Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fukushima energizes foes of Davis-Besse

Relicensing puts the Ohio reactor in the cross-hairs of its opponents

This is my updated coverage based on an article published in Fuel Cycle Week V10;N412, April 21, 2011, by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC

tsunamiTrouble is coming to the Davis-Besse nuclear power station. The political waves from hydrogen explosions and radiation releases at Fukushima are breaking on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio.

And Davis-Besse isn’t just any reactor. It has a troubled history of a major near-miss. The plant is about to flip its reactor pressure vessel lid for the second time.

Relicensing the plant will test the utility’s ability to deal with very determined public opponents who want to to shut the reactor down. Some opponents have unrealistic expectations of how renewable energy sources like solar and wind can power the industrial heartland of Ohio and Indiana, but others see a history of problems that cannot be overcome.

Though the plant has been working hard to meet the NRC’s requirements, even the appearance of a safety violation creates front page headlines in Ohio newspapers. In the world of nuclear safety, with its emphasis on “defense in depth,” any violation gets attention.

According to the newspaper, a technician used a portable radio in a room containing an auxiliary control panel for an emergency cooling system that would be used to pump water into the reactor in the event of a catastrophic accident.

First Energy told the NRC March 3 the radio transmissions interfered with the auxiliary control panel for the emergency cooling system. The plant was not using the emergency cooling system at the time, but the panel is “alive” all the time so that it can be put in service automatically if needed.

A spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists told the Plain Dealer the problem of radio interference with digital control systems has been known "for decades" and that the incident should not have occurred.

The newspaper reported that Victoria Mitlyng, spokeswoman for the NRC's regional office in Chicago, said, "We will definitely be looking into this."

A contentious atmosphere for a few, smooth sailing for others

So far the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has had little trouble relicensing 61 nuclear plants, extending their operational lives another 20 years for their utility owners. But with the events at Fukushima gusting up new winds into the sails of local and national anti-nuclear activists, this may be about to change. NRC has already seen its share of challenges in recent years.

Strident opposition groups have targeted the relicensing of the Entergy-owned and operated Indian Point power plant in New York and the Vermont Yankee plant for years. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) have thrown their support to the opponents, pulling every legal political lever available to them to halt the plants’ relicensing.

In New York Gov. Cuomo has appeared in joint press conferences with Riverkeeper, the anti-nuclear group who’s high profile mission is to close Indian Point. In Vermont, Gov. Shumlin has done everything he can to create an atmosphere of inevitability that the Vermont Yankee plant will close in 2012 even though the NRC renewed its license for another 20 years.

Davis Besse - photo US NRCBut the case that may roil the water more than any other is the 913 MW Davis-Besse PWR reactor (right) located near Toledo, Ohio. Owner-operator FirstEnergy (NYSE:FE) filed its application with the NRC for license renewal on August 31. The license will expire in 2017.

Ohio political climate mixed

Unlike his counterparts in New York and Vermont, Ohio Gov. John Kaisch (R) not has expressed an opinion on nuclear energy or on relicensing the plant.

But U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Cleveland) sent a letter to NRC last November blasting the plant’s safety record. He says Davis- Besse did not deserve a license extension.

“The NRC . . . should insure that this aging reactor with a deplorable history of operations and maintenance be safely shut down and decommissioned at the end of its current license,” Kucinich wrote, noting also that the plant had a “pathetic record in protecting the safety of people who live in the region.”

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo), whose district includes the Davis-Besse plant, has said in past newspaper interviews as far back as 2002 that she is not convinced of the utility’s ability to safely operate the reactor. She has declined so far to comment on the relicensing process.

Meanwhile, NRC is keeping a close eye on the plant. Within the first quarter of 2011 three NRC audits of environmental impacts and safety inspection have occurred.

Bad apples earned distrust

boric acid corrosion at davis bessePublic doubts regarding the plant’s safety springs in great part from a series of events beginning in 2002, with the discovery of previously undetected corrosion (right) (photo NRC) that nearly ate through the six-inch thick steel reactor pressure-vessel head. In following up, Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials discovered several other safety issues—and that plant personnel had deliberately withheld important information about them.

In January 2006 FirstEnergy admitted the safety violations by former employees and entered a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, in which the company agreed to pay record fines.

For two years the Davis-Besse plant closed for repairs and upgrades that cost an estimated $600 million, including the replacement of the reactor head with a used one from a similar plant in Michigan.

