industry and regulators? What about other energy industries?
  • We'll answer questions from the audience live during the webinar.


Geoffrey Styles is Managing Director of GSW Strategy Group, LLC, an energy and environmental strategy consulting firm. His industry experience includes 22 years at Texaco Inc., culminating in a senior position on Texaco’s leadership team for strategy development, focused on the global refining, marketing, transportation and alternative energy businesses, and global issues such as climate change. Previously he held senior positions in alliance management, planning, supply & distribution, and risk management. His "Energy Outlook" blog has been quoted frequently by the Wall Street Journal and was named one of the “Top 50 Eco Blogs” by the Times of London.

Mandy Smithberger, a National Security Investigator with the Project on Government Oversight since 2008, has worked on investigations into multiyear procurement of the troubled F-22A Raptor, federal contracting in response to Hurricane Katrina, inherently governmental functions, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs), and the Department of Interior's Royalty-In-Kind program. She has also written and spoken extensively about the federal government's collection of oil and natural gas drilling royalties.

Marc Gunther is a veteran journalist, speaker, writer and consultant whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc is a contributing editor at FORTUNE magazine, a senior writer at, a lead blogger at The Energy Collective. He's also a husband and father, a lover of the outdoors and a marathon runner. Marc is the author or co-author of four books, including Faith and Fortune: How Compassionate Capitalism is Transforming American Business. He's a graduate of Yale who lives in Bethesda, MD.

David Pettit is a Senior Attorney and Director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's Southern California Air Program. He writes on energy issues on NRDC's Switchboard blog, where he has been following the Gulf oil spill closely

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Green lights for new nuclear investments show confidence in the industry

Fuel cycle and reactor development decisions are indicators of progress for the nuclear renaissance

greenlightAmong the signs of progress for the nuclear renaissance are investment decisions in enterprises that support all phases of the industry. Three examples are highlighted here for the front end of the fuel cycle, reactor construction, and the back end of the fuel cycle.

Although USEC has not yet secured a loan guarantee from the federal government for construction of its American Centrifuge Project, a strong signal of investor confidence emerged this week with a $200 million placement by two leading nuclear energy firms.

The destiny of TVA in its shift from coal to nuclear is focused on a decision about what to build at Bellefonte. This week the utility said it will complete a 1,260 MW reactor at that site.

In Japan the shift from fossil energy to nuclear, and competition for Mideast oil, has been highlighted by its investments in MOX fuel to get a double bang for its buck from light water reactors. This week Japan Nuclear Fuel received government approval to build a MOX fuel fabrication plant.

The nuclear news wire NucNet contributed to these reports.

USEC secures $200 million for centrifuge project

USEC logoToshiba and Babcock & Wilcox have signed an agreement to invest $200 between them in USEC (NYSE:USU) for support of construction of the American Centrifuge Plant, The investment, shared equally between Toshiba and B&W, will strengthen USEC’s financial position to build the $3B American Centrifuge Plant and create “key new business opportunities throughout the nuclear fuel cycle.”

USEC has applied for a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. The firm pursued a conditional commitment on the guarantee in 2009, but that commitment didn’t materialize because of questions from the Department of Energy about USEC’s centrifuge technology and the financial condition of the company. As a result, construction of the American Centrifuge Plant was suspended in mid-2009.

USEC is now updating its loan guarantee application. The firm says it has worked hard to successfully demonstrate the uranium enrichment technology and to improve the financial foundation for the project and the company.

Under the terms of the agreement, Toshiba and B&W will each invest $100 million in USEC, spread out over three phases. The first phase is expected to occur in the third quarter of 2010. For their investment, the companies would receive convertible preferred stock and the rights to make future investments. (fact sheet)

"We have decided to make this investment in American know-how and American technology in order to produce more uranium fuel for the growing worldwide nuclear power market with high confidence in USEC as a leading supplier of low enriched uranium," said Yasuharu Igarashi, corporate senior vice president of Toshiba. "The nuclear renaissance is moving forward and this investment will help power its growth by securing the supply of uranium fuel for existing and potential customers."

