Saturday, May 21, 2011

Fukushima's limited impact on the global nuclear industry

sbrhs1wExcept for a political panic attack in Germany, most other nations have the "full steam ahead" sign out for their new reactor projects

There's been a lot of overblown rhetoric about the so-called "death" of the global nuclear renaissance. Anti-nuclear groups have trumpeted that the crisis at Fukushima in Japan is the silver stake that has finally been driven into the heart of the nuclear monster. Frankly, that's a lot of wishful thinking.

While the situation in Germany represents a political dust up rather than a reactor safety issue, the long-term implications for the economic powerhouse of Europe is not lost on other nations.

Here is a brief video in which Russian premier Vladmir Putin asks Germany what it is going to do for energy once it shuts down its nuclear reactors.

Last November Russian premier Vladmir Putin asked German business groups whether they planned to invest in Siberian firewood for energy since they don't like nuclear reactors or the prospect of being reliant on Russian natural gas. Here's a video clip.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel may find that keeping the lights and the factory assembly lines humming, a key jobs issue, may be persuasive when the next national election comes around. The delusional vision of solar energy and wind power being positioned as a substitute for the reactors can only lead to one outcome. It is a situation worse that the one that South Africa finds itself in with brownouts, an inability to raise electricity rates for new generating capacity due to social welfare spending, and overall politically intractable gridlock.

The stark reality of energy security in the 21st century is the nuclear reactors are needed to put the world on a path toward lower carbon emissions and to supply more electricity to raise standards of living that improve the human condition.

Read the full details exclusively at CoolHandNuke online now.


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Friday, May 20, 2011

Did Fukushima kill the nuclear renaissance in the U.S.

The future of plans to build new reactors is not a case of black and white choices

Gunfight OK corral movie posterGermany's quick retreat from nuclear energy and Japan's consideration of the role of renewable energy sources in response to the Fukushima crisis raise the question of what will happen to the global nuclear industry and especially in the U.S.?

American anti-nuclear groups are calling for the closure of Indian Point and Vermont Yankee and have been quick to seek to leverage the events in Japan as signals of trouble ahead here.

They see it as a metaphorical gunfight not unlike the plot in the 1957 movieGunfight at the O.K. Corral” where the nefarious evil of nuclear energy has failed to give up its guns and must be put down by an alliance of the new Marshall Wyatt Earp and his unlikely alliance with gambler Doc Holliday.

Yet, the U.S. Court of Appeals recently threw out efforts by six environmental groups to overturn the license for Oyster Creek on the grounds the NRC had failed to do its job. Commenting on the decision, the Newark Star Ledger editorial board wrote . . .

"Japan’s disaster shouldn’t be used as convenient leverage by anti-nuclear groups to shut down more plants. But it should serve as a cautionary tale, exerting political pressure to improve their safety."

Billions in new investment are at stake. The World Nuclear Association estimates that out of 130 planned new reactor projects, fewer than a dozen may fall by the wayside due to fears about a repeat of the disaster at Fukushima. Its that a good estimate?

Yet some changes have people thinking the situation might get worse. The view in some quarters is the Japanese have made a real mess of things at Fukushima, and to use the old western metaphor once more, it's now a case of good night Irene for nuclear energy elsewhere on the globe.

Germany moves the market across the border

In Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a 90-day shutdown of seven of the nation's seventeen reactors following events at Fukushima. The reason is anti-nuclear Green Party and Social Democrats won regional elections and not that the reactors are unsafe. Business groups facing rapidly escalating costs for electricity have called the shutdowns "irresponsible" and want the reactors back in service as soon as possible.

chinese checkers It will be more like a game of Chinese checkers where one nation shuts down its nuclear plants to rely on new ones in another. If Germany essentially commits "energy suicide” by closing all 17 of the nation’s reactors, the Czech utility CEZ will ramp up construction of a five reactor, $25 billion project to supply electricity across the border.

German Greens may rejoice at shutting down some or all of their country’s reactors, but it won’t be the end of nuclear generated electricity for that country or that region in Europe.

South Texas Project reverses gears

In the U.S. the expansion of the South Texas Project, which has plans for two new 1,300 MW reactors, ground to a halt. However, the reason there is not safety, but rather that TEPCO, the utility impacted by the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima, was a key investor.

With a $15 billion loss associated with the destruction of four of the six units at the Fukushima site, and the need to purchase replacement power for all six reactors, TEPCO has no choice but to pull out of its U.S. commitments.