Head-to-head troubles

Last year FirstEnergy investigators found new cracks in control rod drive mechanism nozzles penetrating the reactor vessel closure head. After repairing the control rod drive nozzles the plant went back into service. The NRC, the Department of Energy and FirstEnergy are still analyzing the causes of the failure. The utility ordered a third reactor pressure vessel head from AREVA in France, and its installation will begin later this year.

See this full size image published by the Cleveland Plain Dealer for details.

NRC spokeswoman Victoria Mitlyng told FCW the second head was never expected to be a permanent solution—but it was expected to last until 2014 when the utility planned to replace it with another. Cracks in the nozzles could bring about leaks and uncontrolled releases of radioactivity. This is not uncommon at other reactors as well, said Mitlyng, but frequent and rigorous inspection of them is key in keeping plants safe.

FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider told FCW that the utility had hoped to swap out the reactors heads in 2014 because it was planning to replace the steam generators at that time. NRC spokesman Scott Burnell the Toledo Free Press on March 6, “There is no disagreement that the head corrosion was the most significant challenge to safety we have had since Three Mile Island.”

No standing ovations in Ohio

Plant opponents have not been waiting until 2017, but are now seeking opportunities to press their case. For example, earlier this year an errant portable radio transmission briefly disabled the digital controls of an emergency cooling system. The cooling system was not operating at the time. The incident drew loud protests, however, which catapulted the non-event above the fold on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Activists also claim that the pressure vessel head nozzles failed because the utility runs the reactor at too high a temperature. Kevin Kamps, a spokesman for the Maryland-based Beyond Nuclear, has claimed that Davis-Besse is “the hottest reactor in the country.” The high heat makes more steam, which makes more electricity and thus generates more revenue, he said.

FirstEnegy’s Todd Schneider told FCW that this is no longer the case.

pwr-cycle“Historically, Davis-Besse’s reactor head was thought to be a few degrees hotter than similar Babcock & Wilcox units,” said Schneider. “Since then, we’ve learned the temperature of the reactor head depends on the fuel design, which is changed every operating cycle.”

He said that cracks occurred in control rod nozzles at the center of the reactor lid, which is the hottest location. The utility has dropped the temperature below the 600F to prevent future cracking until second lid can be replaced,

Also, utility engineers would reconfigure the reactor’s fuel assemblies to place the newer and hotter ones farther from the center of the reactor to distribute heat more evenly inside the core.

Fear and loathing at the NRC hearing

Opponents to the relicensing packed an NRC hearing held March 2 in Ottawa County, Ohio. Ohio Green Party spokesman Joe DeMare testified that the nearly 900 MW of power from the reactor “can easily be replaced with less-dangerous energy production.”

FirstEnergy was not interested in alternative energy technologies such as solar and wind, said DeMare, which were “being suppressed.”

Patricia Marida Sierra ClubPatricia Marida, (right) a spokesman for the Sierra Club of Ohio told FCW she does not trust the relicensing process. She said the Atomic Safety Licensing Board in the past had dismissed her group’s contentions “out of hand.”

“They often use technicalities to do so, rather than on the merits of the cases. Legal and rule technicalities, including technically challenging submission requirements, should not stand in the way of the NRC and the ASLB’s responsibility for protecting the public from radioactive contamination and disaster,” said Marida.

FirstEnergy enraged its opponents by challenging the standing of the Ontario-based Citizens Environmental Alliance. Marida said FirstEnergy argued that the group did not meet the ASLB criterion of being located within 50 miles of the plant. But it is only outside that boundary by the distance of less than a football field.

FirstEnergy’s Schneider confirmed that this issue has come up, but said that like all proposed contentions, and requests for standing, it is pending with the ASLB.

NRC’s Mitlyng said that the ASLB has not yet made any decisions on who has standing or what contentions it will admit for the relicensing process. “All groups were heard,” Mitlyng said. “Nobody has been locked out of the process.”

A decision from the Atomic Safety Licensing Board regarding the status of intervenors and their contentions is expected by the end of April.

Plant backers: no drama

FirstEnergy also has a lot of supporters, including business and civic leaders in the communities surrounding the reactor. Ottawa County Commissioner Jere Witt testified at the NRC hearing that he had seen improvements in the utility’s operation of the plant.

“I have no concerns about the safety of Davis-Besse,” he said.

A schedule on NRC’s website indicates that the agency plans to issue a safety evaluation report for the relicensing process by July 2012. That schedule could change if the ASLB admits any of the contentions of those opposing the license extension.