All three companies have agreed to work together on additional strategic business opportunities. USEC could provide enriched uranium for bundling with Toshiba's nuclear power plant proposals. USEC and B&W also plan to complete the joint venture announced last year to manufacture USEC's commercial AC100 centrifuge machines for the uranium enrichment plant.

USEC said in a statement it anticipates updating its DOE loan guarantee application sometime this summer and, as the department has made clear, $2 billion in federal budget loan authority remains available under the 2008 solicitation for Front End Nuclear Fuel facilities.

If successful in obtaining a loan guarantee, the American Centrifuge Project could create at the peak of construction nearly 8,000 jobs in the U.S., with almost half located in Ohio.

TVA Says Completion Of Bellefonte-1 Is ‘Preferred Option’

TVA old bellefonte plantCompleting one of two unfinished units at the Bellefonte nuclear plant site in Alabama is the preferred option for construction of as nuclear reactor at the site, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) said May 25.

In a final supplemental environmental impact statement TVA said it had identified completion and operation of Bellefonte 1, a 1,260 MW Babcock & Wilcox PWR. TVA’s other alternative is to build and operate an 1,150 MW Westinghouse AP1000 reactor at the site. Previously, TVA considered building two AP1000 reactors at the site. The TVA board of directors is expected to make the final decision on the proposed nuclear unit at a meeting in August 2010.

TVA spokesman Terry Johnson said projected construction costs for the Babcock and Wilcox reactor and the Westinghouse AP1000 are comparable but "schedule" might favor the conventional design. A new AP1000 could cost between $4.5-6.0 billion depending on timing and financing costs. In August 2008 this blog estimated that Unit 1 would be the preferred option for TVA based on the earned value associated with the project.

The science director for Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which opposes TVA building any nuclear reactor at Bellefonte, said it had found a new reason to object to construction of a nuclear reactor. After roundly criticizing the Westinghouse AP1000 last year, which is a new reactor design, the group took the opposite tack and lambasted the decision based on the age of the technology.

"So much for the newer, inherently safe designs," Louis Zeller said. "It seems like they have reached back into the past to select one of the oldest technologies available to them."

In point of fact, the basic of LWR reactor technology hasn't changed very much since the USS Nautilus traveled under the sea to reach the North Pole in 1958. What matters for Bellefonte is that the pipes and pumps will all be new as will the balance of plant including steam lines, turbines, and generators.

TVA has previously had contractors pull out steel tubes and pipes at the unfinished plant. A TVA executive said the utility transferred some equipment to other TVA plants and sold tubes and pipes to scrap vendors.

Construction permits for two 1,200-MW PWRs (units 1 and 2) were issued in 1974. TVA stopped construction in 1988 because of lack of demand for electricity. At the time Bellefonte 1 was 88% complete and Bellefonte 2 58% complete.

In August 2008 TVA asked the NRC for reinstatement of the construction permits for units 1 and 2 to evaluate the “engineering and economic feasibility” of completing the units. The two partially complete reactors are in “construction-deferred” status. The utility must get an updated construction license from the NRC to complete unit 1.

TVA is the nation's largest public utility and has about 9 million consumers in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Japan to build MOX fuel plant

mox fuelJapan says it has taken important steps towards closing the commercial nuclear fuel cycle. It is going ahead with plans to build a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant and an interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.

The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF) said the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry approved plans for Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd (JNFL) to construct the MOX plant, and for the Recyclable-Fuel Storage Company to construct an interim storage facility for spent fuel.

Both facilities will be in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan. JAIF said they would be the first such facilities in Japan and will represent “important steps towards the completion of the commercial fuel cycle.”

JNFL’s MOX plant will be constructed alongside its existing reprocessing plant in Rokkasho. The MOX fuel, to be fabricated at the plant using powdered MOX from reprocessing, will be used for power generation. Construction of the plant could begin this month with completion scheduled for June 2015.

The spent fuel interim storage facility will temporarily store spent fuel sent by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and the Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC) until it is reprocessed. Construction will begin in July 2010, with operation scheduled for July 2012.

The MOX plant will produce 130 tonnes a year of MOX fuel. The interim storage facility will be allowed to accept 3,000 tonnes of spent fuel per year, estimated to be about half of the country's total.

