Saturday, June 4, 2011

Notes to Readers – June 2011

A few things need to be said from time to time

Guest blog posts

quillpenRecently, this blog ran a guest blog post with the byline of a single contributor.  It turns  out the byline was a public relations point of contact for a white paper.  This blog is not a platform for marketing white papers for technologies, products, or services. 

In the future I will be more diligent about making sure a guest contribution is validated in terms of who wrote it and why.

Guest blog posts are welcome.  Just make sure it’s you and nobody else when it comes to the byline.

Comments welcome

Also, as to comment policy, I want to restate a few things.  Comments are welcome so long as they are civil, relevant, and not anonymous.  You know who I am.  I expect the same from readers if you chose to comment here.   If you don’t have a Blogger ID, or Google Gmail address, you can get a free Open ID that will validate to your current personal, school, or work address.

Generally, I let comments stand on their own and don’t reply unless I think there is a difference that needs to be aired or a clarification that requires a response.  I’ve had my say with the blog post. I see the comments as a chance for readers to have theirs.

Finally, I value technical corrections.  If you see an error, tell me about it.   The nuclear energy field has lots of exceptions so catching errors is a part of continuous learning about the business. 

I will be happy to give credit for corrections if you include your name and email address in the comment.  I will not try to figure out who you are if you don’t do this.  See the note above about identifying yourself.

Why have a blog about nuclear energy?

blog symbolThe purpose of this blog is to have a “voice” in the dialog about nuclear energy, the global  nuclear renaissance, and to be able to shape public views. This blog does not merely report the news. It attempts to answer the "so what" question when it comes to nuclear energy developments.

This blog is called 'Idaho Samizdat" because I spent 20 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory and have the dust of the Arco desert on my shoes. 

The Idaho lab is the home of the birth of the nation's commercial nuclear power industry.   The "samizdat" part comes from the fact it is a Russian word that means "self-published," which is a great name for a blog.

No one pays me to publish this blog.  This blog carries advertising which provides just a bit more than lunch money in terms of revenue. So yes, it’s a business. That said please support the advertisers by checking out what they have to offer.

Contact Me

This is the link to my personal home page including email, phone, etc. If you have a question, or an idea for a blog post, drop me a line. Also, you can connect with me on Linkedin.  I’m on Twitter at @djysrv  Thanks.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Germany’s Nuclear Energy Panic Attack

Steep Rise in Energy Costs Likely If All 17 Reactors Are Closed

This blog post is an update of my coverage published in Fuel Cycle Week V10:N426 May 26, 2011, by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC.

AngelemerkelShortly after the extent of the damage to reactors at Fukushima became apparent, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) announced she was reversing her policy of keeping the nation’s oldest reactors open beyond 2022. A deal put in place by her predecessor called for the eventual closure of all 17 reactors by that date.

She immediately closed the nation's eight oldest reactors initially for a 90-day review and then made the closure permanent. They represent 8,300 MW of power. The reactors being kept open represent 12,000 MW.

At a May 30 news conference, Ms. Merkel said her government was "reconsidering nuclear energy following the unimaginable disaster at Fukushima."

The reactors provide 23% of the nation's electricity supply. Merkel said the gap would be closed with investments in renewable technologies, energy efficiency, and power purchase agreements (fossil) with neighboring countries.

The government's ability to fund and build the wind towers and transmission lines faces several challenges. Merkel has imposed a tax on nuclear fuel, but closing eight of the nation's 17 reactors will cut the revenue in half. Also, German citizen groups oppose the wind farms, and the transmission lines, as visual eyesores.

Germany's utilities have long-term purchase agreements with Russia for natural gas tied to the price of oil. This makes this fossil resource volatile in terms of market movements and the Russians have a history of using their natural gas supplies for political leverage.

Merkel's decision to close the reactors is a restatement of an agreement inked in 2002 by a coalition government of Social Democrats and the Green Party. As Merkel was making her announcement, neighboring Switzerland said it would phase out its nuclear reactors after 2030.

There is no middle ground in the nuclear debate in Germany. Anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany runs high with polls showing as much as 70% of the population says "no thank you" to nuclear power. Huge demonstrations have supported election setbacks for Merkel's conservative coalition in recent regional elections.

Some sentiment among Green Party members calls for a reduction in Germany's industrial economy and a return to a life style of "off the grid" villages in natural ecosystems. It turns the concept of sustainability on its head.

A drive off a cliff

Thelma and Louise drive off a cliffWhat's interesting about Merkel's U-turn is that it took place so quickly and without much consultation with her Conservative Party supporters. Merkel’s choice to close the reactors is a bid to stay in power and avoid losing her slim lead in parliament. The decision is so sudden that it has been compared to the movie “Thelma & Louise” where in the final scene two women, in flight from the law, choose to drive off a cliff rather than be captured.

In September 2009 Merkel swung for the fences and bet her election chances on keeping the reactors open. Her conservative coalition won by a slim margin. Business groups that represent the export driven manufacturing sector of Germany’s economy have called such actions “irresponsible” and a form of energy suicide.