Davis-Besse losing its head in October

Pot-Lid-OrganizerDavis-Besse will enter an extraordinary fuel outage in October, during which the brainy FirstEnergy staff will replace the reactor head with a brand new one that has top-level control rod channels, or nozzles. The nozzles are tubes that guide the control rods through the reactor’s lid and into the core.

After inspections last spring revealed new cracking in the nozzles of the reactor’s second lid much earlier than expected by engineers and the NRC the utility determined, and the NRC agreed, it should head off further trouble with a head replacement instead of a life extension. Davis-Besse went back service last July after it got the requisite surgery on the control drive mechanisms.

The reactor lid is 17 feet across, a dense one-piece casting nearly seven inches thick. It contains 69 holes for control rods of which eight are spares. Plant engineers said peak reactorcore temperatures accelerated the cracking of the chromium steel alloy.

The AREVA-manufactured reactor lid will be fitted with nozzles that have 15% chromium in the steel, an upgrade from the 10% chromium content of the older nozzles. The greater percentage of the new metal alloy is expected to better resist to high temperatures.

FirstEnergy has not disclosed how long it would take to flip the reactor’s lid or what it would cost, including the price of the lid itself.

Prior coverage on this blog

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Off Topic: Greek Geek Gears

Video: Watch an Apple Engineer Recreate a 2,000-Year-Old Computer Using Legos

Andrew Carol, an Apple engineer, has created a working model of the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2,000 year old clock work, mechanism which accurately predicts eclipses. At this Fast Company magazine web page, film maker John Palvus explains how the process of building the model, out of legos, took place.

Here’s the video

The Antikythera Mechanism in Lego from Small Mammal on Vimeo.

More information

This is the link to the home page of the Antikythera Mechanism. It includes links to free versions of the original papers published in Nature in 2006 which described the first successful reconstruction of the device.

The existence of the mechanism proves the Greeks had sophisticated knowledge of astronomical cycles and used them to construction calendars.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Will Fukushima increase interest in small modular reactors?

The combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami illustrate the risks of putting all your eggs in one basket

small reactorsThe architecture of energy distribution in major industrial nations like Japan, the U.S., France, the U.K. , and Germany is based on very large power plants, often several at a single site, which are tied into huge transmission and distribution (T&D) grids.

The vulnerability of this model was tragically illustrated March 11, 2011, as six nuclear reactors representing about 10% of the nuclear generated electricity in Japan were permanently taken out of service by a single natural disaster.

In addition to the loss of electricity, radiation hazards from some of the crippled reactors have created significant safety issues of workers at the others.

In engineering parlance, the decision to build all six reactors at Fukushima at a site on the earthquake prone coastline created a single point of failure. TEPCO's decision not to take historical records of tsunami events into account in setting the height of the protective sea wall sealed the fate of the reactors.

When the earthquake struck, the reactors shut down as planned and emergency generators switched on as expected in such an event. However, the 15 meter high tsunami breached the 5 meter sea wall sweeping away the fuel tanks for the diesel generators and the electrical switch gear needed to deliver their power to reactor cooling system pumps.

Are resilient networks of SMRs an answer?

What if industrialized countries began to mitigate the risk of similar future events by building resilient networks of small modular reactors? What if instead of building a single 1,000 MW nuclear reactor, a utility laid plans to build six-to-eight small modular reactors (SMRs) in locations near major demand centers for electricity?

A resilient grid of SMRs built in a distributed network would be much less susceptible to damage from natural disasters or man-made disruptions. If one SMR goes out of service, it doesn't create a regional blackout for everyone else in the utility's service area.

Another issue that comes to mind is whether continued reliance on traditional light water reactor (LWR) designs is the only feasible path forward for SMRs? A lot of emphasis, perhaps too much, has been made on the production of hydrogen when fuel assemblies with their zirconium cladding are uncovered from cooling water. At Fukushima three of the six reactors suffered significant damage to their secondary containment structures from hydrogen explosions.

Design legacy of the Integral Fast Reactor lives on

ANLWestWould reactors built with different fuels, and metal cooling systems, offer advantages to utilities thinking about reliability and safety when considering an SMR?

I've been exchanging emails with Irfan Ali, CEO of Advanced Reactor Concepts (ARC), a Reston, VA, firm that is developing a 100 MW SMR. It is based on the design concepts of the Integral Fast Reactor which was demonstrated at the Argonne West site of the Idaho National Laboratory.

