Friday, December 23, 2011

Ghostlight - December 2011

This blog will be dark for the Christmas holiday

As 2011 comes to an end in what is for now called the "post-Fukushima era," I would like to thank my readers for their kind attention and continued support of this blog.

The month of December was notable for two news items that resulted in multiple blog posts. The first was the unfolding controversy at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the management of the agency by its Chairman Gregory Jaczko. The second was the decision by Areva's home office in Paris, France, to suspend the construction stage of the Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility in Idaho.

The combination of these two events back-to-back produced a new record for this blog on December 12, 2011 with 2,608 page views.

This blog is headed for a new record today, December 23, 2011 due to coverage of  the AP1000, Areva, and Jaczko. I'll update this blog post tomorrow with the final count.  Update: The final count was 1,912 unique visitors and 3,305 page views, a new one-day record.

Update 01/02/12:  Google recorded 34,333 page views for the month of December.

Surely something else happened?

Here are some recent top blog posts that attracted reader attention were, in addition to those about Jaczko's erratic engagement with his colleagues at the NRC, and about Areva . . .

10/14/11 - All is not quiet on the nuclear front - a response to an anti-nuclear OP ED published in the New York Times by a specialist in nuclear nonproliferation.

08/29/11 - Debunking Rep. Ed Markey on Hurricande Irene - in collaboration with the American Nuclear Society, I ran a "hurricane watch" as the storm moved up the east coast.  My friend and colleague John Bickel, Ph.D., provided expert technical comments pointing out that the congressman's breathless press release missed the safety significance of just about everything.

11/17/11 - French nuclear fleet could be sunk by socialists - in the elections next May France, which gets about three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power, may follow Germany into an uncertain future if the Socialists win and turn out the lights.

11/13/09 - Green groups slime Duke on MOX fuel - some stories have staying power and this one is still going strong two years after it was published.  Extraordinary claims require similar levels of evidence. Green groups had none that met that test which is why this blog post carries such a powerful message.

09/18/11 - Siemens exits the nuclear industry - Germany's high-tech industrial giant cut its nuclear energy ties to Areva and to Rosatom saying it would concentrate on solar and wind technologies.

11/22/11 - Concrete cracks up costs of restarts at two reactors - The Romans first used concrete 2,000 years ago.  In 2011 Progress Energy's Crystal River site and First Energy's Davis-Besse plant attracted plenty of attention over hard rock news.  It seems we're still learning about this material.

11/21/11 - NASA Mars vehicle will use nuclear power source - Plutonium will power a space probe to Mars.  The New York Times cited this blog post in its coverage of the space exploration project.

11/15/11 - The next generation of nuclear engineers will be raised on games - Interactive environments provide opportunities for hands-on instruction in mechanical, chemical, electrical, and nuclear engineering.

Music for the season

Christmas Food Court Flash Mob ~ On Nov.13 2010 unsuspecting shoppers got a big surprise while enjoying their lunch. Over 100 participants in this awesome Christmas Flash Mob. According to YouTYube this video has been viewed 34 million times.

Happy holidays everyone

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

NRC Approves Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor design

It opens the door to construction of four new reactors at two sites the U.S.

Concept drawing: AP1000
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted to approve the design for the Westinghouse AP1000 1,100 MW nuclear reactor for use in the U.S.  The action sets the stage for construction of two of these reactors at Southern's Vogtle site in George and two more at Scana's V.C. Summer station on South Carolina.

Applications for combined construction and operating licenses are pending before the NRC.  Both utilities have expressed the hope the regulatory agency will issue them in the first quarter of 2012.

The NRC's approval is a global "gold standard" and may open markets for the reactor in other countries.  Westinghouse is building four AP1000s in China and is in negotiations to build more of them there.  The firm has executed technology transfer agreements with China which is planning to shift from its older GEN II domestic designs to GEN III through adaptation of the AP1000's passive safety features.

Earlier this month the U.K. Nuclear Safety Agency issued an interim approval of the reactor under its generic design assessment.  Westinghouse has said it will complete the expensive process when a customer places an order for a unit in the U.K.  Multiple  sites have been approved by the government for construction of new reactors and several of of them led by French, German, and Spanish utilities are likely to select the AP1000.

