Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wheels up for ANS National Meeting June 26-30

Fukushima and the future of the global nuclear renaissance will be topics of formal and informal conversations

takeoffThe American Nuclear Society national meeting takes place in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, this  coming week. I’ll be there. Tuesday night 6/28 we’re having the ANS Social Media Meet Up (details here).

I’ll be working out of the ANS Media Room every day so stop by to say hello.  You can reach me on Twitter @djysrv or Google Voice 208-419-3881. 

If I don’t answer the phone it is because I will be in conference sessions, but I will endeavor to return calls.

Blogging entries here will be light until after the 4th of July weekend.  Comment moderation may take longer than usual.  Check the ANS Nuclear Cafe for conference updates about what’s happening in Florida.  There’s a lot going on.

ANS conference sessions on Fukushima

Fukushima_symbol At the American Nuclear Society National Meeting, to be held in Hollywood, FL, June 26-30, there will be two special sessions on Fukushima. The first to be held Monday June 27, which will focus on the latest update and lessons learned in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Speakers from industry, government, and Japan will focus on the events sequence, major issues, challenges, media interactions, and lessons learned to date.

The panel moderator will be Joe Colvin (President, American Nuclear Society), and panelists will include:

  • Akira Omoto (Commissioner, Japan Atomic Energy Commission–Japan)
  • Dale Klein (University of Texas, Austin)
  • Michael Weber (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

A second session Tuesday June 28 will be chaired by former ANS President Andrew Kadak and include a similar list of expert panelists. Topics expected to be addressed include the accident sequence, challenges faced by the operating staff, reactor and fuel damage mechanisms, environmental impacts, and emergency response.

Topics that are likely to be discussed at both sessions include;

  • Boiling water reactor technologies
  • Analyses of how nuclear accidents occur
  • Health effects of radiation exposure
  • Nuclear regulatory issues
  • Risk Communication

I look forward to seeing blog readers at the conference.

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Jaczko to visit Nebraska reactors to review flooding threats

Field trip reported by Nebraska “watchdog” journalist citing Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb)

Gregory Jaczko NRC March 2011Idaho Samizdat has learned that NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (left) is “considering” a visit to the Ft. Calhoun and Cooper NPP to personally review measures the reactor operators are taking to deal with the rapidly rising flood waters of the Missouri River.

The NRC told this blog the trip is being discussed at the agency and is expected to take place June 26-27.

According to an independent journalist, Joe Jordan, who runs the site “Nebraska Watchdog,” the following is known . . .

With Nebraska’s two nuclear power plants threatened by the raging flood waters of the Missouri River, Nebraska Watchdog has learned that the federal government’s top nuclear official is coming to the state for a firsthand look.

While the NRC says that both the Fort Calhoun plant and the Cooper Nuclear Station at Brownville remain safe, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko will soon visit the state.

A spokesman for Senator Ben Nelson (NE-D) has confirmed to Nebraska Watchdog that Jaczko is coming, although the details of Jaczko’s visit are apparently still being finalized.

NRC Response

Earlier this week the NRC issued a press release detailing the measures the regulatory agency was taking to keep on top of the situation in Nebraska. Today, an NRC spokesman confirmed to this blog that Jazcko is looking at making a personal trip to Nebraska to inspect the two reactor sites.

The date and itinerary for the trip are still in flux. Sen. Nelson’s press office did not respond to calls to his DC and Omaha offices. Updates will be posted when they become available.

Conspiracy theories

FTCalhounNPPThe flooding situation in Nebraska has been the subject of bizarre conspiracy theories originating in Russia and Pakistan alleging that a meltdown has occurred at Ft. Calhoun and that the government is covering it up.

One U.S. web site, Business Insider, ran with the story as legitimate and set off a huge round of copy cat reports on the Internet.

Ft. Calhoun nuclear power plant (right) in more tranquil times.

Reports of a U.S. news blackout are also part of the conspiracy theory even though Nebraska papers such as the Omaha World-Herald and the New York Times have run major stories on measures by the two reactor sites to prevent the flood waters from reaching important infrastructure such as switch yards.

Status of reactors

As of June 21 flood waters were below the levels of berms holding them back. The Ft. Calhoun reactor is in cold shut down having completed a fuel outage that began April 7. The Cooper plant is generating electricity.

Last year the NRC ordered the Ft. Calhoun plant to beef up its flood protection measures. Jackzo can legitimately take credit for these actions when he gets to Nebraska.

The enforcement action in October 2010 required the utility to raise the level of flood protection to 1014 feet. Even the Union of Concerned Scientists thought, for a change, that the NRC had done its job and done it well.

Ft. Calhoun is owned and operated by the Omaha Public Power District. The district has published a web page on “rumor control” related to the flooding. Copper is owned and operated by Nebraska Public Power District.