In a white paper released in April 2011 to address the issues surrounding Fukushima, Ali says the time is right for an objective assessment of alternative energy distribution architectures. The Fukushima reactors were 40 years old and built to standards that would not be accepted in today’s regulatory environment. The reactors provided a significant portion of the electricity used in Japan, 6 GWe of the 45 GWe that comes from nuclear reactors in that nation when all of its plants are online.

What about emergency shutdown?

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still grappling with the challenge of how to conduct a safety review of a SMR using sodium cooling systems and uranium alloy fuel. Preparing for that review, it is fair to say the NRC will find some of its wisdom about LWR pumps and cooling system is not directly relevant to some aspects of the new designs. There will be a steep learning curve for the agency,

Citing the design of the sodium cooled ARC-100 design, ARC’s Ali discusses the advantages of natural circulation pathways that carry decay heat away from the fuel rods. There are no pumps hence the lack of a need for electricity to run emergency cooling systems. Cooling loops are backed up by air circulation outside the containment structure.

Also, he explains the fuel is a uranium metal alloy rather than uranium oxide as used in LWR designs. The steel cladding doesn't present a risk of hydrogen production.

Perhaps the most novel element of the reactor is what happens if heat transfer from the reactor to the turbine is stopped by accident or other interruption. In effect, the reactor sits on its hands and does nothing.

In technical terms, the passive feedback mechanism which shuts the reactor down is based on the physics of the design. Rising coolant temperatures cause structural elements to thermally expand which allows more neutrons to leak out of the core rather than be absorbed by the fuel creating fission. As a result, high heat causes the neutron chain reaction to shut down.

A key issue at Fukushima is the widespread release of radioactive from the turbine buildings and spent fuel pools. In a sodium cooled reactor using uranium alloy metal fuel, the iodine is chemically bound inside the reactor limiting the potential for radioactive releases.

Increasing interest in mitigating risk with SMRs

The ARC-100 reactor design concepts contain intriguing safety measures which might benefit highly industrialized countries seeking a more resilient power grid. Similar benefits might come from other SMR designs including those that use conventional LWR designs. It depends in part on the pace of advancement in fuel cladding materials science.

The key idea is to find ways to avoid future consequences of having too much electrical generation capacity invested in a single site. This is especially important in areas where there is a potential for earthquakes, tsunami, and other natural disasters or man-made disruption. SMRs buried underground add the natural containment of that design paradigm to their protective envelope.

Changes will also be needed in the way rate structures are set for resilient networks of SMRs compared to rates for single large plants. Perhaps the lure of lower costs for T&D architectures will be an incentive for utilities to speed up their assessments of SMRs in the wake of Fukushima?

Prior coverage on this blog

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Chernobyl at 25

Just the facts please

badge 714In the famous TV drama series "Dragnet," the lead character is Los Angeles Police Detective Joe Friday. While the actual drama in the show was tame by today's measure, one thing stood out which has met the test of time. It is the line Friday, played by unpretentious actor Jack Webb, delivered over and over again. He told witnesses to crimes to state "just the facts."

At the ANS Nuclear Cafe, Joe Colvin, President of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), offers a review of the facts about Chernobyl and contrasts them with what we know about the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

A lot of people are drawing casual connections between Chernobyl and Fukushima. I’d like to draw your attention to two key paragraphs in Colvin’s essay.

“At Fukushima, from what we know at this time, it’s also plain that situation arose, not from human error in design or operation, but rather from the most extraordinary and unprecedented natural disaster in human memory—and what’s more, it was the tsunami wave, not the earthquake, which occasioned the loss of power and therefore challenged the cooling of the reactors. In fact, the reactors operated as designed and built – they shut down automatically when the earthquake occurred.

Further, it’s absolutely imperative that we recognize that no one died as a result of the incident and that all the safety steps undertaken were well planned and implemented in a transparent manner to avoid panic. We also know that while the rating of the Fukushima incident, established by the International Atomic Energy Agency, is at the same level as Chernobyl, the rating includes all four plants in Japan, rather just one. More importantly, the radiation releases from Fukushima are just one-tenth compared to Chernobyl.”

The entire article is well worth your time. For those who want more information, ANS has a set of slides you can download to share with friends, community groups, or the media.