Huge costs for closing the reactors

There are huge costs for closing the reactors. According to German business lobby BDI, the permanent closure of the reactors could raise electricity costs by 30% by 2020, or a wholesale price rise of 70 euros ($102) per megawatt hour . BDI said the “tax” of increased energy costs would reduce the competitiveness of German exports.

The 17 reactors represent 11% of all energy used in Germany. Since the reactors generate electricity, the sectors most affected will be heavy industrial machinery, commercial lighting, air conditioning, and home residential use.

energy security costsThe energy research institute r2b estimated in the study for BDI that if Germany shuts down all 17 reactors by the end of this decade, the cost for the average German household would be an increase of $200/year. The research group also predicted steep cost increases for electricity for the commercial sector.

The reason is the 17 reactors have long since been depreciated and, while they are cash cows for their owners, also sell their electricity at bargain rates. The replacement fossil and wind power will not be a bargain.

The 30% rise on electricity costs would result in additional payments to utilities for replacement fossil, wind, and solar power, and replacement nuclear power from other nations, of $46.4 billion of which $33.7 billion would be paid by commercial manufacturing and other industrial/business users. BDI also noted that Germany would fall short of being able to meeting its commitments to reduce CO2 emissions by generating an additional 282 million metric tons of it or 28% more than if the reactors stayed open.

When asked if they would accept these increases for the cost of electricity, fewer than 10% said they would accept an increase of more than $130/year which is well below the $200 figure bandied about by BDI.

Yet, Germany’s utilities and the business groups that belong to BDI also see the closure of the reactors as inevitable based on the fact that Germany, and its neighbor Austria, are home to the planet’s strongest political opposition to nuclear energy. A poll published by the Allensbach Institute in mid-April indicates 31% of respondents want all reactors closed within the next five years and another 37% want the same outcome by the end of this decade. The only question now is whether they are willing to pay for their ideological passion.

What About the Fuel Rod Tax?

Another cost of closing the reactors will be the need to spend an estimated $13 billion to build 2,240 miles of new transmission lines to integrate the variable power from wind and solar projects into the national grid. The estimate, which comes from German think tank DENA, is equal to total spending in Germany for electricity in 2008 according to utility RWE.

cashcowFinding the money to build the lines may be a problem. In exchange for allowing German reactors to operate beyond the original phase out conditions, in October 2010 Merkel imposed a special tax on the country’s four power firms to pay $3.3 billion a year into a new fund to finance generation of electricity by renewable energy technologies.

The fund could fail to launch if the first eight reactors, now in a 90-day shutdown, are removed permanently from the grid. RWE has already indicated it will sue the German government to end the tax since the reactors are being closed by fiat.

Even if the tax fund collects revenue from the nine reactors that might stay open, political opposition to new transmission lines is almost as ferocious as feelings about the reactors themselves.

Winding Up to Oppose Wind

In an April 11 report German news wire Spiegel Online reported that Germany’s opposition to wind power is well organized. The website windkraftgegner.de (wind power opponents), lists more than 70 protest campaigns.

According to some of them, the German government plans to replace its nuclear reactors with thousands of wind turbines and thousands of kilometers of high-voltage “monster masts” in a move that “will deface vast swathes of territory.” According to Der Spiegel, it seems that Germans, though determined to end nuclear energy, are gearing up to protest against its replacement.

Precipitous Loss of a Sector of Energy Supply

Nuclear energy provides approximately 23% of Germany’s electricity but coal provides 42% followed by natural gas at 14% with hydro, solar, and wind at 16% and all other 5%. According to the World Bank, in 2008 per capita electricity use in Germany was 7,150 kWh. On a scale compared to other nations, this is actually quite low. The average in the U.S. is nearly twice that number.

Yet there is substantial political pressure which appears to be driving Germany right over a cliff into a delusional chasm. Germany’s largest utilities, including RWE and E.ON, have repeatedly said a precipitous closure of the nation’s nuclear reactors will lead to electricity shortages and shift the nation from being a net exporter to a net importer of energy.

In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, Germany made the switch to being a net importer of energy in 2010. It is the second biggest importer of natural gas globally after Japan, and in the top ten for imports of oil and coal. The only reason Germany is a net exporter of electricity is its current fleet of reactors which rank the nation fifth on a global scale.Once they're closed that status will also end.

Ethics Commission weighs in

German Chancellor Merkel may have added an accelerant to the process of increasing the nation’s dependence on energy imports by appointing a so-called Ethics Commission headed by former conservative environmental minister Klaus Topfer. The 22 member commission, rather than buttressing Merkel’s position as expected, went the other direction. With a smattering of church and university leaders, and little business representation, the commission crafted an improbable vision of “off-the-grid” life in post nuclear Germany.

According to a leaked version of the 28-page report made available to the International Herald Tribune May 12, the 22-member panel said the withdrawal from nuclear power “could offer enormous technical, economic, and social opportunities.” It seems that magical thinking has taken root in Germany.