The interim storage facility will accumulate fuel assemblies until they are reprocessed at the Rokkasho plant, about 50 Km away. A mix of recovered uranium and plutonium oxides - where the plutonium is never separated - would then be recycled into fresh mixed-oxide nuclear fuel at J-MOX, to be built alongside Rokkasho.

The application for J-MOX was submitted to METI in 2005 and for the storage facility in 2007. At that time construction was envisaged in mid 2007, but the powerful Niigata-Chuetsu-Oki earthquake that year caused a re-evaluation of nuclear seismic safety rules and changes to plant designs.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Mountains into molehills

Public perceptions of problems at nuclear reactors are being cut down to size

cut problem down to sizeGetting an accurate bead on nuclear energy controversies is often more an issue of changing perceptions than the reshaping the physical dimensions of a problem. Also, the realities of having nuclear reactors that generate electricity in place can trump idealistic visions of replacing them with something new. These principles apply to three nuclear reactor projects which are the subject of much anti-nuclear ire.

Plans for a proposed third reactor for Dominion’s North Anna site were tested in a stockholder motion to cancel the project. However, growing demand for electricity in Virginia, which imports more of it than any other state except California, quickly made firewood of that idea.

Replacement of the 2 GWe of electricity generated by Entergy’s Indian Point site with high cost fossil fuel, and the limits of the existing transmission lines to bring it to the New York city region, have got some opponents having second thoughts. The possibility was raised that if reactors are shut down it could seriously impact the tri-state region’s extensive network of electrified commuter rail lines which keep tens of thousands of cars a day off the highways.

Finally, the NRC issued a statement saying that leaks of radioactive liquids at Entergy’s Vermont Yankee resulted in “no violations of NRC requirements,’ and “no findings of significance were identified.”

red_clover What’s remarkable about these three projects is that media attention swarms around them like bees in a field of newly bloomed clover. This plant is the Vermont state flower which is why it is mentioned here.

Public controversy over nuclear energy is a sweet spot for the news media which loves “he said she said” type stories that balance the protests from nuclear energy opponents with the efforts of the utilities and regulatory agencies to put things in perspective.

Sometimes it is a mater of investing a large amount of money and sometimes is is a matter of measurement of very small amounts of radiation. Both types of quantifiable items can get people excited out of proportion to reality. Here are three examples where reality impinges on perception and prevails.

Stockholders uphold plans for new reactor

stock-certificatesAn effort to stop Dominion (NYSE:D) from building a third reactor at its North Anna site in Louisa County, Virginia, failed May 14 to convince the utility’s stockholders it was the right action for the region.

The Peoples Alliance for Clean Energy (PACE), based on Charlottesville, VA, voted its 400 shares of common stock, worth approximately $16,000, but the motion did not pass. At market close May 21 the firm has market capitalization of $23.6 billion with 596 million shares outstanding. By all accounts the measure had no chance of passage, but its symbolism may be have been one of the opponents’ objective.

Jerry & Faye Rosenthal said their case against a new reactor is based on financial concerns caused by “the unhealthy concentration of all assets, and especially an overconcentration in nuclear generation assets" in a new reactor.

They also object to "unreasonable reliance on government" via loan guarantees. Paradoxically, while loan guarantees add financial stability to a project, their absence adds uncertainty in cost and schedule, which is another of the objections from the couple. It seems the couple is objecting to one of the very things that could contribute to the success of the project, but perhaps that is also their objective.

They argued for the "existence of much better opportunities for diversification, timing and return on investment," in wind, solar and natural gas generation. "It's a bad business model," Rosenthal said. it would be interesting to know if PACE or its members hold stock in wind energy companies doing business in Virginia.

Paxus Alta 1996The Rosenthals were aided by another PACE member, who serves on its steering committee, named Paxus Calta (right 1996 photo) who is a self-described anarchist. That may account for the group’s opposition to a government loan guarantees. Calta has a long history of activism being involved in campaigns to stop nuclear power plants in six countries in Central Europe. Dominion can probably expect to hear more from PACE.