Turn around for Jackzo

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko
Nuclear industry observers noted that NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko said in the agency's prepared statement that he is satisfied the design is safe.   It represents a change from his views last May.

He issued an unprecedented statement to the news media criticizing Westinghouse alleging it was dragging its feet in responding to agency questions.

In October he said that he was "sympathetic" to the views of a coalition of anti-nuclear groups who want the agency to stop all reactor licensing including renewals until it has completely updated its regulations with Fukushima related safety measures.  That process will take years.

Aris Candris, Westinghouse CEO, told the Associated Press that the long road to today's decision has sometimes been "arduous."

However, he also told the wire service  that it opens the door to building reactors in the U.S., the first new starts in three decades, and these projects will produce thousands of jobs.

Jaczko wrote in his vote in favor of certification . . .

“The design provides enhanced safety margins through use of simplified, inherent, passive, or other innovative safety and security functions, and also has been assessed to ensure it could withstand damage from an aircraft impact without significant release of radioactive materials.”

The AP1000 is a 1,100 megawatt electric pressurized-water reactor that includes passive safety features that would cool down the reactor after an accident without the need for human intervention.

The NRC certification means that when an applicant references the AP1000 in a license application there is no need to submit safety information on it.  NRC's review of the license focuses on safety issues specific to the plant.

Build out in the U.S.

The four AP1000s under construction in China will be finished and in revenue service in another two-to-three years.

The reactors planned by Southern and Scana are expected to begin generating electricity starting in 2016-2018.

Following them are proposals by Duke for two AP1000s in South Carolina and two more by Progress on Florida's west coast and yet two more by FPL near Miami.

On the Web
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GE-Hitachi proposes to burn U.K. plutonium stockpile

An advanced reactor could be used to consume 112 tonnes of weapons grade material

prismGE Hitachi Nuclear Energy has proposed to the U.K. government to build an advanced nuclear reactor that would consume the country's stockpile  of surplus plutonium.  The technology is called PRISM which stands for Power Reactor Innovative Small Module. If accepted, it would be very different than other proposals to process plutonium including those that would turn it into mixed oxide fuel (MOX).

According to GE Hitachi, the PRISM reactor disposes of a great majority of the plutonium as opposed to simply reusing it over again. This process takes it out of circulation forever.

Fuel for the PRISM reactor is created by converting the plutonium from powder form mixing it with uranium and zirconium to make a metal fuel. The resulting spent fuel contains plutonium in a form that cannot be used to make nuclear weapons.

Eric Loewen, chief engineer on the project, (and also president of the American Nuclear Society) said the waste form is much the same as comes out of light water reactors. Once the plutonium has been in the PRISM reactor for five years, it becomes mixed with other nuclear materials that make it nearly impossible to retrieve the metal for the purpose of making a weapon.

The PRISM reactor is a so-called "fast reactor" because it uses liquid metal sodium rather than water to cool the system. The sodium allows the neutrons to maintain higher energies and to cause fission in elements such as plutonium more efficiently than light water reactors.  (large image)

Read the full details exclusively at ANS Nuclear Cafe online now.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

More news about nuclear energy than Fukushima in 2011

It's a no brainer to write about the tsunami, but a lot more happened than on one day in March

This is an updated version of my report published at Fuel Cycle Week, V10:N453 on 12/15/11 by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC

FCW_logo_smallWhile mainstream newspaper editors are scratching their heads trying to come up with something new about Fukushima, your faithful correspondent feels it is important to write about everything else that happened in 2011. Here's a few highlights in a list from previous FCW columns.

France and Russia signed massive deals with India to build new nuclear reactors at Jaitapur (2 Areva 1,600 MW EPRs) and Kundankulam (4 Russian 1,000 MW VVERs). Much as they would like to get in on the action, U.S. firms won't touch the Indian market with a 10 foot pole because of a supplier liability law that has no bottom.

In the nuclear utility merger of the year category Duke Energy inked a deal with Progress to merge the two firms. It is the largest electric utility merger of its kind in the nation's history. Also, it creates doubt about several of the new reactors Progress still carries at least on paper,. Even more interesting is the question of how Duke will deal with the Crystal River nuclear reactor which will remain closed through 2014 due to a botched job of cutting into the containment structure to replace a steam generator.