The apparent contradictions of closing the 17 nuclear reactors, while seeking to meet climate change goals, were glossed over by the commission which said it was “unacceptable” to fail to combat climate change. In a remarkable example of turning a blind eye to reality, the commission also said it did not advocate rationing electricity in the event of shortages. Instead, the commission called for huge reductions in the use of energy as a way of taking the loss of the reactors into account.

According to the European Nuclear Society, Germany’s 17 reactors represent 11% of total energy used in all economic sectors in 2009. It follows that the Ethics Commission call for a major reductions in energy use in the nation goes far beyond the reactors and seeks to address more fundamental issues of sustainability far beyond anything previously contemplated by a western industrialized nation.

Ministry Tries Rear Guard Action

These alarming recommendations, and their potential consequences, are not lost on the current environmental minister Norbert Roettgen. In a report from a reactor safety commission chartered after the Fukushima accident, Roettgen argued against a sudden retreat from nuclear energy. He said the decision to close the reactors should be based on a “thorough assessment.” The environmental minister said the nation’s eight oldest reactors are safe and should not be removed from the grid. However, the panel also noted the reactors don’t have the protection of newer units against airplane crashes.

Roettgen, who belongs to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has been a mercurial figure in the reactor debate, defending the safety of the fleet while calling for closure of all 17 units by 2022.

It is unclear whether common sense about energy security has any hope of taking root in Germany despite Roetten’s defense. The end result is that the Green Party and the Social Democrats may force the nation into a terribly bad choice. While they briefly hold power, once the lights go out, and the electric bills soar into the stratosphere, the only question will be how fast the closed reactors can be re-started.

German Stupidity Is Czech Opportunity

CEZ, Government Plan Three New Reactors at Temelin

Czech utility CEZ will move ahead with the sometime fitful Temelin project. Prime Minister Petr Necas said the government will drive the country’s nuclear energy development plans that include construction of up to three new reactors at the Temelin site and possibly two more at a new location.

The contracts to build the five reactors, worth an estimated $25 billion in new construction activity, are being vigorously pursued by France’s AREVA, Russia’s Atomstroyexport, and Japan’s Toshiba (Westinghouse).

Release of technical documentation to support bids has been delayed several times, but CEZ CEO Martin Roman said May 10 the bid process will be re-started with the release of the documents next October. A decision by the state-controlled utility to select a winner would be expected in 2013. The new reactors could be running and selling electricity to Germany by the time that nation’s 17 units close in 2022.

The rise of the Temelin project as Germany prepares to close its reactor seems to be another example of nuclear colonialism. The way it works is that a nation bans the construction of new reactors, but cheerfully buys power from them when they located across the border.

For instance, in the U.S. anti-nuclear fervor has banned new reactor construction in California for more than three decades, but throughout this period the state’s consumers have bought power from the Palo Verde site in Arizona.

Cities like Los Angeles are expected to negotiate power purchase agreements with a new reactor complex planned to be built in Utah. It replaces a 900 MW coal fired plant that the City of Los Angeles pulled out of over concerns about greenhouse gases.

The co-chairman of Germany’s Ethics Commission for Atomic Energy, Matthias Kleiner, seems to understand this. He warned in a radio interview via Welt Online April 4, “It would not win anything, if we turn off our nuclear power plants faster, but for nuclear import electricity from abroad.”

U.K.: Full Steam Ahead -

British Maintain Push for New Reactors, Meet Climate Goals

A key government official has issued a report that sets aside fears of a nuclear accident like the one at Fukushima occurring in the U.K. As a result, Mike Weightman, chief inspector of nuclear installations, has given a green light to construction of new reactors in that nation.

Energy secretary Chis Huhne told wire services, “We want to see new nuclear as part of a low carbon energy mix . . . the Chief Nuclear Inspector’s report reassures me we can.”

At the same time, Huhne released new carbon reduction targets for the U.K. which put it far ahead of other European Union countries. He committed the government to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2027. In a concession to industry, he added what he called a “rip cord” that would review the targets in 2014 if they proved too onerous to meet in terms of the cost of compliance.

Carbon taxes are intended to promote energy efficiency and also force market shifts from fossil to non carbon emitting energy sources including nuclear.

Weightman, who is also leading the IAEA safety review of the Fukushima accident, told the U.K. government that safeguards being used by the current fleet of reactors should prevent even remote risks. He said neither a 9.0 Richter scale earthquake nor a tsunami are credible for the U.K.

In all the report makes more than two-dozen recommendations which consider issues such as local flooding and loss of external electrical power. None of the existing fleet of U.K. reactors are BWR designs like those at Fukushima. All the current reactors in the U.K. are PWRs or gas cooled units. Both of the new reactors in design review are PWRs. They are the 1,100 MW Westinghouse AP1000 and AREVA’s giant 1,600 MW EPR.