Even if the measure had passed, the effect on plans for the reactor wouldn’t amount to much other than optics. Jim Norvelle, Dominion spokesman, told the local press the measure is “purely advisory.”

Norvelle said the reactor is needed because of the “desperate” need for new baseload capacity, which means meeting customer requirements for electricity 24 x 7 365 days a year.

"We strongly believe that it's going to take every form of energy efficiency, conservation and generation to meet the increasing demand for energy of our customers," Norvelle said. "Our responsibility is to meet that demand."

Dominion also announced at the stockholders’ meeting it is seeking investors to help it build the reactor. CEO Thomas Farrell told the Richmond Times Dispatch May 19 an electric coop in Henrico County wants an 11.6% share of the new reactor. At 1,500 MW design capacity, that would amount to 174 MW of power. At $3,500/Kw, it would represent an investment of $609 million.

Financing of partnerships may be easier for Dominion that raising all of the money itself. A financial analyst agrees. Steve Marascia of Capitol Securities Management, told the Dispatch, “Utilities in our region would love to tap into a nuclear plant.”

The reason is Virginia imports most of its electricity and the prospect of carbon taxes will raise rates for portion of it fueled by coal.

Dominion recently changed the reactor design reference in its COL application to the NRC from GE-Hitachi’s ESBWR to A 1,500 MW version of Mitsubishi’s APWR. The decision followed a round of competition among reactor vendors.

Could protecting fish imperil NYC commuter trains?

powerpylon Closing the twin reactors at Energy’s (NYSE:ETR) Indian Point could slash 18% (base) and by 38% (peak) of the electricity available to the New York City region causing potential brownouts and put strains on the existing transmission network. William Miller, a professor of nuclear science at the University of Missouri at Columbia, told the Associated Press May 18, there isn’t enough backup power in the region if the plant is shut down. This means it would have to come from other power providers.

Even people with an environmental perspective question the drive by Alex Matthiessen, president of Riverkeeper for “early retirement” of the 2 Gwe of power generated by the reactors. Charles Warren, a former EPA official, told AP there has to be a compromise about the future of Indian point because the replacement power isn’t available.

However, surprising comments come from the anti-nuclear camp. David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer working for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He also told AP, there are “bottlenecks” in the transmission and distribution networks that will get worse if Indian Point isn’t on the grid. He says that despite the current economic downturn, “demand will go up” which points to a need for Indian Point or its replacement.

Riverkeeper’s Matthiessen isn’t swayed by these arguments. He claims the industry and its supporters “are trying to scare the public into believing that Indian Point and its power are indispensable.”

NYC subwayEnergy analysts have argued the a significant shortage of power could impact the tri-state region’s electrified rail transportation systems. Matthiessen claims rhetorically, and without offering data to AP to back up his claims, that isn’t true.

The State of New York, responding to demands from environmental groups like Riverkeeper, has denied a water quality permit to Indian Point in the grounds its once through cooling system kills fish, specifically, a species of sturgeon. The alternative is construction of huge and hugely expensive cooling towers which are unlikely to ever be built resulting in the shutdown of the reactors at the end of their current licenses in 2015 and 2016. The NRC cannot issue new 20-year licenses, even if everything related to nuclear operations is in order, if the plant doesn’t have the required state permits.

In the end, the case of the water permit may wind up in federal court. There a 2009 Supreme Court ruling requires regulatory agencies must assess costs against benefits in determining whether they can order power plants to make changes to the plants to protect fish. It may turn out that reasonable outcomes will have to be found in the courts to keep the lights on in New York and the trains running

Vermont Yankee’s radioactivity not a public health threat

entergynuclearThe Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff issued its inspection report May 21 on groundwater contamination issues at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. The focus of the inspection was Entergy’s response to the leak radioactive liquid into groundwater at the site identified earlier this year.

The NRC staff report states that its extensive reviews have found that "Entergy took prompt and effective action to identify the source of the leakage, halt it and develop an effective plan to address any resulting groundwater contamination."