Next steps in Japan

meltdownTEPCO faces huge challenges to get the situation at Fukushima under control. This past week the Japanese utility revealed that three of the reactors have substantial damage to the nuclear fuel inside the reactor pressure vessels.

TEPCO indicated that at Reactor 1 the fuel may have melted or been seriously damaged by heat within the first 16 hours following the loss of electricity to power the emergency cooling system. It looks like similar assessments may follow for Units 2 & 3.

TEPCO must find a way to also remove the spent fuel from the fourth reactor and to control the runoff of radioactive water across the entire site. A long-term decommissioning plant for all six reactors released by TEPCO is widely regarded as optimistic in terms of its schedule milestones. It could be a year or longer before the site is in cold shutdown.

A utility in crisis

Two other challenge TEPCO faces are how to supply the electricity needed in Japan’s cities this summer that would have come from Fukushima and how to replace the generating capacity, about 6 GWe, that was lost there. The utility has already said it will cancel plans for two 1,000 MW reactors, Fukushima units #7 & #8 due to ferocious opposition from the Fukushima provincial government.

powerpylonTEPCO itself is in deep organizational turmoil with the loss of key executives including the president. The utility is heavily in debt and faces mounting costs not only for cleanup, but also to pay compensation to the tens of thousands of people evacuated from their homes inside the 20 km ring around the plants.

A request by the government, which may ultimately pay these costs, to the banks holding the loans to forgive them was met with a harsh rejection. Not only do the banks hold the loans, they also hold TEPCO stock which has tanked since March 11.

The government is contemplating some kind of receivership for TEPCO to ease the political heat of using taxpayer funds to cover compensation and other costs.

Japan’s stark nuclear choices

About two weeks ago Japanese Prime Minister was widely quoted as saying the government would reconsider the nation's reliance on nuclear energy. If anything is true, it is that his comments were widely misunderstood because of the fundamentals of Japan's energy security situation.

The nation has no oil, no gas, no coal, and no choice but to push for 50% nuclear future. It has two reactors under construction, and 12 are on drawing boards. Six more are more needed to replace the units lost at Fukushima.

It is also widely accepted that Japan needs a strong, independent nuclear regulatory agency that can revamp the culture of collusion that has characterized TEPCO's past relationship with government safety regulations.

What does Fukushima mean for the U.S.?

Anti-nuclear groups have seized on the complex and difficult recovery process at Fukushima as risks for the U.S. that can be avoided by shutting down the existing fleet of 104 reactors and stopping all work to build new units.

There’s a considerable amount of grandstanding taking place among anti-nuclear groups over issues like the potential for terrorist attacks, the safety of reactor containment structures in earthquake scenarios, and the reliability of emergency equipment in the event of loss of electrical power.

Commitment President Obama has resisted these panic attacks and the NRC has been conducting its own review of Fukushima issues for the U.S. fleet. Making sure the existing fleet operates safely has and will be the NRC’s continued focus. The NRC is also fully engaged in review of plans for the next generation of nuclear reactors.

Also, in addition to the Westinghouse AP1000, the NRC is in the midst of design certification for three other reactor designs. These designs include the Areva 1,600 MW US EPR, the G.E. Hitachi 1,500 MW ESBWR, and the Mitsubishi 1,700 MW APWR. The firms which designed these reactors in the U.S. do not commit the huge sums needed to complete these reviews unless they plan to also build them.

What the future looks like for the U.S.

It is very clear that by the end of this decade six reactors will be completed in the U.S. They include two Westinghouse AP1000 units at Southern's Vogtle site in Georgia and two more at Scana's V.C. Summer Station in South Carolina. TVA will complete the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee by 2013 and can be expected to be well on its way to finishing Bellefonte in Alabama

Looking out a bit further, the Calvert Cliffs site in Maryland is likely to get back on track with a new investor and break ground perhaps as early as 2014. Right now the project is stalled because Electricite de France, as a foreign entity, cannot own more than 50% of a U.S. reactor project. As new management takes over at Exelon, it may decide that being the U.S. part of the consortium to build a 1,600 MW Areva EPR is a good deal.

Will SMRs’ rule in the next decade?

In the 2020-2030 time frame new small modular reactor designs will enter the market. Most likely, those that are based on conventional light water reactor technology have the best chance of getting NRC design certification and licenses.

For NuScale and B&W, a price point of $4,000/Kw will open up the potential for customers among utilities that would not contemplate 1,000 MW units. You aren’t betting the company at $600 million instead of $6 billion. Plus, revenue from the first unit pays for the next, and so on, providing a new business model for medium size utilities to get in the nuclear game.