The U.K. has identified 12 reactors at seven sites where it will build approximately 18 GWe of new nuclear powered electric generating capacity.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Questions about news media fundamentals and Fukushima

The nuclear industry needs to understand that confidence building following the crisis in Japan is a global challenge

Fukushima_symbolThe IAEA preliminary report on the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power station in Japan is just the first of what will turn out to be a series of reviews of what went wrong and what needs to be done in the future.  IAEA Team Leader Mike Weightman said in a statement, "You can make nuclear plants safe against natural events, but you have to understand these events."

It is clear that Germany does not understand that the real tragedy in Japan is the death of over 25,000 people from the combination of the earthquake and tsunami.  Yet, only four people have died at the Fukushima reactor site, and none from exposure to radiation. 

For more on this point see an excellent editorial in the Washington Post.

“Instead of providing a model for greening a post-industrial economy, Germany’s overreaching greens are showing the rest of the world just how difficult it is to contemplate big cuts in carbon emissions without keeping nuclear power on the table.

Panicked overreaction isn’t the right response to the partial meltdowns in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. Instead, countries aiming to provide their citizens with reliable, low-carbon electricity should ask how to minimize inevitable, if small, risks — making their nuclear facilities safer, more reliable and more efficient.”

In the U.S. anti-nuclear groups are seeking to capitalize on Germany's precipitous decision to permanently close it seven oldest reactors and the rest by 2022.  And they are getting lots of help from the mainstream news media (MSM) despite editorials like the one cited here.

Gaps between perception and reality

gaps Some serious thinking is needed to account for the gaps between what is reported in the mainstream news media (MSM) and what we as nuclear professionals know to be the facts.

1. Are there common root causes of frequent gaps between what the MSM reports and what we know to be the technical truth of a situation?

2. What accounts for the thin rolodexes of MSM in terms of who they go to for comments on nuclear incidents?  Why is it the UCS and other anti-nuclear groups like Beyond Nuclear are on speed dial and pro-nuclear experts are not?

3. How do we as nuclear professionals develop ways to get technical nuances across to the MSM without descending into "geek speak?"  A good example is the definition of a "meltdown."  Are we talking about deformed fuel bundles, melted uranium oxide, or all of the above?

4. How do we get across the concepts of comparative risk?  For example, 25,000 people died in Japan as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, but fewer than six have died at the reactor site and none from exposure to radiation. 

5. What is it about "nuclear exceptionalism" that drives an unhealthy focus on radiation even in numbers well under the safety thresholds?  How can we get clarity in MSM reporting about the health effects of various levels of radiation exposure?  How do we better communicate the nuances of health effects, e.g., acute v. long-term effects and cancer risks?

6. Why are the concepts of energy security and carbon emissions given a brush off when it comes to nuclear energy, but promoted without question for natural gas?

7. Why has Germany essentially committed energy suicide and put itself in the grip of the Russians for energy?  The Russians will increase their supply of politically tagged gas and likely win the bid for Temelin. NATO can forget about worrying the Russians will invade Germany.  They already have it.  Why hasn't Germany's MSN or ours given this issue more attention?

8. What does Japan really have to do to get its nuclear energy program back on track? The IAEA report released June 1 is an exercise in documenting the obvious and at best a diplomatic tap dance.  Whether the global nuclear industry likes it or not, confidence building about Japan's nuclear future, with real change, is needed to bolster its standing elsewhere.

EatMyHat

As I see it the nuclear energy field is getting pounded like a cheap cut of bottom round by the anti-nukes, especially over Fukushima, and then served up as hamburger to the MSM which thinks it is getting steak. 

If this isn't excellent marketing then I'll eat my hat.

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IAEA Report on Fukushima leaves no one in doubt

It was the tsunami that killed the reactor complex

Tsunami woodcutA report by an international team of nuclear energy experts has blamed Japan for failing to adequately protect the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex from the effects of tsunami waves.

Despite a long history of horrific tidal events, it turns out TEPCO, the utility that built and operates the power station, stood up a five meter wall. The wave that roared ashore on March 11 was more than three times that height.

The preliminary report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), led by UK nuclear safety expert Mike Weightman, and composed of 18 experts from 12 nations, said, “The tsunami hazard for several sites was under-estimated.”

Additionally, the IAEA team said nuclear utilities should consider building disaster proof emergency response centers to avoid the loss of communications that plagued TEPCO’s uneven response to the crisis.

Preliminary findings

In a draft report summary delivered to Japanese authorities June 1, the team published a set of preliminary conclusions and identified lessons learned in three broad areas:

1. External hazards,

2. Severe accident management, and

3. Emergency preparedness.

The final report will be delivered to the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety at IAEA headquarters in Vienna in two weeks. The expert team made several preliminary findings and lessons learned, including:

  • Japan's long-term response, including the evacuation of the area around stricken reactors, which displaced 80,000 people, has been impressive and well organized. A suitable and timely follow-up program on public and worker exposures and health monitoring would be beneficial;
  • The tsunami hazard for several sites was underestimated. Nuclear plant designers and operators should appropriately evaluate and protect against the risks of all natural hazards, and should periodically update those assessments and assessment methodologies;
  • Nuclear regulatory systems should address extreme events adequately, including their periodic review, and should ensure that regulatory independence and clarity of roles are preserved;
  • The Japanese accident demonstrates the value of hardened on-site Emergency Response Centers with adequate provisions for handling all necessary emergency roles, including communications.
  • The IAEA team praised the “exemplary work” of plant staff working under difficult and dangerous conditions.