The Department of Energy Savannah River Site (SRS) wants to be a center for development of prototypes of new small modular reactors with power ratings of less than 300 MW (electrical). One fly in the ointment is that DOE thinks it can build the pilot plants without asking the NRC for a license for each of them. DOE's reasoning is faulty says the NRC. The agency reminds their federal counterparts at Forrestal that everyone who wants to build a reactor, even with erector set parts, legos, or the real thing, needs a license. Yes, really.

The State of New York is trying really hard to close the Indian Point twin reactors. Their NRC licenses expire in 2013 and 2015 respectively. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has found the reactors to be a convenient goblin to wave in front of green groups who on reflex open their checkbooks to support his future election campaigns. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is furious with Cuomo's antics pointing out the city's subway system and its electrified commuter railways in three states depend on electricity from the reactors.

Spain came to its senses and scrapped plans to phase out its nuclear reactors. A long-standing Spanish government policy of phasing out the nation's 7.5 GWe of nuclear powered electricity (18% of total electricity) is being reversed both in the form of new policy and in renewal of the operating licenses for three of the nation's eight nuclear reactors.

Spain's electric grid is almost completely isolated from the rest of Europe which makes energy security a leading factor in the government's decision to keep the reactors running past the artificial 40-year deadline. The financial collapse of its solar energy subsidy program may also have played a role in the change of heart.

The Department of Energy is building a $4.5 billion MOX fuel facility in South Carolina which will start producing it in 2016. Someone forgot to explain to the agency that reliable fuel services, that is, actually showing up for a scheduled fuel outage at a customer’s reactor on time with the product, is the key to success. Three potential customers say they are interested in MOX, but only if they can get the fuel when they need it and not one minute later.

First Energy's Davis-Besse plant flips its lid for the third time hopes it is a keeper. The troubled plant lost its first lid to corrosion and the second was a stop gap. The third lid, brand new from Areva, went on top without a hitch.

Despite a campaign filled with half-truths and full blown pants on fire falsehoods, anti-nuclear groups in Vermont were surprised when the NRC renewed the license for Entergy's Vermont Yankee reactor. Governor Peter Schumlin says it is not over until the fat lady sings vowing a legal fight over the state's right to issue a certificate of public good as the final say whether the reactor can stay open.

NRG called it quits on the development of two 1,350 MW ABWR reactors at the South Texas Project. The reason is TEPCO, a pre-license investor, pulled out following the Fukushima crisis in March. The action stranded reactor builder Toshiba who now needs a U.S. partner if it wants to finish the project.

The Department of Energy's Blue Ribbon Commission kicked the spent fuel can down the road with a report that was dubbed by Washington wage as the "don't do anything until after 2012" report. Composed of extremely smart people from all aspects of the nuclear industry, the panel was hog tied by instructions from the Obama administration. It also rejected spent fuel reprocessing as a viable alternative which may knock the reading on the smart meter down a few points.

Saudi Arabia announced it will build 16 nuclear reactors to generate electricity and to desalinate water. The country said it is burning too much fossil fuel that should be made available for export. The first tender is expected in early 2012. A spokesman for the government said that multiple vendors will be solicited over time so that no one supplier, or country, has a lock on their market.

The private equity backers of the Blue Castle nuclear reactor project in Utah said they will file an earl y site permit in 2012. It is the first stage in seeking a combined construction and operating license for what is expected to be 3,000 MW of nuclear power generating capacity. If built, much of it will be exported to California which continues its three decade ban on new nuclear projects inside its borders.

USEC's uranium enrichment project came to a standstill from an operational and financial perspective. A breakdown of the troublesome American Centrifuge Facility 40 foot high centrifuges occurred in June. The company has not been able to make the financial case for a Federal loan guarantee for the $3.5 billion project. USEC's two major investors, Toshiba and B&W, agreed to extend their agreement into the Fall.