NuScale, which is developing a 45 MW design, may seek early market share and success in developing nations such as India before attempting a run at U.S. customers.

Babcock & Wilcox is working with TVA to develop a feasible licensing path forward for its 125 MW design at the utility's Clinch River site.

Large reactor projects making headway

Among large utilities we can expect to see progress with one new reactor at each of these locations within the next ten years.

  • Dominion - North Anna III
  • Ameren - Callaway II
  • Detroit Edison - Fermi III
  • Duke - William States Lee

We can expect to see two new reactors at each of these sites also within the next 10 years.

  • Progress - Levy County
  • Florida Power & Light - Turkey Point
  • Luminant - Comanche Peak

Factors that will make a difference

Assuming natural gas prices stay low throughout the remainder of this decade, it is difficult to see beyond these projects.

Yet, federal loan guarantees may make the difference in whether publicly traded utilities will commit to building the fearsomely expensive projects.

In terms of climate change policy, and energy security, there are some things government must do and leaving nuclear reactor development solely to the private sector is not one of them.

There still is no near-term solution for management of spent nuclear fuel though a government "Blue Ribbon Commission" has recommended development of an interim storage site. Reprocessing of spent fuel will likely wait for the commercial success of fast breeder reactors, which is a development unlikely to occur until at least 2040 or later.

FDR TVA signingIn most other nations the development of nuclear energy is a partnership with or driven by the government. Only in the U.S. has there been strong resistance to nailing down this tent peg of energy security with a robust government role. That may change over time.

The model established by Franklin Roosevelt at TVA may yet be proved to be one that can be adapted to new needs in the 21st century.

For now, a deeply divided Congress can’t even pass a debt ceiling amendment much less develop an energy policy. In the end, a fractured political climate may be more of an impediment to the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. than all the smashed reactors and water leaks at Fukushima.


Advocates of nuclear energy may feel dispirited by the events unfolding in Fukushima and the U.S. This video will give your spirits a lift.

Gaelic Storm - the Samuari set

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Advice to the Blue Ribbon Commission

The nation’s nuclear energy bloggers have their say about what to do with used fuel

bloggingOn May 13, 2011, the Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) issued draft recommendations based on the work of three subcommittees.

The long-awaited policy prescriptions are intended to establish a long-term framework for managing used nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear reactors.

Because of the significance of the used fuel issue, ANS Nuclear Cafe asked some of North America’s leading nuclear energy bloggers to comment on the BRC’s proposed solutions.

This is the first time the nation’s nuclear bloggers have lined up to offer at one place and one time commentary on single subject. They participated via the ANS blog because no other organization has the independence and credibility to attract this kind of response.

Management of spent fuel is a supremely important issue. Also, without a credible path forward on spent fuel, anti-nuclear groups will have several decades more opportunities to whine that there is no solution to the “waste problem.”

Each blogger has their own point of view

The intent in publishing these voices from the Internet is to bring some waves of independent thinking to the shores of conventional wisdom. Of course, at any beach the pattern of some waves do overlap, but others reach the tidal zone entirely in their own time.

We did not ask for a consensus, or approval, or disapproval of the BRC’s work. Each blogger was asked to provide one short recommendation. Here are 11 of them for your review at ANS Nuclear Cafe online now.

A typical configuration for a used fuel canister (Source: World Nuclear Association)

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Failure to Launch

Blue Ribbon Commission opts for conventional wisdom

Sharp turnA federal advisory committee on the future management of spent nuclear fuel has labored long to get it hands wrapped around the issue. This week the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future (BRC) issued a series of draft recommendations.

While some of them document obvious choices, others indicate a disheartening lack of imagination and vision. In fact, the BRC has taken a sharp turn into the prevailing seas of conventional wisdom. There is no exploration of new lands here.

Unlike the Russians, who are re-using their site at Angarsk in Siberia for an international fuel bank, the U.S. has no such vision for the Nevada Test Site. And unlike the remote Novaya Zemlya, the Russian nuclear test site in the Arctic sea, the Nevada Test Site in the U.S. is a flat, year round access mesquite spotted desert within 65 miles of downtown Las Vegas.

On one hand, some ideas from the BRC for management of spent fuel are obvious, but the BRC’s reluctance to address fuel reprocessing to the agenda seems inexplicable except when seen in the light of a series of influential reports on nuclear energy from MIT.