Regulators cited for “cozy” relationship with TEPCO

The IAEA team was not happy with the role of Japan’s Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (JNISA). It is not independent, the team said, because it is housed in Japan’s trade ministry making it both a promoter and regulator of the country’s nuclear energy industry.

Stephen Lincoln, an Australian energy expert, told the Bloomberg wire service June 1, the relationship between JNISA and TEPCO was “cozy and complacent.”

Also, the IAEA said TEPCO’s roadmap and schedule for bringing the reactor complex under control was unrealistic. It wrote that the plan needed to be modified and would benefit from the expertise of other nations.

TEPCO’s failure to communicate

failure_to_communicateThe IAEA report is being released following a series of new information releases by TEPCO that damage to reactor units 1-4 was much more serious much earlier than previously reported by the utility.

Significant damage occurred to the fuel inside the reactor pressure vessels within the first four days following the loss of electricity to cool the reactors. TEPCO now believes that almost all of the fuel in reactor unit 1 has crumbled to the bottom of the pressure vessel. The utility said similar damage, though perhaps to a lesser degree, also likely occurred in units 2 & 3.

Additionally it became more clear how serious the miscommunications were between the government and the utility with both sides trading charges and blame for faulty instructions about how to respond to the crisis.

Chaotic conditions and a lack of information about the status of the reactors contributed to subsequent problems including creation of huge uncontrolled volumes of radioactive water which continue to hamper recovery work.

A Reuters report quoted nuclear safety expert Kim Kearfott of the University of Michigan, as saying, “There are aspects of the planning for safety at the Fukushima plant which are, in retrospect, very stupid and show a lack of imagination.”

She added, “the nuclear industry can do better than this.”

In a separate development, Japanese Prime Minister Naotoa Kan survived a no confidence vote in Parliament, but is expected to eventually resign taking the blame for the government’s missteps in handling the crisis.

As for TEPCO, its stock has been hammered by the crisis and its bonds reduced to junk status. It is expected that the government may place the company in a limited form of receivership in order to use taxpayer funds to pay for cleanup and for compensation.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Critique of MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle Report

Fast reactors were given short notice. Technology choices are available.

Guest Blog Post by: Tom Blees, Science Council for Global Initiatives
Email Contact: tomsciencecouncil@gmail.com

(Update June 3, 2011 - While Mr. Blees was a contributor to this review, he is not the sole author. His name above in the byline is intended as a point of contact for SCGI.)

Introduction

MIT (energy initiative) recently released a controversial and well-publicized report on the future of the nuclear fuel cycle. The authors argue that there is sufficient uranium to allow ongoing deployment of water-cooled reactors for many decades. They recommend that no far-reaching decision be made yet on the ultimate disposal of the 'spent' nuclear fuel so produced and suggest that research on technical solutions can be ongoing over this period, with no particular urgency.

Below, on behalf of the members of the Science Council for Global Initiatives, I present a critique of this report which focuses on its core arguments -- and their inherent weaknesses. A printable 6-page PDF version of the critique can be downloaded here.

1. The Study recommendations on actions to deal with spent nuclear fuel and waste do not recognize the importance of the technological options to reduce the radiological toxicity, which could have great impact on waste management.

One of the main Study recommendations is:

Planning for long term interim storage of spent fuel – on the scale of a century – should be an integral part of nuclear fuel cycle design.

This recommendation is based on an implicit assumption that spent nuclear fuel is a de-facto waste form destined for ultimate disposal, and that it would take a long time to develop repositories. The Study ponders whether the spent nuclear fuel is a resource or a waste.

Since the Study speculates on a large supply of low-price uranium that will continue to meet rising demand for many decades, the value of spent fuel as a resource is diminished.

However, there is another dimension to this equation. The actinides contained in the spent fuel are potentially a valuable resource. They are also a long-term radiological risk, and thus must be managed accordingly.

The radiological toxicity of the LWR spent fuel constituents is presented in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Radiological toxicity of LWR spent fuel constituents as a function of time

Radiological toxicity here is a relative measure of the cancer risk if ingested or inhaled, which we have normalized to that of the original natural uranium ore. As mined, the ore contains uranium along with decay products that have accumulated by its (very slow) decay over millennia.

Normalization to the natural uranium ore from which the spent fuel originated is a useful but somewhat arbitrary relative standard. If the radiological toxicity drops below the natural uranium ore level we would be disposing of nuclear wastes that had no greater hazard than the uranium found naturally. The point at which the radiological toxicity curve crosses the natural uranium line then can be defined (at least loosely) as an effective lifetime of the waste components.