Update June 24, 2011

The New York Times has a piece to day which steps through some of the regulatory back-and-forth that took place last year between OPPD / Ft. Calhoun and the NRC over the adequacy of flood control measures. The NRC ordered the utility to make improvements which saved the reactor’s bacon this month.

Interestingly, OPPD fought tooth and nail to avoid the costs of making the changes to flood control measures. I wonder what would be happening now if they’d prevailed last year?

Prior coverage

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

TVA’s basis for building Bellefonte

The New York Times cites critics calling it a “salvage heap.”

salvage heapApparently, it does not take much for the New York Times to unleash a strong shot of skepticism when it comes to reporting about building a new nuclear reactor or even completing one that is partially built. It starts with a provocative headline - “Nuclear plant left for dead shows a pulse.”

The news story is filled with colorful quotes from people who think the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has lost its mind in pursuing the restart of construction of the first of two Bellefonte reactors in northern Alabama.

For instance, early on in a 1,200+ word story, the newspaper refers to the partially complete reactor as a “salvage heap.” It follows up with a quote from Louis A. Zeller, the Science Director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL). He calls is a “zombie reactor” because it is neither dead or alive.

Then there are multiple quotes from Eric Beaumont, a nuclear expert and partner in Copia Capital of Chicago. He tells the NYT restarting construction of Bellefonte, “doesn’t seem like the most prudent use of money.”

Beaumont than lowers the boom with this statement . . . “based on cost, I absolutely think you can say it is crazy.” However, in fairness, it should be pointed out Beaumont allows that the basis for that opinion might change.

What newspaper reporter worth his salt could resist a string of quotes from expert sources like these? It’s pure catnip that would make any journalist’s nose twitch with curiosity, but does it justify the newspaper’s approach to the story? I don’t think so.

If you wrap it all up with a bow, the NYT seems to be trying to dance on Bellefonte’s grave singing in a chorus, with the people it quotes, in a round of “ding dong the witch is dead.”

So what is the case for Bellefonte?

coal-trainThere are some reasons why TVA is going ahead with the project, which the NYT does get to in the second half of the article. The first reason is that the utility is closing 18 coal-fired plants. In point of fact, the strategic intent at TVA is to replace aging baseload coal plants with nuclear. It is unlikely TVA will ever build another new coal fired power plant.

The second reason, which gets TVA in the game, is that it has something that no other nuclear utility planning to build will get for a long time. What it has on its hands is a 1,200 MW reactor pressure vessel. That’s right, there’s no waiting for years for Japan Steel Works to forge one. It’s right there in Alabama, right now. The NYT seems to have overlooked that fact.

Third, it doesn’t matter that the pipes, pumps, and control room have to be installed from scratch. The stuff that was put in in the 1980s wouldn’t meet today’s safety standards. Plus, TVA is committed to installing a state-of-the-art digital control systems.

Can TVA do it?

brownsferry_plant TVA finished and re-opened Browns Ferry in 2008. The utility found that even in a period of flat or declining electricity consumption, that building new nuclear energy powered generating capacity is more cost effective than new coal or gas fired plants.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that in 2007, the restart of TVA’s oldest nuclear reactor at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant helped the utility save an estimated $800 million.

The $1.8 billion restart of Browns Ferry Unit 1, originally forecast to pay for itself within eight years, will now end up paying for itself in under three years because of the unexpected jump in the costs for power generation for gas for peak power. TVA reopened Browns Ferry in May 2007.

The newspaper also reports that the TVA board also voted last year to finish a second reactor at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn., by 2013 at a projected cost of $2.5 billion. TVA projects that another Watts Bar unit will generate power for less than the continued costs of buying power from other generators or building new coal- or gas-fired plants.

The New York Times never mentions the successful completion of Browns Ferry in its roll up of critics of the Bellefonte project. However, the newspaper does note that TVA is, “one of the few American builders that could pull off a nuclear power comeback in this climate.”

Let’s ring it up

cash_registerAn interesting sidelight is that the newspaper does not delve into the numbers behind the financial analyst’s views. Perhaps Mr. Beaumont would prefer that TVA go ahead with its original plan to build two Westinghouse AP1000s at $4.5 billion each, completing the the $9 billion effort about 2025 instead of finishing Bellefonte 1 for $4-5 billion by 2020?

My bottom line view of the NY Times article is that it focused too much on 'he said she said' type reporting and not enough delving into an independent assessment of how both sides may be talking through their respective hats. The anti-nukes have a great sound byte way too tempting to ignore, but no facts, or at least any that are attributed to them in the article. The utility has the basics of strategic intent right, but the $4 billion price tag needs more definition.