Chernobyl 25 years later – on the web

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Initial look at lessons learned from Fukushima

A review of what went wrong, why, and what should be done in the future

Guest Blog Post by: Akira T. Tokuhiro Ph.D *

Fukushima after 1Following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and as high as ~14 meter tsunami, the Fukushima  Dai-ichi (D1) and Dai-ni (D2) Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs, Units 1-4[U1-4] at D1, U5-6-2 at D2i) experienced a series of multiple incidents caused by inadequate cool down of decay heat in both the reactor and in the co-located spent fuel pool (SFP).

The reactors at D1, U1-6 were constructed as part of a GE/Hitachi/Toshiba collaboration and began commercial operation, during 1971-1979; U1-5 are GE-BWR, Mark-I, U6 is a Mark-II. Two GE ABWRs are due to start construction in April 2012.

(Photo right shows damage from hydrogen explosions (4 bottom, 3 second from bottom, and 1 top)

Impact of loss of power

Although the Units at D1 and D2 automatically shutdown at the onset of the quake and with near immediate loss of off-site power, the back-up diesel generator operated (~30minutes) until the tsunami inflicted considerable (unknown) damage to auxiliary and back-up systems (most prominently the back-up diesel general and batteries).

This initiated the onset of lack of decay heat cooling. Additional aftershocks continued for about one-week. During initial week, March 11-18, there were up to three larger (likely H2 explosion) explosions, vapor/steam jets and fires that further stressed the RPV, the containment and (weather) confinement buildings.

Damage to primary containment?

One of the later explosions conceivably damaged the primary (coolant) containment and thus, water found in the adjacent basement of the turbine building pointed to high-levels of radiation including fission products. Additional large volumes of contaminated water were found in the U-shaped electrical conduit ‘trenches’ off of U1-3 and spreading into other areas such as beneath the reactor site.

Outline of lessons learned

nuclear_power_plant_control_roomThis paper outlines the initial list of lessons learned from the multiple sequence of events, some interpretations of the news releases and the aspects of safety culture that contrast Japan and the U.S. during crisis management.

It is based largely on events of the first three weeks and professional interpretation of publically accessible information. It is being released without peer review and in this summary form. Only the provisionally conclusive lessons learned are noted below.

1) Nuclear R&D institutions must consider alternatives to zirconium-based and zircaloy cladding so that chemical reactions that generate hydrogen is prevented. We (as an industry) need to accelerate development and deployment of non-hydrogren producing cladding materials; that is, assuming that the coolant/ moderator/ reflector remains (light) water.

2) Having multiple (reactor) units at one site, having more than two units on site needs critical review in terms of post-accident response and management. We must consider the energetic events at one unit exacerbating the situation (safe shutdown) at the other.

3) Further, there is a definite need for a backup (shielded) reactor plant control center that is offsite (remote) so that the accidents can be managed with partial to full extent of reactor plant status (P, T, flowrates, valve status, tank fluid levels, radiation levels).

4) There is a need for standby back-up power, via diesel generator and battery power, at a minimal elevation (100feet/31m) above and some distance from the plant (thus remotely located). This is needed to offset loss of off-site power for plants subject to environmental water ingress (foremost tsunami). Spare battery power should also be kept off-site and in a confirmed ‘charged’ state.

5) It is clear that the spent fuel pool (SFP) cannot be in proximity of the reactor core, reactor pressure vessel or containment itself. The SFP, in current form, is essentially an open volume subcritical assembly that is not subject to design requirements generally defining a reactor core.

Yet, unless thermohydraulic cooling is maintained, it is subject to the similar consequences as a reactor core without adequate cooling. Therefore, we need new passive designs of the SFP, away from the actual plant’s reactor core.

6) Thus needs to be a re-definition of the spent fuel pool. A new standard and design requirement is needed for the spent fuel pool. It should be ‘reclassified’ as a subcritical assembly with a potential to go critical with no active or passive control (rod or soluble ‘poison’) mechanism. Further it needs to be some distance from the reactor plant.

7) We need to identify key valves for emergency core cooling and require them to be non-electrically activated. Otherwise these valves need a secondary means of open and closed status that is remotely located.

8) If an ‘in-containment’ SFP is maintained, then the fuel transfer crane system must be designed so that it is available to remove the fuel during a post-accident phase. OR a second means such as a robotic arm needs to be available.

9) There needs to be a volumetric guidance analysis for ultimate (decay heat) cooling contingency plans so that not only limitations on volume are understood but also transfer of liquids from one volume to another.