For all practical purposes, the radiological toxicity due to the fission product portion of the waste decays with (approximately) a 30 year half-life, due to the dominance of strontium and cesium isotopes. It drops below the natural uranium ore level in about 300 years, and becomes harmless in well under 1,000 years.

On the other hand, the radiotoxicity level associated with the actinide portion stays far above that of natural uranium ore for a very long time, and remains at least three orders of magnitude higher than that for the fission products for hundreds of thousands of years.

This is why following the National Academy of Sciences Committee recommendation, the EPA standards and NRC regulations for the Yucca Mountain repository extended the regulatory timeframe from the original 10,000 years to one million years.

The important point is this: if 99.9% of actinides could be removed from the waste form, then the radiological toxicity of the remaining 0.1% actinides would stay below the level of natural uranium ore at all times and the effective lifetime of the waste would be dictated by the fission products.

If the actinides were mostly removed from the waste stream, the EPA standards and the NRC regulations [whether they cover 10,000 years or millions of years] can be met on an a priori basis. Needless to say, this is an extraordinarily important fact, and the MIT Study ignored it.

2. The role of fast reactors in the analysis of future fuel cycle options is misrepresented and therefore its impact is grossly underestimated.

A system analysis of future fuel cycle options performed by the MIT Study reached the following conclusion:

A key finding of this analysis is that reactors with conversion ratios much higher than one are not materially advantageous for a sustainable fuel cycle – a conversion ratio near unity is acceptable and has multiple advantages.
In assessing the impact of fast reactors on the uranium resource requirements, the above conclusion was reached because of a combination of several incorrect assumptions regarding fast reactor characteristics:

The analysis used Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor (PRISM Mod B) as the representative fast breeder reactor design, with a specific inventory (kg fissile material per megawatt electric) about a factor of two too high. The specific actinide inventory is presented here in Figure 2 as a function of the reactor size.

Figure 2. Specific Inventory vs. Reactor Size (MWe)

A breeding gain of 0.23 was assumed, which is too low by a factor of two or three. The breeding ratio potential for what we’ll call “advanced” fast reactors is presented in Figure 3 for various fuel types.

Here, breeding ratio is the net gain in fissile material over some period of time, compared to the fissile loss from power generation. The metal fuel developed during the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) program has become the reference fuel in the U.S. It has a breeding ratio potential in the range of 1.50–1.65.

In the early years of deployment, the high breeding gain is not needed, but it is there from the start, and it can be used by simply deploying more U-238 “blankets” — reflector regions actually — to capture a higher fraction of the neutrons leaving the core.

If you don’t need the plutonium early in fast reactor deployment, you would not load full blankets. A key advantage of the fast reactor design is that the plutonium production rate can be easily tailored to plutonium demand.

Figure 3. Range of Breeding Ratios

The Study states that breeders require a higher fissile inventory than fast burners, to compensate for a higher neutron absorption rate in the blanket. This statement is flatly wrong, indicative of inadequate knowledge of fast reactors.

When there is a sufficient fissile inventory coming from LWRs, the initial fast reactors do not need to breed, and the blankets can be replaced with reflectors.

As the demand for breeding plutonium grows over time, the “burner reactors” can be converted back to breeders. However, continuing to build burners when the fast reactor introduction is constrained by fissile availability is not a viable strategy, which was the focus of the Study.

The Study assumes that “All spent fuel is cooled for 5 years before it is reprocessed and recycled as fuel." That is perhaps realistic for LWR fuel, but pyroprocessing of fast-reactor fuel can be done while the fuel is still hot, typically after one year cooling for handling purposes. Application of five-year cooling to fast reactors results in a serious overestimate of the ex-core fissile requirement, with a consequent underestimate of the fast reactor's potential market penetration.

In the Study, fast reactors are deployed in large numbers only after ~2065 and hence have limited influence on the uranium consumption through 2100. In this case, the uranium requirements are dominated by the large number of LWRs built continuously through this century. If the time horizon is extended, the difference between with and without breeder reactors becomes much more pronounced.

Figure 4. Example scenario for worldwide nuclear energy growth


An example of nuclear fuel cycle system analysis more properly done is illustrated in Figures 4 and 5. These figures depict a scenario for world-wide nuclear energy growth, and the impact of fast reactors on the cumulative uranium requirement is very clear. The introduction of breeders can cap the LWR capacity (Figure 4) and hence also cap the ultimate uranium requirements (Figure 5).

The divergence of the cumulative uranium requirements (Figure 5) will continue to widen if the plot is extended beyond 2100.

Figure 5. Uranium resource requirements and availability
or nuclear growth scenarios with and without fast reactors

3. Fast reactors are critically needed for both limitless energy supply and for waste management.

The public views adequate nuclear waste management as a critical linchpin in further development of nuclear energy. The technical community, therefore, needs to provide a practical approach to deal with the waste issue.

The Fukushima accidents call attention to the importance of managing spent fuel safely. It appears the best technical approach is extracting the actinides from spent fuel, which reduces the effective lifetime of nuclear wastes from ~300,000 years to ~300 years.