Canada gave away the store unloading the reactor division of AECL for a song to construction giant SNC Lavalin. The price is $15 million and $285 million in future cheeseburgers. SNC Lavalin sees a cash cow in reactor refurbishments, but first it will have to prove that AECL learned something from the Point Lepreau fiasco which went way over budget, as in more than $400 milion, and more than year behind schedule. So far the Canadian government has refused to pay for the extra fuel replacement costs due to the very elongated revenue outage.

Siemens exited the nuclear energy industry walking away from a deal that only existed on paper with Rosatom. Siemens, a German firm, also paid off Areva for breaking up its joint venture with that firm though the two companies remain joined in struggle at a nuclear reactor construction project in Finland that is way over budget and behind schedule by several years.  Siemens said that it would now focus on politically correct renewable energy projects in what will become nuclear free Germany.  For their part, German citizens appear to oppose new wind towers and transmission lines with as much ferocity as they do nuclear power plants.

Areva booked a $1 billion contract for engineering and construction services at TVA's Bellefonte reactor in Alabama. The government utility wants to complete the reactor which was started in the mid-1980s but abandoned due to low electricity demand. Except for the RPV and containment structure, most of the infrastructure, pipes, pumps, and controls of the 1,200 MW unit will be brand new when done in 2020. The control room will be all digital based on a design Areva has already installed at another U.S. reactor.

The United Arab Emirates said that subject to regulatory approval it will break ground in December for the first of four new nuclear reactors to be supplied by South Korea. The country's project managers also let out that the price of the four units had climbed from $20 billion to $30 billion and that financing would include money from the UAE, export credits from South Korea, and bonds sold to institutional investors.

Unhappily for conspiracy theory nuts, dry cask spent fuel canisters at the Ft. Calhoun nuclear power station, located on the banks of the Missouri River near Omaha, Neb, did not float away in the summer floods. And the FAA's reminder about the "no fly zone" over the plant wasn't intended to ban aerial photographs. It was to prevent news helicopters getting video of the flood water surround the site from crashing into each other and having the wreckage fall on to the plant site.

An earthquake in rural Virginia shut down Dominion's North Anna reactors in August. It took the NRC three months to review the minimal damage to an maintenance building and to agree to have the utility restart them. The fact that the reactors rode out the shaking with no damage is a reminder that there is "design basis" and there is "as built." Like question about a glass half full or half empty, there is a third answer – and that is it is over engineered.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The lights have been on for 60 years

Happy Birthday EBR I

Exactly 60 years ago today in Arco, Idaho, scientists and engineers successfully used nuclear energy to power four 200-watt light bulbs, laying the groundwork for decades of clean electricity and a strong U.S. nuclear energy industry.

At 1:23pm on December 20, 1951, Argonne National Laboratory director Walter Zinn scribbled into his log book, “Electricity flows from atomic energy. Rough estimate indicates 45 kw.” At that moment, scientists from Argonne and the National Reactor Testing Station watched four light bulbs glow, powered by the world’s first nuclear reactor to generate electricity.

Fifteen years later, in Arco, Idaho, President Johnson stood at this same site and designated the reactor a national historic landmark. He said, “We have moved far to tame for peaceful uses the mighty forces unloosed when the atom was split. And we have only just begun. What happened here merely raised the curtain on a very promising drama in our long journey for a better life.”

Department of Energy Video

 Idaho National Laboratory video on EBR 1 (loads slowly)

Read the full text exclusively at CoolHandNuke online now

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Areva US CEO Jacques Besnainou talks with nuclear bloggers

Recent decisions by Luc Oursel on capital spending top the list of discussion issues

Jacques Besnainou
Jacques Besnainou, the CEO of U.S. Areva, based in Bethesda, MD, told a group of nuclear energy bloggers in an telephone conference call Dec 19 that the time line for getting the capital to begin the construction phase of the Eagle Rock Enrichment Plant in Idaho is late 2013 or 2014.

It is the first time the firm has put out a schedule ahead of its suspension of the construction phase. The project, which has an NRC license, was supposed to break ground in spring 2012.

Curtis Roberts, a spokesman for Areva, reconfirmed this statement in a follow-up phone call.

Robert Poyser, VP of Regional Affairs, said in a call, the time line is flexible.

"As soon as we can get financing for the Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility, we would be able to start this project up and move forward. All the pre-construction and engineering design work are continuing at their current levels."