TVA answers the New York Times

The sound byte peppered coverage in the newspaper did not go un-noticed in Chattanooga. In a letter to the editor June 22, 2011, TVA CEO Bill McCollum responds to the newspaper’s coverage. Here’s the full text.

Your article about the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plans for our uncompleted Bellefonte nuclear plant exaggerated the significance of Bellefonte’s older design and painted a picture of a decrepit “salvage heap.”

T.V.A. is rigorously inspecting Bellefonte and will replace any components that do not measure up to modern standards. Nuclear safety systems will receive the greatest scrutiny. Control systems will be updated to digital, and the control room will be the most advanced in the nation.

While some equipment and material have been removed from Bellefonte and used elsewhere by T.V.A., most of it would have been replaced anyway before the unit was allowed to operate. The massive steel-reinforced concrete structures at Bellefonte are as strong and safe as any modern structures.

T.V.A.’s successes in restoring to service Browns Ferry Unit 1 and Watts Bar Unit 1 — both of which are older than Bellefonte — have taught us how to fully evaluate and modernize nuclear plants to ensure safe and economical operation. Should we proceed with Bellefonte Unit 1, we expect its power to be competitively priced and the best option for electricity that is both safe and clean.

It is a rare thing for a nuclear utility to do more than just roll over in the face of negative coverage of its plans. Clearly, TVA feels the newspaper missed some key points in the article.

So there you have it. It's a case of sensational sound bytes versus a business case with a reactor pressure vessel in hand, and to complete the picture, the successful and profitable re-start of Browns Ferry along with the expected completion of Watts Barr on time and within budget by 2013. So which story would you believe?

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Associated Press Nukes the NRC on Reactor Safety

A national wire story, the first of two, alleges the Nuclear Regulatory Agency has undermined safety at aging reactors. Is it true?

A nuclear engineer with impeccable credentials says not so fast.

type keysOn June 20 the Associated Press published the results of a year long investigative report on safety at nuclear reactors in the U.S. It is a major effort by an experienced journalist and will receive wide attention.

Coming on the heels of the Fukushima crisis on Japan, the first of two article contains some strong allegations.

AP's investigative reporter Jeff Donn writes that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has watered down safety regulations in order to keep older reactors like Oyster Creek open beyond 40 years.

The article, with its spectacular allegations, was swiftly picked up by the mainstream media including USA Today along with video and a picture of an example of reactor corrosion.

In a piece titled "Nuke regulator, industry compromise safety to keep reactors running," Donn wrote . . .

"Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation's aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.

Time after time, officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews.

The result? Rising fears that these accommodations by the NRC are significantly undermining safety - and inching the reactors closer to an accident that could harm the public and jeopardize the future of nuclear power in the United States."

(Part 2 of the AP Story focuses on Tritium leaks)

Nuclear expert says not so fast AP

Is all this true? Or is it contrary to what many nuclear professionals know to be the case with regulation of the nation's 104 reactors? I turned to John Bickel, who's impeccable credentials include several decades of nuclear engineering experience backed by advanced degrees in the field.

Bickel left at OECDBickel has 36 years experience in the US and International nuclear engineering profession, specializing in reliability and risk assessment.

He has a Masters Degree and PhD in nuclear engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

~ John Bickel, left, attending a meeting of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, where he chairs the special working group on Defense in Depth of Electrical Systems (DIDELSYS) ~

I asked Bickel what he thought of the AP article. Here are some highlights of what he said in a series of email exchanges.

Bickel agreed to let me post his personal email comments here. Also, he agreed to let me post his contact information at the end of this blog post so that AP, or anyone else in the media, could contact him for confirmation. Here’s what he said.

"I had hoped for more insight from a prestigious organization such as AP. Their article entitled: “US nuke regulators weaken safety rules” is pretty sloppy and indicative of the fact AP failed to research much of what they have written about."

Point and counterpoint

In the balance of this blog post I will walk readers through a few of the key elements of the AP story and Bickel’s responses. Note that this point and counterpoint section is edited down from a series of emails so it isn’t a complete record of the conversation nor is it a complete review of the AP article. AP’s content is in a dark blue color.

AP states: "Time after time, officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews."

Bickel responds . . .

"AP failed to note that a majority of the older regulations were created in an era where there was very limited operating experience - and just to be sure the regulations were made unusually severe. In hind sight some of these regulations were counterproductive because they had too many people focused on the wrong things for too long.

Is there anything wrong with eliminating a regulation that takes time and resources away from real safety issues? This is the equivalent of complaining that the FAA wrongly decided parachutes could be eliminated on commercial airliners because they were not effective in preventing deaths in airplane crashes."

AP states: "Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors."

Bickel responds . . .