Spare tanks and water-filled tanks need to be kept on site as uptake tanks for ‘runoff’ in case of addition of cooling during accident management phases. Spare means to produce boric acid needs to be available off-site. Earthquake-proof diesel generator housing also need to be water-proof. Remote diesel generators are also needed with access to equally remote diesel fuel tanks (also see 4).

10) For nuclear power plants located in or near earthquake zones, we cannot expect structural volumes and ‘channels’ to maintain structural integrity. We should also expect the immediate ground underneath these structures to be porous (earth). Thus design of these volumes and channels should be such that they minimize connections to other (adjacent) volumes from which contaminated (liquid) effluents can flow.

11) Color-code major components so that in case of an accident such as the Fukushima NPP accident, we will be able to quickly identify the major components from digital images.

12) An international alliance of nuclear reactor accident first responders and thereafter, a crisis management team is needed. This does not seem to be available at any significant level at this time. We (the global nuclear industry) cannot wait 3 weeks for international participation.

13) We should consider and work toward international agreement on standards for regulated levels of radiation (activity) and radiation exposure to the general public and separately, those under emergency and extended ‘recovery’ phases.

We should also be consistent in definition and practice of evacuation zoning. We should also strongly encourage acceptance and use of SI unit for activity and exposure and not use culturally-based numbering customs (in Japan, one counts in orders of (‘man’)104, (‘oku’)108, 1012 etc.)

14) Under emergency and crisis management, wider access roads are needed to and from NPPs. The access roads need to be clear of debris and of such width to accommodate large-scale trucks needed as first response and thereafter. A means to access the plant via water, such as ocean, calls for infrastructure (boats, water-containing barge, jet-skis etc) is needed as part of a contingency plan for those plants located near bodies of water.


* Akira T. TokuhiroAuthor ID: Akira T. Tokuhiro (right) (email: (web site) Department of  Mechanical Engineering, University of Idaho, 1776 Science Center Drive, Idaho Falls, Idaho 83402 USA

Keywords: nuclear power plant, accident, meltdown, spent fuel pool, loss of off-site power, earthquake, tsunami

Submitted as short communication to: Nuclear Exchange, First published at April 2011. Reprinted in electronic form at Idaho Samizdat with permission of the author and publisher.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Quick note about rumors over Eagle Rock

Companies building multi-billion dollar facilities don't do things on whims

Last week there were a flurry of rumors that Areva might be having second thoughts about the construction of its $2.4 billion uranium enrichment plant at a site located 18 miles west of Idaho Falls, ID. This is the Eagle Rock Enrichment Project which when complete in 2014 will have a capacity of 3 million SWU/year.

Here's what I know from several days of digging around.

First, the so-called "postponement" of a hearing by the Atomic safety & Licensing Board is not true. The board has a hearing scheduled for Idaho Falls in July. According to Dave McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC. the hearing is on tap to take place as scheduled.

Second, assuming Areva gets the NRC license in August or September, it makes no sense to mount a major construction mobilization at the site with Idaho's severe winter weather setting in just a few months later.

Out on the Idaho desert, the morning low in January can be in the minus double digits. It takes just a few inches of snow, and the usual Idaho wind across the Snake River Plain, to turn the landscape into a complete white out. The buses from the Idaho National Laboratory, some 45 miles out on the desert, come back in a conga line with a snow plow at the front and another in the middle to keep the road open for the trip home.

Third, Areva isn't one to throw money around especially since it just paid 1.6 billion euros ($2.3 billion) to Siemens as part of the decision by the two firms to end their joint partnership in Europe. Also, Areva has been raising capital by selling shares to sovereign wealth funds and other large investors.

Finally, for competitive reasons, Areva must break ground as soon as possible in 2012 to avoid losing market share to USEC and Urenco. In New Mexico, Urenco has a similar enrichment plant which is operational and making money. USEC's American Centrifuge plant will be online by 2012/2013. Plus, TENEX, Russia's enrichment firm, is making an investment in USEC seeking entry into the U.S. market.

Total U.S. demand in 2012 will be about 13 million SWU. Areva's share with a completed plant at Eagle Rock will be about 25% of that number. Both Areva and Urenco have filed with the NRC to double their production capacity by 2018.

So if anyone is running rumors up the flag pole about the firm skipping town, you really don't have to pay attention.

PS: "Eagle Rock" is the original name of Idaho Falls which Areva honored when naming its facility.

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