Pros and cons of conventional wisdom

It makes sense to accept the BRC's thinking that storing the spent fuel indefinitely at reactor sites is a poor policy and that developing interim storage sites to centrally manage it is a good idea. Also, it makes sense to get the federal role for management of spent fuel out of the Department of Energy and into a quasi-government corporation funded by the Nuclear Waste Fund.

Where the BRC missed the boat is its "central conclusion that reprocessing spent nuclear fuel has no near term likelihood of success. Here's what the BRC said in a nutshell.

missed-the-boat"No currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technologies including current or potential reprocess or recycle technologies have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades.

Put another way – we do not believe that new technology developments in the next three to four decades will change the underlying need for an integrated strategy that combines safe, interim storage of spent nuclear fuel with expeditious progress toward siting and licensing a permanent disposal facility."

Weight of MIT studies

Here we see the influence of three table thumping studies by the mandarins of nuclear energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There are three reports which represent a conventional wisdom that recycling spent fuel has unintended nonproliferation risks and ought not be pursued by the U.S. nor anyone else.

While the U.S. continues to follow the "moral example" set down by President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, other nations are pursuing this path. France has been recycling nuclear fuel for decades. So has Russia and the U.K. China recently established a roadmap to building a $15 billion fuel recycling center using Areva's technology. South Korea is asserting its right to recycle spent fuel over objections from the U.S.

What makes anyone at MIT or the BRC think the rest of the world will pay attention to the U.S. "moral example?" The BRC would have a much more defensible position if it strongly linked progress with fuel recycling to the development of international fuel banks. While the BRC supports them, there is no explicit link to between the two.

Jobs matter as much as “consultations”

The BRC has a lot of high level hand waving about consultations with affected states regarding location of interim storage sites. That's nice, but what the BRC really needs to think about is incentives for taking the interim storage site. Here's why.

During the Bush administration, proposals for the rushed, and ill-fated, GNEP program carried with them the prospects for a massive public works program. The sheet size of fuel recycling and advanced fuel fabrication sites, not to mention construction of fast reactors, generated 13 proposals for 11 sites nationwide with thunderous support by local communities. While there were many things wrongly handled by the Bush Administration regarding GNEP, the central lesson that jobs matter should not be lost on the BRC.

What Nevada lost by Reid’s hand

So let's start with Nevada. Why would Nevada want to be the site of the Interim Storage site notwithstanding Sen. Harry Reid's line in the sand against Yucca Mountain?

First, anyone who has been following the lists of cities most impacted by the current long-term recession cannot help but notice the terrible numbers associated with the economy in Nevada. An national economy without discretionary income does not go on gambling junkets to Reno, Las Vegas, or anywhere else in the Silver State.

Second, Nevada has exactly the geophysical conditions and infrastructure needed for dry cask storage of spent fuel. It has a desert climate and millions of acres of remote landscape that nobody wants for any useful purpose. It has railroads and roads for safe transportation of the spent fuel to the site.

Third, the state needs a shot in the arm for its economy. It's single focus on tourism and gambling has failed and its economy unlikely to recover for a very long time. If I were an economic developer in Nevada, my first question to the BRC would be how many jobs come with the deal?

There are high paying jobs associated with building and maintaining an interim storage site for spent fuel. There would be a huge number of jobs associated with a 500 ton/year fuel reprocessing site. Developing of an R&D center for fast reactors and advanced fuel fabrication would be a rocket assisted take off for Nevada's universities. In 2007 Energy Solutions estimated the cost of developing these capabilities would be in the range of $20 billion.

BRC missed the beef too

wheres the beefIt’s not consultations that matter. It is the answer to the question from the old Wendy’s commercial – where’s the beef? It is a mystery to me why the BRC didn't address the economic incentives associated with interim storage plus fuel recycling and advanced fuel fabrication.

Tell me this, exactly what benefits did Sen. Harry Reid provide to Nevada by stopping the development of Yucca Mountain and closing the door to future nuclear energy projects in his home state?

My guess is Nevada's loss could be a huge gain for states like Arizona and New Mexico. In the case of New Mexico, it has two DOE national laboratories, and a long history of success with transportation and handling of nuclear waste at the WIPP site.

Bottom line the BRC missed the reality of where to put an interim storage site by a mile by sitting on its hands and repeating the conventional wisdom of the MIT mandarins.

It has missed a major opportunity to launch a solution with vision, incentives for progress, and a path for global technology leadership. The current recommendations are drafts. Will the BRC be willing to think about vision instead of status quo in its final report?

Prior coverage on this blog

Video – Failure to Launch