This finding stands in stark contrast to widespread public angst encouraged by the gubernatorial ambitions of State Senator Peter Schumlin (D-Windham). Also, Shumlin's paid consultant Arnie Gundersen told the Vermont Legislature the radioactivity had migrated to the Connecticut River.

nrclogo The NRC said that with respect to any groundwater from the site migrating to the nearby Connecticut River, a calculation performed by Entergy – and independently verified by the NRC – estimated a dose of 0.000035 millirems of maximum exposure to members of the public from contaminated groundwater reaching the waterway.

A millirem is a measure of exposure to radiation. The measurement is miniscule by any scale. The affected groundwater at Vermont Yankee is not used for drinking-water purposes. The average American is exposed to about 360 millirems of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources.

Highlights of the NRC report include:

  • Based on the results of the inspection, the NRC determined that Entergy-Vermont Yankee (ENVY) appropriately evaluated the contaminated groundwater with respect to off-site effluent release limits and the resulting radiological impact to public health and safety;
  • Entergy complied with all applicable regulatory requirements and standards pertaining to radiological effluent monitoring, dose assessment, and radiological evaluation;
  • No violations of NRC requirements or findings of significance were identified;

The NRC said in a statement it continues to closely monitor and assess Entergy’s remedial actions to resolve leaks. A copy of the report is available on the NRC web site.

This is where we get down to the question of what all the shouting has been about in Vermont? If the legislature and the public have been in an uproar over allegations of harm from leaking radioactive tritium, and the NRC says the measurements are infinitesimal, then we are left with political and social questions about how our society deals with risk, or how politicians exploit risk communication to suit their own ends. In either case, the problem has been cut down to size.

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Update 5/25/10 - the Union of Concerned Scientists sends a note expressing concern about being characterized as an "anti-nuclear" organization. Full text follows below.

You mischaracterized our organization in your Mountains into Molehills posting. The Union of Concerned Scientists is not in the "anti-nuclear camp." We are not anti-nuclear. We are agnostic. The best way to characterize us is as a nuclear industry watchdog.

Elliott Negin, Media Director,
Union of Concerned Scientists

DJYSRV: Readers of this blog should know this note came as a surprise since my prior coverage of things nuclear have usually found the group's senior scientist Ed Lyman to be a ferocious "watchdog" in his reviews of nuclear projects. I spoke by phone with Negin who said a current issue the group has is that federal loan guarantees for new nuclear projects have a zero sum impact on the pool of investors for other energy projects, e.g., solar and wind.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

PopAtomic uses art to explore nuclear energy

Suzanne Hobbs, an artist, comes up with original images. Say goodbye to canned images of mushroom clouds and drab gray cooling towers.

She writes that she is exploring the relationship between fine art and nuclear energy. It should come to no surprise to readers that, according to her bio, she is the daughter of a nuclear engineer.

“I have long wondered why traditional advertising has not been well utilized to promote nuclear energy in America.

The conclusion that I have come to is that the science, history and plethora of social issues surrounding nuclear are far too complicated to be summed up in a 30 second commercial or half page ad.

This has led me to wonder what can effectively give context to the intricacies and benefits of nuclear in today’s culture…and not surprisingly, I realized that fine art offers an equally sophisticated solution.”

She collaborates with a group of artists working to support clean and contemporary nuclear energy solutions.

Their goals include:

  • Creating new imagery and icons that invite viewers to further investigate nuclear energy as a solution to the energy, environmental and economic issues we are facing today.
  • Providing atomic inspired designs and public artwork for Individuals, student groups, energy companies and other proponents of nuclear energy.
  • Creating fun and engaging educational materials for all ages to promote the benefits of new nuclear technologies and the future of clean energy.

Drawing on the first hand knowledge of how art can be used as a transformative educational tool, Suzanne began the development of PopAtomic Studios in 2008. PopAtomic Studios is now focused on making designs and public artwork that challenge commonly held fears and misconceptions about nuclear energy from a fun and positive artistic perspective. The goal is to inspire everyday citizens to learn about and actively support a clean energy future.

Branif airlines CalderHer work is in some ways a reminder of the commissions Braniff airlines gave to various artists to paint their planes in the 1970s.

Please get in touch with them via their new Wordpress blog regarding any ideas or questions you might have! They are are excited to create custom artwork specific to your needs!

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