Extracting actinides (and using them to generate power) is by far the best technical approach to dealing with nuclear wastes. The MIT Study fails to mention this important possibility. If actinide extraction is chosen as a pathway for waste “disposal,” the recovered actinides still must be transmuted to fissile material or fissioned directly. This can be done only in fast reactors.

Actinides can be burned in fast reactors, generating energy and at the same time creating more fissile material for the future. A key advantage of fast reactors is that they can be utilized as “burners” when excess plutonium inventories exist, and then converted to “breeders” whenever needed. Only fast reactors can satisfy the waste-disposal mission simply and effectively while extending utilization of the uranium resources by more than two orders of magnitude.

Thermal reactors—such as LWRs and high-temperature gas-cooled reactors—utilize less than 1% of uranium resources, even with recycling of plutonium and some of the uranium. Thermal-spectrum reactors, even optimized, can extend the resource utilization only marginally, and they cannot burn actinides effectively. Actinide recycling also requires an efficient processing technology, with improved economics and nonproliferation characteristics.

The pyroprocessing technique based on electrorefining, developed in the IFR program, has the potential to recover the actinides from LWR spent fuel as well as to fully recycle fuel in fast reactors. The fundamentals of pyroprocessing have already been demonstrated – this is not new science.

The technology is now ready for pilot-scale demonstration, and it should be given the highest priority. We do not need decades of R&D to pursue all esoteric ideas. We already have in our hands the most advanced technology, technology that no other countries possess.

The MIT Study also talks about the inter-generational equity considerations. We believe that our generation should demonstrate the technologies that will solve the energy supply and waste management problems, rather than proposing a century-long interim storage of the spent nuclear fuel.

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Idaho Samizdat would like to thank Barry Brook at Brave New Climate for facilitating the publication of the critique here. Minor format changes were made to the original to accommodate the transition from a Wordpress to Blogpost template.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

54th Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs

There is more going on in the world of nuclear energy than the Fukushima crisis

EBR 1 chalkboard_thumb[3]This week there is continuing news from Fukushima, but there are also a diverse set of posts on nuclear energy topics.

If you want to hear the voice of the nuclear renaissance, the Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs is where to find it. Contrary to what the anti-nuclear crowd would like you to believe, the wheels have not come off the renaissance.

(Image: The first known nuclear energy blog post is chalk talk at EBR-1 in Idaho on December 21, 1951. Image courtesy Argonne National Laboratory)

Past editions of the Carnival have been hosted at NEI Nuclear Notes, ANS Nuclear Cafe, CoolHandNuke, NuclearGreen, as well as several other popular nuclear energy blogs.

If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog, and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brian Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation. This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support. Please post a Tweet, a Facebook entry, or a link on your Web site or blog to support the carnival.

PopAtomic Studios

bellefontecolorfield Suzy Hobbs is on the road and one of her stops is the Duke Energy McGuire Nuclear Station in North Caroline which provides 2,200 MW of carbon emission free electricity to the region. (Image of TVA at Bellefonte courtesy PopAtomic Studios)

Hobbs writes, “"In the media most of the news about nuclear pertains to upset citizens and community conflicts.

So this is a story about a nuclear station with a great communications team, responsible employees, a well managed reactor, all situated in an affluent and lovely community. It probably won’t make any headlines, but represents something much closer to the reality for most of the American nuclear energy fleet and their respective communities."

Atomic Insights
Rod Adams asks whether major “environmental” groups paid to help oil and gas interests make more money?

Adams writes, “Though full of many sincere and hard working people who are trying to make the world a cleaner and more human friendly place, I believe that most of the really big and well-funded non-profit organizations that claim to be working for the environment are really cleverly conceived profit centers for the establishment. This post includes a quote dialog explaining the theory in more detail.”

ANS Nuclear Cafe
Dr. Ulrich Decher analyzes wind, solar, and hydro in the Pacific Northwest and California and asks: What is the “good thing” of having so much wind on the Bonneville Power Administration grid? What will be the outcome of California's renewable energy portfolio goal given the intermittency of wind power?

Deregulating the Atom

Rick Maltease writes, “I must admit the title was inspired as a call to the right political thinkers but also a call to action to recognize that supporting nuclear energy is supporting the common good. I would even go so far as to say it is Christian. But I don't mention that specific point in the post.”

Next Big Future
Thorium license plateA nuclear fuel company, Thorenco LLC, presented a small transportable 40-megawatt-thermal at the third annual Thorium Energy conference. The Thorium converter reactor for multiple uses: producing electricity (15 megawatts), burning up high-level actinides from spent fuel, and producing low-cost, high-temperature steam (or process industrial heat).