"That is an incorrect statement which could have been checked on the NRC website. I suggest that one look at the NRC's web pages that are devoted to equipment reliability trends.

NRC and the industry study trends to identify exactly where things need to be tightened and equipment replaced. Do a search on MSPI (mitigating systems performance index). This is the guts of where statistical trending is focused. The AP article somehow missed all of this.”

AP cites an expert - Demetrios Basdekas

"That's what they say for everything, whether that's the case or not," said Demetrios Basdekas, an engineer retired from the NRC. "Every time you turn around, they say, 'We have all this built-in conservatism.'"

"Last year, the NRC weakened the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage to reactor vessels — for a second time. The standard is based on a measurement known as a reactor vessel's "reference temperature," which predicts when it will become dangerously brittle and vulnerable to failure. Over the years, many plants have violated or come close to violating the standard."

Bickel responds . . .

“I knew Mr. Basdekas. I worked with him when he was at NRC, and a few things should probably be pointed out that have been omitted when AP labeled him as an "expert".

He came to NRC from the Nevada Test Site where he had worked on instrumentation for monitoring nuclear weapons tests.

Basdekas later became concerned about "pressurized thermal shock in reactor vessels" which is a subject area that he had no technical competence or training in.

This issue was also studied and resolved technically by folks who understood the subject matter at hand.

One might question how a man with primary training in "instrumentation and controls" (e.g. electronics) would suddenly become an "expert" on metallurgy and neutron embrittlement. “

AP States:

“The AP reviewed 226 preliminary notifications - alerts on emerging safety problems - issued by the NRC since 2005. Wear and tear in the form of clogged lines, cracked parts, leaky seals, rust and other deterioration contributed to at least 26 alerts over the past six years. Other notifications lack detail, but aging also was a probable factor in 113 additional alerts.”

. . .

"By the standards in place when they were built, these reactors are old and getting older. As of today, 82 reactors are more than 25 years old."

Bickel responds . . .

"What AP failed to note is that these plants are continuously being upgraded and older components replaced -- when their costs to repair exceed the costs to replace. Examples include: replacement of steam generators, piping, pumps, valves, batteries, cables, instrumentation and controls, steam turbines, transformers.

The reason is very simple and AP failed to understand it: It is far easier to replace and upgrade an existing nuclear plant than to find a new site, license it, and build a new one.”

AP states

"In 2001, the Union of Concerned Scientists, which does not oppose nuclear power..."

Bickel responds . . .

“The AP statement is incredible. Have you ever seen one of the UCS's fund raising letters? Since its founding the UCS has opposed all things nuclear. Find one instance where UCS has ever supported anything with the word nuclear attached to it. “

Bickel also asks whether AP applied any common sense to risk assessment?

"Now I might ask a question: All energy production involves risks to the public (explosions, release of toxic chemicals, high pressure steam/gas, electrical, fires, etc).

Certainly locating, transporting, and burning of natural gas has some risks (including the release of radium from the hydro-fracturing process). If one focuses all attention on "nuclear" while systematically ignoring equivalent hazards with all other energy sources -- what is the net effect to society?”

Bickel closes with this comment.

“The AP has systematically ignored the environmental damage and public safety risks from the burning of coal and natural gas. These sources of energy regularly kill members of the public and damage the environment.”


For more information contact:

John H. Bickel
Evergreen Safety & Reliability Technologies, LLC
28559 Cavan Lane
Evergreen, Colorado 80439
GSM Mobile +1(303) 359-9664

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Italy’s nuclear renaissance is gone

A nationwide referendum is seen as a protest vote on corruption issues

BerlusconiA binding vote by 57% of the Italian electorate rejected four ballot measures by a stunning 95% rate. One of them would have put Italy on a path to produce 25% of its electricity with nuclear reactors by 2025.

Although anti-nuclear sentiment runs high in Italy, the main target of voter ire was another ballot measure which would have provided some immunity for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (right) who wanted postponement of criminal trials until he was out of office.

Berlusconi, who is 74, is facing charges on four separate matters including bribery, embezzlement, fraud, and, most spectacularly of all, charges of paying for sex with an underage woman. He is accused of using the powers of his office to cover up the charges.

Italian voters, it appears, have had enough of his antics and want him out. All four measures were defeated by almost the same percentage, about 95%, which suggests all votes were seen as protests to send a message to incumbents they’d had enough with wine, women, and song instead of real government.

The vote in Italy was seen by Greenpeace and others as a huge victory for the anti-nuclear movement. Coming close on the heels of decisions in Germany and Switzerland to phase out their nuclear reactors, the Italian vote is part of a general retreat in western Europe from nuclear energy.

Read the full details exclusively at CoolHandNuke online now.


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