He noted that this time line is just for the Idaho project, and not for the firm's other capital construction funding commitments.

The suspension of the milestone set for 2012 of breaking ground was announced last week by Luc Oursel, Bensnainou's boss, in a briefing to investors in Paris, France.  Areva stopped capital construction on all of its uranium facilities, including four in France, as a result of Oursel's new strategic plan.

Besnainou echoed what industry experts have noted for some time and that is the project has a lot going for it.  In addition to the NRC license, the project has a conditional commitment for a $2 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy, and it has forward sold contracts for uranium enrichment for 70% of the plant's capacity when built out to 3 million SWU/year.

Besnainou said that in the near-term Areva's financial situation is made difficult by the loss of markets in Japan and Germany.  Japan has shuttered 46 of its 54 operating nuclear reactors which puts a freeze on nuclear fuel and services contracts in that country.  Germany has closed eight of its 17 reactors and will close the rest by 2022.  Areva is expected to layoff several thousand workers in Germany.

Asked what has to change for Areva to move forward with the construction phase of the Eagle Rock uranium enrichment plant, he said, "Investors will want to know that once Areva starts building the plant that it will finish it."

The final cost of the plant will be close to $3 billion which means that while the loan guarantee brings in investors for the first two-thirds of the financing needed to build it, the remaining investors do not have the same protection.  A 4% contingency for cost overruns would amount to $120 million which would have to be covered by Areva to insure the last stage investors don't get the idea that's where their money would wind up.

The primary investor is Areva itself, but it may offer equity shares to partners which it has done with the George Besse II plant in France.  Besnainou said it is his understanding from the firm's strategic plan that it will return to self-financing of projects like the Idaho plant by 2014.

There are considerable competitive pressures bearing on Areva's decision.  In New Mexico, Urenco's operating enrichment plant already has a license modification from the NRC to double its capacity from 3 million to 6 million SWU/year. It may begin to expand and move up its target date of 2018 for that capacity if it sees Areva isn't going ahead with the Idaho site.

Status of reactor projects

In other news Besnainou said that Areva's two reactor construction projects in Taishan China are going well. He cited statistics showing that the firm will complete them with 60% fewer engineering hours and a completion time 50% faster than the EPR under construction in Finland.

He said lessons learned from that first-of-a-kind effort are being applied to the Chinese reactors.  Also, Besnainou revealed that Areva has opened negotiations with China to build two more EPRs at the same location.

The project in Finland is at 82% completion and the project at Flamanville in France is at 66% completion. Besnainou said he could not say with certainty whether the French government would actually authorize the start of work on a second new EPR in France.  Election politics in France for the voting to take place next May has already focused on the role of nuclear energy in the country's economy.

"I am not surprised by the push to drop reliance on nuclear power in France given what happened in Fukushima.  That debate will be part of the election process. I can assure you there is no threat of a tsunami in Europe."

Besnainou said that unlike the U.S., France's energy choices are much more limited and even an entirely new government might find it has less flexibility not more.  He added that Areva is not likely to be impacted by the problems in Europe with its common currency. He said that the firm, which is 85% owned by the French government, does not depend on the fate of the banking system in other countries in Europe.

Focus on spent fuel

Besnainou said Areva is encouraged by the draft report of the Department of Energy Blue Ribbon Commission which promotes the concept of an off-the-books federal corporation to manage spent fuel. He said that this can lead to a focus on reprocessing technologies and eventually production of MOX fuel for U.S. reactors.

A recent report by the General Accounting Office that takes the Department of Energy to task for failure to provide technical leadership on spent fuel reprocessing may bring more focus to that part of the report Besnainou said.

Areva video

The firm has released a short-video which illustrates the progress at several of its EPR reactor construction sites.  Readers will be intrigued by how the EPR design has the RPV brought in after the containment is fully built. Apparently, the vessel internals are also installed in modular units after the vessel is put in place.  Watch the simultaneous rotation of the overhead crane, dual lifting points, and the incredible clearances of the pieces inside the structure.

These transitions are head-turning. The so-called "4D" modeling of the entire construction process is a remarkable achivement in explaining how a nuclear reactor is built from the ground up.

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