(Image: Thorium license plate courtesy of Robert Hargraves)

Kirk Sorensen announced his new Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor company Flibe Energy at the third annual Thorium Energy conference. Kirk has not disclosed details of funding for Flibe Energy (which is named for the mixture of lithium fluoride (LiF) and beryllium fluoride (BeF2) that is proposed, in molten-salt form as a coolant for LFTRs)

A Teledyne Brown executive attending the conference said that they are “fully supportive of Flibe Energy.” Kirk also pointed out that, in addition to (and likely preceding) the product of commercial power, LFTRs offer several other revenue streams: in particular supply radioisotopes for medical applications. The only reactor producing medical radioisotopes in North America is due to shut down in the next three years.

FlibeEnergy’s ambitious development program aims for first demonstration criticality in June 2015.

Nuclear Green
At NuclearGreen Charles Barton has highlights of the (slides > Thorium Alliance Conference )which took place in Washington, DC, this week . An interesting observation is that the first commercial thorium fueled reactor could be an SMR for military applications.

Barton writes, "At the moment, according to one speaker, there are too many competing SMR designs, and many other obstacles to the emergence of of commercial SMRs, but the DoD could emerge as a leader in SMR development. There are clearly national security issues in play, both in terms of energy input into military operations, and in terms of the economic implications of energy technology."

The Capacity Factor
The Australian blog "Capacity Factor" has an excellent summary of the passive cooling features of the proposed design for the NuScale Small Modular Reactor (SMR). It uses passive safety features. The concept is to put SMRs in very large, atmospheric-pressure water pools. Large enough that they can reject decay heat indefinitely by boiling away into the atmosphere.

Atomic Power Review
Will Davis at Atomic Power review continues to publish technical updates on the status of the reactors at Fukushima and TEPCo's recovery efforts. The latest is a dust suppression program to prevent wind from transporting radioactive debris off site.

Nuke Power Talk

time to marketAt Nuke Power Talk, Gail Marcus notes that Scientific American, which has a pattern of publishing dour doubts about the future of nuclear energy, has published a more balanced review of the current state of the nuclear renaissance in the U.S. It includes reports on Southern's Vogtle site and work at TVA to complete Watts Bar.

In the past some editors at SciAm have predicted a time to market for new reactors in unflattering terms. However, something has changed.

Marcus writes, "While all the information in the two articles will be well known to most readers of this blog, I always find it interesting to know what other people are reading, and I was pleased to see this very fair and balanced article in the pages of a publication that is read by a broad spectrum of scientists and engineers."

NEI Nuclear Notes
NEI Nuclear Notes writes about the illogical drive by the State of Vermont to close the Vermont Yankee reactor. NEI's blogger says this amounts to the state wanting to shoot itself in the foot. This folk saying comes from the American wild west of the 19th century when handguns were widely carried as side arms.

NEI's blogger writes, "Vermont is bound and determined to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear energy facility over a leakage of tritium last year that harmed no one - at all. While the leak should not have occurred, the cause of it was located and sealed and no one inside or outside the plant was harmed by it."

According to an NEI Fact Sheet, nearly three-quarters of the electricity used in Vermont comes from the reactor. How will they keep the lights on if the legislature and its new governor prevail in closing the facility next year?

Yes Vermont Yankee

In this post, Meredith Angwin of Yes Vermont Yankee examines the deal that Green Mountain Power made to buy some nuclear-generated power from Seabrook. She concludes that, yes, this will help Vermont if Vermont Yankee is forced to shut down, but it is not nearly enough electricity to fill the looming gap in the local power supply.

Areva North America Next Energy Blog

StevenChu_at_G8The Blog likes an interview U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (right) did with National Public Radio on May 26th

When asked about what the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor means for nuclear energy in the United States, Sec. Chu replied,

“I still believe that nuclear power should be part of the energy mix of the 21st century.”

He stressed how the many important lessons learned from Japan will be integrated into U.S. reactors, adopted by the industry, and that new nuclear power plants will be even safer.

The interview also hit upon the approach for used fuel management in the United States. Discussing how Yucca Mountain, the proposed long-term storage site, is now off the table Secretary Chu pointed to the forthcoming recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on developing a strategy going forward.

Importantly, Secretary Chu noted that the focus is on used nuclear fuel which, he said is not necessarily a waste, and that he would like to see technologies developed to utilize these materials.

Idaho Samizdat

At Idaho Samizdat, Dan Yurman comments on an OP ED by Gregory Jaczko, Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission published at the Huffington Post on May 26. In it Jaczko responds to claims made in a New York Times article which portrayed the NRC as a toothless regulator in bed with the industry.

The New York Times article can only be described as a shameful departure from the standards of ethics and fairness the newspaper claims to uphold. Federal regulatory agencies usually just roll over when newspapers swat them with articles like this one.

Yurman writes, "In his OP ED at the Huffington Post the NRC Chairman seems to have found some backbone standing up for the broad principles of nuclear safety rather than rolling with the tactics of political expediency which he has been accused of doing over Yucca Mountain. That’s a step in the right direction."

The NRC may not have liked that assessment very much. Jaczko is widely perceived as a political tool of Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who’s only objective regarding his former aide’s tenure at the NRC is to keep Yucca Mountain bottled up. That’s a problem for the NRC and the nuclear industry.

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